Gasol: Bulls must understand championship windows 'close fast'


Gasol: Bulls must understand championship windows 'close fast'

Pau Gasol has been a part of two championship teams, played alongside some of the game's greatest players and tasted the postseason 10 times for three different teams.

And yet despite his consistent success over the course of his 14-year NBA career, the Bulls center is mindful of how quickly a team's fortunes can change, meaning every opportunity to chase a title is a crucial one.

"The window is very small. You never know when it's going to close. You just know it's going to close fast," Gasol told reporters on a conference call from South Africa, where he's participating in the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program. "You just don't know exactly when. So you do have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along, and we have a great opportunity."

After signing a three-year, $22 million deal last July, Gasol brought his championship pedigree to a Bulls team that, when healthy, had the experience, talent and depth to compete with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Myriad injuries during the regular season limited the Bulls, and though they won 50 games and earned the East's No. 3 seed, Gasol said the team's inconsistencies haunted them as they were ousted in the second round by Cleveland.

Sixth man Taj Gibson and the Bulls' four regular starters around Gasol missed at least 15 games each, totaling 102 DNPs. Still, that didn't entirely excuse the team from dropping home contests against the likes of Brooklyn, Utah, Orlando and Miami, failing to take advantage and widen the gap in the standings against a Cavaliers team that struggled through mid-January.

"We still had a lot of games we weren't ready to play, too many games we gave away against teams we were supposed to beat and were a better team overall," Gasol admitted. "And at the end of the day we paid the price of that lack of sense of urgency and giving importance to those moments in the regular season."

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Gasol will suit up Saturday in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the NBA's first ever exhibition in the continent. The game will be headlined by South Sudan native Luol Deng, eight-time All-Star Chris Paul and Gasol's brother, Marc. It won't be the only non-Bulls basketball Gasol will play this offseason, as he plans to suit up for Spain in EuroBasket 2015. He'll be joined by Nikola Mirotic, and Gasol said he's excited to see how the pair will develop on and off the floor playing alongside each other for the favorites in the tournament.

When he returns to Chicago for training camp in September, he'll receive his first taste of playing under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. Gasol said he has spoken with Hoiberg on the phone and hopes to make a new transition with the "new philosophy he will implement."

As he did at Iowa State, Hoiberg is expected to increase the Bulls' tempo and allow his team to play more in transition; last year the Bulls were 21st in fast break points per game (11.0).

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Still, the 34-year-old Gasol warned about the Bulls not letting its collective guard down defensively simply because Hoiberg has replaced the defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau. Last season the Bulls were 10th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency, the only season under Thibodeau in which they fared better with the ball than without it. Gasol was the Bulls' most consistent offensive threat, averaging 18.5 points on better than 49 percent shooting from the field. But despite averaging 1.9 blocks per game - the most for him since the 2006-07 season - he didn't provide the rim-protecting Thibodeau's defense could have used as Joakim Noah battled through knee soreness the majority of the year.

"As long as we understand that defense is what wins championships and makes the difference, we don't neglect that side of the game, which is critical, we should be fine," he said. "We can work on our offense all we want but defense is what's going to make the difference and how we're going to beat other teams."

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – Picture yourself at 19 years old.

Maybe you were in college. Maybe you hit the job market early.

What you likely weren’t doing was guarding one the NBA’s best centers in your first professional game.

That was the task charged to Wendell Carter Jr. in the Bulls’ 127-108 loss to the 76ers in the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday.

Carter Jr. was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft after just one season at Duke. He earned the start in his NBA debut after an impressive preseason, but nothing could’ve prepared him for going up against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Carter Jr. said when asked if Embiid was as impressive as he thought he’d be. “He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of, or the best, big man in the league. Very skilled, very poised. He knows his spots on the court.

“I didn’t go out there with my best effort. It’s just a learning experience for me.”

Carter Jr. had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block in 20 minutes. He also picked up four fouls, which the rookie attributed to the physicality and craftiness of Embiid.

But he did flash the impressive and varied skill set that made him a high pick and such a coveted prospect. He was also able to garner the praise of the Bulls’ veterans.

“Even though Wendell got in foul trouble he was still playing (Embiid) solid,” Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 30 points, said. “That’s a tough first game right there. But he didn’t lack for confidence. Made him take some tough shots, but he’s going to make them. He’s that type of player.”

To his credit, Carter Jr. was candid about his performance. He admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from nervous to excited to happy.

In a season that will have its ups and downs as the young Bulls develop and learn, there will likely be more games like this against other elite NBA competition. It’ll be how Carter Jr. responds that will define his career.

“It’s the first game so I don’t want to put too much on myself,” Carter Jr. said. “It would be different if it was like the 50th game or 60th game. It’s the first game. We’re just going to move on from it. We’ve got our home opener on Saturday (vs. the Pistons). That’s where my mind is right now.”

See, he’s learning already.

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

The Bulls backup point guard situation will be in dire straits all season, with no established veteran behind Kris Dunn. And although the front office has seemingly committed to Cameron Payne as the backup PG (for at least this season), Ryan Arcidiacono showed enough in the season opener to justify giving him meaningful plying time in the rotation. 

Here are the stat lines of Arcidiacono and Cameron Payne from the season opener in Philadelphia:

Arcidiacono: 8 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2-for-3 from the 3-point line

Payne:           0 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 0-for-1 from the 3-point line

With so many capable ball handlers and score-first players on the Bulls, point and assist totals aren’t as important as the rebounds and 3-point attempts. To provide the necessary space needed for driving lanes, there has to be openings in the defense caused by defenders sticking close to player they believe are a threat to shoot.

And that is where the problem lies with Payne.

Ryan Arcidiacono—while by no means a dominant scorer—showed a willingness to attack off of the pick-and-roll, even showing off an impressive ball-fake:

Payne, despite coming into the league with the reputation of a scorer, has yet to be aggressive enough to make teams think twice about leaving him wide-open on the perimeter. And he is not one to attack the basket with purpose, averaging less than half a free throw per game for his career. Payne's general lack of aggressiveness when on the floor is often times made worse by his occasional poor post entry passes that seem predetermined:

Even if the above play was designed to get the ball to LaVine in the mid-post, Payne chooses a terrible time to make the pass. When he starts the motion to give the ball to LaVine, Ben Simmons is positioned in front of LaVine to force a tougher pass, as rookie Landry Shamet gambles over the backside to get the steal.

Had Payne chose to swing the ball around the perimeter, or give it to Bobby Ports and then get it back, he could have created an opening for the LaVine pass.

Obviously, the Bulls 19-point loss can’t be blamed on solely on Payne, the terrible defense was a group effort, as was the sometimes questionable shot selection. But with the defense already appearing to be perhaps one of the league's worst units, Fred Hoiberg would be wise to put Arcidiacono in more.

Hoiberg is in a crucial year where he needs to show that he can be the head coach of this team when they finally become competitive.

And for Hoiberg to show that type of growth as a coach, he needs to set the tone that minutes are earned not given, something he has already started with his moving of Jabari Parker to the bench. Payne only received 22 minutes, compared to 28 minutes for Arcidiacono, and it is tough to see that changing if things continue on like they did on Thursday night.