CHICAGO – The difference between Derrick Rose‘s first comeback and latest comeback is the difference between Mike Dunleavy and Pau Gasol.
A year ago, Dunleavy — a solid NBA veteran in search of the first .500 team of his career — joined the Chicago Bulls on a modest, role player’s contract to scratch his competitive itch more than his financial one.
Except Rose lasted just 10 games, the Bulls backed off their loftier ambitions by trading Luol Deng midway through the schedule and Dunleavy wound up starting and logging heavy minutes. He appreciated Chicago’s 48-34 finish and could take pride in becoming one of the NBA’s biggest bargains (salary per minute). But no Rose and a five-game ouster by Washington in the first round were profound disappointments.
Now the stakes are higher. The Bulls’ key offseason acquisition is a cut above, in pedigree and possibilities. Gasol brings a Hall of Fame portfolio, two championship rings and international acclaim to Chicago. He also brings greater expectations and a considerable role already reserved for him. Like Dunleavy, Gasol turned 34 this offseason. His high hopes and crossed fingers are pretty much identical too.
“It’s important to the whole team, for sure,” Gasol said of Rose and the Bulls’ dire need for their point guard to a) stay healthy and b) reclaim his All-Star, all-NBA and ideally MVP form. “I talked to him before I made my decision. He’s eager, he’s hungry. He’s been working extremely hard to be where he’s at today. Playing in the World Cup in the summer helped him, to be able to get some rust out. I think he’s ready.”
That’s as good as the Bulls have at this point — thinking that Rose is sufficiently recovered from the torn ACL injury in his left knee (April 2012) and the torn meniscus in his right knee (November 2013) to lug around their goals and dreams.
If he is recovered, the 2014-15 season in Chicago could be the brightest since Rose’s MVP year of 2010-11 and maybe even the Jordan-Pippen era of the last millennium. If not, it will be another long season of overachieving and pluck that probably leads nowhere — and a whole bunch of what-ifs for Gasol.
Gasol talked with the Spurs, the Thunder, the Heat and the Knicks. He got calls and tests from Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, the coach with whom he won championships in L.A. in 2008 and 2010.
“I talked to many great, great players that I would be happy to play with,” the 7-foot, four-time All Star said. “Unfortunately I could only play with one team. So I picked a great situation, a great team, a great franchise, a great city.”
Upon making his decision, Gasol got another text from Jackson, the former Bulls coach, saying that, “I was going to love Chicago, that I was going to be happy here and that it was a great choice.”
If Rose’s health can be trusted, sure.
From his spot on Spain’s national team, Gasol saw a pretty spry and explosive Rose in the FIBA World Cup tournament. “I don’t have any doubt,” Gasol said. “I hope that he stays healthy, just like everybody else on the team. Everybody is subject to injury. But I believe in his health and I think he’s going to do fine.”
Gasol ($7.1 million in Year 1 of a three-year deal) and Nikola Mirotic ($5.3 million) essentially have slipped into the payroll spot opened by Carlos Boozer‘s amnesty. Boozer wasn’t a popular Bull, never quite appeasing United Center fans for not being LeBron James after his 2010 signing, or even playing up to his five-year, $75 million deal. Still, he did average 15.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in four Chicago seasons and showed up for all but nine games over the final three.
Gasol will need to maintain his numbers (17.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and step up his durability (55 games missed the past two seasons) to match or top Boozer’s statistical production. And Gasol is older.
Maybe Gasol can do contribute intangibly by how well he fits with fellow slick-passing big man Joakim Noah, with the shooters — Dunleavy, Mirotic, rookie Doug McDermott — that coach Tom Thibodeau can spot around him and, of course, with Rose.
Asked how the two of them might play off each other and boost the other’s effectiveness, Rose visualized and verbalized for the mob at Bulls media day.
“I automatically go to the fourth quarter, where he’s got the ball and I’m out on the perimeter, and I’m just waiting to get a set shot,” Rose said. “Other than that, let him work. You’ve got Joakim or Taj [Gibson] on the other side cleaning up everything else. And you’ve got two other shooters on the floor with me, Jo and Pau.
“I just see him in the post. I’m waiting for a jump shot. And you pick your poison.”
After waiting so long for Rose, seeing him take a pass from Gasol is an upgrade this team and the city will take.