Gasol: "We understand that defense wins championships"

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Bulls center Pau Gasol doesn’t know if his role will change next year under new coach Fred Hoiberg and his uptempo offensive system. He doesn’t even know if he’ll start.

But what the NBA veteran does know is the team can’t forget about former coach Tom Thibodeau’s calling card: Defense.

Hoiberg is known for a particular brand of basketball that encourages 3-point shooting and quick decisions, but while the Bulls offense under Thibodeau had too many lulls, they still managed to score 100.8 points per game. Hoiberg hired veteran NBA assistant coach Jim Boylen to help with the defense.

“Well, I think offense wasn’t really too much of an issue last year,” Gasol said on a conference call from South Africa, where he’s taking part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders event, which culminates with the first-ever NBA exhibition in Africa on Aug. 1. “We have a lot of talent offensively, and I think we’ll play with better flow offensively with Fred. We’ll have more freedom to play in transition and explore our abilities as individuals and as a team. As long as we understand that defense wins championships and makes the difference, and make sure we don’t neglect that side, we should be fine.”

Gasol’s arrival last year pushed the reigning defensive player of the year, Joakim Noah, away from the rim on defense. Combined with Noah’s offseason knee surgery, it limited his effectiveness. Will Hoiberg bench one of the veterans to achieve a better balance? Gasol has no idea.

“It’s not that I see myself starting, I have to work and earn that,” he said. “I don’t take anything for granted because of the way I played last year, or how I think I played in the past.”

Gasol, one of the league’s most charitable, worldly citizens, is making his sixth trip to Africa. Next up is the EuroBasket competition in September.

Hoiberg has said he’ll travel to Spain later this summer for Gasol’s national team practices. He said he’s talked with Hoiberg on the phone and exchanged text messages.

“I don’t know if my role is going to change at all, specifically,” he said.

Gasol, who hadn’t talked with reporters since the end of the season, said it was difficult to see Thibodeau fired, “especially after Tom invested so much into the team for so long. But at the same time, you understand why it happened.”

As for last year’s team which bowed out in the Eastern Conference semifinals after a roller-coaster season, Gasol said there were too many games “we just weren’t ready to play,” which explains in part why the coaching change was made.

“At the end of the day, we paid the price for our lack of urgency,” he said, referring to the Bulls not having home-court advantage over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

That was one of Thibodeau’s main talking points during the season: The Bulls needed to feel urgency all season, which doesn’t always jibe with the modern idea of limiting players to gear up for the postseason. Thibodeau’s disconnect with his front office, and to some on his roster, led to his ouster.

One thing is for sure, Gasol, signed before last season to push the Bulls into a championship contender, isn’t looking at this is as a transition season.

“I don’t know if it’s just me, or each individual, but we have a lot of good players on our roster, and each and every one has to look at that factor, the window is very small and you never know when it’s going to close, just know it’s going to close fast,” Gasol said. “We have to take each chance, each opportunity when it comes. We have a very strong team with very few changes. We have to build on what we had last year.”