Every year in the NBA playoffs it seems like there’s one player who surprises the nation by becoming a major factor. It’s usually a player whose contributions are noticed and appreciated by the hometown fans, but rarely exhibits the sort of flashy play to get national attention. Last season it might have been Danny Green who shot 48% from beyond the arc while helping the San Antonio Spurs to a finals appearance. With the 2014 first round underway, a few candidates for this playoffs’ breakout player have emerged, but one player who may be more significant for his team than any other is the Chicago Bulls’ Taj Gibson.
Now I know what you’re thinking, Taj isn’t really an unknown to the nation, especially after blowing up the Heat a couple years ago with some monster blocks and dunks on national TV. He’s also a front-runner for this year’s Sixth Man award. Still, I don’t think there are many, even in Chicago, who realize just how vital Gibson is to the Bulls’ success this postseason (assuming they can find a way to rally and make it past Washington).
Anyone who has watched past series against the Heat knows how big of a role Gibson can play in those matchups, and I’ll get to those specifics later, but I have no doubt that he’s going to play an even bigger role if the Bulls do end up facing the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Before the season began, I predicted that Gibson would win Most Improved Player. While I no longer think he’s going to (congrats Goran Dragic), he’s still found a way to get a little better at the things he was good at and a lot better in a couple of his weaker areas.
The most important addition to Gibson’s game may be his mid-range shot. While I don’t believe that Carlos Boozer is completely one dimensional, there’s no denying that at this point in his career, his jump shot is by far his greatest strength. Last season Gibson outplayed Boozer on both sides of the ball in the post, but he still wasn’t as strong on offense. This season, he shot from outside the paint more and he shot it better. In the 2012-2013 season, from beyond 10 feet Gibson shot 166 times and made 34% of them. In 2013-2014, the attempts increased to 379 and he made 39% of them. That’s a significant increase in offensive output for a player who used to be a defensive specialist.
What does this mean for the Bulls? It means they don’t have to choose between suffering Boozer’s lackluster defense in the fourth quarter or giving up an offensive option. It means Gibson can lock down the paint, while not only providing defense, but spacing the floor as well. It means the Bulls can dominate the fourth quarter even more than they have before.
We’ve seen that effects of Gibson’s game all season, but does that necessarily mean that he’s going to be the biggest factor if it comes down to a matchup against the Pacers and eventually the Heat? After all, this team boasts the Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah and has multiple players capable of offensive explosions on any given night. So why is Gibson so important, specifically against those two teams?
Since Gibson’s minutes fluctuated a bit this season, let’s adjust this to stats per 48 minutes (which isn’t an unusual amount for a Bull to play in recent years). On the season, he averaged 21.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per 48 min. Those are solid numbers for a power forward and especially stellar numbers for a player off the bench. Still, they aren’t the sort of figures that make or break a series. In four regular season games against the Pacers, who the Bulls may meet in the second round, his numbers were slightly better: 24.5 points and 12.2 rebounds. It’s against the Heat though where things get really impressive. Points stayed consistent at 23.8, but rebounds shot up to 14.4, with 5.9 coming on the offensive glass (as opposed to 4.1 for the season average).
Anyone who has watched Gibson play against the Heat over the last few seasons has seen his ability to stifle the offense of the big three, but his play against Indiana has been a bit quieter. Still, when you look at the numbers, especially from this season, there’s no doubt that he’s had a huge impact. In 2013-2014, the Bulls split their season series with the Pacers. In the two games they won, Gibson averaged 19 points and 8 rebounds. In the two they lost those numbers dropped to 8 points and 5.5 rebounds. That’s a drastic change, especially on offense when he was up against Indiana’s formidable interior defense.
His importance against the Wizards so far this series have been pretty huge as well. The Bulls are one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the league, and due to their struggles on defense, a good chunk of their offense comes from second chance points. Even in the game 2 loss where they were terrible in the first half, the Bulls still managed a 42% Offensive Rebound Rate. Gibson was a huge part of that with 5 offensive boards. In the end it wasn’t enough, but the game wouldn’t have gone to overtime without Gibson’s efforts.
The Bulls are the top defensive team in the league for many reasons, a major one being Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, but I guarantee Noah wouldn’t be the defensive force he is if he didn’t have Gibson helping lock down the paint in the fourth quarter. Gibson has the ability to guard both LeBron and Paul George at the perimeter, an ability that not many post players have. That versatility will be vital in a matchup with either the Pacers or the Heat, assuming things come to that point. If the Bulls find a way to get deep in the playoffs, or even sneak into the NBA finals, Chicago will have Taj Gibson to thank as much as anyone.