Pau Gasol is not Carmelo, but he's an all-star

Butler Takes Over For Bulls

College Contributor Network

The Chicago Bulls could have two All-Star starters this season and neither of them are named Derrick Rose or Joakim Noah.

The first is obviously Jimmy Butler, who so far has been the best shooting guard in the Eastern Conference and the best two-way player at his position in the league.

Pau Gasol, the 34-year-old consolation prize from the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes, is the second.

During the Summer of Anthony, the free agent scoring machine met with a number of teams, including the Bulls. A starting five that included Rose, Butler, Anthony and Noah could very well have been the best team in an Eastern Conference that saw the Cavaliers land LeBron James and Kevin Love, especially given now that Cleveland has started out the season relatively slowly.

Instead, Anthony signed a five-year, $124 million deal to stick with his hometown Knicks. Less than a week later, the Bulls signed Gasol to a three-year contract worth just over $22 million, more than $100 million less than Anthony's.

Bulls fans had a right to be miffed. Gasol was three years removed from his last All-Star appearance, which was coincidentally also the last time he played all 82 games in a season. It's not like Gasol was being overpaid, it's just that they were so close to seeing their team start a former MVP, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and a historically great scorer that could play either the small- or power-forward position.

But surprise, surprise, Gasol is still a very good player. Gasol and Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic are the only two players in the NBA this season who average over 18 points and 11 rebounds per game, while Gasol also adds two blocks and two assists a night as well.

Apart from a three-game stretch in mid-November, Gasol has also played every game so far and has been on the court an average of over 35 minutes a night. The Bulls would love to have the rest of their stars that healthy, as Rose and Noah have already missed a combined 17 games.

In the seven games he's played without his starting point guard, Gasol averaged over 15 and 9, which shows that Gasol can still get his even when the offense loses its fulcrum. What's more interesting is that when Noah sat out and Gasol slid to center to fill the gap, he averaged over 12 rebounds and has grabbed less than 10 boards only once in the seven games he's played that Noah missed.

Defensively, Gasol has been what you would expect from a 34-year old seven-footer. He's smart, long and lanky and that by itself helps Gasol get by, especially against the slower and more plodding big men in the league. Gasol held Zach Randolph in check in their Dec. 19 meeting, as Randolph went 4-for-11 from the field.

Against teams that employ quicker power forwards, as more of them do nowadays, Gasol just can't keep up. Against the Warriors on Dec. 6, Draymond Green scored a career-high 31 points on seven threes.

Gasol's game has never been about speed. It's always been about his soft touch around the basket and his fantastic passing skills. The way he plays shouldn't be affected too much by his age. The only time you can really tell how old Gasol is is when he has to run in transition, and it's not like the Bulls are much of a fast-break team anyway. Chicago gets only 12 percent of its points from fast breaks, and rank 16th in the NBA in number of possessions per 48 minutes.

Gasol may not be a defensive maven, but it's not like Tom Thibodeau's team lacks for those anyway. The Bulls have an excellent defender off the bench in Taj Gibson for when Gasol needs to sit or when Chicago needs a stop.

No, what the Bulls needed was a scorer and someone who could get the offense flowing, especially since Butler hadn't yet proven himself on that end of the floor before this season. Whatever defensive liabilities Gasol has can be concealed by Noah and the rest of the maniac defenders on the team, but another player who doesn't know what to do with the ball in his hands would have slowed the offense to a halt, especially without Rose on the court.

Gasol may have been a backup plan after missing out on Anthony, but a two-time champion and a four-time all-star isn't a bad Plan B. The Chicago Bulls could conceivably have four players on the All-Star roster this season, and it seems the only thing that's stopping them from being regarded as a true contender is their health.

Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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