Carlos Boozer was the concession prize for the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 2010, the only major free agent they could get to accept their money. He signed a five-year $80 million max contract with the idea that he would be the third member of their Big Three, providing a front-court scoring punch to complement Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. The only problem was the Bulls already had a young PF already on roster who was at least as good as Boozer.
Taj Gibson was an older rookie (24) on an average Pac-12 team (USC) who was drafted in the latter stages of the first round, so there weren't many expectations surrounding him when he came into the NBA. He started 70 games and only put up decent numbers - 9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks on 49% shooting - so it's not a real surprise the Bulls signed someone over him. But while Boozer had already peaked, Gibson was only getting better.
It's unclear exactly when Gibson passed Boozer as an all-around player, but since Gibson was a much, much better defensive player, it couldn't have taken too long, especially as Boozer's offense began to slip as he moved into his 30's. However, because Boozer was an established veteran who put up big numbers and had a huge pay-check, there was never much chance he was going to lose his starting job to a younger player with a much smaller contract.
Politics are politics, but a coach like Thibs is still going to play the best players. So while Boozer's minutes slowly declined over the last four seasons, Gibson's continued to creep upwards. Last season, Boozer was essentially the starter in name only, as Taj ended up playing more minutes then the guy he backed up - 28.7 to 28.2. As people always say in these types of discussions, it doesn't matter who starts the game but who finishes it.
That's obviously true, but it's a little more complicated than that. Check out what Taj had to say in May, when it became clear that Boozer was going to be amnestied later in the summer:
With about a week left of rehabbing his left ankle, which he injured in the Game 5 playoff loss to the Wizards last month, Gibson confirmed that he has been told “to get my body and mind right to be a starter.’’ “I mean, this will be exciting,’’ Gibson said in a phone interview. “This is what I’ve always thought about. When I started [six games] for Boozer when he was hurt during the season, I just know how excited I was, how good it felt to come to the arena.’’As a player, you want to be in the game in the fourth quarter, but you also want to start too! Any NBA player worth his salt wants to play as many minutes as he possibly can, if no other reason than it's much more fun to play than to sit on the bench. As a rule, starters get more minutes, they get more touches and they get much bigger contracts. It's hard to be seen as one of the best players in the league at your position if you come off the bench.
Make no mistake about it - Taj Gibson is a really good basketball player. With Derrick Rose once again missing most of the year, there was room for Gibson to take on a much bigger role in the offense and he responded, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game on 48% shooting. Average it out over 36 minutes of playing time and Gibson would be in the All-Star discussion at 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks a game.
He's one of the best two-way PF's in the NBA and he's a perfect fit for the Bulls system. At 6'9 225 with a 7'4 wingspan, he has the size to defend the post, the quickness to move laterally and defend the pick-and-roll and the length to protect to rim. On offense, he can step out to 20 feet and knock down the mid-range J and he can score with his back to the basket and finish at the rim. He's definitely a good enough player to be a starter on an elite team.
He had a really compelling case for 6th Man of the Year last season, although score-first guards like Jamal Crawford usually end up winning the award. It's just hard for a reserve big man, no matter how important they are to their team, to have too big of a national profile. Gibson has been a good soldier for a long time, swallowing his pride for the good of the team and saying nothing while Boozer got more shots and more touches.
Over the last seasons, he put in the work and he paid his dues, patiently waiting for his chance to be the starter. Then, all of a sudden, the Bulls brought in a higher profile free agent at his position, an older player with a bigger reputation and a higher career scoring average (Pau Gasol) who expects to be starting and closing games. And since Gibson had apparently accepted being a backup, no one gave much thought to how he would feel about it.
From his POV, he has to look at the Pau signing and wonder whether he is ever going to get a fair shake in Chicago. To be sure, he's making good bank ($38 million over 4 seasons) and he has a big role on a team expected to contend for a championship, so it's hard too feel to bad for him. It's easy to say that guys have to sacrifice in order to win it all, but it's a much harder thing to accept when you are the one doing the sacrificing.
Taj isn't a spring chicken - he's turned 29 this summer. This is supposed to be the prime of his career. Some part of him has to wonder what type of numbers would he put up if he averaged 35+ minutes a game. It's not even about being selfish. Any good NBA player has an ego, so he has to think that he can help his team when he's on the floor. So in his mind, if he's playing fewer minutes, not only is it bad for him, it's bad for the team too.
After going up against Boozer everday in practice for the last four seasons, Taj has to look at him and be like I could be that guy, if I was given the same opportunities. Boozer has made two All-Star teams, he has won an Olympic Gold medal and he has made over $130 million in his NBA career. If Taj backs up Pau for the next few years, he's not even going to make half of that and he'll be fondly remembered as a solid player on a good team.
Whose to say that he's not a better player than Pau right now? He's much better on the defensive end and he's a better perimeter shooter at this point his career. If they play the Bulls in a seven-game series, neither Pau nor Noah has any chance of sticking Kevin Love around the three-point line. Taj will have to be the guy at PF, if only by default. He'll probably still finish games for Chicago - the question is whether that will still be enough.
As a player, there are few things more infuriating than backing up a guy you think you are better than. From a personal perspective, I was in and out of the starting line-up as a senior in HS and I sure didn't appreciate the guys who were ahead of me. I was sabotaging practices and going out of my way to attack them 1-on-1 and prove a point to the coach and when I was in the game, I was trying to get my numbers and I didn't really care.
Eventually, I had to have a talk with the coach and he explained that the role that made sense for me was coming off the bench, even though I was convinced I was better than the starter. It was very hard thing to accept. Gibson has had to accept that reality for the last four seasons and now they are bringing in some new guy to take his spot once again and they aren't even going to let him compete for the job? That's tough to swallow.
My guess is that he will, because he's a solid professional whose going to do his job and not make waves in the locker room. At the same time, it's a storyline to watch as the season progresses, especially for Pau. It could be hard for him to get fully comfortable in Chicago if Gibson carries his demotion the wrong way. And if Pau starts making noises about wanting to close games, you can damn sure bet Gibson will say something.
That doesn't even get into what happens if his minutes get cut so the Bulls can stretch out the floor with Nikola Mirotic at the 4. Here's the reality - when it comes time to talk contract, you think Chicago is going to reward him for sacrificing his stats? They are going to be like you are a reserve on the back half of your career - take a pay-cut. You can talk about how much you appreciate a guy but talk is cheap and money talks a lot louder than words.
As long as the Bulls are winning, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. However, if they struggle with integrating Pau and Rose into the mix, Gibson would have every right to point out that he's the one who should be starting and that if he were playing 35+ minutes a night, they would be a much better team. He has been a good soldier for a really long time, but at a certain point, all that means is you are letting other people walk all over for you.