Somewhere between Taj Gibson's two monster, highlight-dripping dunks during the Chicago Bulls' (only) dismantling of the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson also recorded a small, unassuming block against LeBron James in a brilliant defensive possession for the Bulls in the second half.
During the replay of the block, TNT analyst Steve Kerr made an interesting, if not unsettling, prediction.
"When Gibson becomes a starter in this league," Kerr said, "he is going to be a perennial All-Defensive Team member."
That Gibson has enough potential to be a legitimate starting power forward in the league is unquestionable. After starting 70 games last season, he seemed to struggle to find his rhythm coming off the bench, averaging seven points and six rebounds.
In the 19 games he started because of Carlos Boozer's injuries, however, he averaged 10 points and seven rebounds—hardly starting PF numbers—but considering he only averaged 28 minutes that were erratically allocated, those numbers are actually rather impressive (They also happen to match Boozer's postseason numbers this year, who sputtered out 13 and 10 in 32 minutes. Yikes.).
What's more, Gibson is only in his second year, giving him plenty of summers in the gym to cultivate whatever skills needed to eventually become both a scoring threat and defensive presence down on the blocks.
The real question, then, is whether the Bulls can afford to keep him, and whether he would even want to stay.
Being an anchor for the enthusiastic and personable "Bench Mob" is a good gig when you're making $1.1 million in the second year of your rookie contract (which is less than what Kurt Thomas was paid), but with the potential to be a starter, you're going to deserve a starter's salary, something the Bulls will not be able to deliver while Gibson is in his prime.
Next season, Boozer will be in his second of a five-year, $75 million contract, and Joakim Noah's five-year, $60 million extension kicks in. Derrick Rose will be in the last year of his rookie contract, and the Bulls will be forking over both arms and legs for his extension, leaving them with very little breathing room financially to accommodate Gibson's new salary once his current contract expires.
To make matters trickier, the Bulls signed Boozer to occupy the PF position as a starter for the foreseeable future (who obviously has absolutely no trade value because of his massive contract and abysmal postseason performance). Replacing him with Gibson during his tenure in Chicago hardly seems like an option, which locks Gibson in as a bench player if he continues to play for the Bulls.
Again, would that be something to do if you could easily find a job as a starter (and get paid like one) elsewhere?
The silver lining is that Gibson still has three years left on his current contract, keeping him on board through 2013-2014, one year before Boozer's contract expires. When that time comes, do the Bulls then look to unload an aging Boozer in order to pay and promote Gibson to a starting role? The issue then becomes finding an organization to take Boozer, his contract and potential baggage.
Or alternatively, do the Bulls look to move Gibson earlier in an attempt to solve more immediate issues, like the gaping hole in the two-guard position? His trade value is high, but the complication with the latter solution is that the Bulls free up very little cap space by unloading his contract, so relatively speaking, they stand to lose more than gain in trading away a quality PF (and other pieces) for a quick backcourt fix.
Though keeping Gibson in Chicago is not an immediate issue, it would seem that without some savvy financial play by Bulls management in the next few seasons, they may find themselves in a bind. As Gibson develops into a more consistent player, his production is going to warrant increased playing time and salary. That is to say, in order for Kerr's prediction to come true, it may very well mean Gibson will be wearing a different uniform.