The takes have rained down since the Timberwolves not only traded for Jimmy Butler but also signed Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague in free agency. The joke going around has been that the Timberwolves look like a team built for the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, an allusion to their perceived lack of perimeter shooting and spacing. Though Teague ostensibly was brought in over departing Ricky Rubio for his shooting, he is far from a volume 3 point maker. Teague has shot 35.5% for his career and has never attempted more than 3.5 3’s per game in a single season. Butler and Wiggins similarly live at the line, not downtown. And though Towns has a good stroke his value declines if turned into a glorified spot-up shooter.
So starting a power forward in Taj Gibson who is one of the few “traditional” fours in the league, ground-bound, and non-shooting – seemed like further evidence of Thibodeau's regressive thinking.
This is Thibodeau's first time running a front office, but his experience as a coach has clearly guided his team building philosophy. Thibodeau revolutionized NBA defense, particularly by popularizing the emphasis on “to 2.9”, the amount of time that a player can legally occupy the key before leaving or guarding an opponent. But he has been criticized for failing to keep up with other rapidly modernizing elements of the game, including playing players heavy minutes loads that some speculate lead to an increased likelihood of injury and what seems like a reluctance to embrace 3 point shooting as much as the rest of the league.
But there are signs that this might be changing.
In all likelihood, if you saw a Taj Gibson 3 point make last year, it was this one.
But Gibson has slowly and steadily been expanding his range towards both corners for a number of years now and every indication is that this will continue. Below is his 2016-17 shot chart.
If that doesn’t look particularly impressive, next look at his shot charts from 2014-15 and 2015-16. They show a clear trend of increasing volume, distance, and eventually a rise in efficiency towards the corners.
Check out 2014-15.
And finally look at 2016-17 again.
Last season was more or less the first year Gibson attempted shooting 3’s at all. And though the results weren’t great (2/ 7 from the left corner and 0/4 from the right) judging by his offseason training with NBA skills development trainer Chris Johnson Gibson has clearly emphasized adding the long ball to his game. As seen in action below (courtesy of the Basketball&More YouTube account).
So far at least, it is paying off in the preseason, where Taj has made (small sample size alert!) 3 of 5 3 pointers, all from the corners. Taj missed his 2 attempts from the corners on Wednesday night, but it’s clear that he has the green light from Thibs and will continue to fire away from deep.
Taj Gibson is a plus defender and is very efficient around the basket, in addition, he is a steadying presence for a team that is full of young and inexperienced talent. His value increases dramatically if he can make spot ups at a league average rate and his year to year shooting trends strongly suggest that he could. In the 3 year trend as he expands his range, he moves from below league average in year 1, to league average in year 2, towards above league average in year 3 all while increasing overall volume.
If Gibson can make the corner 3 enough that other teams have to respect him out there, it will create much more space for Butler, Towns, and Wiggins to create in the paint. Thibodeau clearly prefers playing two traditional bigs to maximize his team’s defensive and rebounding advantages, but this creates serious issues on the offensive end when one or both are non-shooters.
The issue with non-shooting players like an Andre Roberson isn’t merely that they are less efficient as scorers but rather the spacing implications that result from their defenders more or less abandoning them. Even if a player like Roberson makes 2 wide open 3’s in a game, it doesn’t offset the defensive impact that results from the other team simply clogging the paint with an extra player. The key for Taj will be consistency because consistency will turn into reputation. When a scouting report says “don’t leave this guy in the corner” that will have a much greater impact than the additional 2-3 points Taj will contribute by simply expanding his range.
The Timberwolves will live at the line this year, with players like Towns, Butler, Crawford, and Wiggins all adept at drawing shooting fouls. That job gets a lot easier if at most there is only one help defender to deal with on the way to the rim.
Gibson’s shooting could be one of the keys to the Timberwolves season, allowing them more room to operate in the post, get to the line, and maintain two big lineups for maximum defensive and rebounding advantages.
If Taj can hit the corner 3 reliably, the Wolves won’t have to sacrifice modernization for their defense-first mentality – They can synthesize skill ball and the old school power forward.
Taj Gibson could be the perfect realization of that synthesis.