The Timberwolves’ pockets were still $22 million deep after trading for Jimmy Butler during the 2017 NBA draft. It was plenty to sign a sharpshooter, which had been the roster’s biggest shortcoming for years. But Minnesota head coach–president Tom Thibodeau followed his heart instead, signing Taj Gibson to a two-year, $28 million deal. Gibson had made four 3-pointers during his then-eight-year career, but the ex-Bulls coach couldn’t resist adding yet another former player, and so Minnesota used a large chuck of its spending money to acquire the big man.
I witnessed Gibson nailing both of the perimeter shots he attempted in a Lakers-Wolves preseason game in Anaheim. Maybe he tried them because Thibodeau was still searching for the floor spacing he needed. (Thibs would later say that Taj learning to shoot the corner 3 “adds a lot.” Signing someone who already knew how to shoot the corner 3 would have added even more.) Maybe Gibson watched Shabazz Muhammad getting shots up, realized the Wolves’ reserve “scoring” option was making 21.1 percent of his deep shots, and took on the burden of learning how to shoot himself. Either way, Gibson’s shooting experiment didn’t last long (he’s made 20 percent of his 0.4 attempts per game this season) but it showed Minnesota something about the 32-year-old veteran: He is the platonic ideal of a glue guy.
No board goes unhunted. No screen isn’t set. He’s the first responder when one of the young guys has a defensive lapse. But compared to the noise Butler makes, the highlights from Karl-Anthony Towns, and the chatter around Andrew Wiggins, Gibson’s contributions are often anonymous donations.
But the lack of attention has been to his benefit. Sharing the court with Butler, Wiggins, Towns, and Jeff Teague has earned Gibson the Most Likely to be Left Wide the F Open superlative in the Wolves’ yearbook. When Gibson’s interior defender roams too far—another positive from Towns’s ability to stretch out to the perimeter—feeding Gibson underneath the basket is easy money. As a result, Gibson is the most efficient scorer on Minnesota’s roster, making a team- and career-high 58.1 percent of his shots. He trails only Towns, who has rotated between being a first and second option, for the most points in the paint.
Despite the newfound glory on offense, Gibson still hustles like he’s last in the team’s hierarchy. He’s far more capable on offense than an Andre Roberson or a Tony Allen or maybe even a DeMarre Carroll of old, but he’s remained vocal about not caring about shots or playing time. Keep your eyes on Minny’s least exciting starter for an entire game and you’ll witness an expert in Thibodology—Gibson knows his spots, never camps out in the half court, and never idles up or down the court. Transition scoring is not Gibson’s speciality, but he’s always the first man tailing his teammate on the fast break, and ready to fight for a rebound and a second-chance opportunity.
Only two teammates have run more total miles on the court this season, and both (Towns and Wiggins) are at least nine years younger. Even Gibson’s contemporaries can’t keep up: The only players from the 2009 draft who have covered more ground this season are Jrue Holiday and DeMar DeRozan. And Gibson, who was 24 years old during his rookie season with the Bulls, is older than all of them.
Call it the Thibodeau effect (or defect, depending on what you think of his minutes distribution). Gibson is four games away from playing in all 82 for the first time in four years. His mileage and his minutes—he’s averaging 33.5 minutes a game, the most playing time of his career, for a total of 2,613 minutes, the 14th-most in the league—are ominous stats for anyone under Thibs’s wing. But it’s likely that Gibson earned his contract with the Wolves for that very reason. In 2015, when he was still with the Bulls, Gibson told the media that he had been playing with a Stage 2 ligament tear in his left hand for four weeks. He was Thibodeau’s “warrior.”
Butler, his other warrior, is often praised for that same intensity and selflessness. Wiggins, for example, is noticeably better with Butler’s passing on the floor. But Gibson is content with setting up the setup or cleaning up afterward. Though only 6-foot-9, he’s tied with Clint Capela for 20th in average second-chance points.
Minnesota was nearly as deprived of rebounding as it was outside shooters last season (though the former became a far bigger issue with each Muhammad brick). The issue became especially glaring on the defensive end, as the Wolves wound up grabbing the second-fewest defensive rebounds in the NBA last season.
Gibson’s imprint is now on every square foot of the defense, including the boards. He doesn’t have the height of last season’s starter, 6-foot-11 Gorgui Dieng, but is more versatile and has quicker feet. When bigs back down Towns in the post, Gibson shifts over as an undersized but effective last line of defense. He’s as comfortable guarding 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder as he is 7-foot Lauri Markkanen. Towns’s defensive improvements this season give Thibodeau reason to be optimistic for the future, though that too might be a result of Gibson and his tough love:
A veteran willing to do the dirty work on both ends is key for any team, but it’s pivotal for a younger Timberwolves team featuring star players who have been linked to effort issues. Gibson isn’t flashy, and he certainly isn’t Butler, but he was a needed and underappreciated offseason signing. That’s been clear of late, with Butler still iffy on a return date, and the franchise so close to breaking its 14-year playoff drought. Behind every blockbuster trade for an MVP candidate, there’s a Taj Gibson to fill in the gaps around him.