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On-court comfort remains issue for Bulls' Noah, Gasol

Coach Fred Hoiberg is searching for a way to get his frontcourt tandem into the rhythm they often lacked last season

POSTED: Oct 15, 2015 2:57 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah played roughly 20 minutes a game together last season and had a net rating of 2.9.

Achieving something none of their teams did during the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen run of NBA championships, the Chicago Bulls have had an All-NBA center each of the past two seasons.

The tricky thing is, it's been two different guys.

The trickier thing is, they're both still on the roster.

In 2013-14, Joakim Noah was voted to the All-NBA first team, a nod both to his Kia Defensive Player of the Year performance that season and the manner in which he stepped into Chicago's offensive void. In Derrick Rose's absence, Noah used his vision and deft passing to become the team's "point center," averaging 5.4 assists to go with 12.6 points and 11.3 rebounds.

Last season, Gasol earned an All-NBA second team, yielding only to his brother, Marc, in the top spot. Signed at a relative bargain price ($7.1 million) in free agency, Gasol at age 34 averaged 18.5 points, a career-best 11.8 rebounds and 1.88 blocked shots, was a first-time All-Star Game starter and became the oldest player to lead the NBA in double-doubles since Patrick Ewing (1996-97).

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But Gasol stepped into a Bulls void as well, one opened up by Noah's lingering knee pain from offseason surgery. Limited in his mobility, the high-energy, dervish Noah regressed offensively. As the Bulls big most often asked by former coach Tom Thibodeau to chase opposing power forwards, Noah often struggled to keep up and couldn't contribute the sort of help defense from his DPOY season. In short, Noah grew tentative.

That's all due to improve this season, with Noah back "bouncier" from a summer of serious rehab and conditioning, with Gasol coming off his stellar FIBA EuroBasket play and with the two learning from their first season together. Noah and Gasol played 63 games in 2014-15, sharing about 20 minutes nightly during which they had a net rating of 2.9, per stats.

As a team, of course, the Bulls' net rating was 3.3. So Noah-Gasol took them in the wrong direction.

New coach Fred Hoiberg came in with the vision and even a mandate to free up the Bulls offensively, to put more pace into their play and keep up with the league's trend of more 3-pointers and versatile players. On the other hand, he has two of the NBA's better big men -- at least when healthy and playing separately from each other.

Meshing Noah and Gasol, and making that work in a given lineup, is one of Hoiberg's biggest challenges.

I think it's not me and Pau. Our whole team has to play better defense. We're a work in progress. Everything is new. Just have to be patient.

– Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah

Hoiberg established a baseline at the start of the preseason, citing better results than the two were given credit for by some critics.

"I wouldn't say they [did not play well together]," Hoiberg said. "Those guys won a lot of games together out there on the floor at the same time. And again, we'll play to that. Just try to get those guys reading off each other and playing together well."

In the preseason, the Noah-Gasol Experience is a work in progress. Chicago has a crowd in the frontcourt, with Noah, Gasol, veteran Taj Gibson, second-year import Nikola Mirotic and first-round draftee Bobby Portis. Hoiberg has been mixing and matching combinations, both to familiarize himself with his players and to give them reps in a new system.

"He's just freestylin'," is how Gibson put it Wednesday after the Bulls' loss to Detroit. "He's just figuring out different things. Every day in practice he switches it up."

In fact, it wasn't until Wednesday's game against the Pistons -- the Bulls' fifth of the preseason -- that Noah and Gasol logged their first minute together. Each had been held out of two games, tag-team style. Against Detroit, though, Hoiberg went with the "jumbo" lineup of Noah, Gasol and the 6-foot-10 Mirotic at small forward.

Turned out, for a night anyway, to be a jumbo flop. The Bulls bogged down offensively, straying from their let-it-fly early ways and saw the trio shoot a combined 1-for-8 in the opening quarter. They got no benefit defensively, either, falling behind by 10 points in less than six minutes.

Noah and Gasol, specifically, were a minus-8 while logging 6:51 in the quarter. Noah was the one guarding Marcus Morris while Gasol checked Andre Drummond down low (Detroit cross-matched at the other end). The two Bulls bigs played together for 2:39 in the second quarter, and that was it. When Chicago did show a spark in the third, it was with Gasol, Mirotic (at power forward) alongside Doug McDermott.

"It was a good test overall," Gasol said. "It's not like we've had the chance to work and play together in that type of lineup. We tried today. We'll see if it's going to be used more after that."

Hoiberg still talks as if Noah's and Gasol's strengths can complement each other. Gasol's varied offensive game should, in theory, work fine around Noah's passing and work on the offensive glass. Because Noah is a limited scoring threat, it comes down to spacing and timing when they play together so that Noah's man doesn't cheat on defense.

He's just freestylin'. He's just figuring out different things. Every day in practice he switches it up.

– Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson, on coach Fred Hoiberg's lineups

It was interesting to have Stan Van Gundy working the other bench Wednesday. The Pistons for years tried (unsuccessfully) to make a Drummond-Greg Monroe pairing work. Van Gundy took over last season and did what he could, but the Pistons don't consider it a setback that Monroe left as a free agent over the summer, leaving Drummond as the centerpiece now

Still, Van Gundy didn't pooh-pooh other teams' XXL designs in a league where "small" is the new big.

"When Gasol and Noah are on the floor together, it's pretty good," he said. "When Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are on the floor together, it's been very, very good in Memphis. The challenge is at the defensive end of the floor more than the offensive end. How are you going to cover the teams that spread the floor out? Are your big guys gonna be able to get out and cover? I think it works here because Noah can get out and cover people on the perimeter if he needs to."

That's an ideal that barely has been tested, given how little this bouncier Noah has teamed with Gasol in the new system in preseason.

Chicago has a four-day gap before its final three preseason games to figure out how to make Noah and Gasol mesh -- or maybe consider other options.

"I think it's not me and Pau," Noah said Wednesday. "Our whole team has to play better defense. We're a work in progress. Everything is new. Just have to be patient. I think right now everybody is not happy with our defensive effort, but it's going to get better. I think coach is going to have a lot of decisions to make in terms of matchups and things like that. Whatever coach [decides] I'm cool with it."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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