I was one of those addled individuals who criticized the Bulls in the offseason for “missing out’’ on Carmelo Anthony and “settling’’ for Pau Gasol. Pardon me while I finish hitting myself with a bat.
I was well aware of Anthony’s baggage, but I wanted the Bulls, for once, to land a superstar through free agency. I wanted Anthony’s scoring and the fireworks that surely would have been a part of his relationship with defense-first coach Tom Thibodeau. There are newborns less self-centered than a columnist.
What I didn’t count on was the 34-year-old Gasol refusing to act his age.
This column should have been written well before Gasol had a career-high 46 points and 18 rebounds against Milwaukee on Saturday night. But the Bears have become a massive black hole of sports coverage in this town, and unless they were in the market for a 7-foot general manager who could shoot with either hand, Gasol would have to wait.
No more. He has been an epiphany for those of us who wondered if, after 14 seasons in the NBA, he was on the downside of his career. It’s clear he has been reborn in Chicago. His numbers aren’t appreciably different; the sense of possibility is. He has gone from a declining Lakers franchise to a contender. And, most importantly, he has stayed healthy.
Those of us enamored with Anthony’s shooting hand failed to consider Gasol’s footwork. It’s beautiful. The way he uses his feet in the post is a thing to behold and hellish to defend. There are so many options involved, and so much guile, that he can get his shot off any time, anywhere. In short, he’s a nightmare for anyone not wearing a Bulls uniform.
His age isn’t an issue when it probably should be. Gravity seems to work a little harder on centers of a certain vintage. Gasol’s jumping isn’t what it used to be, if it ever used to be anything. But it’s almost beside the point with his game and his long arms. He has a technician’s approach to attacking an opponent.
Although former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant wasn’t speaking specifically about Gasol, he could have been when describing the better coaching that young European players get, compared with the coaching youngsters receive in the United States.
“I just think European players are just way more skillful,” he told ESPN earlier this month. “They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. … They’re more skillful. It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”
Now, Bryant wouldn’t be the guy I’d go to if I were looking to solve the game’s problems. He’s not leading the league in shots per game because he plays well with others. But he has correctly identified the source.
“AAU basketball,” he said. “Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”
If there’s one thing Gasol knows how to do, it’s posting up a defender. But he’s more than that. His outside shooting is excellent. He’s averaging 11.3 rebounds a game, tied for the highest average of his career. He’s averaging a career-best 2.2 blocks a game. He has taken some of the pressure off Joakim Noah, who has been bothered by a knee issue all season.
I’m not trying to pile on Anthony, who is injured, plays on an awful team and probably has bad breath. Anthony wouldn’t necessarily have failed with the Bulls. No doubt Thibodeau would have coached him into a better version of himself. But look at all the good things that have happened for the Bulls because of Anthony’s decision to re-sign with the Knicks.
Jimmy Butler has become a scorer, leading the team with 21 points a game. With Anthony on the roster, Butler wouldn’t have dreamed of that average.
With so many scoring options, Derrick Rose has been able to have bad shooting nights and not kill his team.
Rookie Nikola Mirotic has been able to show off his skills.
But the best thing that happened was Gasol. He started playing, and the title talk arrived soon after. Plan B has rarely looked so good.