Taj Gibson has exploded in his fifth NBA season, averaging career-highs in points, assists, blocks and, most importantly, minutes per game. He's been arguably the second best player on Chicago this season, and having started just eight games in place of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, he's among the leading candidates for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
Like every candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, Gibson is good enough to start. And like the other players on this list, their numbers have benefitted from starts during the year. Gibson is averaging 19.3 points and 9.8 rebounds in eight starts. But as a key reserve, Gibson has molded himself into a perfect Tom Thibodeau player -- stellar defense, shooting within the offense and becoming one of the better effort players in the league.
But will he win the award?
The SportsTalk Live panel debated this on Wednesday's show, and though they didn't come to an agreement, Chicago Sun-Times' columnist said Gibson would have more value if he was a better outside shooter.
"I nitpick with (Gibson)," Telander said, "and I wish he had a better outside shot. If he had an outside shot -- and it's improved -- if he had an outside shot he'd be really valuable."
Gibson has actually been decent in his midrange game, shooting 41 percent on shots between 16 and 24 feet.
[RELATED: Dominant Taj Gibson taking it all in stride]
With 20-some games left in the NBA's regular season, the Sixth Man of the Year race has come down to a handful of players: Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Manu Ginobili, Markieff Morris and Vince Carter. (Note: Reggie Jackson has started 30 games this year in place of Russell Westbrook, so he wasn't in consideration for this write-up.)
Here's a brief look at how the five players have fared this season and why they have a shot to win the award, currently held by the Knicks' J.R. Smith.
Stats: 13.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 29.1 mpg
Outlook: 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.
Stats: 19.0 ppg, 2.4 3-pointers, 3.2 apg, 30.7 mpg
Outlook: Like Oklahoma City's Jackson, Crawford has been forced into the starting lineup after injuries to J.J. Redick. But if he's eligible to win the award (a player must start fewer than half his games to be eligible), he's probably the favorite. He's been a stellar scoring threat off the bench, is arguably the third option on an offense ranked second in efficiency. Either way he's found his niche in the Clippers' offense.
Stats: 12.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, 23.3 mpg
Outlook: It's remarkable that for as good a player as Ginobili is, he has started less than 45 percent of his career games. He's not the best sixth man each year, but he's the poster child for them. This year he's been great in his role, helping a second unit that ranks among the best in basketball (though, Gregg Popovich certainly has plenty to do with that). His numbers won't wow you -- they rarely do -- but his impact is always felt. Injuries have made it so that he probably won't win the award, but he's still a candidate.
Stats: 13.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, 25.8 mpg
Outlook: This one may be a surprise, but Morris' candidacy is certainly warranted. He hasn't started once this year, and in his last 23 games has averaged 16.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and shot 49 percent from the field. The Suns have been one of the NBA's best stories this year, and Morris' help off the bench has been a major reason why. He's a long shot to win the award because he's not a familiar name, but he'll definitely have votes coming his way.
Stats: 11.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.7 3-pointers, 24.3 mpg
Outlook: A few years ago it would have been crazy to think that Carter would be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year. Through 2011-12 he had started 947 of 986 career games (96 percent), but in his last two seasons as a Maverick he has come off the bench in all but three games, including 60 of 60 games off the bench this season. And his candidacy has really picked up steam; in the last month and a half he's averaging 13.9 points, 2.0 3-pointers, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Unsurprisingly, the Mavericks are are 11-6 in that span and moved into the No. 8 seed in the daunting Western Conference.