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What’s Taj Gibson’s Role in 2015-16?

Last we heard about Taj Gibson, he’d just had successful ankle surgery that was expected to keep him out of action for four months. That news came in June, and Gibson said Saturday he’s hoping to be ready for training camp, although doctors and coaches are rightfully taking a cautious approach with him.

It’s a relief that Gibson may not need to miss any game action, but I’ll remind you that Joakim Noah had knee surgery that kept him out during pretty much the entire offseason last year. He was ready to go at the beginning of training camp, but he clearly was out of game condition and hadn’t improved on his skills at all.

This upcoming season was likely to be complicated for Gibson, as it is. He’s a sixth-man power forward who has the ability to play at center in a small lineup, but he’s on a team that contains such big men as Pau Gasol, the up-and-coming Nikola Mirotic, rookie Bobby Portis and the aforementioned Noah.

Let’s take a minute to look back before we move forward, though. The 2013-14 season is commonly referred to as Gibson’s breakout season because he set a career high in points per game, with a jump from the previous high of 9.0 to 13.0. He also set a career high in minutes at 28.7 and field goal attempts at 10.9.

Gibson dealt with a ligament tear in his hand, and apparently this ankle issue (he said he played through a torn ligament in his ankle), that held him to just 62 games last season. His numbers went down across the board, to 27.3 minutes, 10.3 points and 8.2 field goal attempts per game. But any idea that he regressed is a bit misguided:

gibson shooting

In his breakout season, he started shooting more and more jumpers and did less and less back-to-the-basket stuff. This is reflected in how the percentage of his shots within three feet from the basket dropped 5.2 percent and his shots between 10-16 feet went up 5.1 percent. Taj developed himself into a decent outside shooter, raising his percentages from between 16 feet and the three-point line from 29.9 percent to 39.7 percent.

But with Gasol last season, Gibson’s role changed. Gasol shot 40.6 percent of his shots from between 10 feet out and the three-point line, which meant that a decent amount of the time Gasol was in the game, someone else was going to be playing down low. Often times, this was Gibson.

The majority of the minutes Gibson played in the 2014-2015 season were with Gasol on the floor with him. Not only did adding a true scorer like Gasol, in addition to the return of Derrick Rose and the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a legitimate scoring option, lessen the amount of field goal attempts Gibson was able to put up, it also forced a higher percentage of his shots to come closer to the basket.

Again, look at the percentages on the table above. Gibson shot over 55 percent of his attempts from within three feet of the basket, which blew away his previous career high of 47.5 percent. His overall shooting percentage was actually the highest of his career at 50.2, given the nature of how close to the basket a lot of his attempts were. His offensive rating actually went up from 102 in 2013-14 to 112 in 2014-15. So despite having injuries limit him and the need to adjust his style of play to fit those around him, Gibson still had a decent season.

What this all means for Gibson’s future with the Bulls is that there’s still hope that he can be an integral part of the team. Gibson actually fits into the Fred Hoiberg offensive system fairly well (and Taj said so as well). Our own Kelly Scalleta wrote about the system of offense that Hoiberg ran at Iowa State, and there’s a portion that’s very relevant to the conversation around Gibson:

“Often, Iowa State doesn’t have a player on the low block at all. Hoiberg calls the short corner area two to three feet off the baseline and behind the defense the post player’s “room.” The purpose of the ball screen is to get a player in the paint attacking the defense. With post players “in their room” behind the defense, post defenders have to decide to either help up or sink back. I would say true back to the basket post players would be devalued in Hoiberg’s system and springy and rangy baseline athletes would become prioritized.”

This, to me, says that Gibson is a tremendous fit for the Hoiberg offense because of his ability to hit the open jumper on the baseline and draw the defense away from the basket. You could even argue that, in this system, having Gibson in the game with either Mirotic or Gasol, both of whom are players who can draw a defense out from the basket, might be the best lineup for the Bulls to use. Even the 20-year-old rookie Portis comes with the reputation that he can hit the outside shot reasonably well.

This tells me that the odd man out could very well be Noah. We know how painful watching him play last season was, and barring some sort of miracle of science, it looks like we’re headed for something similar this season. Without an outside jumper to speak of (minus the tornado shot from the top of the key that he forgot how to do last season), Noah may find himself on the wing or the baseline without a role in the offense or the ability to tip in offensive rebounds.

Once Gibson is fully healthy, Hoiberg may come to the conclusion that he fits better in the starting lineup with Gasol than he does coming off the bench. The new coach could surprise me and go with Mirotic with Gasol, moving Noah to the bench with Gibson. But I think Gibson’s rebounding skills and overall offensive game are a better mesh with Gasol.

Hopefully, Gibson can recover nicely from his ankle issue and head into the 2015-16 season with full health and confidence. Those seem to be the only things that could stand in the way of him having another good season.

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