By: Chase Miskell
A hot topic among Bulls fans for the last few years has been whether or not it is time to trade Taj Gibson, and this year is no different. In fact, these talks have escalated even further than ever due to the emergence of rookie Bobby Portis, the improvement Nikola Mirotic has shown throughout the preseason, and Taj’s own level of play last season. This leads to the question: is now the time to trade Taj?
After coming off a great year in 2013/2014, many thought Taj had fallen off last season. The main reason for this is that his scoring averages fell from 13 points/game to roughly 10 per game and his performance in the playoffs. However, he was hobbled by an ankle injury that seemed to only get worse as the season progressed. Coming off of his ankle surgery, I believe that Taj can and will return to his (should have been) sixth man of the year form. In that year, Taj made the Bulls 5 points better when he was on the floor during the regular season and was the lone bright spot for the team during the first round series against the Washington Wizards. In this series, he averaged 18 points on 56% shooting to go along with 6 boards and a 26.5 player efficiency rating. Did I mention that he also made the team a whopping 23(!!!) points better when he was on the floor during that series? That version of Taj Gibson was something to be feared, and if he can return to that level of production, then there is no question that he should not be moved. If he can’t, the conversation gets a bit more interesting, especially when looking at the players gunning for his spot.
When Bobby Portis was selected with the 22nd pick of the draft this season, many fans questioned the pick, citing the frontcourt logjam and the need for backup wings. However, he has quickly proved his doubters wrong. He is currently averaging 12 points, 10 rebounds and around a block per game while shooting 44% from beyond the arc (albeit on only nine total attempts) in about 25 minutes per game according to RealGM. These numbers are impressive to say the least, but advanced statistics add a bit more to the equation. When Portis is on the floor the Bulls’ defensive rating (estimated points allowed per 100 possessions) is around 110, and the offensive rating (estimated points scored per 100 possessions) is about 107. In comparison, as a team this preseason the Bulls have a 103 offensive rating, and a collective 110.5 defensive rating (which is awful, but that’s a discussion for another time). These stats show that Portis is making the Bulls better on both ends of the floor throughout this preseason. His ability to step out and hit the 3 ball and his tenacity on the glass make him a great fit for the team, and if he keeps up this level of production he would be a great replacement for Taj. However, this team’s defense needs a lot of work, and Taj’s knowledge of Thibs’ defensive schemes as well as his natural instincts on that end of the floor will definitely help, as he is arguably the teams’ best interior defender. Portis could actually learn a lot from him here, and shipping him out could possibly hurt the latter’s development on the less glamorous end of the floor.
Nikola Mirotic seems to be the obvious choice to take over Taj’s role as sixth man, as his game fits well in Hoiberg’s new offensive system. His ability to stretch the floor, as well as his ability to get out in transition is key in this system. Unfortunately, Niko can’t seem to find his shot; last year he only connected on 31% of his three point attempts, and the new offensive system doesn’t seem to be helping as he is only shooting 28% from deep in this preseason despite the vast amount of open looks he’s had. His game relies on his ability as a sniper, because once defenses start to sag off of him, his floor spacing ability is rendered useless. Until Niko starts to find consistency from beyond the arc, he won’t be a viable replacement for Taj. Mirotic is in the same boat as Portis defensively, as he needs help from veteran players such as Gibson and Noah to learn defensive schemes and become a solid defender.
The Curious Cases of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol
There are many questions that revolve around the frontcourt duo of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Can Pau have another season like last year? Can Jo stay healthy? Can they even play on the court at the same time? These are questions that will be answered this season, but there is one that won’t be answered until next summer: will these two be wearing a Bulls uniform next year?
Joakim Noah looked like a shell of himself last season. After his stellar 2014 campaign, he was derailed by injuries, and his (or his coach’s) insistence on playing through those said injuries. Both statistics and the eye test show that the Pau/Jo lineup just wasn’t working, which leads to the question; was it Jo’s health that caused this, or were they stepping on each other’s toes in the starting lineup? If either of these are true, then Taj’s services become required, and makes the idea of trading him seem much less desirable.
On the other hand, Pau Gasol had himself a phenomenal season last year, earning himself an all-star spot while putting up his best numbers since 2011. However, some found these numbers to be misleading, as his defense and tendency to stop the ball both hurt the team. However, bringing Pau off the bench to clear up some minutes for the younger guys isn’t an option at this point, as he has a player option for next season, and doing so would almost certainly guarantee he would opt-out in hopes of landing more money and a starting gig elsewhere.
This leads to what might be the most important question, will these two be on the roster in 2016? Jo is in a contract year, and the front office is almost certainly going to expect him to take a hometown discount, but what if he doesn’t want to? This situation is all too familiar with Bulls fans, as this exact situation just went down with Luol Deng a few seasons ago. Everyone expected Deng to be a Bull for life, just as it is expected Jo will be as well, but that clearly isn’t how it worked out. Luol has now played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat, two of the Bulls’ most hated rivals. The same goes for Gasol, as he could easily opt out to chase rings, money or both. Without these two, the once loaded frontcourt becomes paper-thin, and if Taj is gone as well then the Bulls are in some serious trouble.
Right now, there are just too many questions surrounding the Bulls’ frontcourt to make a move anytime soon. Too many things have to fall into place in order to fill Taj’s shoes, both in the short run as well as the long run. Even if Bobby and Niko find their NBA footing, trading him now would be selling him at a low value, while still having the chance of losing the two starting bigs. Now isn’t the time to trade Taj, but don’t be surprised if the time to trade him comes up sooner rather than later.
*All statistics were found on Basketball Reference unless noted otherwise.