Taj Gibson continues to excel for the Bulls

Taj Gibson is the senior member of the Bulls class, starting his eighth season with the team, the only player to have lasted through Vinny Del Negro, Tom Thibodeau and now with Fred Hoiberg. He also among the all time franchise leaders in rebounds, blocks and games. No one else on the roster played not only with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Pau Gasol, but with Hakim Warrick, Brad Miller, Jerome James, Flip Murray and Acie Law. Gibson even at 31 is in excellent shape, still perhaps the team’s most athletic big man, if not also the team’s most explosive jumper and shot blocker. Yet, even now, Taj Gibson still is trying out for a starting position. Enthusiastically.

“I don’t look at it like I’ve been here,” Gibson was saying earlier this week after the Bulls overtime loss to Charlotte, another game in which he recorded the team’s best plus/minus rating for effectiveness on the court. “I still have to go and put the work in."

Though perhaps that’s also why Taj Gibson became not only the last man standing from the championship hopefuls of the early 2010s, but the most taken for granted most valuable player on the roster.

Gibson seems certain to have that starting power forward spot when the Bulls regular season begins Thursday Oct. 27 at home against Boston. Though Hoiberg has been coy about who’ll start along with Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez, it’s difficult to imagine now anyone other than Gibson.

Gibson probably has been the most efficient and productive player on the roster in the preseason.

Despite playing just 19 minutes per game in five games with three starts, the 6-9 forward leads the team in scoring at 14.2 and is shooting a team best 67 percent. He’s averaging 7.4 rebounds, second to the 7.5 for Bobby Portis, though Gibson is averaging about three minutes fewer per game than Portis. Gibson is second in offensive rebounds and fifth in free throws attempted.

Perhaps no one as vital is more overlooked, which has been the narrative of Gibson’s Bulls career, a starter most of his rookie season and much of last season and then going three seasons with a total of 13 starts. But never a complaint, never a team disruption even with almost annual trade rumors and a dip in production as he played through various leg, foot and ankle issues for years until finally having surgery in 2015.

Gibson’s never been an All-Star, and he should have been Sixth Man of the Year in 2014 when he finished second. He hasn’t played on the Olympic team and he won’t have his number retired. He may not even be around that much longer as he’s in the last season of his contract. But nothing detours or distracts Gibson from his absolute dedication to his team, his teammates and winning. He may reflect Chicago as well as any athlete, someone who’ll make you proud if not with all the trophies.

“The way I look at it is through the years I just kept playing no matter what is going on,” said Gibson. “Whether I’m on the bench or off people around the league, especially opposing teams and coaches, they understand I can come off the bench or start and do my job efficiently, defend, score the ball. I love the fact when they say my name they say he can start or come off the bench. I take pride in that and I’ve never looked at myself as being a selfish player. It’s easy for me to kind of have that argument sometimes, that I could do a lot more and should be getting a lot more. But I’m having fun playing for this organization. I’m having fun playing in the NBA. I appreciate it and I’m still fresh.”

It is a remarkable factor about Gibson, who was not supposed to have a long career. He came to the NBA out of USC at the unusually old age of 24 as the 26th pick in the 2009 draft.

But 10 players selected ahead of Gibson no longer are in the league and several, like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Brandon Jennings have declined with numerous injuries. That draft produced some great stars with Stephen Curry, James Harden and Blake Griffin. But you could make a case redoing that draft today that Gibson would be in the top 10 and near the top five based on longevity, effectiveness and durability.

“The most minutes I’ve played in my career is probably almost 27 minutes per game (28.7 in 2013-14 when he averaged a career best 13 points playing 82 games),” noted Gibson. “I’m still fresh, I’m still light on my feet. I look back. It’s a gift that I was able to come into the league a late first round draft pick and still made all rookie and the rookie all star game and did it again the next year. I played big time minutes off the bench, starting. Coming off the bench taught me a lot. It taught me how to stay aggressive. I learned a lot playing behind Carlos, playing behind Pau. It also kept me fresh. I never played over 30 minutes a game; always agile. I see a lot of guys now breaking down and they are younger than me. So you have to look at the way the game has gone. I’ve been blessed.”

In an ideal basketball world, someone would have developed for the Bulls as a long range shooter and rebounder to complement Lopez and join the Bulls primary players in Wade, Rondo and Butler. But Nikola Mirotic hasn’t shot well in preseason and now has a minor back injury. Doug McDermott has fit in coming off the bench. Bobby Portis has been inconsistent, effective mostly with defensive rebounding. It seemed clear Hoiberg wanted to find someone, anyone other than Gibson—no offense, by the way—to claim that power forward spot. Just better offensive balance. Nothing personal.

But Gibson has made everyone look small in his wake with his production on both ends.

Perhaps even more remarkable about Gibson is the equanimity in which he’s handled being the odd man out just about every season.

He wasn’t supposed to start as a rookie, but Tyrus Thomas was injured and then traded. Poised to start the next season, Gibson fell in behind free agent Carlos Boozer when the Bulls were unable to attract Wade and LeBron James. Gibson worked himself up to the league’s best front court reserve and again was about to become a starter when the Bulls couldn’t land Carmelo Anthony and signed Pau Gasol. So with Joakim Noah forced over to power forward, Gibson remained on the bench yet again.

So then this past summer both Noah and Gasol leave, and Gibson comes to training camp and seems penciled in for a backup role again as he was last season. He emerged as a starter last season with uneven play from Mirotic and then Mirotic’s appendix surgery. Gibson started 55 games, and then it seemed back to the bench again. Taj Gibson complain? Not on your life.

Here’s a man who, as some around the NBA like to say, gets it. He understands the privilege it is to play professional basketball, and that a team is comprised of parts that support one another, not plan for themselves.

“I understand what happened years ago when we were a number one team in the league and everybody got a big piece of the pie, everyone getting good accolades,” said Gibson. “I was runner up for sixth man of the year. I was getting that other years, top five, top six in sixth man voting. But I remember Thibs saying it’s easy to come in and be a starter; it’s hard for guys to come off the bench. You have to be efficient, score, rebound, play defense and I took pride in that and I still take pride in that. Whatever the coach needs. Because at the end of the day my job is to help the coach win games, help the franchise win games and still do well for myself.”

Gibson has ridden this Bulls roller coaster longer and to more highs and lows than anyone. He saw the light toward a championship and then the darkness of the Rose and Noah injuries. So in his own way he’s the inspiration. Because he’s never lost hope, never stopped working, never stopped believing.

And here he is again, at 31 and just as excited as he was on the first day of the rest of his life with the Bulls.

“This group is real unselfish,” Gibson enthused about the Bulls new crew. “Rondo is a pass first guard, which is rare in this league. Derrick was a good passer, but Rondo is a whole different thing. D. Wade, there are not a lot of guys who know how to win (like him). In the preseason being around Fred the second year has been great. The biggest thing for me is just to help win games.

“I just have to stay focused, come in and do my job,” said Gibson. “I put in a lot of work in the offseason and I think it shows how I’m playing in the preseason. I try not to take any days off. I’m having a lot of fun, so I can’t worry about the whole year and contracts because it’s not a bad thing to hear your name in trade rumors. It means a lot of people like your game and want to get you. It was crazy over the years the way a lot of teams wanted me. I just worry about going out there and doing my job and wherever the chips will fall they will fall. I don’t worry.

“I was playing through injuries and people don’t understand when you are hurt you are trying to play for the good of your team. People don’t understand it limits you a lot,” said Gibson. “But ever since my surgery I’ve been feeling great. I have my ability to jump and be agile and run. I’m happy. I’m really lucky that I’m fresh. I see a lot of guys in my draft class who were younger than me are breaking down and some are out of the league, so it’s all a blessing.”

The answer to the Bulls prayers as well. You just don’t find players and people like that every day.