By Jay Cohen, AP
CHICAGO — Pau Gasol talked to Joakim Noah when the Chicago Bulls traveled to Los Angeles to recruit the free-agent center. He spoke with Derrick Rose over the phone, and Mike Dunleavy also reached out to the 2.13-meter veteran.
What Gasol found was a hungry team in search of a championship, and it was enough to convince the skilled Spaniard to trade the warmth of Southern California for the cold winters of the Windy City.
Gasol and newcomer Nikola Mirotic were at the United Center on Friday for a pair of press conferences announcing their new contracts. The 34-year-old Gasol begins his 14th NBA season with career averages of 18.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists, and the 2.08-meter Mirotic joins the Bulls after a successful final season with Real Madrid.
“It was a gut feeling. I thought Chicago was going to be the best fit for me,” Gasol said. “It’s a great challenge, but I’m driven by challenge. I look forward to it.”
Gasol began his career with Memphis and was traded to Los Angeles in February 2008. He formed a strong bond with Kobe Bryant while helping the Lakers to three consecutive NBA Finals from 2008-10, winning the title the last two of those years.
Weighing interest from NBA champion San Antonio and Oklahoma City among other teams, Gasol said his conversations with Noah and Rose helped sway him to Chicago. Noah was the league’s defensive player of the year last season, and Rose is coming back from a pair of knee injuries which kept the 2011 MVP out for much of the last two seasons.
“How humble they were, I think that’s real important to be able to not have big egos, that makes things a lot easier,” Gasol said. “Their passion, their hunger as well. They’re hungry. They’re hungry to win, that’s something that I wanted to also come into, to be a part of a hungry team.”
Rose played only 10 games last season before he was shelved for the year by a torn meniscus in his right knee. Chicago still managed to win 48 games and make the playoffs, where it lost to Washington in the first round.
Rose is expected to return this season, and the addition of Gasol and Mirotic should give Chicago one of the deepest frontcourts in the league. Noah set career highs with 12.6 points, 11.3 and 5.4 assists per game last year, and Taj Gibson blossomed into one of the league’s top reserves.
The Bulls used the amnesty clause to cut Carlos Boozer on Tuesday, leaving an opening in the starting lineup. But coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t sure what the lineup is going to look like just yet.
“I don’t know how it’s going to unfold,” he said, “you know, who will be the starter, who’s finishing? Maybe we change as we go. We’re going to see once we get everyone out there together. We’re always going to do what’s best for the team.”
Gasol, a Barcelona native, also should be able to help with Mirotic’s transition to the NBA. The 23-year-old Mirotic, who was acquired in a 2011 draft-night deal with Minnesota, averaged 12.4 points while shooting 46 percent from 3-point range last season with Real Madrid.
Mirotic, a stretch power forward who has drawn comparisons to sharpshooters Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson, was believed to be one of the top players in the world outside of the NBA.
“I strongly believe that I am ready for this challenge,” Mirotic said through an interpreter.
Gasol, Mirotic and first-round draft pick Doug McDermott address one of Chicago’s biggest problems from a year ago. The Bulls had the NBA’s top defense last season, allowing 91.8 points per game, but they also averaged a league-low 93.7 points.
“I think we’ve added shooting. Of course, getting Derrick back is a huge piece,” Thibodeau said. “So it depends how it all fits together. We won’t know until we get out there.”