In a season overflowing with maladies, Taj Gibson has become the linchpin of the Chicago bench, keeping the Bulls afloat. Sure, Joakim Noah’s breakthrough year coupled with Thibodeau’s perennial defensive stronghold has salvaged a no. 3 or no. 4 seed (to be decided) in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but Gibson is the spark plug the second unit has relied on all season.
Following an injury-riddled 2012-13, Gibson has emerged with an all-around game Chicago has yearned for since his drafting in 2008. Gibson is a highlight-reel savant that’s causing opposing coaches to spend significantly more time on the second unit’s tape. Per 36 minutes, Gibson has never averaged more than 14 points per game in his career. This season he’s averaging 16.5, alongside 8.6 rebounds on a career high 74% from the free-throw line. He’s fouling less and is much more confident in his low-block game.
This isn’t to say that Gibson should win the league’s Most Improved Player award; his clandestine season hasn’t been enough of a bombshell for that. Positioned on a team removed of its two primary scorers prior to the year, Gibson has ballooned into the team’s third option on offense. The man in front of the Gibson on the depth chart, Carlos Boozer, is driving himself into an almost certain amnesty clause waiving in the offseason, and for good reason. Gibson is shooting around 3% higher from everywhere on the court, is protecting the rim on 1.7 blocks per game, and is turning the ball over less. He’s also making more than $7 million less to do it.
Gibson’s vagarious season hasn’t just taken place on the offensive side of the ball. His 110 blocks this season are the most he’s had in a season ever, and while his rebounding numbers are around his career average, he’s been tasked away from the rim as a result of Thibodeau’s confidence in his switching abilities on the pick-and-roll. Very few at Gibson’s position have been asked to switch onto opposing point guards as often as he has. As Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta posited, "Only four players (Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka, Robin Lopez and Tiago Splitter) give up a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Gibson." His defensive presence has guards holding back on the pick-and-roll and the entire league expects to be challenged if deciding to attack the rim.
It can’t be said enough how Gibson has cauterized the Chicago Bull second unit. We’re talking about a reserve lineup that includes Nazr Mohammed, D.J. Augustin, and Tony Snell. Granted, the Bulls don’t ransack the whole starting lineup for substitutions, but Mohammed and Augustin are certifiable defensive liabilities. If Joakim Noah is the anchor of the defense, Gibson is the drogue.
If a volume shooter like J.R. Smith can win the award after being placed in a lineup allowing him to chuck, than Gibson can win in a system removed of its gears and placed on the side of the road. Thibodeau has done an incredible coaching job with a lineup full of hollow toys, but Taj Gibson has permeated the firepower.