Posted Oct 9, 2012 5:30 PM
In what might be a season short on buzz, Taj Gibson has the Chicago Bulls and their fans covered at both ends.
At the front end and for much of the six months to come, Gibson figures to be one of the Bulls' most exciting players: A lively, explosive power forward off the bench, expanding his role while adding in some serious center responsibilities. Slam-backs and shot swats should be in long supply, even if injured Derrick Rose and his highlights aren't.
At the back end of this 2012-13 season, Gibson might take over from Rose and his rehabbed left knee as the Bulls player over whom the fans most need to fret. That's a whole different sort of buzz, the kind that will be generated if Chicago general manager Gar Forman and Gibson's agent, Mark Bartelstein, don't strike a deal for a contract extension by Oct. 31.
Talks are said to be ongoing and Forman has said unequivocally of Gibson that he is "a core piece to our team, not only this year but for the future." But then, the re-signing this offseason of backup center Omer Asik was going to be a "basketball decision, not a financial decision" until, of course, it proved to be the latter.
Letting Asik go to Houston, thanks to the back-loaded, three-year, $25.1 million offer he got as a restricted free agent, was the first of multiple summer decisions dictated more by money -- and projections of their competitive arc, filtered through Rose's recovery -- than by X's and O's.
Would Chicago be better off with Asik again guarding the rim in coach Tom Thibodeau's defense? Of course. Would the bench that was so deep and adaptable the past two seasons instill more confidence than the seven new guys likely to be on the roster this season? No question. But the salary cap, luxury tax and payroll flexibility all intervened.
Getting Gibson locked up now seems like a basketball no-brainer, too, except for the $58.2 million the Bulls have committed to Rose, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah for 2013-14. Setting Gibson's value could be tricky -- somewhere between Asik's average salary of $8.3 million but below Noah's $12 million? -- given his bench role with the Bulls but starting chops for many teams. Plus, he's a double-double man, easy (13.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.3 bpg on a 36-minute basis last season).
If Gibson brings some welcome highlights and a little intrigue to the Bulls' season, it won't be the first time he has filled a void. His play out of the No. 26 slot in the 2009 draft bailed out James Johnson, the disappointing No. 16 pick, for their 1 ½ seasons together. For two seasons now, he has picked up Boozer, the Bulls' fallback move in the Free Agentpalooza of 2010. Rather than being the skateboard or Xbox 360 Bulls fans hoped for that summer, Boozer has been the equivalent of a pricey wool sweater that gets you through the winter but doesn't wear well in the spring.
Now Gibson is poised to help again. He was a part of the USA Select Team that tuned up the U.S. Olympic Team's NBA stars before they headed to the London Olympics. And his minutes with the Bulls could soar -- Boozer and Noah were unusually durable last season (making 130 of 132 combined starts) and Gibson will be manning both their's and Asik's spots now.
"He has the ability to defend all five positions," Thibodeau said. "I think he can outquick a lot of the centers when he faces them up. And he has the ability to knock down that 15- to 17-footer. So if they don't come out to get him, that's a high percentage shot. and if they do, he can go by 'em. And I think he can outrun 'em."
That's just one end of the floor. In the middle, Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum might pose a problem. But around the league, there are more Chris Boshs and Kevin Garnetts at center now, so Gibson should be fine.
He'll have to leap to do to close-in shots what Asik often managed standing flat-footed. But one edge he'll have on the Turkish delight is his vocal role at the baseline of the Bulls' defense.
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"One thing about Thibs, he likes to tell the bigs we're never wrong," Gibson said. "We know what we see from the back and it's our job to help the guards out when they can't see screen-and-rolls or blind-side help coming. It's up to us to call out plays."
Now in his fourth season, and with so many newbies on the roster, "it's crazy because they're actually listening to me," Gibson said.
Other people have been paying attention for a while; Gibson was happy but "shocked" when he got one first-place vote in balloting for the 2012 Sixth Man Award. It's the only one Oklahoma City's James Harden didn't get. If Chicago's rotation goes as planned, the 6-foot-9 product of Brooklyn by way of USC could earn a few more next spring.
"I'm going for that award push," Gibson said. "That [coming off the bench] is one of the things I take pride in. My job is to adapt to any situation I come into. Late in the [playoff series against Philadelphia], they needed me to come in and play big minutes and shoot and score when I can and help with jump shots -- and I was able to do that. I was able to figure out things real quickly on this team."
Gibson better grab at the super-sub hardware fast. He might have only this year and next if the Bulls' reported plan to amnesty Boozer prior to 2014-15 plays out.
Then again, if Oct. 31 comes and goes without a contract extension and one of the other 29 teams poisons up an offer sheet for the restricted free agent next summer, Gibson might not even have that long.
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