[A big welcome to Kevin, formerly known here as 'FundamentallySound' and on his own site NBA Couchside. He'll be writing posts like these (and likely other types as well) at BlogABull. You can also follow him @NBAcouchside -yfbb]
Taj Gibson's box-score stats from the first two preseason games have looked pretty good. He's averaged 13.5 points on 50% from the field, 5.5 rebounds, 2 assists, .5 steals, .5 blocks, and 2 turnovers in roughly 27 minutes per game. Those numbers don't really jump out as being much different than the Taj we've come to know and expect. In watching the games, though, I thought I noticed something somewhat worrying: Taj appeared to have developed tunnel vision on offense when he caught the ball near the block.
There were several occasions in the first game where Taj drew either a double team (or at least the defense's attention) while isolating and posting up on the block, but when that attention resulted in a shooter popping open, Taj didn't seem to notice at all. I counted at least three times where Taj had the opportunity to kick the ball out to an open man on the perimeter, but instead chose to continue with whatever he had pre-determined he was going to do with the ball. Generally, that was to do a bunch of fancy footwork and try to score a heavily contested bucket.
Check out this play from early in the first quarter against the Wizards.
Taj catches the entry pass from Dunleavy and draws attention from Hinrich's man, John Wall. In addition, no one is covering Dunleavy as he clears through to the opposite wing. (The Wizards' defensive spacing is a mess on this possession). Despite Hinrich being an easy pass away, where Kirk could either take an open 3 or swing the ball over to Dunleavy, Taj never even looks in his direction. I bag on Hinrich quite a bit, but wide open 3's are one of the only shots at which he's really good, and it represents a much better look for the Bulls offense than a double-teamed Taj shooting a contested 12 footer. I'd say it's possible that this play was just the result of Taj muffing the initial pass and then panicking, but there are two problems with that. First, he can't afford to panic in that situation and second, as mentioned above, this wasn't the only time this sort of thing happened.
In fact, just a few minutes later, Taj had an even worse missed opportunity. This time in transition, as he failed to spot the deadly Doug McDermott wide open in the corner, even as McDermott waved to call for the ball.
This isn't a terrible attempt, given how close Gibson was to the basket, but it's hard to believe that Doug McDermott wide open for three isn't a better attempt than Taj trying to finish over three defenders, no matter how close he is to the bucket. It seems clear that Taj didn't see Doug at all. Part of that is likely the high-speed nature of the fast break, but again Taj's awareness of where his teammates are on the floor when he has the ball needs to be better in situations like these.
The last play in the game against the Wizards I want to look at is similar to the first one mentioned above, except Taj made the shot. Kirk comes open, again, as his man doubles down on Taj while he holds the ball and does his various post moves down low. Taj then forces the shot up against a double team, this time floating it home.
This is probably an example where Taj was fine in taking the shot, as the double from the Wizards came too late to effect him at all. Still, the Bulls had an opportunity for three points here, rather than two, and as a team that has struggled to score and to create open three point looks, Taj has got to balance being aggressive enough on the block to draw a double team with passing out of that double team to take advantage of the situation.
Now, in re-watching Taj's possessions with the ball from the second preseason game against the Pistons, I didn't see any particularly bad decisions. In fact, Taj was able to use his post-ups in exactly the way he hadn't done in the previous game: as a means to set up his teammates for easy baskets. All 3 of Taj's assists in that game came out of post-ups. He hit Jimmy for two cuts to the rim and had a nice kick out to an open Dunleavy for three, seen below.
I think the bad results from the first game biased how I viewed Taj's play in the second game. I had in my head that Taj being aggressive was a sign of him not making the right play, because of how he played against the Wizards. As result, I was wrong with my in-the-moment assessment of Taj's performance against Detroit. In that second game Taj was aggressive in the post, which later opened things up for his teammates, and never caused him to miss any opportunities for others.
Another thing that stood out in watching the second game over again is that when Taj got the ball in the post, the movement off of the ball often either came to a stand still or seemed to lack purpose. Here are some examples:
After Taj gets the ball here, Jimmy clears out to take his man away and Pau moves to get into position for a rebound, but there's not much else going on. It's either going to be a made mid-range shot for Taj or nothing. Not exactly the stuff of an elite offense.
Below, the Bulls take almost half the shot clock just getting the ball to Taj, after Monroe has pushed him off his spot on the block. Then the movement off-the-ball is sort of lackluster with no zip until Taj gets stripped by Monroe as he attempts a rip-through move.
These are things that I'm sure are part of the reason Thibs has called the Bulls into practice two days in a row following these two pre-season games. The Bulls just were not sharp, particularly when Taj was posting-up (even when Taj made the right decision).
I have an additional general bias against Taj post ups. That's because Taj, while a very solid post player, is still not an elite post-up player. Also, post-ups in general just aren't that efficient a way to score points unless they're used to draw a double team and kick out for an open three.
Thus I worry a little bit about the frequency of Taj post-ups thus far. Last season, Taj was 11th in the league in "close touches" per game, despite only playing 28.8 minutes per game last season, according to SportVU's Player Tracking data. Granted, last season Taj's touches were likely inflated a bit by the lack of offensive firepower on the roster. But again, while Taj is a good post player he's not a great one, and for a heavy dose of post-ups to be truly effective you really need a great post player with at least good passing vision. Taj's career high 7.3 Assist% from last season, per basketball-reference, suggests that he's not that guy.
Taj post-ups have a place in the Bulls offense, as he has developed his footwork and his ability to pin his man in the post enough that he can draw double teams and turn defensive heads enough to create openings for his teammates. When he does, he has to take advantage, as he did in the game against Detroit. Hopefully, the Bulls additional offensive weapons will mean that the Bulls will be able to use Taj less as a focal point offensively and allow his post-ups to serve more as a change of pace from their base offensive sets and as a means to open up other, more efficient shots. Taj isn't a black hole, but it's also better for the Bulls if they don't ask try to feature him offensively.