We are 130 games into the Pau Gasol era and by now I think everyone has logged their fair share of complaints. Gasol has stuffed the box scores en route to a pair of All-Star appearances, but careful observers know better. Pau has lost more than a step on defense and his effort at boxing out is inconsistent at best.
That’s why it was so disappointing when the Bulls chose to hold onto Gasol at the trade deadline. Despite allegedly strong overtures from Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, the Bulls opted to retain what Gar Forman referred to as “part of our core.”
To hear Forman describe the 36-year-old free agent-to-be as a part of the team’s core is concerning. Pau cannot anchor an elite defense, a fact no person with working eyes can deny. Being a capable last line of defense is of greater value to teams in the modern NBA than being able to score inside. Pau was a solid defender at one time in his life, but those days are gone. His tremendous offensive skill set has been enough to prop Gasol up as an All-Star caliber player, but even that is beginning to slip this season.
The first change I noticed in Pau’s offense this season was his shot selection. Last year a large portion of the offense was run through Pau in the post. This season that has not been the case. According to basketball reference, Pau Gasol is taking just 24.3% of his shots within three feet of the basket. If that number stays consistent the rest of the season it will be his lowest rate of shots in the restricted area of his career and 7% lower than his rate a season ago. That 7% has migrated from the rim to the dreaded mid range. Gasol is attempting 33.6% of his field goals between 16 feet and the three point line, by far his career high.
A season ago, I wouldn’t have minded this shot distribution as much. Last year, on shots taken from the dead zone. Gasol shot over 47%. This year, with his attempts up, his accuracy has fallen down below 45%.
The uptick in mid range shots has been accompanied by a decline in other indicators of efficient offense. Pau’s free throw rate last season was .317, the highest it had been in five years. This season, Pau is taking just .282 free throws for every field goal attempt, the lowest rate of his career.
I’ll give Pau credit for trying to stretch his game beyond the arc, something he was reluctant to do in Los Angeles. Gasol is shooting 41% from three point range and has already shattered his season high in three pointers attempted and made. But even though Pau has seen his three point attempt rate double since last season, his 0.3 three pointers made per game is not enough to make much of an impact on the offense.
Per Basketball Reference, only four players this year have usage rates at about 24%, free throw rates below 0.3 and three point attempt rates below .07: Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Vucevic and Jahlil Okafor. The big difference between Pau and the other three is that Pau is the only one who’s two point and effective field goal percentage is below 50%.
A lot of the changes in Pau’s shot selection can be chalked up to the offensive philosophy of Fred Hoiberg. Isolations from the post are a thing of the past and have been replaced by more pick and roll. According to NBA.com, Pau has completed 201 possessions as the roll man in such plays, the 7th highest total in the NBA. But of the 41 players who have logged 100 of these possessions, Pau has the 32nd highest eFG%. The Bulls score on just 47.3% of these possessions, landing Pau in the 33rd percentile.
The Bulls have relied heavily on the pick and pop between Rose and Gasol. Rose’s renewed athleticism has forced defenses to collapse on his drives, opening up wide open looks for Gasol. With Pau’s accuracy on these shots dipping, it would be nice to see him back out a couple of steps and turn some of those long twos into threes. Even if his field goal percentage dips a bit further, the value of the extra point would be worth it. It would also create more space for Rose going to the hoop if Pau’s man is afraid to surrender the triple.
The Bulls would be much better off putting Nikola Mirotic in these pick and pops. Niko is a willing three point shooter who would benefit from the drive and kick action that has freed up Gasol for three wide open looks per game.
The reason I bring this last bit up is because I do not want the Bulls to resign Pau Gasol for many reasons. Steven Noh explained how it would handcuff us in free agency this summer despite the historic cap boom. Jonathon Tjarks, in an article about Jahlil Okafor, makes the strong point that a team without a center protecting the rim will always have problems.
And on top of those reasons, Pau’s slippage on the offensive end and questions about how he fits into Hoiberg’s scheme make resigning the Spaniard even less desirable. Yes, there is immense value in the possessions Gasol soaks up for a team that has struggled to find consistent offense. But for a team with no realistic chance at the ultimate prize, the Bulls would be better served to let Pau go, take a step back next season, and allow some of the youth to develop.