Super-Secret Stat: In the 747 minutes they played together last season for the Chicago Bulls, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik allowed a defensive rating of 86.4. That number was the Bulls’ best among their top 25 most-used tandems and 8.9 points better than the team’s league-leading mark of 95.3.
Analysis: We’ll find out a lot about the Chicago Bulls and Tom Thibodeau this season, a team that will play without the 2011 MVP for half the year and one whose roster underwent a dramatic, if understated, overhaul in the offseason. Frankly, if this were most any other organization with most any other coach at the helm, preseason prognostications predicting a Chicago playoff run in 2013 would be blasphemous. But this is the Rose-era Bulls and this is Thibodeau, and to expect such a significant drop-off isn’t prudent even given the new challenges this team will face once training camp opens in two weeks.
And putting the extended leave of Rose aside, there isn’t a bigger one than how the Bulls will adjust to playing without the departed Omer Asik, one of basketball’s most effective defenders and free agent signee of the Houston Rockets. It sounds funny to say that the absence of a player who averaged just 15 minutes per game last season could have such a profound impact on a top-tier team like Chicago, especially when he’s a backup to one of the league’s best young centers in Joakim Noah. But that’s how good Asik was defensively in his carefully managed minutes last season; he made Noah – a stellar, versatile interior defender that oft serves as Chicago’s on-court pulse – a fairly regular spectator down the stretch of close games.
But there’s a caveat here and it’s big, one that will prove instrumental in Asik’s career development as a Rocket and, more important for the purpose of this post, what it means for the Bulls in this season and ones to follow. It’s today’s super-secret stat and whether or not Taj Gibson will be able to continue his nearly unmatched defensive prowess without the help of his Turkish frontcourt mate.
With Gibson’s continued development and the ever-underwhelming defense of Carlos Boozer last season, calls for increased minutes for the former were no longer hushed and ever-prevalent. The difference in the Bulls team speed, quickness, and defense was clear as day to the naked eye when Gibson replaced Boozer in the lineup, and advanced statistics painted a very similar picture. But this is where the need to dig even deeper into these complicated metrics is pertinent, because the numbers of Gibson were supplemented by the fact he played the majority of his minutes alongside Asik and vice-versa. 58% of Gibson’s floor-time was spent with Asik, and even more with the face-lifted group of Chicago’s defensively dominant bench units.
The Bulls signed veteran center Nazr Mohommed in the offseason to replace Asik, but logical signs point to Thibodeau shortening his post rotation in the long haul to a Noah-Boozer-Gibson triumvirate, and play smaller with Luol Deng at the 4 more frequently, too. So, with an expanded role and Asik wreaking havoc in Houston, will Gibson’s huge defensive – and overall, it should be noted – impact carry over into 2013?
There’s no way to tell for sure, but his limited time on the floor with Noah last season is of great interest nonetheless. The two yielded a defensive rating of 93.7 in 311 minutes last season, an exceptional mark still better than Chicago’s top-ranked average but one that pales in comparison to that of Gibson-Asik. But just as important, the Bulls enjoyed a huge uptick offensively with Gibson-Noah manning the paint; their offensive rating in that same timeframe was an awesome 109.4.
Like with any roster change, it appears there is give and take with Asik’s departure. Smallish historical sample size tells us when Gibson is on the floor in 2012-2013 the Bulls won’t be so otherworldly on defense but will be better on the other end, a take-off Thibodeau and company could surely stomach. But there are just too many ancillary factors at play here – no Rose, new bench pieces, Deng’s health – to say that development is likely, meaning Chicago needs to pay close attention to Gibson’s effectiveness to keep pace in the East.