The Spurs won't come out of the offseason empty handed. Once Kevin Durant made his decision they landed Pau Gasol on a two-year, $30 million contract.
Gasol had been linked to the Spurs before joining the Bulls and through the entire free agency process, so it's not really a surprise that he'll wear Silver and Black next season. The price tag seems fair and with the true difference-makers already locked down by other teams, getting Pau has to be considered a good move from simply a talent accumulation standpoint, even if it ends up costing Boris Diaw.
Gasol can still play heavy minutes and can put up near All-Star numbers while Diaw has seen his playing time dwindle, despite steady per minute production, because he reportedly lost Gregg Popovich's trust. There's also a fit in terms of culture, with the smart and unselfish Gasol joining a franchise that has epitomized those two qualities for years. On the surface, there's nothing to dislike.
Digging a little deeper, however, it's not hard to find some concerns.
I think it's safe to ignore some of the issues Gasol had in Los Angeles. He clashed with coaches but the entire locker room was a mess. He did well under Tom Thibodeau and had trouble connecting with Fred Hoiberg, like many other Bulls. Pau is no malcontent, yet he has consistently complained about one thing throughout his career: the guy wants his post touches.
It's hard to blame him. He's been one of the best post players in the league for years. At his best, Pau could face up or score with his back to the basket and make passes to cutters when help came. The problem is he's not elite at it anymore. Last season Gasol ranked in the 44th percentile among players who finished at least 200 possessions in the post, placing him below Dwight Howard.
Now, the Bulls played a little too fast for Pau's comfort and the spacing was far from pristine. He could do better with the Spurs. Yet Chicago and San Antonio had eerily similar three-point shooting numbers last season and San Antonio's low pace, as we mentioned in the past, was a little deceiving. At their best, the Spurs move the ball a lot in the half court, so Pau won't likely get it as much he did with the top heavy Bulls. Gasol averaged 77 touches per game last season, more than any Spur and 22 more than San Antonio's highest usage big man, LaMarcus Aldridge.
Normally it would be easy to be optimistic about Gasol accepting a smaller role, which would likely result in higher efficiency. Pau could decide to play off Aldridge, creating a devastating high-low pairing, while also feasting on some pick-and-pop jumpers and the occasional elbow and post touch. Let the younger guy do the heavy lifting down low, get your touches when he's resting and be a third option. That could happen, but it'd be naive to simply dismiss all those times that he complained about touches and hope his pride will go away as soon as he arrives in San Antonio.
The question of who gets to park in the post and occupy the elbow will be a problem on offense considering the Spurs' three best offensive players like to operate from those areas. But that can be answered through clever scheming and some sacrifice. Again, Pau surely knows that by signing with San Antonio instead of Portland he's ceding some touches and could see his counting stats drop. Aldridge did that last season and Kawhi could be asked to this year. It could be worked out, I guess.
Defense, on the other hand, is where sacrifice won't likely be enough.
Pau was bad on defense with the Lakers. He was really bad last season. It's safe to say that on both occasions he wasn't really trying. Again, he clashed with Mike D'Antoni and reports from Chicago claim he wasn't a fan of Hoiberg. He will try with the Spurs, considering he respects Pop and could have a shot at contending for a title. But effort only gets you so far, and Gasol is almost 36 years old and never had the timing or instincts of someone like Tim Duncan.
Gasol is slow. He can't cover a lot of ground quickly, which means he's not the best weakside rim protector. He's also not a good pick and roll defender because he always has to drop back or risk getting blown by. Conceding mid-range jumpers is not typically a huge problem but someone like Chris Paul will pick a team apart in the clutch with elbow pull-ups. Then there are the Stephen Currys and Damian Lillards of the world who can pull up from beyond the arc. If Pau has to step outside that far, it's over.
We haven't even gotten to the rebounding yet. Pau grabbed 11 rebounds per game last season yet the Bulls rebounded much better on both ends when he was off the floor. His numbers seem inflated by the fact that he feasted on uncontested defensive boards. He struggled to pull down contested ones, so he finished with a very low adjusted rebound per chance percentage number, a stat that measures the percentage of rebounds a player gets in his vicinity. Pau lacks bulk so he relies on length to rebound, which can be tricky. He's an upgrade over Boris Diaw and David West but he doesn't seem to be the elite rebounder that the box scores make him out to be.
So the Spurs had three big issues last season that became apparent in certain matchups in the regular season and in the playoffs: they had too static an offense that relied on post play and isolation to the point of becoming predictable; they lacked a mobile big man who could switch screens and help and recover while covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time; and they couldn't compete on the boards with physical big men. The addition of Pau Gasol solves none of those problems. In fact, there's a case to be made that it could actually make them worse.
If this feels too pessimistic, it's meant to be, in a way. To many, like me, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to address some of the issues that limited the Spurs' ceiling going back to last preseason. The market made that very hard and they ended up with a talented player who fits the culture perfectly but not the needs of the roster.
We've covered why Gasol could be a good addition in the past, with Bruno Passos doing a great job of extolling Pau's many virtues. We will continue to look at his strengths shortly and going forward. The bottom line is that if he improves the offense, the probable losses on defense and on the boards could be mitigated.
The problem is this addition came a few years too late. With the way the Spurs' roster is constructed and the way the league is evolving, it's hard to see Gasol being the piece that allows San Antonio to take a step forward in the chase for a title.