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Pau Gasol preparing for big second season in the Windy City

Gasol says Bulls have title aspirations in 2015-16

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By Sam Smith | 7.31.2015 | 8:10 a.m.

The man in the middle from Spain…? From Florida?

“It’s not that I see myself starting,” Pau Gasol was saying Thursday during a media conference call from Africa, where he is participating in the NBA’s first ever Africa game. “I’m going to work and earn (my spot). I don’t take anything for granted no matter how well I played or how great of a player I think I am. You have to prove yourself in practice, earn your minutes.”

The Bulls basically didn’t make any significant changes to their roster and rotation heading into next season following a second round playoff elimination. Of course, the Bulls did make a coaching change from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg. But there will be major changes for the Bulls in 2015-16. Not so much in personnel, but likely in how those players are employed.

Perhaps the biggest question coming into the season is who will start at center. The Bulls have two All-Star centers in Gasol and Joakim Noah, and starting both last season obviously didn’t work well. Though new coach Hoiberg has been circumspect about his plans, it seems likely Gasol and Noah will no longer both start.

Which leaves many possibilities:

Gasol and Nikola Mirotic: The pairing will be on display in September when they both play for Spain in the Eurobasket Olympic qualifier in September. Though the tournament is close to the start of Bulls training camp, Gasol said it should benefit he and Mirotic and could be a preview of the new starting front court.

“There’s always an upside and a downside to playing internationally,” said Gasol. “I feel you get into camp in better shape and better basketball condition and rhythm. It’s a matter of how you approach things and how you feel about them. If you are excited and energized about playing for your national team and you are excited and energized to play for the NBA team, it should be all a positive thing. At the same time, I feel like Niko and I playing this summer, I think it will develop our relationship on and off the court and it will be another positive to carry on and transfer to our team in Chicago.”

However, Gasol and Mirotic are weaker defenders and pairing them together could prove problematic.

Gasol and Taj Gibson: That brings a defensive component alongside Gasol, though it could squeeze the court as happened too often last season with Noah given Gibson isn’t a three-point shooter.

Noah and Gibson: The best defensive pair with familiarity playing together, though again limited shooting range. Plus, it’s always an issue to bring an older big man off the bench (Gasol turned 35 earlier this month) because they tend to take longer to get going once they’ve warmed up and sat down.

Noah and Mirotic: Long distance shooting with Mirotic and Noah’s defensive presence, which is better at center, where Noah seemingly needs to play. Again, bringing Gasol off the bench could limit his effectiveness and perhaps back off on the promises or expectations Gasol had when signing last summer with the Bulls. And then there’s rookie Bobby Portis, who played well, if erratically on offense, in summer league. Gasol, after all, led the Bulls in total minutes played last regular season and perhaps predictably broke down and was unable to play most of the series with the Cavaliers. But he was the Bulls most consistent and healthy player during the regular season and would hardly deserve a “demotion.” Gasol even led the NBA in double/doubles last season with a career high 54 and started the All-Star game. That a season after Noah was first team all-NBA center. Though we always hear what matters is who finishes.

“I’m not expecting to play the most minutes on the team,” Gasol said in his first comments to Chicago media since the end of last season. “I did not average the most minutes; Jimmy averaged the most. I expect to have a substantial role as I always have in my career and be a key part of our team.”

Gasol said he is optimistic about the team coming into next season and comfortable with the changes. But he also emphasized that the relative indifference and lack of preparation the team often displayed last season has to change if the Bulls are to be successful.

“Our goal is to try to be the best team, not to just beat one team,” Gasol said about the threat of the Cavaliers and LeBron James. “Obviously, they are the Eastern Conference champions from last year. Our goal is to be as strong as we can be to win, hopefully, the title at the end of the year. We have to make a quick transition with our new coach and his new philosophy.

“We have talked on the phone and we have exchanged messages,” Gasol said of he and Hoiberg, who plans to be in Spain next month to see Gasol. “We look forward to continuing to communicate so when training camp starts we can be on the same page and start working on how we can adjust quicker to the new philosophy and his system. I don’t know exactly how much my role will change, if at all. I’m sure there will be some adjustments and some changes, but I don’t know to what extent they will affect me individually.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the specific reasons (why the team failed to go farther last season),” Gasol said. “There definitely was an inconsistency throughout the year. Even though we finished third in the conference, we still had a lot of games we just weren’t ready to play, too many games we gave away against teams we were supposed to beat and we were a better team overall. At the end of the day, we paid the price of that lack of a sense of urgency and (not) giving importance to those moments during the regular season. Hopefully, we’ll learn from that and understand how important it is throughout the season, how important it is each and every game during the regular season and what difference it does make at the end of the year.”

Gasol said it’s always unfortunate when there is a coaching change, but he said that remains a time for the players to move on.

“It’s always a difficult, hard time when you see a coach released or let go of his duties, especially after Tom had invested a lot of years in the team,” said Gasol. “At the same time, you understand why it happened. The organization had to make a decision and it was a difficult one, but we all try at the end of the day to give the team a better chance to win the championship and improve, so that comes from the top. The players really have nothing to do with it; you accept those types of decisions and try to make the best out of them. From that point on we’re going to try to fulfill our goals and be a better team next season and that’s all we can do.”

Gasol said it is his sixth trip to Africa and this game, which will be televised by ESPN 8 a.m. (Central time) Saturday, is a milestone for the NBA and the players association. The rosters feature former Bull Luol Deng leading Team Africa in the exhibition game along with fellow former Bull Nazr Mohammed, whose parents were from Ghana. That team will be coached by the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich. Pau Gasol will play for Team World along with Chris Paul, Chicagoan Evan Turner and Marc Gasol. The players this week have been involved in a series of events to support youth education and building projects.

And perhaps begin to make the case for the next Luol Deng or Manute Bol or talent better than LeBron James. In the U.S., commentators often declare players the best on the planet. But how do you know when kids from Africa have rarely gotten the chance? Now with the help of the NBA and its players they will.

“I’m really excited about this game, about the work being done here, the effort of the NBA and NBPA, players, coaches, everybody putting a lot of effort into giving children a better chance, giving children here an opportunity to receive an education, access sports and physical activity and develop health habits and have a healthier life,” said Pau. “So I’m just excited to be a part of it; it’s a historical game for the game itself and for the continent of Africa. Africa (has) huge potential at many different levels that has a lot of struggles. But it’s worth investing the time and effort and energy to give this continent a chance; obviously a lot of players have come out already, but there’s potential that a lot more younger players can come out and be ready and become great basketball players and have an opportunity to have a great life for themselves and their families.”

And though the Bulls didn’t make significant changes, Pau says he is optimistic, if cautious.

“We have a lot of good players and each and every one has to understand the window is very small,” Pau said. “You just never know when it is going to close; you just know it’s going to close fast. So you do have to take advantage of each opportunity that comes along. We have a great opportunity; we have a very strong team. There’s very few changes as far as our roster and our players. So we can build on what we had going last year. We have all the tools to be a much stronger team than we were and learn from our mistakes of last year and we all have to understand that. Me, personally, I will try to do my job as far as the leadership role within the team now that I have been through a season with the guys. But each individual has to understand the center of responsibility and accountability within the team.”

* * * * * * *

Mohammed is playing in the Africa game as well. He wasn’t offered a new contract by the Bulls and turns 38 before the start of next season, which would be his 18th. The Bulls are optimistic about Brazilian big man Cristiano Felicio from their summer league team and he could fill a final spot on the roster. Mohammed is in excellent shape and could have played much more last season. But he was caught in a tight rotation with few reserves seeing time. So Mohammed says he’s contemplating his next step. It still could be in the NBA. He recently wrote a blog about his prospects. Here are excerpts:

“I’m a free agent. After 17 seasons playing NBA basketball, I’m currently at a point where I’m trying to decide what I do next – continue playing basketball or pursue a post-playing career. There are a few factors in play that are making this decision kind of tough for me. I still love playing basketball and everything about this game – the camaraderie, the competition, working together with a group of guys toward a common goal of winning a championship. I feel like I have some unfinished business and some basketball left in my body. The shocking part is that my body still feels great. I’ve always heard that as a professional athlete starts getting older, your body starts hurting. But I have yet to experience that. Years ago I decided that I was going to play until I couldn’t play anymore or until nobody else wanted me to play for them anymore – whichever came first. That way you know you have maximized your ability to compete as a professional athlete. And neither of those things has happened yet. It’s funny because I’ve found that over these last three or four years, so many times when I bump into a retired NBA player or even a guy who played overseas, they come up to me and say, “Hey, don’t stop playing. Keep playing until the wheels fall off!” But while I love playing basketball, I am considering moving on and taking advantage of some of the opportunities that are coming my way in the business of basketball. One of my goals is to one day become a general manager of an NBA team, and there are opportunities presenting themselves that will allow me to take a step in that direction and get my foot in the door. Then there’s always the elephant in the room, which is the fact that I caught the “broadcast bug” after attending the NBPA’s Sportscaster U. program last month. The one thing that has happened that I didn’t account for is the fact that I’m no longer willing to play anywhere. I’m down to about 8-9 teams that I would consider playing for, but sometimes they may or may not need your services. At this point in my career, if I continue to play, I want to be part of a winning organization with a great coach and teammates that approach the game with the same professionalism that I have. I realize that this is all a great “problem” to have. I truly appreciate the opportunities that people are offering me, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the decision to give up your first love to go in another direction is a tough one. It’s a decision I will be making very soon.”

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