CHICAGO -- Despite what it might have looked like on the court, the numbers don't exactly back up the notion that Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah were a dysfunctional pairing on the floor last season. Out of all the two-man lineup combinations for the Bulls that played at least 100 minutes together last season, the pair ranked 33rd in points per 48 minutes, 32nd in plus-minus, 31st in field goal percentage and 13th in rebounds per 48 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
When new coach Fred Hoiberg was asked recently why the pair didn't seem to work well together on the floor last season, he was quick with a rebuttal.
"I wouldn't say it didn't work," Hoiberg said. "I thought they had a lot of great moments out there together."
Hoiberg has praised the pair's effectiveness during training camp and sounds optimistic that they can perform at a higher level during the upcoming regular season.
"Pau's a guy that can space the floor," Hoiberg said. "When you look at his numbers, what he shot from the midrange was as good as anybody in the league. Jo, I think just the patience of him on the baseline, sometimes flashing into the middle, where his guy can guard two players. It's got to be the timing aspect on that, it's got to be good for those two guys to be out there for extended minutes.
"But I wouldn't say they [weren't good together]. Those guys won a lot of games together out there on the floor at the same time -- and again, we'll play to that. Just try to get those guys reading off each other and playing together well."
That was the problem last season to a lot of observers around the league -- the pair didn't always seem to be playing together well. They looked clunky on the floor together, a big reason that former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau tried to pair them up with different players during much of last season after the starting lineups were announced and the first substitutions were made.
For his part, Noah is already on record in training camp saying the pair shouldn't be judged by what it did last season because he wasn't healthy. After a summer full of treatment on his knee, Noah feels like he is ready to dominate again.
What makes things tricky for Hoiberg is that Gasol is playing some of the best basketball of his career right now. He earned an All-Star starting nod for the first time in his career and came into this season's camp after leading Spain to a EuroBasket championship last month. Gasol is the dominant post presence the Bulls have been seeking for years.
But Gasol's presence, at least last season, hindered some of the things that made Noah so effective over the years, especially offensively. That's why the word "spacing" pops up many times while Bulls personnel discusses the potential of an improved Noah and Gasol pairing this year.
"I think knowing [our] characteristics, I think this system allows Jo to still pick-and-roll and short-roll and make plays for others with his [sets] and plays off the elbows at times as well," Gasol said. "But also to know when to space down on the baseline and open the floor up for guys to penetrate, for my post-ups, for different actions. So I think that's going to give us better balance, better spacing, and prove that we can play good quality minutes together and be productive and be effective, and get the opponents."
Noah shares Gasol's confidence heading into the season. Interestingly, though, when asked how the pair will be more productive in Hoiberg's system, Noah discussed the defensive possibilities at first, not the offensive ones.
"I think I'm definitely able to guard 4s better this year," Noah said. "I know that I will be able to just because I'm healthy. I used to do it when we used to play with Carlos [Boozer]. And overall I think it's going to be fine, it's a new system and only time will tell. But overall, I'm excited."
Hoiberg has yet to commit to starting Noah and Gasol together in the regular season, although that still seems to be a safe bet. As the preseason rolls along, the pair's cohesion will continue to be one of the largest storylines in camp. Noah said he and Gasol haven't had specific conversations with each other regarding their professional union, but both men believe this season will be better than last. They know they can be better than what they've shown, even if the numbers say they weren't that bad to begin with.
"I think every game will be a little different," Noah said. "I think it's a little early to say, but overall I think the first couple weeks were pretty good. We just got to see how it goes, just keep play hard. And then Coach will make the decisions based on that."