Taj Gibson said after last night's 103-83 win over the Golden State Warriors that this year's version of the Bulls is better than last year's.
"I think so because the amount of depth we’ve got, especially our rookies and just the stuff that’s happened all year long," he said after scoring 21 points and grabbing five rebounds. "We’ve got a lot of hard workers and it shows on the court."
Three weeks ago Gibson would have been considered crazy for making such a statement. The Bulls were 24-25, had lost four of six -- including two losses to sub-.500 teams in New Orleans and Sacramento -- and appeared to be mixed in with the rest of the non-Indiana and non-Miami Eastern Conference teams.
Since then, the Bulls have won seven of eight games to take a two-game lead on the No. 4 seed in the East and are now just one game behind Toronto for the No. 3 seed, which could make a big difference given the mediocrity of the bottom half of the East playoff race (29-28 Washington is currently the No. 5 seed, while 27-30 Charlotte has the No. 6 seed).
This year's Bulls are 31-26 through 57 games, while last year's squad had gone 32-25; they didn't lose their 26th game until Game 60.
The glaring difference, of course, is that last year's team had Luol Deng playing at an All-Star level. Deng was traded this January, with the team sporting a 14-18 at the time of the deal. Since his trade to Cleveland, however, the Bulls have gone 17-8, moving from sixth to third in the process.
And, according to Gibson, though Deng is no longer on the team he's a big reason why this year's Bulls are where they are.
"No one can replace (Luol), but our young guys and guys that were behind him on the bench, they learned from what he taught them and they’ve just got to step up," he said. "The one thing about this team, every year there’s always someone stepping up."
Gibson likely was referring to wings Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell, who have helped fill the absence left by Deng at the small forward position. However, the irony in Gibson's comments is that he's actually been the one who has stepped up most since Deng left.
In 25 games since the trade, Gibson is averaging 14.8 points on 48 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 31 minutes per game. Joakim Noah is playing the best basketball of his career, while the insertion of DJ Augustin (13.4 points, 5.5 assists) into the offense has arguably done as much as Nate Robinson did last season.
Whether or not the Bulls actually are better or worse than last season, the fact remains that they have won seven of their last eight and, thanks to a weak East, are in position to finish better than the 5th place finish from a year ago. The one thing that hasn't changed from last year is the team's outlook on what they've done and where they're trying to finish.
"We’re moving forward, and we’re still learning," Gibson said. "We can’t let down. We understand we’re feeling good about ourselves but we still have a humble set to ourselves."