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Taj Gibson: The New Traditional Big In Minnesota

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With the signing of Taj Gibson, Thibs and the Wolves have zigged while the league has zagged away from using two traditional big men.

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

This summer, when the Wolves signed Taj Gibson to a two-year deal worth $28 million, the move was not a hit in the Minnesota community. While by most accounts Gibson seemed to be a solid starting forward, there were numerous holes to be poked in the move ranging from the price to Gibson’s age. But nothing was questioned more than Thibodeau who, yet again, seemed to have been most focused on bringing in a player he had previously coached.

These questions felt warranted by fans as there had been endless reports linking the Wolves to players Thibodeau had coached in Chicago. In the 17 months Thibs has been on the job, any rumor that didn’t include a former Bulls player was almost an unexpected treat. The team even gathered the nickname of the “TimberBulls” through the noise.

This narrative began shortly after Thibs was hired as he began the recruiting efforts of Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. Though neither player signed in Minnesota the story continued as the Derrick Rose movement commenced around the February trade deadline. Again, this move centered on a Rose for Ricky Rubio swap did not come to fruition, leading many to question if this wasn’t fake news created by the media.

But then the Wolves acquired Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Aaron Brooks this summer while reports of Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, and Nate Robinson created a buzz of the Chicago glory days reunion.

Incorporating a certain type of nepotism is not a characteristic unique to Thibodeau. Infamously, Doc Rivers implemented a similar type of partisanship when he became the President of Basketball Operations in Los Angeles in 2013. Rivers consistently rounded out the Clippers bench with players he formerly coached in Boston, like Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Glen Davis, and Jeff Green. Or players who were once dynamic opponents of those Celtics teams such as Lance Stephenson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Danny Granger. (Not to mention the $35.5 million contract he gave his son, Austin, in the 2016 offseason.)

Almost all of these moves by Rivers seemed to be a product of the past, of poor logic and flawed thinking, and ultimately failed to surround Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Deandre Jordan, and J.J. Redick with capable role players. The ensuing ineffectiveness of their bench factored into the Clippers inability to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs in any of the four years Rivers was at the helm. This apparent ineptitude in roster construction led the Clippers organization to strip Rivers of his decision making powers this summer, relegating him exclusively to the role of Head Coach.

There is serious doubt whether giving one person both roles can work in today’s NBA. There is simply not enough time in the day to coach a team while familiarizing oneself with the massive player pool of basketball players worldwide.

The question for the Wolves becomes this: should Thibodeau’s affinity to his former players be looked at as an ineffective corner cut similar to Rivers in L.A.?

Playing Two Traditional Big Men

No signing in the Thibodeau-era seems to be more in line with the Rivers-style of move than Gibson. At 32-years-old, he is definitively past his prime and as a power forward is a bit of a dinosaur in the modern NBA (at least offensively). For a team that was dead last in three-point attempts and makes last season, signing a 32-year-old who has made four total threes in their career is at the very least questionable.

Even if Gibson has not lost a step from his time in Chicago, his signing triggers the more existential question about playing two traditional bigs together at all times. With Gibson, the Wolves are all but locked into a season where the majority of the power forward and center minutes will be played by Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gorgui Dieng.

While Towns is a big man cheat code on offense — shooting 43.4 percent from three and 72.2 percent from the restricted area after the all-star break last season — pairing him with frontcourt partners who only stretch out to 16-feet limits the spacing of the offense.

The counter-argument is that the Wolves have had success with two traditional bigs. Last season, the Wolves offense was still relatively effective — 10th-best in the NBA — despite playing Dieng, a low-volume threat from deep who averaged one made three every five games. The backup bigs (Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Aldrich) also did not effectively spread the floor. Bjelica was an ineffective deep-threat at 31.6 percent from three and Aldrich was a complete non-threat to shoot any jumper.

Gibson on Defense

But the offense worked. The most prevalent issue for the bigs was not spacing or anything related to the offense, it was defense. The Wolves fourth-worst defense in the league was dragged down by Towns who often seemed lost and by Dieng who was playing out of position at power forward.

Gibson will help both of those issues by teaching Towns and by sliding Dieng back to his natural position of center.

Despite Gibson’s age, the preseason has suggested his athleticism does not seem to have taken a hit. Most notably, he has shown the ability to keep squared with his man while moving his feet quickly enough to keep pace on drives.

On this play during the Wolves first preseason game against the Lakers, Gibson is isolated on the uber-athletic Brandon Ingram. While the result of the play goes in Ingram’s favor, Gibson stays squared up enough to slow the drive in a way that forces Ingram to make a high-level of difficulty move that splits Gibson and the help defense of Dieng.

These days, the power forward position is a new beast to defend. The position features players with the athleticism of an Ingram but also the size of Gibson.

Nightly, Gibson will draw opponents the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons not to mention old faces like Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis who have shifted into the position since the start of last season. Gibson will not shut down these players, no one can. However, having a strong and agile defender will be an immense difference from the ways in which Towns and Dieng defended, specifically on the perimeter.

Gibson on Offense

Gibson is, of course, a different archetype of big man than Towns but also differentiates himself from Dieng. Bigs who do not stretch the floor tend to be placed into one bin but with Gibson and Dieng this is too simplistic of a distinction.

Dieng relies on finesse in the post and a catch-and-shoot jumper from the midrange. Conversely, Gibson is a barreling force towards the rim with a midrange jumper he uses as a secondary weapon.

Last season, 28.1 percent of Dieng’s total field goal attempts were deep twos (from 16-feet and beyond). Gibson shot only 13.1 percent of his total shots from that distance and during his last season with Thibodeau in Chicago (2014-15), that number was a minuscule 8.1 percent.

While both players live in the mid-post, rather than catching and shooting (like Dieng), Gibson looks to attack off the catch. Last season, only 4.0 percent of his Dieng’s shots came after multiple dribbles whereas Gibson pounded the rock before 16.3 percent of his shot attempts, per NBA.com’s tracking data.

A specific action that will differentiate the two is the pick and roll. Dieng has shown a propensity to “pop” in PnR action where Gibson tends to extend the flow of the play towards the rim. Here, you can see him set a screen and catch on the roll at 15-feet. Rather than shooting, Gibson opts to continue his momentum towards the rim for the finish.

Simply put: Gibson is an at (and above) the rim type of player. He frequents the “dunker spot” near the rim where he can be found as a secondary option for most actions. If he catches a smaller player on him there, he will about-face into a traditional post-up.

Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder had so much faith in Gibson’s ability to punish smaller defenders that they used him early and often (literally the first play of the game) as a counter to the Houston Rockets small ball unit in the Western Conference Playoffs.

The Rockets were concerned enough about Gibson’s ability to crush Anderson in the post that they would consistently send James Harden as the double-team defender. Harden actually gets a piece of Gibson’s initial shot attempt in the below clip but he was only able to go this far due to the complete lack of shooting ability from Andre Roberson.

When Gibson is surrounded by legitimate shooters (like Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler) defenses will need to pick their poison between a one-on-one Gibson post up or an open three after a kick out from Gibson. He does so here when Nikola Mirotic’s man helps in the post.

Again, to compare to Dieng, Gibson relies on power rather than finesse and fancy footwork inside. His moves are not meant to fool the defender but rather to overpower them. Switch a smaller defender onto Gibson and he will demand the ball in the post. Double him there and he will pass. Just because Gibson does not shoot threes does not make him inefficient. What he lacks in stretchiness, he makes up for in facilitation and by taking high quality looks at the rim.

Shaping the Identity of the Team

On the defensive end, he is an undeniable improvement in the landscape of the Wolves bigs. Thibs has lauded Gibson as one of the best pick and roll defenders he has ever seen. If this is merely a hyperbolic flash in his memory than this free agent TimberBull move will be compared to Rivers’ moves in Los Angeles. However, if he is correct, there is a green pasture ahead.

Which brings us here: the Wolves are constructed similarly to the San Antonio Spurs, another team that (at least to some extent) imbues their head coach, the incomparable Gregg Popovich, with personnel power.

A dominant two-way superstar at the small forward position surrounded by ball-dominant wings and a frontcourt of big men who theoretically defend and shoot midrange jump shots on offense.

The parallels of Parker-Ginobili-Leonard-Aldridge-Gasol to Teague-Wiggins-Butler-Gibson/Dieng-Towns are there.

As the Spurs rely heavily on creation from Kawhi Leonard, the Wolves will do the same with Butler. And as LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol helped pump the Spurs to lead the league in midrange jumpers, the Wolves will likely emulate that with Gibson, Dieng, and Towns.

The Wolves biggest Spurs-ian desire will, however, be to dominate the defensive end. San Antonio has had the best defensive rating in the league the last two years, doing so while consistently playing two traditional bigs.

Sure, having the President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach being one in the same may no longer be in vogue and neither is playing two traditional bigs but the Spurs have done both to the tune of 128 wins over the past two seasons.

Yes, the execution of the Spurs and Wolves is not even a comparison but listen to one Tom Thibodeau press conference and it is clear that execution is the single biggest point of emphasis in his system. A free-flowing offense that jacks threes is not the goal in Minnesota, perfecting the details is.

The Taj Gibson signing is a final stamp on the notion that Thibs does not want to be the Golden State Warriors. Gibson, Butler, Thibs, and crew have instead asserted that the TimberBulls will be emulating Pop and the boys in San Antonio. If it works, the TimberBulls narrative will dissipate and the Wolves will simply be known as a contender in the West who is coached by a man who used to coach in Chicago. Here’s to hoping Thibs is Pop and not Doc.