Bulls worthy of any NBA awards?

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Bulls worthy of any NBA awards?

INDIANAPOLISIn the midst of the final week of the NBAs regular season, its time to decide which players are deserving of league honors. While this writer only has a small say in two awards officially, theres no reason not to opine further.

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Miami Heat - Its easy to say that, due to his much-discussed failings in the clutch, let alone having All-Star teammates in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James isnt deserving of winning his third MVP award, especially since hes never won a title. But his all-around brilliance this campaign has been too much to ignore, as he impacts every game on both ends of the floor and has dominant stretches that simply overwhelm opponents. While the likes of Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, currently locked in a duel for the scoring title, have also been outstanding, they also have terrific teammatesAndrew Bynum has mounted a challenge to Dwight Howard for the title of leagues best center and Russell Westbrook, on certain nights, is the Thunders best playerand neither makes the defensive impact James does.
Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls - Watching the Bulls on a nightly basis, its hard not to be biased toward Thibs, but his body of work this season perhaps surpasses even his debut campaign as an NBA head coach, in which he received league top-coaching honors. If the combination of his coaching and Derrick Roses MVP season was an easy explanation for why the Bulls were so good last season, coaching, with a boost from the Bulls deep bench, has to be the reason for the teams success this season, as the starting backcourt of Rose and prized acquisition Rip Hamilton have missed the majority of the campaign, which has again yielded the leagues best record to this point. Other coaches, such as Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Alvin Gentry of the Suns and Indianas Frank Vogel, also deserve consideration, but none have faced the same challenges. Like the Bulls, the Spurs have basically replicated what they did a year agominus the injuriesPhoenix has truly overachieved with limited talent, though having future Hall of Famer Steve Nash helps, and the Pacers certainly made a big leap, but it wasnt completely unexpected, as they added an influx of talent to a solid young core. Thibodeau may lose out for a variety of reasonsPopovich getting honored to reflect his excellent career, the Bulls mini-slide in April, when some observers start paying attention, and voters simply not wanting to give him unprecedented back-to-back awards so early in his head-coaching tenurebut hes clearly earned it.

Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers - This award is perhaps the biggest no-brainer, especially after Minnesotas Ricky Rubio was injured for the season. Irving showed he was worthy of being the top pick and while the Cavs are far from being competitive, the savvy young scoring point guard is a tremendous building block for the franchise to get over its LeBron hangover. That said, before Rubio got hurt, the Timberwolves were contending for a playoff spot, so maybe his absence illustrates how valuable he was.

Defensive Player of the Year: Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks - This was a tough one, as the Thunders Serge Ibaka emerged as a dominant shot-blocker, James defensive prowess is remarkable to witness, pardon the pun, and Philadelphias Andre Iguodala has established himself as the leagues top one-on-one perimeter defender. However, Chandler, the former Bull, showed that his presence was truly impactful by transforming previously porous New York into a solid defensive squad, something which became even more evident when Knicks interim head coach Mike Woodson took over. If anything, it was further testament to his stint in Dallas, where he was, along with reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, the key to the Mavericks title run.
Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder - Another close call, but Harden beats out the 76ers Lou Williams. While Williams is his teams leading scorer and Harden is clearly the third option for the Thunder behind Durant and Westbrook, the shooting guard is a player who could start for most squads in the league and likely average over 20 points per game easily if he was made more of an offensive focal point. Unlike Williams, whos basically counted on to solely produce points, Harden is a key playmaker for Oklahoma City, where Westbrooks shoot-first sensibilities have been harped upon ad nauseum, and is perhaps the teams best passer.

Most Improved Player: Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons - There are also several worthy candidates in this category, but Monroes ascension from solid, if unspectacular rookie, to the Pistons best player has opened eyes, if not changed fortunes in Detroit yet. The obvious pick to many will be Jeremy Lin of the Knicks, but Linsanity was so brief, due to his season-ending knee injury, that its hard to give it to him. Same goes for Houstons Goran Dragic, who was a backup playing behind a borderline All-Star in Kyle Lowry, and only got his chance to shine when Lowry was sidelined. Another similar situation is in Boston, as second-year guard Avery Bradley has made great strides and proved to be a tenacious on-ball defender, but only truly got his opportunity after Ray Allen went down. While the likes of Orlandos Ryan Anderson and Indianas Paul George also have gotten dramatically better, their improvement was foreshadowed at the tail end of last season. Two players, however, who were hard to snub were Minnesota center Nikola Pekovic and the Bucks Ersan Ilyasova, who would be the runner-up, in this writers eyes.

Executive of the Year: Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers - Amid rumors that this would be his final season as the Pacers top executive, the Hall of Fame player completely his home state teams turnaround from the ugly Malice in the Palace incident that led to the decimation of a title contender. Indiana went from a promising eighth seed a year ago to third in the East and a team no upper-echelon squad wants to see in the postseason. The Pacers depth, youth and experiencethe additions of blue-collar veteran David West via free agency and hometown product George Hill in a draft-day trade were underrated moveshave them poised to be a force for years to come. While he doesnt truly challenge Bird for the award, Denvers Masai Ujiri, in the aftermath of last seasons blockbuster trade with the Knicks, deserves some credit for assembling a deep and talented Nuggets team with plenty of flexibility for the future.

All-NBA first team: Kobe Bryant, Lakers; Andrew Bynum, Lakers; Kevin Durant, Thunder; LeBron James, Heat; Rajon Rondo, Celtics

All-NBA second team: Carmelo Anthony, Knicks; Dwight Howard, Magic; Kevin Love, Timberwolves; Chris Paul, Clippers; Russell Westbrook, Thunder

All-NBA third team: Marc Gasol, Grizzlies; Blake Griffin, Clippers; Tony Parker, Spurs; Josh Smith, Hawks; Dwyane Wade, Heat

All-defensive first team: Tyson Chandler, Knicks; Luol Deng, Bulls; Serge Ibaka, Thunder; Andre Iguodala, 76ers; LeBron James, Heat

All-defensive second team: Tony Allen, Grizzlies; Avery Bradley, Celtics; Dwight Howard, Magic; Josh Smith, Hawks; Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, Bulls (tie; cant separate one from the other, though both are deserving)

All-rookie first team: Kenneth Faried, Nuggets; Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers; Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves; Iman Shumpert, Knicks; Isaiah Thomas, Kings

All-rookie second team: MarShon Brooks, Nets; Brandon Knight, Pistons; Markieff Morris, Suns; Chandler Parsons, Rockets; Klay Thompson, Warriors

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

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The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

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