The NBA's Eastern Conference is undergoing a sea change in the wake of LeBron James's decision to leave Miami for Cleveland. A series of high-profile player moves have turned conference on its head—there's no real favorite as of yet in the race to make it to the Finals and lose to the Spurs. Welcome to the Inscrutable East, our offseason rundown of the teams that matter.
There is something utterly enthralling about incongruity in basketball—a diminutive Andre Miller viciously backing down an opponent, Nate Robinson skying for a dunk, Yao Ming's feathery-soft shooting touch or Pero Antic, with the biceps of a defensive lineman, calmly dropping in three-pointers. But nothing captures my imagination in quite the same way as a big man who can pass.
In my mind the template for this phenomenon is the Chris Webber-Vlade Divac combination, manning the front-court for the Sacramento Kings at the beginning of last decade. They were as beautiful a passing pair as I've ever seen and every no-look, through-the-legs, over-the-shoulder, how-in-the-hell-did-that-get-there assist was made even more blissful by the contrast between their delicate artistry and lumbering frames. They passed gleefully, full of joy and imagination. No angle was too unseemly, no opening to small.
Jason Williams or Mike Bibby are usually given credit as the initiator of this passing revolution, but it was Webber and Divac who shouldered the daily load of spreading the ball all over the court. Williams took your breath away. Divac and Webber made sure you never got it back.
The Kings of the early 2000s are remembered as an uptempo sideshow, a team that could have gotten over the hump if they had just toned it down a little. But that misses the point. They were more than a basketball team, they were an extended exhibition of modernist principles and the idea that experimentation with form could be at least as important as functional success. At some point injuries, age, and exhaustion caused the experiment to slowly dissolve. The Steve Nash Suns did a pale impression of them, but focused more on collaborative speed than collaborative artistry. And the void endured.
Enter the Chicago Bulls.
Last week Pau Gasol announced he was signing with the Bulls, joining Joakim Noah in Chicago's frontcourt. All of a sudden the Bulls find themselves wealthy with skill—two of the best passing big men in the league and the kind of possibilities that set my imagination crackling.
Not bad at all.
Much of the exclamatory hand-wringing about Gasol has been because he's not Carmelo Anthony. Much of the exclamatory celebration about Gasol has been because he's a dominant low-post scorer (or at least he was before the Lakers finished devouring his soul). But to anyone who says Gasol's low-post scoring is what will save the Bulls, I say put this paper under your tongue and get with the program. The beauty of a Gasol-Noah-Rose combination is not setting up a traditional inside-out offense. It's the opportunity for mind-bending creativity. High-lows and low-highs, curling cuts and cutting curls, pindown screens that morph into flex cuts, all orchestrated by the two tallest men on the court.
The Bulls offense opened up last season when they started running actions through Noah at the elbow. His passing brought order to an offensive system that had vacillated between chaos and obsessive repetitiveness (ironically both borne of the same desperation) in Derrick Rose's extended absence. With Noah stationed in the high post his smaller compatriots set to screening, cutting, and curling around him. It was shades of Gulliver as he held the ball above them, observing the Lilliputian dance below before dropping the ball into the hands of a waiting scorer.
Gasol gives the Bulls an opportunity to go even farther beyond the confines of what's proper and safe. For years, even with Rose healthy and attacking, their offense was as vanilla as it comes. It's time to move past vanilla, and let Gasol and Noah build a towering 38-flavor palace of decadent passing. The solution to complementing Rose has never been a shooting guard who could both space the floor and share ball-handling responsibilities. It's been a big with the size to catch the ball in the middle of the floor and move it wherever it needs to go as the action revolves around him.
Tom Thibodeau clearly has his eyes on a more expansive offensive system, talking at length about Gasol's versatility during his introductory press conference last week (h/t Cody Westerlund, CBSSports):
"He's excellent in the pick-and-roll," Thibodeau said. "He'll read how the defense is playing the pick-and-roll. He knows the areas to go to, and he has the ability to make great decisions from there—shot, high-low, a quick swing. And he does it instinctively. And then he's also very effective in the elbow area. So I think there's a lot of different ways we can use him."
The intent may be beautiful, but it all sounds so conventional, so thoroughly Thibodeau-ish. That quote implies the Bulls will be looking for something more, something new, but it's not exactly the sounds of barriers of conventionalism being broken down.
I'll admit I'm a little giddy with the possibilities and I actually have no idea what the tangible offense is that I'm pining for. But I want to see the Bulls leverage both skill and creativity as they make a plan for laying waste to their Eastern Conference foes. They have something no one else in the league has, something that can bend defenses in ways we haven't seen for a decade. A big man can usually catch the ball easier by virtue of being big, but usually once it's there the options become limited. With Noah and Gasol they expand. There are shooters like Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic to be arrayed around them, penetrators to take their dribble handoffs and athletic cutters to use the space they create. And they can get the ball wherever it needs to go.
The Bulls may be much improved next season simply by pounding the ball in to Gasol and sending Noah back to the offensive glass. With a healthy-ish Rose it may even be enough to push them towards the top of the Eastern Conference. If that is how things play out for them next season it will be an enormous tragedy—one of resources wasted and fields of creativity allowed to lay fallow and barren—and a victory for uptight squares everywhere. But it doesn't have to be that way. The ghosts of Divac and Webber have taken up residence in the United Center and they would like another opportunity to say their piece.
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