It isn’t his nature to be boastful, but at Pau Gasol’s introductory press conference Friday at the United Center, the 13-year veteran big man made it pretty clear that he came to Chicago to help the Bulls win a championship.
“I think we have all the pieces. We have all the elements to get there. It’s not easy. It’s not an easy thing to do. I think there’s great competition, very tough teams. But we have to worry about ourselves, work on our stuff and be the best that we can be as a group. With the spirit and the guys that I think are here, we’re going to have to work hard, but it’s a process and we’ll see if we can do it,” said Gasol, 34, who turned down more lucrative offers in free agency to sign with the Bulls on a reported three-year, $22-million contract. “Money wasn’t the priority here, so I turned down bigger offers and I prioritized being on a championship-caliber team, and I’m happy to be in a position where I can hopefully push that team over the top with my game, as well. So I felt that here, I was going to have that opportunity and now it’s just a matter of getting to work, really. It’s about actions and not much talking.”
“If I didn’t believe that we had that potential, I probably wouldn’t have come here. So I strongly believe that this team has the potential and capability to get there,” he went on to explain. “It was a difficult decision to go through, but I think I’ve made the right one and I’m really excited to be here, to be a part of this great organization. We have a lot of great things to look forward and we’ll have to wait until training camp to get started, but I just really can’t wait to get working with the guys and the rest of the coaching staff, and it should be a lot of fun. So we’re excited and I’m looking forward to it.
“We had to come to a point where I understood that no decision was going to be a bad decision for me. They were all great, and that’s what made it so difficult for me. But just my gut. It was a gut feeling that Chicago was going to the best fit for me and a great challenge.”
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It’s no secret that the Bulls have coveted Gasol for years now — they didn’t pull the trigger on a potential trade in 2007 that would have acquired the skilled big man from Memphis, which would have sent Luol Deng to the Grizzlies — and while Carmelo Anthony turning down the chance to play in Chicago has been framed as a huge disappointment, privately the organization is pretty satisfied with how their offseason has gone.
“We talked about how optimistic we were that we would be able to improve our team and really thought we’d be able to improve our team in several ways. The first thing is we wanted to create a deeper team. The second thing is we wanted to increase our skill level and our ability to shoot it from the perimeter,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman. “We talked about on draft night, how excited we were to get Doug McDermott and to move up in the draft, and how we feel he’ll be a big piece of what we’re doing. We were encouraged this past week in Vegas by Doug, not only Doug, but Cameron Bairstow, our second-round pick and the progress he’s made. We got good news earlier this week when Kirk Hinrich decided that he would re-sign with the Bulls, when he weighed it against other offers that he had and of course, this morning we talked about Nikola Mirotic coming to an agreement on his buyout and coming to terms with the Chicago Bulls.
“But really the final big step for us was convincing Pau Gasol to come and join us here in Chicago, and create what we feel has a chance to be as deep and as good of a frontline as there is in the NBA. In Pau, we’ve got a guy who’s a proven veteran, who’s a professional. He’s a guy who’s been named to All-NBA teams, who’s been named to All-Star teams. But probably the biggest thing as far as him coming to Chicago is he’s been a championship-caliber player. He’s been a big part of championship teams,” he continued. “As we met going into this offseason, we just felt that his game was a real fit for where we are right now. We think his ability, the versatility to play inside and out, his ability to pass the basketball, the leadership qualities that he has, the type of teammate that he is were all things that were exciting to us as we try to make this next step. As we met with Pau in L.A., it was exciting to hear that he was excited to be a part of something like this, and to be invested in trying to make the next step and have a championship-caliber team.”
Gasol comes to Chicago as one of the more respected players in the NBA and also as somewhat of an elder statesman, despite being new to the Bulls. The organization’s pursuit of him in free agency, including a meeting in Los Angeles, made him understand how he could fit into the Bulls’ plans.
“First, their big interest in having me on the team, being part of the team. What I could bring to the table. I think their humility also, how humble they were and they are. I think that’s really important, to be able to not have big egos. That makes things a lot easier. Their passion and their hunger, as well. They’re hungry, hungry to win. That’s something that I also wanted to come into, be a part of a hungry team, a team that is willing to do whatever it takes and they’re ready, and that’s what I perceived and I really believed that they are,” Gasol said. “I feel great about it. I don’t look back on things. I know that in the past, there have been possibilities where the Bulls were interested, and I would have also been happy and open to be here because I always found it very attractive. But I think the players, the style and the organization were always very appealing to me. But it didn’t happen. But now it has and it’s great because it was my decision to make. I’ve never been in that position before in my career, so maybe it was meant to be and I’m happy now.
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“Joakim came to L.A. for the meeting with me and obviously he’s a great player, and I think his contribution and input was important. I talked to Derrick, as well, on the phone. I wanted to talk to him because he’s a big part of this team and I wanted to see how he felt, not just physically, but also having me on board. So that was also very positive and very encouraging for me. Mike Dunleavy also reached out and then several people from the organization, including the owner, who I had a chance to speak to a few times and he was also great, and it made me feel very confident about coming here, so Jerry, thank you,” he added, singling out Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ longtime owner. “They’re a team that you always have to respect. You knew you had your work cut going into it. Physical team, you know they were going to play defense. It was going to be a low-scoring game probably and you were going to have to match that intensity and physicality if you wanted to have a good chance against them. So you have to respect their character. The team took some hits with injuries the last couple of years and they stuck together, never gave up and they had great runs, I think and they always competed. They always brought that spirit, so that’s something you have to value as a player, you respect as a player and I love to be a part of it."
Gasol, along with Noah and Taj Gibson, as well as rookie Nikola Mirotic, gives the Bulls tremendous depth in the low post, something the four-time NBA All-Star relishes.
“It should be a lot of fun. I think we have a really deep frontline. Those two guys are talented players. I think I fit well with them. I bring maybe a different profile, but I’m also ready to compete with them. We’re going to make each other better during the season, during practices and complement each other, find the best formula out there to work things out help the team win,” Gasol explained. “I’m definitely at a point in my career where we have to manage a little bit. If it’s minutes, it’s something that we’ll talk about, but we’ll also see how everything kind of goes. We’ll have to adjust. We can’t predetermine too much, but we’ll have an idea. I’ll just have to take care of my body better, pay attention to detail and work with the training staff to make sure that I prevent and prepare my body to sustain whatever is necessary out there. So just fight through the stuff. It is what it is at this point and that’s just what professional sports is about, as well.
“We’ll figure it out as it goes along. I have to come in and improve myself a little bit, compete and see how we can fit and work best together with the different guys, Joakim and Taj, and other guys who might have the opportunity to play, as well.”
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Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau believes Gasol’s versatility will help the team’s rotation naturally work itself out and that the big man’s fading reputation for being perceived as soft is unjustified.
“He’s shown that he can play both positions well. When you look back to his Laker days — and I prefer to look at the ’08 season, versus the 2010 season — they always started with Pau at the four, Bynum was at the five. But at the end of the game, Pau would slide over to the five. So he could play both and the thing about both Taj and Joakim, they can guard both positions. So we can mix and match with those guys, and I like Pau’s length at the rim. I think that’s important for a defense,” said Thibodeau, who, as a Celtics assistant, matched up with Gasol’s Lakers in two NBA Finals, with Boston winning in 2008. “I prefer not to refer back to it, but I saw Game 7 for a championship, where he had 19 and 18. You can’t do that being soft. I think mentally, he’s tough and that’s probably the most important thing. He’s not afraid. He’s always going to play to his strengths. He’s going to do his job and being on the opposing bench, I knew how I felt when he was on the floor. So you were always concerned about him and what he was doing. Sometimes labels are put on people and they’re unfair or they’re not accurate, and I think that’s the case.”
Gasol admitted that the decision-making process wasn’t easy for him and in this hectic offseason, he even consulted with Anthony, another Bulls’ target in free agency.
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“We talked. We talked on the phone. It was important for me and to him to talk about what we wanted to do and where we stood. It could have made a difference, whether he came to the Lakers or not, whether he stayed in New York, whether signing here would have happened. Things maybe could have changed, but again, that’s another hypothetical situation, and the reality is that we are here today and I’m here,” he revealed. “There’s a lot of factors that I considered. San Antonio was another great option that I think would have been a pretty good fit, as well. But now, I’m here and that’s that I want to focus on, and that’s what I’m going to look forward to and the would-have, should-have, could-have possibilities, I have to put them away and this was the option, the team that I wanted to be a part of and it wasn’t easy because I had really great scenarios, as well. But I felt that this was the best over the rest for me.”
In the end, not only is Gasol content with his choice, but he believes that he can be a leader on the Bulls, help the snake-bitten squad reach their ultimate goal and in the process, enjoy the new experience of both living in Chicago and playing in the East.
“Just from my personal experience, what I’ve been through, I know I’ve been to three straight Finals and I was able to win two championships. Tom has also experienced that from a coaching standpoint and I think we can send the same message to the guys, what it feels like, what it takes and things like that. Motivate guys to strive for that goal,” he said. “Maybe that’s the biggest thing, adjusting to the cold. My wardrobe will have to change and I look forward to figuring out where I can get the thickest coats in town. But yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never played in the Eastern Conference, so it’ll be a first for me. I’m excited about the opportunity because it’s always been the other way for 13 years, so I look forward to experiencing it and find out.”