Taj Gibson after Bulls' win over Celtics: 'I really wanted to get this one for Fred'

Taj Gibson after Bulls' win over Celtics: 'I really wanted to get this one for Fred'

During an up-and-down season for the Bulls that's featured its share of struggles, Fred Hoiberg has taken as much heat as anyone.

But apparently the seemingly mild-mannered coach has cranked up his own intensity in practice, at least he did leading up to the Bulls' 104-103 win over the Celtics on Thursday night, the team's last game before the All-Star break.

Forward Taj Gibson told reporters after the game that he wanted the team to get the win for its second-year head coach.

"I really wanted to get this one for Fred," Gibson said after Thursday's win. "He's been battling guys in practice the last couple days, and it was good for us to end (the first half) off the right way."

Eyes turn to front office as direction of Bulls' franchise hangs in the balance

Eyes turn to front office as direction of Bulls' franchise hangs in the balance

Nikola Mirotic posed for pictures with a fan outside the tunnel leading into the Bulls’ locker room. Bobby Portis spoke with a handful of reporters before wishing Bulls PR personnel a happy week off. Jimmy Butler tossed on a red Jumpman sweatsuit and headed to New Orleans for All-Star weekend.

And just like that, about an hour after the Bulls’ 104-103 victory over the Celtics, the locker room was empty. The next time Fred Hoiberg’s group reconvenes, Wednesday at the Advocate Center for practice, the NBA’s trade deadline will be 24 hours away. And the next time the Bulls take to the United Center floor — Feb. 24 against the Suns — the deadline will have passed.

The group that exited the locker room Thursday night after the team’s second straight victory — pulling the Bulls within a game of .500 at 28-29 — could look different than the one that enters it a week from now. With the franchise at a real crossroads at the trade deadline for the first time since the ping-pong balls fell in the team’s favor in the Derrick Rose sweepstakes, all eyes now turn to the front office.

The Bulls’ recent successes leading up to the All-Star break — wins over Boston and Toronto — won’t make the decisions facing Gar Forman and John Paxson any easier. At 28-29 the Bulls are below .500 at the break for the first time since 2010. And while they haven’t had a record above .500 in more than five weeks (Jan. 7, 19-18) they find themselves seventh in the Eastern Conference. Basketball-Reference projects the Bulls to finish sixth in the East, with a 70.7-percent chance of making the postseason. With the Bucks losing Jabari Parker to another torn ACL and the Hornets in free fall, it’s a safe bet that the Bulls’ current group — barring injury to No. 21 — will be back in the playoffs.

But that’s where Forman and Paxson need to assess the worth of a postseason appearance. Yes, the Bulls are 9-8 against the six teams ahead of them in the East, and they’ve earned a win over all but the Hawks this season. But the playoffs are a different animal, and even the most optimistic Bulls projection doesn’t have this current team advancing past the first round.

And with such a top-heavy conference, the Bulls aren’t the only playoff team dangling pieces. The eighth-seeded Pistons have reportedly made Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond available. Paul George’s name has popped up in trade rumors in Indiana, which enters the break in the No. 6 spot. The Knicks went all-in this offseason, acquiring Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, and months later are looking to deal Carmelo Anthony. Even the Hawks, currently fifth in the East, dealt Kyle Korver and had Paul Millsap on the trading block as recently as last month.

It’s why the Bulls coming up in myriad trade reports shouldn’t come as a surprise. Taj Gibson might have the trade deadline named after him by the time his career is over. Doug McDermott and Robin Lopez were rumored to be on the block in exchange for a first-round pick, though that seems unlikely after Serge Ibaka fetched a late first-rounder and reserve guard Terrence Ross.

Impending free agent Mirotic’s name has popped up in trade rumors, while Rajon Rondo appeared a potential plug-in for the Cavaliers last month. As it does everywhere in the league, the rumors have caused a strain of coaches and young players alike.

“The biggest thing, you can’t concern yourself with it. There’s going to be rumors thrown all over the place. That’s jut the era that we live in with all the social-media things and talk shows and everything that throws a lot of scenarios out there,” Fred Hoiberg said before Thursday’s game. “All 30 teams are talking to each other right now. There’s no doubt about that. That’s just how this thing works. Usually not very many things happen, so (we) just try to stay focused on the task at hand.”

The above names won’t move the needle much in the race for the Larry O’Brien trophy, should they be dealt. None of them would bring back anything substantial in the form of helping the Bulls long-term, though Lopez would fetch more than the bag of Cheetos he said his brother, Brook, wanted to trade him for.

Trading Gibson and Mirotic would give the Bulls some security against losing either to free agency for nothing this summer, but that’s about it. Lopez might return value of substance because he’s an affordable center under contract the next two seasons, but the Bulls might want to keep him for that same reason.

Then there’s Butler. The 27-year-old has transformed into one of the league’s best players and is on a team-friendly deal, given the league’s salary-cap explosion the last two seasons. It seems unlikely that Boston, the only real team linked to Butler at the moment, will pony up enough of their assets — both young players and Nets first-round picks — to make the Bulls consider dealing the foundation of their franchise. On one hand, Butler would yield a handful of assets that would mark the beginning of a massive rebuild, one with plenty of pieces to play with.

But every non-contending team would love to rebuild with a 27-year-old All-Star. Butler isn’t Anthony, an overpaid, past-his-prime scorer. He’s not Ibaka, an upcoming free agent more suited as a No. 2 or 3 option. He has peak trade value, but he also has peak value to the Bulls.

In a best-case scenario: If Forman and Paxson can squeeze out a first-round pick for any combination of role players and the Kings continue winning — forcing them to surrender their first-rounder — the Bulls could have three first-round picks in a loaded 2017 draft. If Dwyane Wade opts out of his contract at season’s end, the Bulls would also have the cap space to sign a max free agent, as unlikely as the prospect of one coming to Chicago seems at the moment.

Or Forman and Paxson get what they want from Boston in exchange for Butler. Kevin Love’s knee injury in Cleveland and Toronto’s deal for Ibaka could force Danny Ainge’s hand, as the East appears as wide open as it’s been since LeBron James began his reign atop the conference.

The Nets’ first-round pick would give the Bulls their point guard of the future — Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball top most mock drafts — and potential return players from the Celtics such as Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder have plenty of room to grow.

We’ll know in less than a week what Forman and Paxson decide to do, or perhaps more accurately are able to do. During Thursday’s shootaround, Gibson was asked about his thoughts at the trade deadline and having his name seemingly pop up every year around this time. Gibson’s answer was true for himself, as well as for most Bulls fans anxious to see the direction of the franchise.

“I’ve been around it for a while,” Gibson said. “It’s a business at the end of the day. You just have to be ready for whatever happens.”

Taj Gibson pouring his heart out for Bulls as trade rumors swirl

Taj Gibson pouring his heart out for Bulls as trade rumors swirl

The trade season has started in the NBA with the deal of Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors, so ears were perked up all through the Bulls’ morning shootaround when news made its way through the Advocate Center.

Oh, to be a fly in the mind of Taj Gibson, a man who’s been in the center of trade talks for the Bulls for years. He and Jimmy Butler have been in the middle of trade talk from the start of the season.

With his contract expiring this summer and the trade deadline a week away, the calls will get more intense and the Bulls will likely have a decision to make on their longtime forward.

And Gibson seems to be accepting of his fate, no matter what it is.

“Of course it's gonna get hotter,” said Gibson to CSNChicago.com about the trade talk. “No matter what happens, you're still in the NBA. You're still getting paid a lot of money to play basketball. People don't understand that. They think it's bad half the time. No it's not. It's the same paycheck, just on a different team.”

The same deal the Raptors gave the Orlando Magic for Ibaka — swingman Terrence Ross and a first-round pick (the lesser of the Raptors’ own pick and a pick the Clippers have to convey from a previous deal) — the Bulls had discussed for Gibson last season, sources tell CSNChicago.com.

The exact parameters of such a deal this season were vague but the Bulls were discussing a deal involving Gibson for a first-round pick with the Raptors. However, league sources tell CSNChicago.com that Ross wasn’t involved in these discussions.

Ibaka, like Gibson, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Raptors were trying to nail down that power forward spot long-term along with trying to deal with the upcoming free agency of All-Star guard Kyle Lowry.

“I’ve been hearing the chatter for years. But you never know,” said Gibson when asked if he knew the Raptors were interested in him. “I just keep my head straight, focus on the team I’m on at the moment because if you start looking at other teams and other stuff, it kinda gets tricky as hell.”

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It’s almost like Gibson has become numb to the speculation, but for someone who cares as much as Gibson does, the thought of “will I be traded or won’t I?” is a natural one.

He tries to keep the amount of real estate it takes up in his head to a minimum, though.

“I can't. I can't (focus on it),” Gibson said. “It's like how Melo's (Carmelo Anthony) going through it right now. You just can't. You just gotta focus on your teammates, your family, have good people around you. Been going through this for eight years, teams trying to get you. It's tough, every year. You never know what's going to happen. Stay professional, stay in the gym, do whatever you can to take your mind off it.”

Gibson admitted that task “is tough” because his everyday life can be littered with random people asking him questions he doesn’t have the answer to, he doesn’t feel the need to run and talk to the front office over every little rumor that he happens to hear about.

“I leave that to my agent and the higher-ups. My agent, (Chicago-based) Mark Bartlestein, let him handle what he gotta handle. We have a good rapport,” Gibson said. “So whatever happens, happens.”

Well aware of the uncertainty surrounding things, it would be understandable if he had a hard time staying emotionally invested with the Bulls franchise — especially seeing how former mates and close friends were shipped out without much fanfare — but he insists his emotional wiring is different.

“No, it’s not,” Gibson said. “Because I care about everybody in the organization. I care about all the young guys, players that fall through here. It's bigger than basketball. I’m real unselfish. I want everybody to get their minutes, get their money and take care of their families, so I’ve never been like that.”

Gibson found himself smack dab in the middle of controversy a couple weeks back, through no fault of his own when Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade voiced their frustrations with the direction of the team after a collapse against the Atlanta Hawks.

Then Rajon Rondo started a fire only matched by Spike Lee in “Do the Right Thing” with his Instagram post, calling out Wade and Butler.

Then came the team meeting that Friday morning before shootaround before the Bulls’ lifeless 100-88 loss to the Miami Heat, where Gibson’s team looked like it didn’t know who was on the other side of the floor that night.

The reason was because so many emotions were spilled out in that morning meeting the Bulls had very little to give in terms of game preparation and performance. And the man who arguably unleashed more emotion than anyone in that meeting was Gibson.

“I was drained because I gave my heart in that meeting,” Gibson said to CSNChicago.com in Oakland after the Bulls lost to Golden State last week. “In general, I just gave my heart. Letting everybody know I loved them.

“I just poured my heart out. It got testy.”

Gibson sat as he watched the young players air out their grievances to Wade and Butler. And during a moment where he felt like he needed to be heard, Gibson spoke his mind and heart as the longest tenured Bull.

As the one player who could see exactly how and why all sides felt the way they felt.

“Both sides were just going, just talking. I stood up and voiced how I felt,” Gibson said. “It got reciprocated and everybody was like, ‘you know what? (He’s right)’ Because I put up with a lot. I've been putting up with a lot. It's crazy, I can put up with a lot but I can't put up with my teammates battling each other.”

“I was like a guy in the middle, the bridge because they felt like I had experience to tell, speak to Bobby (Portis) and them like I didn't get minutes (early), I should've started (years previously) I felt. I wanted to start early, I wanted to play well and I didn't get my chance. I stayed with the team, I sacrificed. I gave examples and then I gave examples of guys who were leaders, how I loved playing with them.”

Gibson wanted to clear up a perception from the meeting he feels wasn’t conveyed properly in the time after: that the players were jumping on Wade for not practicing more.

It may have been Rondo’s shot in his social media post, but Gibson said they wanted Wade to share more of his knowledge and NBA wisdom. If anyone had the right to ask for more investment from a veteran like Wade, only Gibson had the credentials to do so.

“I was pissed off because it was never about practice. The young guys, they just look up to D-Wade. Dudes love D-Wade,” Gibson said. “That wasn't what I meant, it wasn't what anyone else meant. It was about...wanting to learn more from him. More knowledge. D-Wade is great, has been great.”

Gibson talked about playing with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, leaders he loved to follow because of their passion and example. He talked about competitively hating Wade before becoming his teammate and now loving the fact he gets to call a champion and former rival a friend.

Same with Rondo, a man who calls Gibson’s name after a rebound more times than a mother calling her son to get home when the street lights come on during a hot summer in Fort Greene, New York.

“Like I hated them (before) but I'm ready to run through a wall, do whatever I can to help them. And that I appreciate them,” Gibson said. “I told them, I broke down in that meeting, I gave it up to everybody because I understood life is too short. Everyday, people are leaving the league and never coming back. There's not that many veterans anymore. Days are numbered, it's only a matter of time, you gotta take what you can get out of it. I'm playing with a Hall of Famer in D-Wade, I told him I appreciated him. Straight up.”

In the time since, Gibson said he’s having some of the most fun he’s had in his career — even as uncertainty and controversy swirls around the present and his own future.

“For real. Jimmy's coming in, dapping everybody up,” Gibson said. “D-Wade is in every huddle, giving his word, giving his input. Even when I got my technical in Sacramento, (Wade said) ‘Taj we need you. Be smart'. That's winning basketball.”

The meeting, as tense and emotional and cathartic as it was, Gibson believes it was necessary and helpful for all involved, not just for the present, but for the young players who’ll need to understand how the NBA works.

“Because it brought guys back to reality,” he said. “At times when you're losing games and you got the city on your back, playing in Chicago is like playing in New York or LA. Once people get in your ear and you're losing games and people booing you, you can't look around, you wanna point fingers. In that meeting it was deep. A lot of love.”

It may have been some tough love, but the love was certainly evident from Gibson’s emotions. Gibson said general manager Gar Forman was taken aback by his words and sentiments and even admitted himself, “that (bleep) took a lot out of me. But they respected it because it came from the heart. (I) gotta be the voice of reason. It's hard on my heart because I care about my teammates and I really love the game. Love the game.”

So no matter if and when that call comes in the next week, Gibson will be prepared no matter the circumstances, but until then he seems to be savoring every aspect of this experience in Chicago with the Bulls and his teammates — even if most aspects of this can be painful and draining.