Pau Gasol is 10th in the NBA in defensive real plus minus. Pau Gasol is 6th in blocks. Pau Gasol is playing big minutes as the center of the 5th-best defensive team in the NBA.
Pau Gasol is hurting the Bulls' defense. Pau Gasol plays like he has cinder blocks attached to his feet. Pau Gasol is the worst interior defender on the Bulls.
While the above statements seem in total contradiction to each other, both are true in describing Pau Gasol's defensive impact this year. How can the stats love his defense and fans hate it? Gasol's impact on defense is gray - the things he does well, he does pretty damn well for his age. The things he does poorly though stick out like a sore thumb.
The Good - Great Up and Down Rim Protection
Pau Gasol does not get enough credit for his ability to alter shots at the rim.
Gasol has tremendous length. He's 7' 1" with a 7' 4" wingspan, and he is very good at using those long arms to get a ton of blocks. At 35, he's averaging a career high of 2.2 blocks per game.
Gasol has also been excellent at altering shots even when he's not blocking them. By Seth Partnow's rim protection statistics over at Nylon Calculus, Gasol is 9th in the league in points saved per 36 minutes. Yes, a lot of this is team defense and Gasol benefiting from playing with great defensive bigs that cover for him. But Gasol individually is also just really good at raising his hands up and getting in the way of shots at the rim:
If you go straight at Gasol and don't make him move much, there is a very good chance you're going to miss or get your shot blocked. He uses both hands to block shots and he has decent timing and coordination to swat at the ball. That does bring value, and it's why Gasol is much better than the guy he replaced in Carlos Boozer.
Seth's rim protection stats love Gasol even when comparing him to excellent defenders like Noah and Taj Gibson:
Gasol is great head-on at the rim. But when Gasol has to start moving laterally or guard space, he gets in big trouble.
The Bad - Lateral Movement
Teams have been running pick and roll at the Bulls a lot when Gasol is in the game because he really struggles to move around laterally. If he has to guard space, you can just forget about it. He's not moving.
Offers Very Little in Help Rotations
Gasol generally trots down on defense and camps out in the paint. He will rarely help at all outside of the paint regardless of the situation. It doesn't matter if his man is Steven Adams 20 feet from the basket, who poses 0 risk offensively. Gasol still isn't moving to help his teammates out:
Gasol takes a strong step faking towards Serge Ibaka here, which is about what every guy over 30 does at the YMCA. That move has never worked.
Giving up open midrange shots isn't terrible though. What's worse is that Pau leaves his guards on an island unless opposing players are coming straight at him. If there's any movement necessary, Pau will often stand around and watch:
Pau is bailed out a lot of the time because the Bulls' perimeter defenders are pretty good. Still, George Hill had a step on Derrick Rose here and it was Pau's job to come over and help. Pau stared at Hill for a few seconds and decided, "Eh, better just stay put." If not for an incredibly athletic play from Rose, that's an easy two for the Pacers.
Pau does stuff like this way too often. He'll scoot by, making a very weak attempt at helping on penetration. Even if his man is nowhere in the vicinity of scoring, he's not taking more than a couple shuffles in either direction.
Gasol is also really not helped by the lineups that Hoiberg has been playing him in. He's shared a ton of his minutes with Nikola Mirotic, who also offers absolutely no help most of the time he's out there. When Gasol comes over to help on penetration, he looks really bad because nobody covers the space Gasol has vacated:
Jonathan Tjarks summed this up really nicely in his blog:
I can see why people have been talking trash about Fred Hoiberg if he was starting Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic together for so long. It takes about five minutes of watching those guys play together to see that they are way too slow to play any type of defense and having them both out there is pretty much an invitation for a lay-up line at the front of the rim.
This has been a problem all season but it's not the end of the world. Midrange shots, even wide open, aren't going to be devastating to your defense. A bigger problem is the rebounding issues that Gasol presents.
At first glance, it would seem strange to bring up Pau Gasol's rebounding. He averages 11 per game, 8 on the defensive end. The problem is that 7.2 of those rebounds are uncontested. Gasol has a significantly lower contested rebounding percentage than Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, or Joakim Noah. When there are other players fighting Gasol for rebounds, he does not perform very well.
The problem is that Gasol struggles a lot against bigger centers to box out defensively. Gasol isn't the strongest center in the league. He's listed at 250 pounds but I have serious doubts about that. He generally depends on his height advantage to grab boards, but when guys muscle him in the paint he can get into big trouble:
He also shows a general apathy towards boxing out, oftentimes ceding rebounding position to his man
What this adds up to is that the Bulls are a much better offensive and defensive rebounding team when Gasol sits. Their overall rebounding improves by about 7% with Gasol on the bench.
All of this goes back to what Jonathan Tjarks wrote so well in his blog about Gasol and the Bulls' defense:
There's a real ceiling on any team that starts and gives a 35-year old Pau huge minutes. He just can't play defense anymore (which only makes Tim Duncan's ability to remain relevant at that side of the ball all the more impressive) and the only way for him to be effective is to demand the ball on offense and clog up the middle of the lane.
The way the league is going now, I don't even want to mess with big men if they can't play defense. It's hard enough for them to guard in space in the pace-and-space era but if they aren't physically capable at it and they aren't even trying, it's just hopeless.
On a more visceral level, it's very annoying to watch Gasol play defense, and I think that this is part of the reason fans don't like him. He is constantly screaming, shaking his head, arguing with officials, and calling out teammates on the floor (oftentimes when he is the one to blame). It is frustrating watching stuff like this happen multiple times every game:
Gasol's defensive skills were once pretty valuable, back when he was starting his career in the early 2000's. In today's league though, there's not much use for immobile shot blockers like Roy Hibbert or Pau Gasol. Gasol still brings rim protection to the table, but with the immense number of pick and rolls that are continuously run at him in the modern NBA, his warts become even more exposed.
The Bulls can hide him, but only so much. They've done a good job of it so far, but he's starting to play more minutes and Noah can't cover for him any more with his recent injury. As a result, the defense is starting to slip.
It's not all Pau's fault - he isn't physically capable of being the defender the Bulls need him to be in the minutes that they are asking him to play. This is a 35 year old guy quickly approaching the 36,000 minute mark. Pau does a good job in the things that he should be physically able to do, but don't let the numbers fool you. He's not as bad as the fans think he is but he's certainly nowhere near the elite level that some of the numbers paint him as.