For generations now, thousands of players have been fortunate enough to fulfill their dream of playing basketball professionally in the NBA. Only a select few have been privileged to sustain a career long enough to reach 1000 games. Pau Gasol, in his sixteenth season in the NBA, joins that list, becoming the 116th member of the 1000 club.
Having had a brilliant career, both in the NBA and internationally, Gasol will go down as one of the game's greatest players and a surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famer. The accomplishments are evident, the success has been profound, but in this time of reflection on who Spain's greatest has become, it's also important to discuss who he projects to be.
The Chicago Bulls appear to be at the crossroads: Do they pose a serious threat for title contention, or should they begin the progression towards a rebuild through its younger core?
Various opinions on the matter exist, and depending on the performance of the team on any given night, any and all contentions may be pertinent. Boasting a 0.2 net rating, a 1.1 point differential and a roster with six players 30-years of age or above within its rotation, Chicago find themselves trapped in the heart of mediocrity.
Pau Gasol, in many ways, represents the problem with today's Bulls: An aging player who is consistently inconsistent. Brilliant on one night, poor the next. The results are mixed and often fizzle out to somewhere in the middle. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not great, either.
As the young 2016 season progresses, the mini-resurgence of Gasol as a star in his first season in Chicago seems to have been more of an aberration than a new found baseline of sustained excellence. Under a new coach and a new system, Pau has struggled to recapture the heights of last seasons performance, and with that, questions of fit within Hoiberg's plans have been raised.
Through 17 games, Gasol has only managed averages of 14.4 points, 10.8 rebounds on 43.7 percent shooting. All of those numbers are down from last season, which is something you'd expect to see given the decline in his minutes under Fred Hoiberg. His raw numbers have fallen, as has his efficiency. Finding himself in a different role, facing up further away from the basket, Pau's true shooting percentage has plummeted from 55.0 percent in 2014-15, to only 47.3 percent in 2015-16.
It remains to be seen if the decline in production is born out of an adjusting period to a new program or simply Father Time knocking on Gasol's door, but what can be noticed is the eerily similar numbers to the Bulls' previous prized free agent signing, Carlos Boozer.
Analyzing Gasol's current numbers with those from Boozer's final stand in Chicago, per 100 possessions, the results are comparable.
The keyword to note is comparable. Gasol and Boozer aren't the same player, even if their production per 100 possessions on these selective statistics can be observed and argued as such. Clearly, Pau is able to impact the game defensively in a way that Boozer simply couldn't. His ability to block shots and protect the rim has been crucial this season. The length of Gasol keeps in defensive plays longer than Boozer, which helps Pau's ability to provide help defense (when motivated).
These facts alone have made Gasol a far more valuable individual defensive player than anything Carlos Boozer possibly could have been.
They're not the same player, and though the comparison may be off in some ways, is it a leap to suggest that Gasol is on the verge of dwindling into the high volume, low efficiency player that Boozer eventually became?
This is the issue that Pau Gasol presents. His best days are behind him and holding onto him is doing a disservice to all involved. With Boozer, the Bulls knew when to severe ties with their declining big man. They moved him when they could, electing to amnesty the power forward in part to chase free agents in 2014, the year Gasol was signed in Chicago. As such, Gasol replacing Boozer is true in a lot of ways.
Like then, the organisation is faced with a similar decision now - do they retain Gasol in the offseason and risk watching him deteriorate as a player in hopes of squeezing out a few more seasons of quality play, or do they move on?
Like Gasol, Joakim Noah is due for a contract extension, and with his recent self looking reinvigorated, keeping the pulse of the franchise around seems likely. The Bulls drafted Bobby Portis with the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and he looks every bit a ready-made player. Of course, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson still are on the roster, too.
If the intention of the front office is to keep the four remaining - and younger - big men on the roster, the decision to move away from Gasol quickly morphs into a when, not if, scenario.
"When" is an interesting question.
Something needs to be done with the roster, but it won't be happening now. Fred Hoiberg is seventeen games into his coaching career. He will be granted time to rework this roster. The beginning of December isn't enough time for this front office to make a move, even if an uneasy fan base suggests otherwise. A team identity has yet to be forged. The fortunes of the team haven't been written in stone, and throwing away a good player like Gasol won't happen until it's clear that the only option is separation.
A division this season between Gasol and Chicago only seems possible if the team is floundering around a .500 record past January. Should the road to rebuilding become clear to Gar Forman, moving Pau for a late first-round pick would be the optimal solution for Chicago. Would anyone be willing to do away with a cost controlled asset like a draft pick to take on the potentially expiring contract of Pau Gasol? I wouldn't consider that a likely scenario.
Obviously, we're not at that point of trades just yet, so fantasizing about possible player movement scenarios seems rather elementary. It would be wise to expect the roster to remain as is for at least the next month. Even then, however, is it even plausible to assume that a move would be made?
Given the front offices limited history in signing off on midseason trades, the theory of moving Pau seems like a stretch. In fact, it would be far more likely that the team will look to hold onto Gasol going forward, and in a recent piece from Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago, that would appear to be the exact intention of the organisation.
No one from the Bulls seem to have given the indication they would merely let Gasol and his production walk out of the door without a fight and a source with the front office tells CSNChicago.com they'll make a hard push to retain his services.
If true, this seems like an odd position to take. Is extending the contract of mid-30s in age player a wise decision at this point? Pau has been a good player for the Bulls and has certainly outplayed his contract, but what does retaining him mean for the rest of the roster?
Will Noah, too, be extended? Doing so will eat up the majority of the available cap space the Bulls would own with the pending cap explosion, thus limiting the team's ability to fill various gaps that currently exist and are far more pressing.
Is more of the same with this roster an intelligent decision?
On some nights, you could forgive the organisation for feeling so strongly about Gasol. Even as he declines, the two-time NBA champion still has the ability to dominate against certain match-ups. We saw this recently against Denver, a night where Pau owned the undersized and defensively weakened Nuggets' frontline, scoring 26 points, grabbing 19 boards and single-handedly willing the team to a victory.
When you couple these type of performances with the character of the man off the floor, it's hard to let that caliber of person leave your franchise.
Loyalty is a terrific virtue to have. We hear so often how the league is a ruthless business with no room for emotive ties, but no doubt the notion and romanticism of a pure allegiance between player and team still exists to some. The San Antonio Spurs live this culture, which is something the Bulls try their best in replicating. This is all well and good, but there must be a line.
Gasol's star is fading. His play has regressed in 2015-16, and at age 35 with a player option potentially at his disposal, the remaining years of his career aren't guaranteed to be in Chicago. He's not to blame for all of the Bulls' issues, nor are his flaws severely weakening this team's ability to win ball games. In a vacuum, extending Gasol isn't a bad thing, but in context of where this Bulls team finds itself positioned over the next 3-5 seasons, the legitimacy and logic of pursuing a new contract with Pau seems misguided.
With a player option at his disposal, hopefully Pau makes the decision easier on Chicago by leaving them. If this decision were solely left in the hands of Bulls' management, we couldn't confidently suggest that they would make the right decision in picking the youth movement over yesterday's heroes.
Filed under: Uncategorized