Pau Gasol is a Chicago Bull. The cerebral Spaniard brings two championships and career averages of 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds, and while his three-year, $22 million deal will run until he’s 37, the seven-foot Gasol doesn’t seem like the type to suffer a sharp dropoff. He might not be Tim Duncan at 38, but he probably won’t be Shaq either. He’s a quality pickup by any estimation, a star player whose willingness to play a complementary role has only made him more valuable. And his offensive prowess will be a godsend to a Bulls team that averaged just 93.7 ppg (dead last) in the league last year. For many franchises, the Gasol signing would be the sign of a great summer. But this is Chicago.
The summer is no time to be a Chicago Bulls fan. It used to be, back when there were championship celebrations in Grant Park and Scottie Pippen’s overalls were as close as it came to disappointments. Free agency was a lark for everyone but Jerry Krause, drafts were nearly meaningless—welcome, Keith Booth!—and bragging rights were polished up for another season.
The Bulls missed out on LeBron James (no chance), Chris Bosh (ditto), Carmelo Anthony (they tried) and Dwyane Wade (thank God) but could be as well prepared for a Finals run as they’ve ever been in the post-Jordan era.
Then came the mass exodus following the 1998 title, and things fell apart. Quickly. In fact, that summer was probably the worst of all, a decimated franchise with only the second-to-last pick in the first round (hello, Corey Benjamin!) and a front office maligned by nearly everyone on the way out. It started with the traditional Grant Park celebration, and ended with the concern that there might not be another for a long, long time—not to mention a lockout that only prolonged the agony. The 1999 Bulls won all of 13 games, and Corey Benjamin averaged 3.8 points. Started from the top, now we here.
Since then there have been crushing disappointments as well as high points derived from crushing disappointments that have generally led to further crushing disappointments of their own. Following that disastrous ‘99 season, the Bulls got their first-ever No. 1 overall pick which they used on Duke sophomore forward Elton Brand—who won Rookie of the Year and was traded two seasons later for a green Tyson Chandler (and paired with an even greener Eddy Curry in one of Krause’s daftest ideas of all time). Then things got even worse. Draft Jay Williams second overall in ‘02, then watch him end his career in a motorcycle accident the following summer. Get No. 1 again in ‘08 and make the exact right choice in Derrick Rose; see him become the youngest-ever MVP in 2011, then watch him play 49 games over the next three seasons.
But all of that, which can mostly be chalked up to bad luck, pales in comparison to the Bulls’ adventures in free agency, which started off terribly in the post-Jordan era and haven’t gotten markedly better since Krause retired as the general manager in 2003. Sure, Carlos Boozer was a better consolation prize in 2010 than Ron Mercer was in 2000, but at least they didn’t lavish Mercer with the same contract they would have given Tracy McGrady or Tim Duncan. (Aside: If the Bulls get McGrady, they probably don’t trade Brand for the No. 2, and maybe Ron Artest—OK, can’t do this.) So maybe the lesson is don’t reach for the stars, because if you miss you have to give Carlos Boozer $75 million.
Which brings us back to Gasol. Again, the Bulls appear to have finished off the podium, having once again missed out on LeBron James (no chance), Chris Bosh (ditto), Carmelo Anthony (they tried) and Dwyane Wade (thank God). LeBron went home to Cleveland, Bosh became the de facto alpha dog (with the de facto max deal) in Miami, Melo took nine figures and a lifetime supply of I <3 NY t-shirts to stay in New York, and Wade—did he retire? It’s easy to say that this is just the Bulls being the Bulls, especially since the summer started early courtesy of the Washington Wizards, then saw them trade two high picks in a deep draft for a slightly higher one just so they could take Creighton’s Doug McDermott.
The draft-day trade may have been typical spendthrift Chicago (stop it already), but the rest of the summer has felt different—and not just because McDermott scored 31 points in his second summer league game. This free agency period played out differently. Again, LeBron wasn’t coming this time. This wasn’t 2010. And Melo wasn’t going to be swayed by Photoshopped images, not when $30 million very real dollars were on the table. Bulls fans needing reassurance on that front can simply look to Houston, whose Rockets were similarly spurned by Chris Bosh despite their own max offer and their own two All-Stars in Dwight Howard and James Harden.
And while the Rockets settled on Trevor Ariza, the Bulls landed Gasol. He’s older than Boozer is now, let alone when he signed on in 2010. But Gasol’s game should be a better fit than Boozer’s ever was. Again, he’s that unusual complementary star who won’t singlehandedly lead a team to a deep playoff run, but will play well the whole way. He could prove to be exactly the right guy at exactly the right time. With LeBron settling in with new teammates and a new coach in Cleveland, Bosh and Wade picking up the pieces in Miami, and the Pacers recovering from a psyche-wrecking postseason (which somehow still ended in the Conference Finals), the Bulls could be as well prepared for a Finals run as they’ve ever been in the post-Jordan era. Adding Carmelo would have required seriously retooling their whole approach—adding Gasol simply makes them better.
There are, of course, some rather large ifs. Well, one really: Derrick Rose needs to return healthy and play as if his two catastrophic knee injuries never happened. Otherwise the Bulls will have to rely overmuch on their other signing, the prodigal Kirk Hinrich, which will no doubt lead once again to a slowed-down offense that won’t allow Gasol’s gifts to prosper—let alone those of fellow All-Star Joakim Noah and even McDermott, who himself needs to be more than Kyle Korver 2.0 (no pressure, rook). To a lesser extent, Tom Thibodeau will have to show some offensive prowess himself, as well as refrain from playing Gasol 48 minutes a night, which shouldn’t be difficult with Noah and Taj Gibson on board.
That’s all in the future, though. For now, the Bulls summer moves have to be judged on their own merits. For the first time in a long time, they actually have some.
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