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The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

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USA TODAY

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the three-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

Where the Bulls stand in each of the NBA’s reported resumption plans

Where the Bulls stand in each of the NBA’s reported resumption plans

Wheels are spinning towards the relaunch of the NBA season. In which direction? For now, all of them.

Faced with a task unprecedented in logistical and financial scale, several formats for resuming and resolving the 2019-20 campaign amid the COVID-19 pandemic have emerged, all centered around Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort as a likely bubble site. Returning 30 teams to tie a bow on an abbreviated regular season “has lost momentum, but still has significant lobby,” according to Adrian Wojnarowski. Skipping straight to a 16-team playoff? There’s a “good chance” of that, according to Brian Windhorst, though securing the necessary owner votes to do away with conference alignment could prove a long shot. On Tuesday, the possibility of a 20-team playoff that would replace the first round with a World Cup-esque “group stage” was extensively detailed by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer. Other pool play options were offered up in a past canvassing conducted by the league. 

Some players and teams, regardless of positioning, are reportedly itching to play. Some would sooner be inclined to avert the risk of infection inextricable from bumping bodies without proper competitive incentive — most prominently (and publicly), Damian Lillard

All in all, there’s a whole lot on the table. But the league doesn’t yet appear near a consensus with calls reportedly slated with general managers and the Board of Governors on Thursday and Friday, respectively. 

The Bulls, for their part, are paused comfortably in purgatory. Should they be included in the NBA’s resumption plan, it could afford a sliver more time for the revamped front office to evaluate personnel and the coaching staff, and perhaps a sliver more excitement for a fanbase left wanting in that department this season. At the same time, this team is no title contender — even a de facto playoff berth would likely be short-lived — and the prospect of a month-or-more long training camp schedule leading up to five-to-seven games of (in the grand scheme) meaningless basketball could introduce excessive and unnecessary risk to players — many of whom are currently out-of-market — and staff. Scurrying straight to the offseason would potentially afford one of the youngest teams in the NBA a nine-month layoff between this season and next, and allow the new braintrust to fully plunge into draft preparation and long-term planning, both along the roster and on Jim Boylen’s fate.

That all leaves us with heads full of ideas, but not much in the way of certainty. Here, at least, are the options the NBA is reportedly mulling, and how the Bulls could fit into them:

All 30 teams resume regular season

In his most recent report, Wojnarowski pinpointed 72 games as the NBA’s target goal if they pursue some closure for the regular season. At 22-43, that would leave the Bulls with seven remaining games, a perfectly average figure. Their 65 games already played is two less than the teams with the most games completed (Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks), and two more than those with the least (Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs). Who the Bulls’ remaining games would be against is unknowable for the time being.

In the interest of recouping lost revenue, sucking all 30 teams into a hypothetical bubble is likely attractive to the league — doing so exponentially multiples the number of telivisable games, and if the astronomical ratings for TNT’s “The Match” are any indication, interest will be immense regardless of matchup. But it also doubles the amount of variables necessary to maintain the wellbeing of everyone involved from athletes to coaches to accommodation staff and beyond. 

With no non-playoff team in either conference within 3.5 games of a berth (the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans all rest 3.5 back of the Memphis Grizzlies), the cost of that risk for anyone outside the top 16 is indeed the question.

Skipping straight to a 16-team playoff

Which brings us to the tidiest of the solutions reportedly on the table: fast-forwarding straight to a 16-team playoff. Less teams, less variables, less risk (though a healthy amount of that persists no matter the format). Seeded independent of conference, here’s what that could look like — though the more likely scenario is probably keeping the conference alignment as is:

 

Paused 8.5 games behind the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls would fall well short of involvement in a jump straight to the postseason.

World Cup style

Here inlies the most ambitious of the proposals picking up steam, but creativity is commissioner Adam Silver’s MO. In this format, as detailed by O’Connor, the first round of the postseason would be replaced by a “group stage” wherein the teams with the best 20 records in the league would be divided up into five groups (four teams each). From there, each four-team grouping would compete in respective eight-game round robins, with the two best records from each group moving on to a bracketed, eight-team playoff.

The pros: It’s an exciting, inventive idea that could drive interest up, conjure 80 surefire compelling games and satiate fringe playoff teams (Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio) aggrieved by having their seasons cut short. 

 

The cons: Four extra teams increases risk, and it introduces tremendous potential for upsets and general randomness that could impact top seeds. Continuing to punish elite teams that will already be operating without their hard-earned homecourt advantage feels slightly backward.

Frankly, this format would be a ton of fun. But regardless of whether it comes to fruition, the Bulls, currently paused with the 24th-best record in the NBA, would be on the outside looking in. 

Other pool play options

That 22-43 mark, though, could sneak them into a potential 24-team “Playoffs Plus,” a format Shams Charania of The Athletic reported as being on a recent survey circulated by the league to general managers — and a bracket size the NHL just announced for their season. 

Any 30-team play-in tournament could feature the Bulls, as well, though an exact layout for that possibility remains to be determined. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe combined to report that the league is considering pool play options that would involve anywhere from 16 to all 30 teams — possibly utilizing a structure akin to the group stage layout enumerated above.

In any event, more clarity should come soon, with GM and Board of Governors calls scheduled for Thursday and Friday, respectively. In the meantime, the season of speculation marches on.

How Michael Jordan reacted to Robert Parish taunting him at Bulls practice

How Michael Jordan reacted to Robert Parish taunting him at Bulls practice

Don’t mess with The Chief. Michael Jordan learned that lesson at a practice during Robert Parish’s lone season with the Bulls in 1996-97 — the last of his 21-year career.

Appearing on CLNS Media’s Cedric Maxwell Podcast, Parish told the story of him taunting Jordan (a rare sight at a Bulls practice in the ’90s), and the shock Jordan responded with. 

“We were scrimmaging, we played like six games going to five points. And so after the first two games, Phil (Jackson) put me with the second unit who I always played with. You know, my boys,” Parish told Maxwell. “We proceeded to kick their (the first unit’s) butts like four straight games. And Michael took offense to it, so I asked him, ‘How did he like that butt whooping?’

“He took offense to it because clearly no one ever manned up to him, you know, challenged him. So he said if I wasn’t careful, he was going to kick my ass. And I told him, ‘I’m not in awe of you. I’ve played with some of the baddest fellas there walking the court … And I’m supposed to be in awe of you?' You know, he’s looking at me like I had slapped his mug (laughs).”

Parish ended his career a four-time NBA champion — thrice with the Celtics (1981, 1984, 1986) and once with the Bulls (1997). He cited his experience playing with all-time greats from Larry Bird to Kevin McHale to Bill Walton to Maxwell as reason for not being intimidated by Jordan. 

Still, his gumption apparently sent shockwaves down the roster. 

“Derrick Dickey (Dickey Simpkins?) couldn’t believe that I talked to Michael like that,” Parish told Maxwell on the podcast. “Clearly, Michael was the alpha, you know, it was his team. He ran the ballclub and everybody kind of like got out of his way and let him do his thing.”

Parish added that he respected Jordan’s brazen leadership style, but that he preferred the manner in which Bird operated.

“Everybody got their own style, and the way they lead. Michael was in your face, he challenged his teammates,” Parish said. “Larry was our leader (with the Celtics), and he led by example. You know, he wasn’t a vocal leader, he let his play dictate how we should play. I think Larry’s style and philosophy makes the best leaders, because if you are a yeller and a screamer, after a while your voice fall on deaf ears and players just kinda tune you out, don’t hear what you got to say.

“I respect both leadership styles, but I prefer Larry’s style the best. Cause you know, some nights you don’t want to hear what he got to say, speaking of Michael. He all up in your face talking trash, you know, he might get a short right, man (laughs).”

Fair enough. Jordan’s abrasive ways weren’t for everyone. Surely, he’s content to let his six rings speak for themselves.

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