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Can Taj Gibson and the Bulls produce more?
by Sam Smith
Posted on Oct 16
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Taj Gibson may be the Bulls, at least the Bulls without Derrick Rose.
“It’s up to us to fill in the blank spots and recover for what we lost and do what we need to do,” Gibson said as with the Bulls also preparing to host the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday at the United Center in the team’s fourth preseason game. “It is a strange feeling going to battle without a lot of guys. You need guys to come together without a superstar there to take the tough shots, to be the vocal leader. It’s up to us to step up.”
There is no great meaning ever to be drawn from preseason exhibition games, especially with rotations playing you may never see in the regular season. But in a sense watching the Bulls go 1-2 thus far has been watching a team that reflects, perhaps more than anyone, Taj Gibson.
That’s because in a form of a good field no-hit version of the GoGo Sox of ’59, that may be both Gibson and seemingly this adaption of the Bulls. They’ll defend and make the plays. But there’s not going to be many fireworks.
Gibson is the acknowledged leader of the bench as the principal returnee. Gibson’s game is hustle, effort and an attempt to increase his offensive production. His defense will be good, as evidenced already by 2.7 blocks per game in playing barely over 20 minutes.
But even as coach Tom Thibodeau has tried to produce more postup offense for Gibson, it has come slowly. Gibson is averaging 7.7 points and a solid 6.7 rebounds in those 20.7 minutes, sort of a story of the Bulls thus far in preseason.
The Bulls without Rose need Gibson to be one of those players to score more to offset the loss of the 20-plus per game scorer.
But this Bulls team with no one averaging more than 11.5 points in the preseason — though in limited minutes — suggests the picture going into the season.
Who is going to score?
Or perhaps put another way, the Bulls will try to win the way Gibson plays, defending, disrupting the opposition and being one of many contributors.
It is, of course, too early to make any grand pronouncements. And Carlos Boozer, as veterans tend to do, seems to be easing into the season and averaging just seven points. The Bulls will expect at least double that and more in order to have a threatening offense.
But in averaging 83.3 points per game in the 1-2 start, the Bulls’ pattern seems to be forming for the season of a defensive oriented team that will play a lot of close, low scoring games.
You can have varied levels of success that way. The Pistons won a title with Richard Hamilton their leading scorer at 17.6 per game. The Philadelphia 76ers last season made the playoffs with no one averaging 15 points.
And those Sox set off some air raid sirens of their own.
You don’t need a 20-point scorer or home run hitter to touch home plate. Though it sure helps.
Thus far in the preseason, Hamilton is averaging 11.5, Kirk Hinrich 11.3, Luol Deng 11, Joakim Noah 9.3 and perhaps in the biggest surprise Nazr Mohammed nine points per game. Tex Winter would be proud of the equal opportunity nature. Thibodeau has played some unusual rotations without starters in the game with Deng and Hamilton sitting out last game. They should play against the Bucks.
Shooting also has been an issue. Gibson, who hasn’t started that strong, is at 30 percent along with Marco Belinelli. Nate Robinson is well below that. No one, however, truly expects the new reserve unit to mesh quickly, especially since in their first season together the so called Bench Mob was suffering through uneven play by C.J. Watson and John Lucas.
But it’s also more difficult to shoot successfully when the defense has to pay less attention to a big scorer and star player. Which will be another issue for the Bulls. Without defensive attention toward Rose, players will be defended more aggressively individually. It will take more ball movement and player movement to get the open shots Rose could deliver just with his presence.
The Bulls are feeling that phenomenon now, which suggests a profile of Gibson.
Gibson is trying to develop better post moves to add to his offense. But it doesn’t come easily. He can be counted on to perform as he has with ferocity and hustle. But it doesn’t translate as well into points yet.
“I’m trying to be more consistent with my jump shot,” he says. “More fluid with my post work. We’re going to play hard and everyone around the league knows we bring it every night. Wherever the team needs me, I’ll try to do what I can.”
This is a big season for Gibson as well as the Bulls.
Gibson remains eligible for a contract extension before the regular season begins. If he doesn’t sign, he becomes a restricted free agent after the season and the Bulls have the right to match an offer.
So far, Gibson has hardly seemed distracted by the money talk and has deferred any questions.
“I’m leaving that to my agent to handle,” Gibson says. “I focus on what I can take care of. I can’t worry about the other things. I’m not thinking about it. I’m thinking about wearing a Bulls jersey for as long as I can.”
Gibson is in a curious situation. He’s been solid, if unspectacular, in his career. A low first round pick, he had a surprisingly good first season with the Bulls. But he regressed his second season after offseason personal issues. He came on last season and got an invite to the USA select team to prepare the USA Basketball Olympic team, though with a career scoring average below eight points. He turns 28 before he’d become a restricted free agent next summer if he doesn’t sign an extension, which is unusually old for ending a first deal.
So it’s a risk for both the Bulls to let Gibson go to the market and Gibson to bet again injury that he can be a far more productive player than he’s been. Both sides say they hope to make a deal.
But the deal for the Bulls now is perhaps more complicated.
Can a player like Gibson, who never has been an NBA scorer, transform his game? Or will he continue to play as he has and pretty much help define who this Bulls team is without Rose, one that will challenge you and engage you in a bitter, if not aesthetically pleasing, contest?
“I’ve been playing some threes,” said Gibson. “Our team is trying to get more diverse and I’m going to get down there in the low block. I feel stronger. I’ve put on weight. I feel it’s time for me to take the next step and grow as a player.”
The Bulls will need that to help change who they appear to be for now.