Taj Gibson's value to the Chicago Bulls' future was on full display last season. Over the course of the campaign, the cries of the Chicago faithful to move him into the starting lineup grew from a resounding chorus to a full-on crescendo.
So how is it that a player that only averaged 7.7 points and 5.3 boards per game could build so much momentum? Defense.
Defense is what makes Gibson an incredibly special player. The statistics of this argument I've already argued extensively.
It's established that the premier forwards in the league shoot seven percent worse while Gibson is on the court compared to when he's off it. It's established statistically in the same article that the Bulls give up 11.2 fewer points per game while Gibson is on the court.
It's also established that, based on Synergy stats and other defensive stats, he's not only comparable to, he's arguably better than defensive specialists like Kevin Garnett, Serge Ibaka and at least comparable to Tim Duncan.
But this isn't a discussion of whether he is one of the best defensive power forwards in the game; it's about how he is. This, by using the play breakdowns provided by mysynergysports.com (you will need to input Gibson's name manually as there is no way of providing a link. To view plays you'll need to purchase a subscription.)
For those that don't have a subscription, here are some screen caps that demonstrate Gibson's defensive acumen.
First, here is Gibson defending the isolation play. His numbers are amazing for a power forward as he yields just .64 points per play when guarding in isolation. It's not just that he guards in isolation though, it's who he guards in isolation.
Here he is guarding LeBron James:
Note the strangeness of seeing a power forward on the perimeter, guarding LeBron James on an iso. Imagine how long it would take James to blow past Carlos Boozer in that situation.
After five moves and 12 seconds, James is unable to get around Gibson, and he has to take the contested jumper from three-point land, which he misses.
How about Carmelo Anthony? Anthony was rated at one of the best in the league at driving with the ball this year, but he couldn't get past Gibson. Gibson uses his intelligence here to keep taking the shorter path to where Anthony wants to go before Anthony gets there.
Here, Chris Paul isn't able to get past him. In this case, Gibson uses his length to his advantage. Knowing that Paul has the speed advantage on him, he drops back, but when Paul pulls up, Gibson is still quick enough and long enough to challenge Paul's shot.
And here, Kobe Bryant doesn't get around Gibson. He tries multiple fakes, but Gibson doesn't bite.
These are hardly anomalous, cherry-picked incidents either. In fact, James, Bryant, Anthony and Paul combined to shoot .235 on isolation plays against Gibson this past season.
What makes Gibson special isn't just his ability to guard the perimeter. It's that coupled with the ability to guard the post. Here, Dirk Nowitzki tries to post him up to no avail. He tries to push Gibson out of they way, but Gibson is too strong.
Here, Bosh gets under him, but Gibson comes back over him and obstructs the shot.
Here Josh Smith tries to burrow through him, but he has to settle for a weak jump shot attempt as Gibson holds his ground.
Finally, Dwight Howard tries to post him up, but the smaller Gibson uses smart positioning and a well-placed hand to keep Howard away from the rim and force him into an off-balance hook shot.
On the perimeter, Gibson has great foot speed, which helps him to keep in front of even the best perimeter players in the league, but he also has a high basketball IQ. He understands space and angles. He is always positioned in a way that he gets to "Point B" before the offensive player does.
In the post, he has underrated strength that makes him hard to go through, but again, he repeatedly shows a high basketball IQ. He knows how to use the strength he has. He keeps a good base when players try to move him out of the way. He's almost always rightly squared up, and that makes him hard to move.
When opponents do get around or through Gibson, he's adept at recovering and blocking shots. His block percentage of 4.5 percent was fourth best among all players 6'9" and under and with 100 minutes played.
That combination of talent, quickness, strength and high IQ make him the perfect type of player for the heavy rotations in Tom Thibodeau's defensive system. There's little wonder that the Bulls defense is so much more successful with Gibson on the court.
In an interview with ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers, Gibson revealed he wants to be more complete, saying:
Thibs already told me he wants my role to change, be more of a leader now. I worked out with him a lot during the summer. I worked out with him before the (Team) USA camp. He just wanted me to work out this whole year, build confidence and get better. He thinks I can do a lot more on and off the court. I'm ready to take that next step.
During the series against the Sixers, with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah out, Taj Gibson suddenly exploded to carry the offense for stretches of the game, indicating that he has more to offer at that end.
Certainly, it's encouraging to hear that he's working on a more well-balanced game, but the strength of his game is defense. Anything that he adds on that end is going to be icing on a very sweet cake.