When Taj Gibson signed a four-year, $38 million contract extension before last season, the Bulls knew what they were getting. Through four years the 28-year-old Gibson has been an elite defender under coach Tom Thibodeau, and he peaked last season averaging 5.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just 22.4 minutes per game. His blocks-per-48 minutes ranked 12th in the NBA, and the Bulls were more than 10 points better per-100 possessions with him on the floor, per ESPN.com. It may not have been his best statistical season on the defensive end, but it solidified him as one of the game's best interior bigs.
Further, his individual defense was even better last season, as he allowed 0.742 points per possession in man-to-man looks, third best in the NBA (min. 60 games). His defensive versatility and athleticism has been vital to the Chicago defense, and without Omer Asik patrolling the frontline his responsibilities have increased and he's met the challenge.
And while Gibson's value on the defensive end may justify his contract in its own right -- he'll make $7.55 million next season, then $24.45 million the next three seasons -- his improvement on the other end of the floor, specifically his inside game, could be a major coup for a Bulls offense that struggled last season. Already 28 years old, Gibson's ceiling is somewhat limited despite him being just a four-year pro. But the front office's hope is Gibson's best days are in front of him, and his offensive progression the last three years make that hope an optimistic one.
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An inside-out scorer from Southern Cal, Gibson has seen the majority of his offensive output come from the perimeter. Thanks to slashers Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, the 10-to-17-foot baseline jumper has been a staple of Gibson's game, and while he has had his fair share of serious poster dunks -- something both Dwyane Wade (here) and Kris Humphries (here) can attest to -- he has never been known as a consistent post threat.
That may be changing, though.
In each of the last three seasons, Gibson has attempted fewer outside jumpers and more post-up shots. Perhaps last year's departure of Asik or the additions of outside shooters in Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli pushed Gibson inside; either way, he's becoming a more efficient post scorer that hovers near the top of the league.
Taj Gibson's post-up possessions, by year
Three seasons ago Gibson was one of the worst interior post scorers in the NBA (29.2 percent from the field; 7th percentile), yet two short seasons later Gibson has become one of the most efficient, all the while attempting more shots. More than 17 percent of his scoring possessions ("Time") have come via post-ups, the highest mark since his career-best rookie season. It has been quite the jump, and while his total numbers -- 75 post-up possessions -- still barely qualify him to rank among the elite, his 1.042 points per possession were 14th in the NBA last season, or the 89th percentile ("NBA rank"), using 60 games as a minimum.
To put that number in perspective, in 2010-11 Gibson's 0.604 points per possession slotted him one spot in front of the Lakers' Luke Walton; fast forward two years, his 1.042 PPP put him right behind the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan. Much better company, to say the least.
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More post-ups -- the above numbers do not include offensive rebounds or inside shots from cuts -- have meant fewer outside looks, any inside-out forwards' goal. And while it's still the most frequented part of his offensive game, his jumpers took a dip in 2012-13 after an improvement in Year 3.
Taj Gibson's jump-shot possessions, by year
On one end, Gibson's uptick in post-up possessions and subsequent decrease in jump-shot attempts has been a solid trend. Regardless of how good a player is on the perimeter, higher percentage shots at the rim will always be the superior option, and Gibson seems to be learning that -- or simply improving enough that he's finding it easier to play inside. If he can maintain his inside scoring efficiency while increasing his attempts, something he's done three years running, and manage to improve his jump shot, he could be in line for his best offensive season yet. Even getting back to his 2011-12 numbers, when he made nearly 40 percent of his jumpers, would be a significant improvement.
Derrick Rose's return should open up the Bulls offense, and with no major changes in the frontline coming this season Gibson should see at the very least a small increase in minutes. Gibson's rotation spot is solidified because of his defense, and Kirk Hinrich's move to the second line in place of the departed Robinson should allow more high-percentage scoring opportunities for the Bench Mob 3.0. Now in his fifth season, Gibson enters the first year of his contract extension. The Bulls' second line anchor is worth his money defensively, and his continued offensive progression could turn him into an even better deal for Thibodeau and the Bulls.