Watch CBS News

Westerlund: Pau Gasol-Taj Gibson Pairing Helps Bulls Find Stability

By Cody Westerlund--

(CBS) After his team's sixth consecutive win had been secured Thursday night in a 101-92 victory against the Celtics at the United Center, Bulls wing Jimmy Butler was asked if he liked how Chicago had responded in recent weeks after the lackluster loss at New York on Dec. 19. That, of course, was when Butler created a good deal of controversy with critical comments of first-year coach Fred Hoiberg.

"Man, that was a long time ago," Butler said.

The NBA sure does comes at you fast.

It was just 13 days ago that Chicago was 15-11 entering a Christmas Day showdown at Oklahoma City while playing some of the league's most uninspiring basketball. Amid outside observers' hysteria regarding Chicago's play were calls for an infusion of new blood via the trade market (and Bobby Portis, but that's for another story).

Executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson emphasized the Bulls were "looking at everything," and the team was open to moving Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson out of a potentially crowded frontcourt, according to reports. Some even wondered what the market would be for Pau Gasol, who's indicated he intends to opt out of his contract at season's end.

Since Christmas morning, the Bulls have gone 7-1, climbed to second place in the East at two-and-a-half games behind the Cavaliers, continued to play solid defense and have run scored 100-plus points in nine consecutive games, their longest streak since 1995.

There are many reasons for Chicago's improvement, notably Butler's elite play and Derrick Rose's improved finishing in the paint. Another one that needs noted is the pairing of Gasol and Gibson as frontcourt starters, which took effect Dec. 9.

The advanced numbers aren't gaudy – the duo has a plus-3.5 two-man net rating since Hoiberg inserted Gibson into the starting lineup – but they've provided stability, and success has followed in the form of an 11-4 record with them together (Gasol rested for one game during that span).

Most importantly, the two complement each other. Defensively, Gasol's a quality rim protector but a liability when put in the pick-and-roll, while Gibson's adept at chasing foes out to the 3-point line. In the half-court game, Gasol loves operating in the high post in the pick-and-pop game – he's not much for rolling – while Gibson's hobbies are bee-lining to the rim for alley-oop chances and crashing the glass.

Gasol's averaging 18.9 points on 48 percent shooting and 11.1 rebounds since Gibson entered the starting lineup. Gibson's averaging 8.8 points on nearly 57 percent shooting and 8.2 rebounds in that time frame.

"Taj does whatever is needed to win, all the dirty work that you can say a lot of guys don't want to do – set great screens, get a loose ball, get a tough rebound," Butler said. "I think every team needs that. We need that from him."

Referencing the transition game, Hoiberg has lauded Gibson for his rim running, which opens up secondary break options. It's a job the Bulls power forwards must do, because the veteran Gasol has made pacing himself into an art form, occasionally not even reaching half-court in mid-game sequences if he knows he knows those breaths can be better used in crunch time.

"Taj is working hard," Gasol said. "He's a guy that just goes out there and competes, doesn't need a lot of shots, doesn't create a lot of attention. He just does what he needs to do. He's doing a great job. We play well together."

No Bull has found himself the subject of trade rumors more often in recent years than the 30-year-old Gibson, who has one year and about $9 million left on his contract after this season. And because Gasol's slow-footed defense is easy fodder, the perception exists by some that his value could somehow be easily replaced.

The reality is it'd be imprudent – barring a really favorable offer, which isn't likely in a market that has more demand for wing players than supply – for the Bulls to move Gasol or Gibson. Gasol's been their second-best player behind Butler. The Bulls also need to keep the future in mind – Gasol and Noah could each walk as free agents this offseason, so having Gibson under a team-friendly deal through the end of the 2016-'17 season with a skyrocketing salary cap is valuable.

None of this is to say the Bulls have become a championship contender, but with the way the Warriors and Spurs are playing, there probably isn't a single move to be made that would lift the Bulls to that level, and 22-12 teams don't embark on rebuilds.

What's going on now is progress. It seems most reasonable to keep building off that.

For his part, the team's most vocal leader believes the Bulls have found a winning formula.

"I love the group of guys that we have," Butler said. "We're going to win."

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.