Chicago Bulls power forward Taj Gibson has been one of the team's most important players the past few seasons, leading a heralded "Bench Mob" unit that was widely considered one of the best benches in the NBA.
With most of that unit gone thanks to an offseason dismantling, Gibson will be counted on more than ever to anchor a new bench group that features names such as Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed.
Gibson is easily one of the league's most unheralded players and a guy whose value goes way beyond the box score. When you look at Gibson's 2011-12 averages of 7.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game, it's easy to just shrug your shoulders.
But take a deeper look at some of the advanced numbers from NBA.com, and you can see why the Bulls are trying their best to lock up Gibson, who is slated to become a restricted free agent next summer.
The on court vs. off court numbers pretty much say it all. With Gibson on the court last season, the Bulls had a ridiculous defensive rating of 88.6 (88.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). With him on the bench, the defensive rating was up near 100. Overall, the Bulls were nearly 10 points better per 100 possessions with Gibson on the court as opposed to on the bench.
It's these type of numbers that have many fans clamoring for Gibson to start over the much-maligned Carlos Boozer. While Boozer has not been as bad as many make him out to be, there's no hiding the fact that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has often gone with Gibson down the stretch of games the past few years.
Gibson may not be the offensive threat that Boozer is, but his elite ability to defend more than makes up for that. And we know how much Thibs loves his defense.
That being said, barring a Boozer injury or complete meltdown, do not expect Gibson to crack the starting lineup any time soon. As long as Boozer and his bloated contract are on the roster, he will be the starting power forward, as there is worry that he would lose his focus if forced to come off the bench.
Gibson may get that starting opportunity with the Bulls if he gets re-signed and Boozer gets the boot via the amnesty clause, but that won't happen for another year or two.
However, just because Gibson probably won't start this year does not mean he won't see an increase in minutes. With former "Bench Mob" mate Omer Asik gone to Houston and the 35-year-old Nazr Mohammed as the only true backup center behind Joakim Noah, there's a good chance Gibson sees some extended time at the 5 this season.
Making this even more likely is the "small-ball revolution" that has swept across the NBA in the past couple of years. If opponents go small, the versatile Gibson is a much better option at the 5 than the more slow-footed Mohammed.
To go along with his elite defense, the Bulls would certainly like to see some strides from Gibson on the offensive end. Gibson told ESPNChicago.com at the beginning of training camp that he focused a lot of work this offseason on his jump shot. If he can get that jumper to go down consistently, he will become that much more valuable to the Bulls going forward.
Should the Bulls extend Taj Gibson before the Oct. 31 deadline?
So just what, exactly, is Gibson worth to the Bulls as they look to the future?
The Bulls and Gibson currently have until Oct. 31 to reach an agreement on a long-term contract extension. If no deal is reached, Gibson will become a restricted free agent next summer.
Considering how good Gibson is defensively and how much money Asik got in restricted free agency this summer ($25.1 million over three years), it's not hard to fathom Gibson getting an offer sheet that reaches double-digit millions per season. While the Bulls love what Gibson brings to the table, that could be too rich for their blood, especially considering Euro sensation Nikola Mirotic is waiting in the wings a couple of years down the road.
To avoid a dilemma like they faced with Asik, it would behoove the Bulls to do whatever they can to lock up Gibson now. There's certainly some risk involved, as Gibson has never been a full-time starter, although he was pretty close to one as a rookie.
But that caveat aside, there's little reason the Bulls should not feel comfortable offering Gibson an extension worth around $7-8 million per season. I would possibly even consider going a tad higher if need be. If they can get him for less, well, that would be a complete steal.
If the Bulls are smart, Taj Gibson will be in Chicago for a very long time. ESPN's Marc Stein reported on Wednesday that a deal will "probably" get done by the deadline, so that's a good sign. Hopefully we will get to see plenty more Gibson moments in Chicago, like the one in the video above.