About two weeks ago, Carlos Boozer complained about Taj Gibson taking his fourth quarter minutes. If I had my way, Boozer will have something more to complain about whenever he returns from a calf injury suffered while jumping during pregame warm-ups last week.
Yes, I'm advocating for Gibson to retain a full-time starting role even when Boozer returns to the lineup. While the sample size has been rather small, Gibson has thus far proven he can handle starters minutes, and I believe we've seen enough improvement in Gibson's game this year to think there wouldn't be much regression if he was the full-time starter.
In the last three games as the starter, Gibson has averaged 22.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 46.7 percent in 45.7 minutes per game (yikes). In all three of those games, the Bulls got off to fast starts, scoring 29, 34 and 33 points in the first quarters, respectively. And in each game, the Bulls have made it a point to get Gibson involved. Taj has averaged 7.3 shots in the last three first quarters, making 54.5 percent of those shots. It should be noted that Gibson has made just 29.4 percent of his shots in the last three third quarters, so he's definitely not perfect. But who are we kidding, neither is Boozer.
In eight starts this season, Gibson is averaging 19.3 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 49.6 percent in 42.3 minutes per game. Pretty damn good, if you ask me. It's also good if you ask Grantland's Zach Lowe, who has taken note of Gibson's improved play:
3. Taj Gibson, no. 1 option
The Bulls' offense is rough on the eyes, a collection of second- and third-option grinders in need of a maestro. But Gibson's emergence as a legitimate post-up threat has emerged as a silver lining. He's never going to be an unguardable beast, but he's become tricky enough with turnarounds and up-and-unders that the Bulls have introduced more screening action designed to spring Gibson on the left block.
About 33 percent of the possessions Gibson has finished this season have come via post-ups, a large share, and up from 17.5 percent last season, per Synergy Sports. He's shooting 43 percent, a so-so number on par with those of more noted post-up behemoths such as Greg Monroe and Howard, and he doesn't draw many fouls. But he does attract some extra attention, and he can prop up a limping Chicago offense for a brief stretch.
After the Bulls' latest win, a 100-85 victory over the Hawks that saw Gibson notch 24 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, Tom Thibodeau noted what the power forward brings to the table, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell:
"It's given us balance," Thibodeau said of Gibson's presence. "Because it's a guy you can throw the ball into. So you're not staying strictly on the perimeter. Then we're getting good dribble penetration off the pick-and-roll. And Joakim's making a lot of great plays, quick decisions, so it's been good. Taj has been very, very good."
This Thibs response was to a question that kinda almost tried to ask who would be the starter going forward, but it wasn't direct enough. I wish a reporter would have asked the question straight up, although I'm sure Thibs would have been cryptic as usual.
Now, while I want more Gibson and less Boozer, that doesn't mean Boozer doesn't have a big place on this current team if he's not somehow moved. As noted, Gibson has barely taken a seat in these last three games with Boozer out. Thibs doesn't really trust Nazr Mohammed for long stretches, which has meant major minutes for Joakim Noah as well, which always gets me worried about his feet. Noah was starting to play big minutes again anyway, but he's averaged over 40 the last three games. So Boozer is helpful to just spread those big-man minutes out more. I also feel Boozer could do some serious bum-slaying of second units running pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop with D.J. Augustin.
But with Gibson playing the best basketball of his career, the idea that the Bulls "need" more of Boozer's offense isn't all that true anymore, especially considering Boozer has been pretty meh on that end this season. Last week, Caleb Nordgren over at Bulls By The Horns showed how Boozer is having by far the worst statistical season of his career. He has a league-average PER, his true shooting percentage is sub-49 percent and the percentage of mid-range jumpers taken are way up. Furthermore, the Bulls' offensive rating with Gibson on the floor is 98.4, compared to 96.5 with Boozer on the floor, per NBA.com's stats page. Going EVEN further, lineups with the Noah/Gibson frontcourt duo are scoring 2.8 more points per 100 possessions than lineups featuring Noah and Boozer, per NBA.com's stats page.
Honestly, I expect Boozer to be back in the starting lineup when he returns, perhaps just for chemistry purposes and to not upset him even more. And some will argue that it doesn't matter who starts games, but who finishes them. But at this point, I feel Gibson has earned the right to start and finish games.