Chicago Bulls

Taj Gibson, set for unrestricted free agency for first time, wants to remain with Bulls

Taj Gibson has survived near-annual trade rumors to become, in his eighth season, the longest-tenured Bull.

He’s also poised to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time next summer.

“Of course I want to stay here,” Gibson said in an interview with the Tribune.

Gibson is one of the most upbeat, positive personalities you will find in a professional locker room. He doesn’t do glum.

That’s why his pregame mood the night of Oct. 31, 2012, still stands out. Speaking before the season opener that year, Gibson dourly said he “highly doubted” he would accept the Bulls’ offer on an extension off his rookie contract.

Instead, Gibson wore a wide smile after the game when his Chicago-based agent Mark Bartelstein worked throughout the contest with Bulls management to secure a four-year, $33 million deal with incentives that could take it to $38 million. Gibson said he didn’t want to be viewed as “a selfish player” at the time.

“That was just stability,” Gibson said of the deal now. “I come from nothing. When I got that, I was blessed and also to be able to play for such a good organization.”

With his steady production in any role he is given, starting or coming off the bench, Gibson has largely outperformed the deal. And a second straight summer of a dramatic jump in the salary cap thanks to the new TV contract means plenty of money will be available for a strong power forward class that could feature Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka and Pau Gasol.

“The amount of money I’m seeing guys making is ridiculous. But I’m going to remain humble,” Gibson said. “I’m going to stay focused and know I was blessed to get that last deal I got.”

Gibson knows he took somewhat of a hometown discount when he signed his last deal. He also appreciates the rarity of being a one-franchise guy after watching once-entrenched teammates like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah eventually leave town.

How that dynamic plays out in free agency is anybody’s guess — if it gets that far. Management would like to re-sign Gibson, who will turn 32 in June. It felt this way even before Bobby Portis’ second-year struggles.

“The basketball gods always reward you. Just stay the course,” Gibson said. “I always just do my job and never be a distraction for my team. I’m blessed to be here a long time. I remember over the years a lot of trade rumors, a lot of times I thought I wasn’t going to make it through. They stayed with me. It speaks to my character.

“Right now, I just have to focus on doing my job and proving I can still play and be a front-line guy (as a starter) or off the bench.”

Gibson is certainly doing that. Fully healthy after June 2015 surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ankle that he played on, Gibson is averaging 12.1 points and a career-high 7.9 rebounds. His scoring average currently ranks the second-highest of his career and his 54.7 percent shooting is also a career-high.

“I feel great. I feel like I’m playing at a high level,” Gibson said. “My ankle is good. No injuries, thank God for right now. My ultimate goal is to get back to playing every game.”

Gibson has logged two 82-game seasons, missed only two games one season and three in another. His durability and ability to play through pain also make him attractive.

“Taj has been terrific. He’s a rock for us,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He does 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.”

That certainly sounds valuable.

kcjohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcjhoop

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