Taj Gibson may be the reserve power forward for the Chicago Bulls, but he is also their best. In fact, he may very well win Sixth Man of the Year. It may be his last chance, as he’s established that going forward he should land the starting gig, regardless of what else the team decides to do this summer.
Carlos Boozer currently owns the job, and based on raw box-score numbers, he has a slight edge on Gibson.
Boozer plays half a minute less, yet averages half a point more. He also averages more rebounds and more assists than Gibson. While 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds might not justify the $15.3 million Boozer is cashing in this year, it’s not bad. Per Basketball-Reference.com, there are only 17 other players doing it. Most of them make even more than Boozer, and all of them play more minutes.
However, next year Boozer is slated to make $16.8 million and Gibson will only make $8 million. That’s one of the major reasons the Bulls are considering amnestying the resident starter this summer. It’s hard to justify paying Boozer twice as much, especially when you scratch below the surface.
Here’s the problem with raw box-score stats: They don’t always tell the whole story. Head coach, Tom Thibodeau, recently spoke about Gibson’s Sixth Man of the Year chances with Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
The things that he does for us are all team-oriented. He plays great defense, challenges shots, guards everybody, runs the floor hard, sets great screens, does his job, gets deep post position. When the second guy comes, he makes the play. He has gotten comfortable in pick-and-roll situations.
He’s had a terrific year for us. And I hope he does get recognized.
Those are the kinds of things that aren’t revealed by traditional numbers, but which newer tracking data and on/off stats can help to show. We can break Thibodeau's statement down into three categories: performance in the deep post, challenging shots and team play (e.g. running the court, help defense, setting screens, etc.).
Performance in in the Deep Post
One of Thibodeau’s claims is that Gibson “gets deep post position” and that holds up by the newer measures. Per Synergy Sports (account required), Gibson scores .8 points per play (ppp) on post-ups, which is better than 78 percent of the players in the league, including Boozer, who scores just .72 ppp.
On the pick-and-roll, Gibson also fares better, averaging .87 ppp, which beats 75 percent of the players in the league, including Boozer’s .75.
And, per NBA.com, Gibson is getting more of his points and opportunities in the restricted area than Boozer. While 42.19 percent of Gibson’s attempts come inside the restricted area, only 37.34 percent of Boozer’s do.
Furthermore, Gibson’s field-goal percentage up close is .608 compared to Boozer’s .590. Based on that, it’s hard to question Thibodeau’s assessment of Gibson getting into the deep post. He certainly does it better than Boozer.
Challenging shots can also be vindicated. Gibson’s opponents shoot .405. Boozer’s hit .425. And Gibson is usually guarding better players (and by usually, I mean always).
One thing that stands out with Gibson is his defensive versatility. Only four players (Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka, Robin Lopez and Tiago Splitter) give up a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Gibson does. Yet, per Synergy, 25.2 percent of Gibson’s defensive plays are guarding in isolation, which means he’s stepping out to the perimeter much of the time.
None of the low-post defenders who yield a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Gibson have that responsibility. In fact, they all defend in isolation less than 19 percent of the time.
That Gibson is able to switch and defend point guards and wings while remaining an elite rim protector is remarkable.
Conversely, Boozer isn’t quite so capable. He only guards in isolation 12.6 percent of the time, and he still gives up a whopping 55.8 percent at the rim. That’s second-worst on the Bulls, trailing only the diminutive D.J. Augustin, and a full 10 percent worse than Gibson.
The rest of Thibodeau's qualification is hard to specifically measure. How can you quantify someone “running the floor hard?” There’s no stat for setting screens, either. But, we can compare players by viewing how they perform in similar lineups. And that’s when things really snap into perspective.
Essentially, on/off stats can be misleading sometimes because they’re comparing apples and oranges. Who a player is playing with and against isn't always accounted for.
Imagine I’m a point guard playing exclusively with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Joakim Noah. Kevin Durant is coming off the bench, but he’s primarily playing with Marquis Teague, Keith Bogans, Erik Murphy and Nazr Mohammed.
I’m going to have some pretty awesome on/off numbers, but that doesn't mean I’m better than Durant. Who you are playing with really matters.
To eliminate such biases, I looked to see how both players did with the same teammates on the court.
Essentially, the Bulls use a seven-man rotation, with other players coming in and out sporadically, depending on fouls and/or injury situations. The seven primary players are Boozer, Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Noah and Augustin.
Using NBA.com/Stats, I obtained the lineup information for the Bulls this season.
Next, I checked to see how both Boozer and Gibson performed with each of the common four-player groupings. One group, consisting of Hinrich, Butler, Dunleavy and Noah, is labeled “starters” in the charts below.
The second group, is when Augustin replaces Hinrich in the lineup and is labeled “with Augustin”
Finally, the third group is “Augustin+Hinrich,” and that’s when Augustin runs the point, Hinrich moves to shooting guard and Butler plays the 3, while Dunleavy sits.
In each group, I compared their offensive rating, defensive rating and net rating. First, here is the offensive rating for each group.
Overall, there’s little question that the offense runs better with Gibson on the court, which is significant because the justification for Boozer starting has always been his offense. That no longer seems valid.
The other thing that’s worth noting is that the offense is much more stable with Gibson in it. There is less than one point difference between the three lineups for him, whereas with Boozer, there’s a fluctuation of almost 35 points between the best and the worst.
That consistency speaks to Thibodeau’s assertion that Gibson does things like set screens and run the floor hard. It means that the offensive scheme is getting the chance to work the way it should, which means the little things are getting done.
In fact, since the Bulls traded Luol Deng on Jan 6, the lineup of Gibson with the starters has the ninth-best offensive rating (minimum 100 minutes) in the league. The one with Augustin replacing Hinrich is the 13th-best.
Now let’s look at the defense.
It’s not at all surprising that Gibson is better here, but what may be a bit of a revelation is that with the starters, the advantage is not as great as you might think. The Boozer lineup yields just 1.2 more points per 100 possessions than the Gibson one.
That’s because the rest of the starters are good to exceptional defensively. When they are in with Boozer, it’s easier to hide him because he’s the only sub-par defender. There are four good players helping one flawed player.
When Augustin comes in for Hinrich, they have two below-average defenders and only three good ones to compensate for them. When both Augustin and Hinrich are on, they get smaller, and they still have two faulty players to help.
Point being: The more weaknesses you have, the harder they are to hide. The Bulls' outstanding defensive rating with Boozer and the starters has more to do with what the other four do than what Boozer does.
Now let’s look at the net rating or the difference in points per 100 possessions to get the full effect.
It might take you a moment to realize the bottom axis is in the middle of the chart because the Boozer with Augustin and Hinrich lineup is so awful. Yet, swap in Gibson for Boozer and it’s a 44.8 swing in the right direction.
In fact, with Gibson that has become the primary closing lineup for the Bulls, and the Bulls have been the best clutch team in the NBA since the Deng trade, outscoring their opponents by 29.9 points per 100 possessions and boasting a 16-3 record in games which were still close in the last five minutes.
That’s why Gibson has logged more minutes than Boozer, and it’s a trend which is growing, as well as one that Boozer understands. Per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Boozer’s role has diminished. He plays the entire first and third quarter, and that’s all. It’s been the case the last nine games and 18 of the last 25.
Boozer told Johnson,
I've just adjusted. I'm doing whatever I can to help my team in the minutes I'm out there. I'm being a team player. It's all about winning. You make sacrifices for the betterment of the group. That's what we're all doing.
Gibson has shown he is the better player, and that’s why he’s getting more minutes now. Next year, regardless of whether Boozer is amnestied, Gibson should assume the official job as starter.
What about Mirotic?
The only other potential variable is if the Bulls sign Nikola Mirotic, who spoke of his pans in a recent interview with Spainish paper, Dairaio AS, which was translated by Sportlando.com, (with a hat tip to Blogabull for the find):
The most important thing for me is the ambition. It is not an economic issue. I will do what my heart says. What is the best for me. The options are Chicago or Real Madrid where I can improve and build a future. I don't know yet but I will make a decision soon.
Real Madrid talked with my agent but they did not reach an agreement yet on a new contract. My decision will not be influenced by the victory in Euroleague. This is clear for me. It is something more personal. I wish we can win Euroleague. But I will not put myself in a situation that I will go to the NBA only if I win Euroleague
In things like that, normally an absence of affirmation is meaningful. I expect Mirotic to sign with the Bulls. In fact, it seems like he won't even be trying to push for more money from Chicago.
If that happens, it would be surprising to see Mirotic slotted with the starters. Thibodeau has been sparse with rookie minutes in the past.
Since Thibodeau'’s become the head coach, five rookies have played a grand total of 3,001 minutes in four seasons. Tony Snell has 1,199 of those, with 396 of them coming in 12 games he started out of necessity which was caused by injuries.
To put that in perspective, Luol Deng played 3,208 minutes in Thibodeau’s first year as head coach.
It would be a real shock to see a rookie take on a full-time starting role on a Thibodeau team, even one as talented as Mirotic.
He would complement Rose’s drive-and-kick style extremely well, opening up lanes for the electric point guard and burying shots from deep when needed.
But, expect him to fill that role off the bench in his first year. He needs to learn the defense, and even for veterans that’s taken time.
Gibson has earned the right to be a starter, and he should be one next season. While figuring out how to work Mirotic into the rotation might present some problems, it’s a nice problem to have.
For now, Gibson should finally get a well-deserved swing at the starting job—amnesty or no amnesty, Mirotic or no Mirotic.