He is a budding star because while he’s not an offensive superstar, he’s emerging as one of the better two-way players in the league. In fact, he is already one of the league’s best two-way power forwards.
82games.com tracks player efficiency rating (PER) and opponent’s player efficiency rating (OPER). The average for both is 15.0.
There are only 24 players overall—and just two power forwards—with a PER and an OPER at least one point better than average. They are Nene (17.3 and 13.9) and Gibson (16.4 and 13.5).
Gibson is demonstrably one of the two best best two-way power forwards if we’re viewing just statistics, but we can extend the list slightly to include LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers, David West of the Indiana Pacers and Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder if we want include the eye test. (Players such as Kevin Love and Blake Griffin are definitely better but aren’t two-way players.)
Either way, Gibson is very much in the conversation for top five two-way power forwards.
Gibson plays on a great defensive team, and oftentimes playing on a good defensive team can hide a bad defensive player statistically (e.g. Carlos Boozer). However, even on a great defensive team, there have to be players who actually do the hiding, and that’s where Gibson steps in.
Gibson is annually a carrier—not a passenger—on the Bulls D. This year, the Bulls are 2.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he’s on the court. Last season, they were 3.7 points better. In 2011-12, they were 10.5 points better. In 2010-11, they were 2.0 points better. Notice the pattern?
Furthermore, Synergy Sports (subscription required) establishes Gibson as not just a stout defender but also a diverse one. He has been the primary defender on isolation plays 24.1 percent of the time, which is a large number for a power forward. Compare that with Ibaka (16.9 percent), Aldridge (20.0 percent), West (16.9 percent) or Nene (15.0 percent).
When he’s defending in iso, he’s guarding players who cover a huge range of skills, including Jeff Teague, Josh Smith, Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis, just to name a few. That means he’s stepping out and providing help defense, often on the other team’s better offensive players.
And he does so yielding nothing inside the restricted area. Per the NBA tracking data, only two big men with 1,000 minutes give up a lower field-goal percentage at the rim: Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert.
Yes, Tom Thibodeau’s system is the major reason for the Bulls defense’s effectiveness, but without players like Gibson executing it, the system wouldn’t work. Gibson helps hide teammates’ weaknesses, and it shows in the numbers. He is not a beneficiary of the Bulls’ great team defense; he’s a part of the reason for it.
His defense, though, has never been an issue. The question around Gibson has always been his offense, and this year, that’s been much improved, particularly in terms of his range.
Gibson is having the best scoring year of his career. He’s averaging a career high in points per game (13.5), per 36 minutes (16.7) and field-goal percentage (.491). That is partly because his shooting has tremendously improved.
Look at his shot chart from 2012-13.
Now, look at his shot chart from this season.
That’s a significant improvement. And not only is he shooting better, but he’s also shooting smarter. Only about 10 percent of his attempts come from red areas this year as opposed to about 30 percent in 2012-13.
In fact, surprisingly, Gibson leads the Bulls in total points this season (836).
Using the Basketball-Reference Play Index and a whole lot of clicking, I can only find four previous incidents where a team’s leading scorer was a reserve: Ryan Anderson with last year’s New Orleans Hornets, Louis Williams for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011-12, Clifford Robinson with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1992-93 and Ricky Pierce with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1989-90.
He is still not a star on offense, but he is greatly improved and a plus player on both ends of the court.
Two of the previous reserves (Robinson and Pierce) who led their team in scoring have something else in common. They won Sixth Man of the Year. Gibson is receiving worthy consideration for the award now too, and BlogaBull’s Jay Patt has a nice rundown of some of the conversation.
Highlights from Pratt’s piece include Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald who quotes Steve Kerr in a TNT broadcast:
I want to pump up Taj Gibson for sixth man of the year. We usually give it to the scorers, the (Manu) Ginobilis and Jamal Crawfords, but Taj Gibson is the best sixth man in the league this year.
CSN Chicago’s Mark Strotman states:
Joakim Noah rightfully has earned praise for keeping the Bulls afloat post-Derrick Rose and post-Luol Deng, but Gibson’s importance can’t be understated. Tom Thibodeau needed a second scorer after the Bulls traded Deng for zero players who could help in 2014, and Gibson has done it; since the Deng trade, Gibson is averaging 14.9 points and 7.1 rebounds in nearly 31 minutes per game.
Marc Stein of ESPN says:
And Gibson has delivered. He has delivered to the point that he’s stealing fourth-quarter minutes from Carlos Boozer. He has delivered to the point, with the most effective offense we’ve seen with Gibson to go with his ever-steady D, that the Bulls’ sixth man has to be placed right up there with Joakim Noah and backcourt find D.J. Augustin on the list of prime catalysts for Chicago’s 17-8 record since Deng was dealt.
The statistics make a solid argument too. Only five players have more points than Gibson off the bench. Only Markieff Morris of the Phoenix Suns has more rebounds. And while a solid argument can be made for Morris, who is also the leading scorer among reserves, his defense is nothing like Gibson’s.
Gibson would be a nontraditional winner, as the award has usually gone to scorers, but Stein’s point is valid. Gibson may very well be the most impactful reserve in the NBA right now.
This year, he could also make the All-Defensive team, which is why the front office is guarding against the salary-cap ramifications, per Mark Deeks of Sham Sports, who says, “The Bulls, it appears, really feel he may make second team all-defense or higher.”
Are winning Sixth Man of the Year and getting named to the All-Defensive team in the same season enough to make a player a star? He would be the first player in NBA history to accomplish that feat.
If that’s not enough, next year should do the trick. If, as expected, Carlos Boozer is amnestied this summer and Gibson becomes the starter, he should be a borderline All-Star. In his eight games starting this season, he’s averaging 19.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 blocks while shooting .496.
Is a power forward shooting close to .500, averaging almost 20 and 10 and playing at an All-Defensive level a star? Absolutely! But, there are legitimate questions as to whether he could maintain those numbers over a full season.
Even if we curtail them, though, it would seem he could still make an All-Star bid. No forward has averaged 18 points and nine rebounds, shot .480 and had a defensive rating below 100 for a season without making the midseason festivities at some point in his career, and 35 of 41* times, it’s happened in the same season.
Gibson is not a superstar and will probably never be one, but he’s a borderline second-tier star already, and next year should cement that status.
*I exclude Al Jefferson from the listings, as he’s played center exclusively, per 82.games.com. If you wish to include him, he would be the only one who has never made the All-Star Game, but that’s also a powerful argument for why he’s been robbed.