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An appreciation of Taj Gibson

Chicago Bulls' Taj Gibson looks on from the bench while biting his towel during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Bulls won 105-89. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

The man just doesn’t stop.

Here’s to you, Taj Gibson. The Chicago Bulls’ longest-tenured player has been the subject of (usually fan created) trade rumors for years now, and it’s easy to see why. Any title contender would welcome him with open arms, but he’s not quite good enough to move the needle for a middling franchise.

But every once in a while, Gibson will remind you that he can be better than good. Friday night against the Cavaliers, the USC product was Chicago’s best player — Gibson scored 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting and pulled down 11 rebounds.

Perhaps most impressively, Gibson also dished out five assists. Any team that starts Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in the same backcourt is going to have spacing issues, but outside of Jimmy Butler’s improved three-point shooting, Gibson is the biggest reason why the Bulls’ starting lineup is better than you’d think offensively.

He’s been money from mid-range, but this season, he’s also added a dribble-drive element to his game that he hasn’t shown in years past. If Gibson catches the ball 17 feet away from the hoop and has a crease of daylight, he’s headed full steam to the rim, where he either finishes or dishes to Robin Lopez or a sprinting cutter. It’s an unconventional way to create spacing, but an effective one nonetheless.

Gibson talked about his strategy after the win, per ESPN’s Nick Friedell:

“Physically, I’ve been doing that the whole year,” Gibson said. “My game hasn’t stopped. I’ve been doing that the whole year. The whole year I’ve been going in the paint. But tonight my teammates made an emphasis for me to attack the paint. And Robin attacked the paint. That’s the way we’ve been playing all year.”

For the first time in years, the Bulls seem to have an identity. Gibson is a major part of it — weird as they are, Chicago is a team you don’t want to face. Perhaps the least appetizing part of basketball is boxing out. Nobody likes to box out, right?

Naturally, the Bulls are menaces on the offensive glass. Chicago is rebounding 30.1 percent of its own misses, which ranks first in the league by a healthy margin. Gibson, along with Lopez, leads the charge there; the Bulls’ power forward constantly keeps possessions alive, and rest assured: Rondo gives him plenty of chances to. If Stacey King were writing this, this is the part where he’d call him a “hard-hat, lunch pail guy.” Cliché, sure. But he’s not wrong.

With that said, a lot more goes into Gibson’s effectiveness than motor. He’s just a really smart player who knows exactly where to be, and he’s elevated his skill level in every necessary category over the years. He’s the rare 2016 power forward who makes a huge impact without protecting the rim or shooting threes — this season, the Bulls have a net rating of 8.5 with Gibson on the floor, per NBA.com. Chicago has a 4.6 net rating as a team.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how important Gibson is to the Bulls’ success. (Negative side note: perhaps part of the reason his net rating is so high is because his backup is Nikola Mirotic, the once heir apparent at power forward who now looks like a fringe rotation player at best.)

Gibson’s mental toughness is unparalleled in the NBA these days. The game going smaller hasn’t fazed him. A potential replacement (Mirotic) hasn’t fazed him. Trade rumors haven’t fazed him.

Bulls star Jimmy Butler explained why Gibson is so good:

“Want to know the truth?” Butler said, when asked why Gibson is playing at an even higher level this season. “Because every night, every morning that I’m in the gym, he’s in the gym. And I’m in the gym a lot so I know what Taj is capable of.”

From Bulls fans everywhere: thank you, Taj Gibson. In what’s been a roller coaster of a decade on Chicago’s West Side, you can always be counted on.

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