When the Bulls told Taj Gibson at the annual exit interview that he should prepare to start, it was a long time coming for Bulls fans, who since early 2013 have called for Gibson's insertion into the starting unit, replacing the oft-maligned Carlos Boozer.
Gibson's benefits in the starting line-up are rather obvious, even for the casual observer, but surprisingly they're still undersold due to the perceived notion that his offense, and somewhat pedestrian rebounding rate, isn't in an elite category.
Having said that, Gibson made serious strides as an offensive player last season, not only upping his raw scoring average by five points, but lifting his per-36 minute scoring nearly from 12.8 to 16.4 while also increasing his percentages - in particular due to both increased volume and percentage from the free throw line - and lowering his turnover percentage.
(Note: Gibson's per minute and raw numbers saw his turnovers increase slightly, but keep in mind his usage rate jumped nearly 5% - So all in all, Gibson actually improved his ball security.)
When a player increases his volume, efficiency, takes a huge leap as a free throw shooter, and lowers his turnover rate at the same time, you're considerably less inclined to that being a fluke. Those are strong indications of the game slowing down for the player. Gibson now has a strong understanding, and feel, for the shot clock, understands his opponents, understands himself, knows where he can make a difference, and, probably more importantly, knows where he can't.
Replacing Boozer with Gibson is in a vacuum a tremendous upgrade to the starting line-up, which will now have the league's most disciplined defensive structure and even improved offensive flow. Boozer has somehow maintained a reputation as a scorer over these past few years, but it took him two more shots a game to score 0.7 more points than Gibson in very similar minutes. Boozer took 633 jump shots last season making up 64.6% of his attempts.
That's not too bad for a power forward these days, but when those jumpers only fall 37% of the time, which they did in Boozer's case, it becomes a major problem for the team's offense, as defenders now can sag off and force the Bulls to try at beat them with mid-range two-pointers.
As for Gibson, he didn't shoot it a whole lot better, hitting 37.7% of his jumpers. But they accounted for less (59.5%) of his offense, and when he got near the rim, he'd attack it hard. For the 18 dunk attempts Boozer had last season, Gibson had 107. In total 367 of his shots came as a lay-up or dunk, and 53 came off tip-in attempts and hook shots.
While there's still some way to go for Gibson's overall offensive efficiency, it's evident his activity level around the rim is the superior strategy. The Bulls have called his number on several occasions, leaving Gibson to either back down or face up off the dribble, the latter of which is something he's begun getting a hang of.
As for Gibson's rebounding, well, it's not great. It's not a liability, nor is it a problem. But he's just not a go-get-it rebounder like Joakim Noah, or even Boozer. What Gibson does do however, is read the flight of the ball and seals off his man completely. Very rarely, if ever, do you see an opponent get inside position which is a direct result of Gibson's boxing out. He'll let Noah fly in for the rebound and instead head on down the court, which in itself is an unselfish trait.
Speaking of running the floor, this is an area in which the Bulls offense will now see some explosiveness to start off games. Boozer at about 255-260 pounds just couldn't get himself up and down the court quick enough, whereas Gibson frequently acts as the trailing big man who will hammer it down on you, if you dare stand up to him when he's in full speed. Along with Noah, the Bulls have arguably the best running front-line
Even in half-court settings, Gibson can accelerate and get himself into a ferociously scary position for opponents who are forced to make a decision on letting him have it, or clearing out. Nice effort by Humphries though.
Finally, there's the calling card. Defense. The hedge and recover, the ability to seal off the paint on rotations while positioning himself beautifully between the ball-handler and his own man, the post defense, the perimeter defense, the active feet and challenging hands, the fact that he doesn't gamble but only takes calculated risks, the list goes on and on. Whatever is asked by Thibodeau, consider it done by Gibson and likely done well. If he can maintain his current energy and focus for 32-35 minutes a game, you would have to clear a slot for him on the NBA's All-Defensive team.
By and large, this is what the Bulls will get with the line-up switch. All-Defense caliber production, better scoring and improved efficiency. They'll have to find a back-up power forward to play the Taj Gibson role, though the need for that lessens if Gibson is capable of playing previously mentioned 32-35 minutes a night.
As for a statistical expectation, it's hard to say. Gibson made huge strides as an offensive player last season, but he still did so in a minute amount that wasn't too taxing. If he can replicate his per-minute scoring numbers from last season, while improving his efficiency, it'd be huge for the Bulls and likely catapult Gibson into the All-Star reserve debate.
Regardless, Gibson's injection to the starting unit will bring out a whole new feel to the Bulls.