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For Chicago's big men, sacrifice is the name of the game
“Team spirit means you are willing to sacrifice personal considerations for the welfare of all. That defines a team player." — John Wooden
By Adam Fluck
You could call them Chicago’s own version of the Fantastic Four.
In Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, the Chicago Bulls have an exceptional set of big men that boasts a collective versatility unmatched by another team in the NBA.
Gasol brings championship experience to the roster. He turned down significantly more money to join the Bulls this past offseason and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact on and off the court.
Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, finished fourth in NBA MVP voting last season. But with the addition of Gasol and the return of Derrick Rose, his role has changed and his numbers are slightly down. His impact, however, is not.
Gibson was the Sixth Man of the Year runner-up last season. He’s good enough to be a starter. He knows it, his teammates know it and his coaches know it. That role is Gasol’s, though, so Gibson continues to thrive as a member of the second unit.
Mirotic, 24 years old and in his first NBA season, certainly doesn’t play like a rookie. He arrived in Chicago with five years of professional experience under his belt, though he’s had to earn his minutes, something that took time and required patience.
Along with Nazr Mohammed and Cameron Bairstow, these are the Bulls’ big men.
While each player possesses his own skill-set and embraces a unique role, there is a common denominator that exists between them all—a willingness to sacrifice in order to help the team win.
“It speaks to who they are and illustrates their makeup and character,” remarks Gar Forman, the general manager who assembled this group. “All four of them approach the game to do what helps us win as opposed to worrying about personal agendas. I think it’s special that we’ve got guys who are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.
“It’s fun to watch these guys work every day in practice together, then watch each of them have their moment in the sun and cheer for each other as they are having success,” adds Forman. “They all have unique talents, but what makes them all similar and a great fit is their unselfishness and willingness to do whatever is best for the team.”
Championship pedigree from Gasol, passion and energy out of Noah
On July 12, 2014, Gasol, then a free agent, announced on Twitter that he planned to join the Bulls, calling it a new chapter of his career. Less than a week later, he and Mirotic boarded the same plane in Madrid and landed at O’Hare in Chicago.
On July 18, the duo signed their deals and Forman’s offseason moves, which had previously included the acquisition of Doug McDermott on draft night, provided the team with some additional momentum as it prepared for the season.
At 34 years old and in his 14th NBA season, Gasol could have stayed with the Los Angeles Lakers and enjoyed a bigger payday, possibly one of the last of his playing career. It’s what former teammate Kobe Bryant, with whom he won a pair of titles, urged him to do.
But the situation in Chicago proved too enticing. Gasol, a 7’0”, 250-pound center/forward, wanted to join a contender and help take the team to the next level. Several months into the season, he says he has no doubts that he made the right decision.
“It’s a long journey, obviously,” a rejuvenated Gasol says, “but this is what I hoped and envisioned could potentially happen with this Bulls team. It’s a group that complements each other really well. We have a nice, balanced, deep team. It’s been really good.”
An NBA All-Star this season for the fifth time in his career, Gasol has brought so much more than his championship pedigree to the team. By drafting Noah and signing Gasol, Forman has managed to put two of the best passing big men in the league on the same team.
“Gasol has been really, really big for us,” says Forman. “It’s not only the way he fits, but it’s his game. We’ve always been a team that is inside out. Pau is a guy you can effectively run offense through in the low post. He’s got such great vision and he’s so unselfish.
“Defensively, his length has been a huge plus,” Forman adds of Gasol, who is among the league leaders in double-doubles. “When we have the combination of him and Joakim or him and Taj on the floor, to have that rim protection and shot blocking inside has been a real asset.”
While he is clearly a welcome addition to the roster, Gasol’s arrival affected the roles of others. Starting aside him in the frontcourt is Noah, who last season, with Derrick Rose sidelined, was one of the team’s playmakers and go-to scorers. The ball was in Noah’s hands a lot, which translated to points and assists as well as rebounds.
“My role has changed, but I still want to win just as bad,” exudes Noah. “We’ve been talking about it all year. This team is all about the sacrifices we’ve got to make to take it all the way. When you think of guys like Pau and Derrick, they’re great competitors and great offensive players. Last year, we didn’t have these kind of weapons. It’s not about me. It’s about this team and what it takes to be the best we can be.”
With Gasol playing more of the natural center position, Noah has spent more time at power forward, particularly on defense. Couple the fact that he entered the season coming off knee surgery and a quick look at statistics may suggest Noah is experiencing a down year. But that’s precisely where the sacrifice enters in.
“It’s not always easy, I’m not going to lie,” says Noah. “But this is what we want. When we signed Pau, I knew things would be different. With Derrick coming back, I knew I would get the ball less. This isn’t my first rodeo. I understand this game and I understand that sometimes giving up means you’re going to get a lot more.”
The more Gasol plays alongside Noah, the greater understanding and appreciation he has for his game and what he brings to the table.
“What jumps out at me is his intensity and his passion for the game,” says Gasol of Noah. “His activity is off the charts. He does all the little things that are important and are winning plays. It makes a big difference for our ball club. I’m happy that he’s playing well and I’m happy I have the opportunity to play with him.”
The aforementioned sacrifices made by Noah are not lost on Gasol.
“When you’re on a great team and you have as many weapons as we have, you always sacrifice something from your game for the benefit of the team,” notes Gasol. “It’s what Jo and everybody else is doing, sacrificing a little bit of their capabilities to make the team balanced and utilize everybody else.”
Regardless of his role, Noah’s trademark passion remains. It didn’t take long for the newcomer Mirotic to pick up on that.
“Jo is the spirit of this team,” says Mirotic. “The energy he puts forth every day, not just in games, but in practice. It’s awesome because he pushes the entire team. If we aren’t as focused as we need to be or we’re dragging the morning after two games, he is there pushing the team. ‘Let’s go guys! Keep building! Practice hard!’ He’s the best big guy passing the ball in the NBA and he’s an All-Star. He’s really trying to help us and he’s doing a great job.”
Gibson, Mirotic provide Bulls with the luxury of frontcourt depth
While signing Gasol meant a different role for Noah, it resulted in the same one for Gibson. The 6’9”, 225-pound forward in his sixth season seemed poised to start with the departure of Carlos Boozer and was by all indications ready for an expanded role.
Once again, though, it’s a theme of sacrifice and putting the team first. And in this case, it provides the Bulls an immense value to have someone of Gibson’s caliber, both offensively and defensively, off the bench.
“It’s a great luxury to have and that’s why I say he’s made sacrifices in order for us to have success,” notes Forman. “Obviously, Taj is a starting caliber player. Defensively, I thought he was an impactful player from his first year here, but his game just continues to grow offensively. His ability to make shots and his footwork, his patience, his touch and aggressiveness down low... he’s made great strides the last year or two.”
“Taj is great for this team,” says Noah. “He’s been a glue guy for us for a long time now, someone who adds so much to this team. He had a great season last year. I think that if Taj played starter minutes, he’d be a legitimate All-Star candidate. Pau came in and I’m sure that wasn’t easy for him as a player, but at the end of the day, Taj is a guy who understands the big picture and really wants to win. Sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice to win big in this league. I think that what Taj is doing this season shows great leadership.”
Gibson has never complained about not being among the starting five; rather, he sees advantages to coming off the bench as he continues to embrace that role.
“I just keep going,” Gibson says. “I’m ready when my number is called. My legs will be fresh and that’s always a good thing in a league where there are a lot of injuries. I'm working on being a good sixth man again. It was an honor to be among the top ones last year. I’ll keep working towards that again.”
As for Mirotic, it’s been all about the transition to a new country and a new league.
After spending five seasons playing all over Europe with Real Madrid, Mirotic was ready for a new challenge and his dream of playing for the Bulls was realized. Minutes were tough to come by early on this season, but when he’s gotten an opportunity to play, Mirotic has shown he knows how to use his size while possessing impressive mobility, skill and basketball IQ.
“We’re just scratching the surface of what Nikola can do,” says Forman. “I think there is a lot of potential there for him to continue to get better and to continue to get stronger. It’s really exciting to have him. He gives us a dimension that we haven’t had with his ability to space the floor out beyond the three-point line.”
Best known for his shooting, the 6’10”, 220-pound forward has proven he’s capable of doing a lot more.
“When I see Niko, I see somebody who is a player, a real player,” says Noah. “I knew he was going to be able to shoot the ball—people were always raving about that—and he played in some really big games in Europe. He is eager to get better every day and has an unbelievable skill-set. Not only can he shoot the ball, but he can make passes off the pick and pop or off the dribble. Defensively, he’s very underrated. He can also really rebound the ball. He’s a legitimate force, man. He’s only going to get better and the sky is the limit for him.”
For a Bulls bench that also boasts talented guards in Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks, being able to send in big men like Gibson and Mirotic to either add to a lead or help come from behind is a significant advantage.
“It’s a big, big luxury to have those guys coming off the bench and producing with the talent they have,” acknowledges Gasol. “It’s critical and will make a big difference down the stretch and in the playoffs when you need everyone and their contribution to beat a team in a playoff series and move on. The depth of our team and the quality of the bench is huge.”
Team-first attitudes with winning the ultimate goal
Consider that there are only 96 total minutes to divvy up between the power forward and center positions in a regulation NBA game. That in itself presents a challenge when it comes to finding playing time for Gasol, Noah, Gibson and Mirotic.
It may not work on some teams, having that much talent at the same positions. Not enough balls to go around, as they say. But that’s not the case in Chicago, something that is clear when you see how each player approaches the situation. Not only is it in the words they speak; these mentalities are evident in the way they play.
“We complement each other really well,” says Gasol. “We have different attributes and different types of games. We all bring something to the table that is special and unique. We all want to win and we’re all ready to win.”
“The good thing is we have a great atmosphere in the locker room,” Mirotic offers. “We are thinking and we are working in the same direction. So we are working hard and we really feel hungry because we know we have to work more if we want to win the championship. Everybody understands, everybody knows what we need to do. On this team, everybody works hard. That’s really amazing and you appreciate that.”
“Everybody is so unselfish,” Gibson agrees. “You never see a guy come to the bench pouting or crying about his minutes. We all know we’re capable of big time minutes but it’s all about winning. We’ve got one goal and that’s to win a championship.”
“I just look at it as a blessing just to get better as a team,” Noah explains. “It’s been a learning experience and the best part about it is we aren’t even peaking yet, we’re still getting better. This team is really focused. We’ve dealt with so much over the years. Guys know what is at stake. There is nothing more than you can ask for right now then to say we’re a legitimate contender.”