By Jake Paynting
When Taj Gibson arrived in the Twin Cities after signing a two-year $14 million contract this summer, there was mixed reactions around the Timberwolves fan base. Questions rightly flew around about why the money wasn't used on a 3-point shooting wing, while others were quick to defend Tom Thibodeau's decision to bring his former Bulls bench spark to the Land Of 10,000 Lakes.
Now, with his first season in the books, there should be no more questions about the importance of Taj Gibson to this Wolves squad. He produced more than anyone - maybe even including himself - could have predicted or expected.
However maybe we should have, the 32-year-old told us exactly what he was going to bring when he attended his first interview with Timberwolves radio announcer Alan Horton before his inaugural Wolves season tipped off.
"Guys can tend to enjoy playing with me because of how unselfish i am. I try to be a veteran, try to be a guy that tries to help guys learn. I'm capable of playing any situation ... it's all about really winning with me," he said.
After 87 games, that isn't a typo he really played every single game, it's safe to say that Gibson brings that unselfishness, veteran presence and winning traits that he promised us he would. What was unexpected though is the pure productiveness the nine year vet would bring.
Chicago fans and anyone who had previously watched Taj Gibson knew what he was about offensively well before he headed north to join his former coach in Minnesota. the 6-foot-9 bruiser stays in his lane, using a combination of post scoring, mid-range jumpers and hard cutting to get his sprinkling of points each and every night, hard hat and lunch pail included.
His 2017-18 season was exactly that, just on steroids.
Gibson dropped 12.2 points per game, his highest per game average since he scored 13 a night back in 13-14', the amazing thing is the aging forward's shooting percentages didn't drop, they actually increased exponentially.
The big man's 57.7 percent shooting from the field annihilates his previous career-best (52.6%) and despite shooting and missing more than double the amount of 3-pointers than ever before, Gibson still finished with an effective field goal percentage (58.1%) almost 6 percentage points higher than his previous benchmark. For reference, that's around the same difference between Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant.
This increased efficiency is largely the result of coach Thibs allowing Gibson to flourish in post-up situations. With Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns usually sharing the court, opposing teams can't afford to send an extra man over to help Gibson's primary defender, leaving Gibson to feast.
On one post-up, he will probe into the middle and rip a left shoulder spin to bamboozle the defender and get an easy bucket, the next he will aggressively attack the middle and put up a hook shot that floats through the hoop like a snowflake floating through Downtown Minneapolis. A truly elite post talent that Timberwolves fans have grown to admire.
While Gibson lacks the range or ball handling to beat opposing defenders from outside, he does have something going for him every time he steps on to the court - he is going to work his butt off on every single play.
Running the floor and finding himself in a position to get easy points is a specialty for the veteran. While rival big men tend to take plays off in transition, Gibson excels on the run. His 69.2 percent field goal percentage and 1.30 points per possession rank the human hard hat in the 86th percentile for transition basketball, according to NBA stats.
In summary, Taj Gibson was an unexpected surprise on the offensive end this season. His continuous hard work earned him big minutes and big respect around the organization.
While Gibson's offensive brilliance was unheralded for him coming into the 2017-18 campaign, his defensive toughness and versatility has been his calling card since he was a 22-year-old emerging out of the University of Southern California. Now 32-years-old, Gibson doesn't seem like he has lost a single step.
He was the perfect option for the defense-crazy Tom Thibodeau, with his ability to guard bigs effectively and switch onto guards and contain them being a major key in helping the Timberwolves on the less flashy end of the floor. Had the big man not been around, Minnesota's 22nd ranked defense may have actually been worse.
As you can see from his defensive highlight reel above, Gibson does it all. He has quick, active hands, the will to bang with the big boys down low and still enough athleticism and timing to tee up some swats.
While the veteran's defensive rating (107.1) isn't at the elite level it has been in previous seasons, the trio of lineups that regularly featured Gibson (starters, starters with Jones instead of Teague and starters with Bjelica instead of Butler) posted an average rating of 101. That would have ranked as the best defense in the league if the defense didn't crumble when Gibson and the rest of the starters sat.
And of course, there was the steal from Nikola Jokic to seal one of the most memorable Timberwolves triumphs in franchise history.
Much like his offensive season, Gibson was great on the defense, It was a joy to watch the work he put it this season on both ends.
Let's hope that he can come back and provide the same sort of impact in his sophomore Minnesota season.