HUNCHED OVER, scrolling through notifications on his phone after playing 40 minutes, nine-year NBA veteran Taj Gibson, 32, sits at his locker stall. It’s nearly silent inside of the Wolves’ spacious new locker room; Jimmy Butler tweaked his back and the lowly Phoenix Suns stole another win, effectively ruining the first Statement Saturday that brought 18,000 eager fans to Target Center hoping to see an easy win in the bold Aurora Green Nike uniforms.
On this disappointing night in Minneapolis, Gibson looks exhausted, but mentally he remains sharp. It’s in moments like these that experience, wisdom, and leadership reveal themselves. “The NBA’s only number 67,” as first-year Wolves announcer Shawn Parker says during pre-game introductions, in honor of the Fort Greene projects where Gibson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, is often the best source of gauging the temperature of the team. Taj is honest yet diplomatic.
“I don’t know,” Gibson admits when asked why the Wolves struggle to bury teams like Phoenix after fast starts. While many players have little to say during tough times, Gibson can always be counted on to offer a substantive explanation.
“I didn’t like it from the jump,” he continues. “I felt we were getting a little loose on the bench. I felt it. It just didn’t feel right. We always do that. Seems like we get a good lead, go up 20 or maybe 15, we start feeling good and then just have a letdown. We let people get to their strengths sometimes. Like I said, a team when they’re losing their stars is always even more dangerous than when they have their stars because it gives other guys opportunities to show what they’re capable of doing.”
As another night at the office is coming to a close for one of the biggest free agent signings in franchise history, Gibson is the last player still around the locker room, a common occurrence this season. He takes his time to digest the loss, take a hot shower, occasionally ice his feet, and answer questions from the media. Once again, Gibson is going to war for his old coach, Tom Thibodeau, with Jimmy Butler in the fox hole alongside him like old times in the Windy City. It’s a familiar place, but an entirely new chapter that’s still being written.
THROUGH MONTHS of interactions and interviews, Gibson’s value as a player, teammate, and mentor, becomes as clear as the water in Jamaica where he spent the All-Star break recharging his batteries. Taj is well respected. He’s cool with everyone on the team, and the glue that hold things together. “Taj is huge for us,” superstar, and confidant, Jimmy Butler pointed out once again, after the Wolves got done smashing the Lakers on New Years’ Day.
“He does all the things that a lot of people in this league don’t want to do, and he doesn’t say a word about it, but that’s who Taj is. He’s a winner. Whatever you ask him to do, he’s going to do it to the best of his ability ... play hard, be really emotional ... if he don’t like something you’ll know he doesn’t like it. Taj is the glue guy that makes us go. He makes sure everything is running the correct way. We definitely need that guy.”
Nine days later, the Alpha-Wolf in the Minnesota locker room, Butler, returns to a similar refrain, almost as if he wants to make sure nobody forgets; everyone should be on the same page when it comes to understanding the impact Gibson has had between the white walls of the Target Center corridors. “Don’t forget about Taj,” Butler reminds the media gathered around his locker after a convincing 104-88 home win over Oklahoma City on January 10.
“Taj makes everybody’s job in here easier and he doesn’t get the amount of recognition that he deserves. Seriously, that dude doesn’t make many mistakes out there on the floor. He’s a quiet, energy guy. But he’s the one that really starts us out on that defensive end. Man, when he’s out there guarding, rebounding, and hustling the way he always does, it makes everyone’s job easier.”
Eventually after seeing hundreds of positive, impactful minutes up close, a nickname is born; Gibson is reminiscent of Mr. Clean, both for his bald, shiny head and distinct, powerful ability to clean up messes on a nightly basis for the Wolves.
He’s also tough, a trait that Thibodeau demanded the team add after his first season in charge. Time and time again, Thibodeau has talked about the toughness both Butler and Gibson have added to the team. The hope is that pays off in the postseason even more than it already has.
“He’s just tough, really tough,” says Thibs after a win in early January. “Mentally tough, physically tough, quick. He can guard on the perimeter. He adds a lot to the team, the way he plays. He’s got great quickness, he’s got great feet but there’s a toughness to him that makes him what we need, too.”
Gibson also starts fast. Most nights he goes to work in the first quarter which has given him a reputation for opening the game strong. “The one thing that you’ll find with Taj is that, whether he started or is coming off the bench, it doesn’t take him a long time to get going,” says Thibodeau.
“Some guys have to work their way into the game. That was never the case from the day he came into the league to now. His motor is great. As soon as he starts, he’s ready to go. You see that every day. When he comes into the gym to practice, he’s always got a bounce to him. It’s great energy and I think the team can feed off that energy.”
IN 61 GAMES, the former USC product—drafted 26th overall in 2009 by the Bulls—is having one of the best year’s of his career. His first season in Minnesota has been a smashing success. For starters, Thibodeau is living up to his reputation for leaning heavily on his starters, keeping the rotation tight and bench minutes sparse. And as a result, Gibson is on pace to shatter his minutes played record for a single season, 2,351 at age 28 in Chicago under Thibodeau, a season he played all 82 games. The only other year he has played over 2,000 minutes was his rookie campaign under Vinny Del Negro.
As of today, Gibson has logged 2,047 total minutes (33.6 per game) and he’s used that time to put together the strongest offensive season of his career. He’s averaging 12.4 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 blocks. Those are the second best marks in terms of points, rebounds, and assists that he’s averaged over an entire season.
Taj Gibson after the W over Milwaukee pic.twitter.com/tviiCbM7yS— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) February 2, 2018
Gibson’s 14 doubles-doubles surpass his totals over each of the last three years (11, 7, and 8) and he has a legitimate shot at toppling the all-time best 18 double-doubles posted in his rookie season, ‘09-’10, with the Bulls. Gibson’s 1.20 assist-to-turnover ratio is the second highest of his career (1.36 in ‘15-’16) and only the second time it’s been above 1.0 (career: 0.82).
Scoring wise, and this is where he’s been a star for the Wolves, Gibson is posting the highest True Shooting Percentage of his career by a country mile at 61.0 (third best on the team, while his career percentage is 53.8). This is fueled by the fact that he’s hitting 78.5 percent from 0-3 feet, and 45.5 percent of his shots are coming from this range. Taj is absolutely feasting in the paint. At the free throw line, where he’s attempting 2.2 freebies per game, he’s also hitting 78.0 percent, up almost 8 percent from his career average (70.2). In the previous three seasons, Gibson went 346-488 from the line in 213 games (70.9). To keep it simple, Mr. Clean is sticking to his strengths and hitting shots more than ever before.
LOOK AT OFFENSIVE BOX PLUS MINUS, a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player. Gibson is easily having his best offensive season ever. His +1.2 is the first time he’s even been in the positive. Before this season, his best mark was -0.1 in 2015-16. Last season, he was -3.9, and his career average is -1.5.
Always known more for defense, with a career DBPM of 1.5, Gibson has seen his offensive box score numbers skyrocket surrounded by all of the other talent in Minnesota, led by offensive studs Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. His Win Shares Per 48 minutes (WS/48) currently sits as .133—the NBA average WS/48 is always .100—the 4th best mark of his career and third best on the Timberwolves behind Towns (.227) and Butler (.202).
Gibson is third in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at 16.0—the league average is always 15.0—and, again, is third best on the team in On-Off at 11.0, meaning the Wolves are 11 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor than when he’s off. Butler (17.1) and Towns (13.7) being hugely net positives on the floor should be no surprise, but Gibson, in the minds of less interested parties, might be. He’s +6.6 points per 100 possessions on the court. He’s been the third best player on the Wolves.
BEFORE THE ALL-STAR BREAK, Gibson added another signature performance in what’s become the best offensive season of his career. With the Lakers in town, he finished the night with a career-high 28 points (11-16) in a win. It was his fifth 20+ point performance of the season and 20th game shooting 100 percent from the free throw line (6-6). Mr. Clean did his job, just as Thibs asks.
Many people, including me, doubted the front office when the team signed Gibson back in July.
Taj Gibson gives Wolves another player to show what Thibs wants on D but $14M per? NEED shooting+spacers. This $ should've gone to a wing.— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) July 2, 2017
We all get things wrong from time to time. It’s normal to admit mistakes. While I wasn’t completely off in my initial assessment, as in the Wolves still need more shooting and floor spacers on the wing and this was the money meant for it, the $14 million also went to exactly the right player.
When thinking back to this tweet, and after replaying this moment in my head, it’s hard not to smile and remind myself that people know way more than I do. To be honest, I didn’t want Taj Gibson. Who is the idiot now? Here I am writing about the talented Mr. Clean, a big man with a smile as long as his wingspan, with plenty of game to match.
When Gibson talks about leaving it all the court, I don’t think about $14 million. I think about Butler and Towns being surrounded by someone that makes them better.
“I was trying to leave it all on the court, just doing whatever I can to help the team,” Gibson says after another night of heavy minutes, under the coach trying to squeeze every last drop out of the established NBA vet, in an overtime loss against the 76ers. “It was a real intense game, a real physical game, and I don’t know what to say. It was like a real intense game. Playoff atmosphere, both teams just going at it, a lot of clashing and you’re going to leave it out there, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Maybe Gibson didn’t appear like such a powerful cleaning solution when Tom Thibodeau gave him $28 million over two years back in the summer, when the wing depth was, and is still is, a concern.
But, make no mistake, there’s a reason I’ve been calling him Mr. Clean whenever the opportunity has presented itself over the past few months. Gibson has a way of making plenty of messes go away, both on and off the court. The Wolves needed toughness, leadership, and communication as much as anything else. They needed a vet who could could still produce. Sitting in my apartment on a Friday night, tweeting stuff like this below, absolutely would never happen unless my expectations were completely blown away.
Opinion (and future article): Taj Gibson is the most underrated baller in the Association— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) January 13, 2018
Earlier this month, the Wolves’ secret star, backup point guard Tyus Jones, said Gibson is the person that truly got him into the routine of lifting immediately after games. Jones doesn’t do it after every contest, but more often than not he’s hitting the weights for about 15 minutes after the final buzzer. Other players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Marcus Georges-Hunt join in.
The Wolves’ bigs—namely Towns, Gibson, Dieng and Bjelica—have also been screaming out pick-and-roll coverages, displaying great communication on the defensive end, more than ever before. It’s that “ELC!” that @JimPeteHoops, @brittrobson, and others have discussed. Early. Loud. Continuous. That’s really the only way to stop the pick-and-roll these days.
When thinking about strong communication, veteran leadership, and having someone who can execute on and off the court, one player always comes to mind.
I call him Mr. Clean.