CHICAGO — Tom Thibodeau’s teams have always been defined by toughness. And no Chicago Bulls player has embodied that trait more over the last four-plus years, and received less credit for doing so, than Taj Gibson.
In a stretch of years that has featured no shortage of uncertainty and unfulfilled expectations, Gibson has been a rare constant. As Joakim Noah won Defensive Player of the Year, as Carlos Boozer and now Pau Gasol got huge contracts to play in front of him, Gibson has kept his head down and done his job, playing solid defense, improving every year offensively and anchoring the Bulls’ second unit.
On Saturday night, in a 112-107 win over the Phoenix Suns, Gibson was everywhere. His defensive energy keyed the fourth-quarter comeback, even as the spotlight shone on the likes of Derrick Rose and Aaron Brooks hitting the big shots to put the game away.
Gibson revealed something else, something that he had never disclosed before: For almost a month, he’s been playing through a torn thumb ligament. He suffered the injury in the Bulls’ Jan. 19 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it’s been bothering him ever since. He got it bandaged up, and he simply didn’t mention it to anybody until Saturday night, when he opened up about his struggles and his evolving role on a Bulls team that hopes to make noise in the playoffs.
“It was severe,” Gibson said. “They didn’t know what we could do. They put a big cast on my hand. It was so…oh, man, I don’t wish that on anybody. I didn’t tell anybody until now. It’s kind of almost healed up now.”
It’s been a trying month for Gibson. Although he was never seriously shopped, out of all of the Bulls’ core players, he was the one whose name popped up here and there in trade rumors, due to his team-friendly contract (he’s making $8 million this season and $17.4 million over the next two) and the Bulls’ depth at his position. He’s been consistently asked to come off the bench, and he’s done it and done it well.
And after all of this, after a layoff that saw the Bulls come out out of the All-Star break looking sluggish in Friday night’s loss to Detroit, Gibson felt the need to remind a group of reporters gathered around his locker postgame that it’s not in his blood to let his personal fortunes interfere with the team.
“There was a lot of speculation, saying I was frustrated,” Gibson said. “I’m not that kind of guy. Whatever team I’m on, whatever teammates I’ve got I’m not that kind of guy. I’m team first; whatever the team needs I’m going to put the team first. I’ve never been a guy to focus on shots, to focus on minutes. I’m about winning and trying to win a championship. It was frustrating for people to speculate [that he was unhappy] and put that in my character. That’s never been my character. I will never be like that.”
When the Bulls waived Boozer this summer using the amnesty provision, the path seemed clear for Gibson to finally become a starter after years of being a standout on the bench. But after the Bulls missed out on Carmelo Anthony, their fallback plan was Gasol, another power forward. Although Gibson didn’t start during the Boozer era, he was almost assured a closing role every night. Gasol’s presence has complicated things, but if Gibson is frustrated by his changing role and the sacrifices he’s continually asked to make, he isn’t showing it.
“The thing is I’ve been coming off the bench most of my whole career,” he said. “I’ve come off the bench behind talented players, Tyrus Thomas, Carlos Boozer, now Pau. Nothing is going to change: Go out there, do my job. Whatever minutes I am going to get, just go out there and play hard, take your shots when they come.”
This attitude is what has made Gibson one of Thibodeau’s favorite players for as long as he’s been in Chicago. The coach has had plenty of critical words for Rose, for Noah, for Gasol when they aren’t pulling their weight. Almost never for Gibson.
“Taj, he probably doesn’t get enough credit for what he does for our team,” Thibodeau said. “He’s our best low-post defender; whatever you ask him to do he does. He’s not out there pounding his chest. Just go out there and get the job done. He’s one of those guys, you know everyone talks about having a warrior mentality. Well Taj does. He’s got a lot of toughness.”
One of the biggest keys to the Bulls’ continued success through all of their recent adversity has been their close-knit nature. They’ve never turned on Thibodeau, no matter how hard he’s pushed them, and there have never been any notable rifts between players. The presence of personalities like Gibson, unselfish players who willingly put aside personal accolades for the greater good of the team, is a key to this dynamic being sustainable for so long.
“One thing about this team, we really care about each other on this team,” he said. “It’s never any animosity. I really appreciate playing on a team like this, and when I heard all the speculation that he is frustrated it was frustrating to me because I’ve never been like that. I’ve never been that kind of player. My teammates have been great to me; we are like a family, we keep things close.”
Now, as the Bulls try to gain their footing post-All-Star break, Gibson’s steadiness will be a more crucial tone-setter than ever. This may be the best chance the Bulls will ever have to compete for a title. Gibson, like the rest of the Bulls, is well aware of this.
“It’s a lot at stake here,” said Gibson. “It’s big, bigger than me, bigger than everybody on this team. We understand we have what it takes to win a championship. Not many players can honestly say that they’ve been on a championship-caliber teams almost every year; since Thibs has been here. I appreciate it and just got to keep pushing.”
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin