- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- It's a superstar's league, we tell you. And that's as true as ever.
The NBA is a player's league, and the best talent is almost always the tiebreaker and the hammer. Stop LeBron James and you stop the Heat. When Derrick Rose's knees go out, so too go the Chicago Bulls' championship hopes.
That's why Bulls fans dream about Carmelo Anthony.
Yes, you gotta have stars and the right head coach. But that's not enough. It's never been enough. Because the NBA is also a league of Taj Gibsons and Mike Wilhelms. The 26th pick who works his way into a big contract, and the assistant coach who helps him get there. These are the people who make the league go.
After Thursday's practice at the Berto Center, which followed a tight 94-92 victory in Toronto the night before, there were Gibson and Wilhelm working on post moves on a side basket.
Gibson has been one of the steadier Bulls during a season that began with such promise before Rose's season-ending injury. When given the chance to start, the founding member of the Bulls' "Bench Mob" has put up numbers more than worthy of the four-year, $38 million contract extension he signed last season.
Gibson has been a valuable defensive piece for the Bulls since his second season, when defensive guru Tom Thibodeau took over as head coach. But his offensive game has really blossomed this season for hard-charging Chicago, which goes into Friday's game a half-game out of third place in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls (28-25) have won four straight and are 14-7 since the Luol Deng trade that was supposed to send them spiraling into the lottery. Gibson hasn't exactly been the catalyst -- that would be Joakim Noah and D.J. Augustin -- but Gibson has been steady, with a few offensive explosions mixed in.
The 6-foot-9 Gibson is averaging 12. 8 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. As a bench player, he's averaging 11.7 points and 6 rebounds in 27 minutes. As a starter, in a small sample of eight games, he's averaging 19.3 points and 9.8 rebounds in 42.3 minutes.
Gibson's emergence as an offensive threat in the low blocks has been one of the rewards for watching Bulls games in a Rose-less season. I won't go as far as saying he's an untouchable, like Rose and Noah, but he's a candidate for sixth man of the year and in my mind, a future All-Star. If the Bulls can win a title in the Rose-Thibodeau era, they need Gibson.
"I don't think you could name five better low-post players in the NBA," Bulls center Nazr Mohammed said. "I'm dead serious. I'm talking about low-post guys in the block with their backs to the basket, scoring the ball. I think you'd have a hard time naming five in this new NBA where it's more face up and shoot."
But Gibson had an off night in Toronto, fouling out with 10 points and 3 rebounds in 26 minutes. Thibodeau let him know about it at practice.
"Today he told me he was frustrated with me because he felt I left a lot on the table [against Toronto]," Gibson said. "He said, 'Guys really can't guard you.' He wants to see me succeed and I just push myself every day in practice."
Gibson and Thibodeau are now very tight. They talk about basketball and New York City and Gibson, who turns 29 in June, calls Thibs a father figure.
But any conversation about Gibson's development as a player goes back to Wilhelm. Thibs delivers the message and Wilhelm helps craft the response.
The league is filled with unsung assistant coaches like Wilhelm -- in his ninth year with the Bulls -- who push good players to be great. Hey, that's what Tom Thibodeau was once upon a time.
"Coach Mike, he's from Cleveland, but he's no pushover, man," Gibson said. "He's tough. He's one of the coolest coaches. Everyone loves him. He's like a mini-version of Thibs, but he doesn't yell at you."
Gibson said he was used to getting yelled at by coaches. But nothing in his upbringing could truly prepare him for the Thibnado.
"It was scary at first because we didn't communicate at all," Gibson said. "The only time he communicated was when he yelled at me. He yelled at me a whole bunch."
Now, Gibson knows how to react.
"When he yells at me now, I just think happy thoughts, 'I got you,' " Gibson said. "But he understands now. When he yells at me I never question it. 'You're right, I've got to pick it up.' "
Gibson is known as being very agreeable with reporters, but he won't admit to wanting to start over Carlos Boozer, even though every backup wants to start. The two are friends, but everyone wants minutes. That's why Boozer recently campaigned for the fourth-quarter minutes that often go to Gibson.
"Anytime I'm in the game late, and I miss a tough shot or I miss a bad foul shot, and I'm down on myself and everyone's against me, he's the No. 1 guy I look to to help me," Gibson said. "He tells me to have my head up, tells me to shoot. I'm happy to have him start, because I get to come off the bench and go against the second unit. I have fun tearing the second unit up this year."
That kind of attitude is why Thibodeau's Bulls win under duress.
"Sometimes you have to sacrifice what might be best for yourself for what's best for the team," Thibodeau told reporters recently. "That's what I love about Taj. Taj could be upset he's not starting. He never complains. Whatever you ask him to do he just goes out there and does it. To me, what he does speaks volumes. He's not talking about it. He's going out there and doing it.''
Playing with a short roster that struggles mightily to score, Gibson's plus-minus and PER aren't very high, but he's starting to show in his fifth year that he was an absolute steal as the 26th pick of the 2009 draft.
The Bulls are running plays for him now, and he's shown that he has a reliable jumper as well as a bevy of post moves.
"I'm just getting more looks," he said. "I've been able to do this for awhile, in the NBA. It's always about the right timing. I put in a lot of work. Basically everything Thibs and Coach Mike told me to do, I did. It's showing right now."
Gibson knows he's lucky to have landed with the Bulls as they made their ascent. When asked why the Bulls have been so successful even when they're one of, if not the worst, offensive teams in basketball without Rose, Gibson said it's simple: They follow instructions.
"We really stick to the book," Gibson said. "A lot of teams really don't do what we do. We really look at the [pregame] board and we do everything that Thibs says. We stick to our guns and if they make tough shots, they make tough shots. But it's going to be tough to beat us down late, because we're going to give it our all. We play for each other. We have fun out there."
Gibson was coming off a tough season in 2013. Lingering knee and ankle injuries, made worse by early returns to action, mixed in with the weight of a new deal impeded his progress.
Now, that's all forgotten.
"It's fun man, I'm having fun," he said. "Like Coach Mike says to Coach Thibs, sometimes you just have to smile, man. Just smile and don't worry about the negatives."
That's good advice as the Bulls motor through the regular season and think about the playoffs. Rose isn't coming back, but that doesn't mean there isn't fun to be had.
7hChris Broussard and Brian Windhorst