June 5, 2018, 9:08 pm
The next part of our player spotlight series leads to the Wolves’ power-forward and Tom Thibodeau favorite Taj Gibson.
As part of the overhaul last offseason, with the Wolves transitioning from a young, up-and-coming team to a veteran-laden group, Thibs brought in one of his most trusted role players from his Bull-era to smooth the process. Gibson was a valuable piece off the bench for much of his time in Chicago as a reliable defender, good locker room presence and a certain toughness off the bench.
The Wolves already had Gorgui Dieng who started ever game last season next to Karl-Anthony Towns, but Thibs desired a veteran that knew his system and the the stakes at hand for a potential playoff team.
Dieng performed admirably next to Towns on both sides of the ball. He tackled the toughest defensive assignment on a nightly basis and offensively was efficient, even as a mild floor-spacer. Add in Justin Patton as the team’s lottery pick, Nemanja Bjelica as the stretch big off the bench and Cole Aldrich on an expensive contract, when Gibson was brought in many felt the move was redundant.
Certainly Gibson was still highly valued and his skills still useful, but it seemed like the money could have been better used elsewhere (like on the wing, for instance).
Quite conversely, Gibson stepped right in and had a career-best season; he was one of the more valuable Wolves on the entire roster. Dieng completely lost his mojo, Bjelica was able to play some at the wing, Patton was injured and Aldrich was abandoned. The Wolves needed Gibson more than anyone realized, and by the end of the season finished as their third or fourth best player, depending what you value most.
2017/18 Stats: 82 G | 82 GS | 33.2 MP | 12.2 PTS | 7.1 REB | 1.2 AST | 0.8 STL | 0.7 BLK | 1.1 TOV | 57.7 FG% | 20.0 3P% | 76.8 FT% | 58.1 eFG% | 14.7 USG% | 112 ORate | 107 DRate
For much of his career, Gibson has been more of a defensive specialist and a negative on offense. His career scoring average of 9.7 points per game isn’t anything special and he’s basically relied on put-backs, post moves and a shaky-at-best jump shot that he would occasionally fall in love with.
Before the season started, the big question for the Wolves was where would the spacing come from? Towns was already the team’s best shooter from distance, but he was also the best guy in the post. Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague were all better suited for the interior game as well, and aren’t what one would consider traditional floor-spacers.
That’s what made Gibson’s fit even more questionable. If he was suddenly asked to shoot more jump shots, would his already inefficient offense get worse, and would his slipping defense make up for it?
The Wolves were able to make it work, though. Gibson, Teague and Towns left the middle of the floor open for Wiggins and Butler, while the trio just stuck to their strengths. Specifically, Gibson would set up on the block and, if called upon, take the majority of his shots from there.
Gibson just, more-or-less, cut the long range two out of his game and ended up shooting a career-high percentage from the interior. It led to his second-highest point per game total of his career, despite becoming more one-dimensional. He simplified his offense and it paid off major dividends.
There were times Gibson would still have to stretch the floor, but it was not often a play the Wolves would look for, especially with so many talented offensive players. Gibson just became so reliable around the rim that he was able to post his most efficient season of his career, as you can see from his shot chart courtesy of NBA.com/stats.
Offensively Gibson was a major surprise. His efficiency was a major reason the Wolves ranked fourth in the NBA in offense. Despite his questionable fit there, his knowledge of Thibs’ system and rapport with Butler made the adjustment faster and more effectively than anticipated.
Defensively he fit right in, even if there were some issues for him. On a team that lacked many impact defensive players, Gibson was a welcome addition. Like the worry of spacing on offense, there was also a question of whether Gibson was fit to guard modern NBA power forwards who tend to space the floor and play off the dribble more.
When the Wolves faced off with the likes of Ryan Anderson, Tobias Harris and Dario Saric, Gibson struggled to stay home on the 3-point shooters and would get torched from beyond the arc.
Outside of that aspect of his game, Gibson was the best post defender on the team. He would occasionally take on the best big, relieving KAT of those duties, and find success. The team’s defensive rating fell to 111 when he stepped off the floor and his presence was always noticeably absent. Gibson is far from the defender he was in Chicago, but it says a lot about his teammates that he still was the best defender down low.
Gibson is basically the quintessential ‘glue guy,’ the player who quietly chips in across the board that you can’t live without but may not realize the impact. With Gibson you don’t have to worry about a lack of effort, or some drama between teammates. He may not be perfect, but his contributions outweigh the downfalls.
Even though Thibs is continuously criticized (fairy) for simply bringing his old Bulls’ gang back together, Gibson was a piece that pleasantly surprised in the end and deserves to be held over the ‘Timber-Bulls’ skepticism.
Gibson signed a two-year, $28 million contract last summer with an even $14 million cap hit both seasons. At 33 years old next season, Gibson has proven that he’s still a valuable commodity in the right scenarios. He was certainly one of the furthest things wrong with the Wolves last season and it would be tough to find an upgrade that is worthwhile, given the cost.
As a close compadre to Thibodeau, it’s highly unlikely that Gibson’s expiring salary is used in some sort of trade, but the fact still remains that the Wolves are in a tight spot financially and Gibson is one of their few friendly contracts on the books.
It would be a tough pill to swallow to see Gibson shipped off in some greater trade, especially given the uncertainty surrounding Dieng, Patton and Bjelica, but it might end up being a necessary one.
There’s also some concern about his regression. Having a breakthrough offensively at age 32 might rise some red flags in regards to it’s longevity. With his defense noticeably slipping over the years, if his offense reverts back to being below average the Wolves may be looking at mid-season upgrades.
In the end the Wolves will likely do everything they can to unload Dieng before they consider their options with Gibson. Taj can still be a fine backup in this league if his offense slips up next season, and if Dieng gets wiped off the books the Wolves will have some flexibility to add a cheaper big in free agency, perhaps a guy like Ed Davis, Luc Mbah a Moute or Dewayne Dedmon.
The Wolves were much better with Taj Gibson this past season, and they would be wise to keep see his contract through.