Despite the up and down start to the season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, they are steadily finding their way through the season. Coach Thibs is still figuring out his rotations and minutes, KAT and Wiggins are learning how to be more reliable on offense as well as improving their defense, and Jimmy Butler is beginning to work his way into the points column on stat sheets more often.
Minnesota currently sits at 5th in the Western Conference and is still on pace to eclipse at least 40 wins this year. There’s been a step in the right direction toward improvement this season. But the reasoning behind their early success and expected playoff appearance aren't all thanks to the two number one overall picks. It’s not the three-time all-star and three-time defensive player of the year. It’s not the heralded basketball mind and adept coaching on the sidelines. Of course, all of these factors play a significant role in securing the wins that this team has so far. But there is a debt of gratitude owed to Taj Gibson.
Gibson earning his place
The free agent signing of the 32-year-old vet, playing his 8th season, didn’t turn many heads. There were those who merely attributed this to Thibs getting more of his guys (in addition to Jimmy Butler and Aaron Brooks) who knew his system and his expectations. There were those who claimed he would have to battle Gorgui Dieng for the starting four position, a veteran in his own right, who has won the hearts of Wolves fans with his tenacious rebounding and ability to stretch the floor. Even with a propensity to turning the ball over and staying in foul trouble, Dieng was viewed by many as the right piece in the middle with Towns.
But through 23 games this season, Gibson is proving his worth averaging 10.7 points per game and a career high of 8.1 rebounds per game. More importantly, Gibson is averaging 2.7 offensive rebounds per game; good for second on the Timberwolves, behind only Karl-Anthony Towns. To put this in perspective, KAT is averaging a total 11.6 rebounds per game -- almost one rebound more than Taj, however, Taj is rebounding on the offensive end at a way higher percentage.
Now, you can look at this a multitude of ways. You can attribute it to Gibson being an all-around better rebounder than KAT because he knows how to get in position and which angles to attack the glass. You can chalk it up to Taj just being more attuned with his body and being a more tenacious and relentless rebounder. But personally, I think it’s merely a reflection of KAT playing further away from the basket.
But whatever your case is, Taj Gibson’s offensive rebounding is arguably the essential piece of the Timberwolves’ offense right now. His ability and attentiveness to watching the ball leave the shooter and knowing the exact right angle he needs to be at when the ball comes off the rim is incredibly valuable to this team. Watch as Taj sees the shot leave Wiggins as he quickly gets into position before the ball even hits the rim, because he already knows where to be, how to get there, and how to secure the ball.
He moves from one end of the lane to the other to get this rebound. Those little nuances are the types of plays that good players make on winning teams. It’s more than a run of the mill rebound. It’s more than a lucky “right place, right time” rebound. It’s a play that shows he cares and holds a level of urgency for this team. He’s playing his role, and he’s doing the little things that will continually give the Timberwolves an edge against less savvy teams.
Taj’s effort on the glass is great to see, and if he’s attacking, it’s a demoralizing factor for a lot of teams. All due respect to Anthony Davis who played only 17 minutes in the Timberwolves matchup against the Pelicans on November 29th, due to injury, but Taj’s rebounding was a difference maker once Davis went out. Those are the types of wins the Timberwolves will get when Taj focuses on rebounding.
So the effort on the boards is there for the Timberwolves, and it’s fantastic. It throws other teams out their rhythm and secures extra possessions for the Wolves. But how valuable are Gibson's offensive rebounds? How often are his rebounds turning into points?
Making rebounds count
Turning rebounds into points is a lot harder to quantify and sent me down a bottomless rabbit hole in the process. But a good indicator to settle on is second chance points. Gibson is 23rd in the league in second-chance points at 2.6. So as someone that pulls in 2.7 offensive boards, Taj is averaging at least one basket out of one of those roughly three offensive boards. So his rebounding on that end is making a difference.
That still doesn’t account for the assist he gets out of offensive boards, the opportunities he gets the Timberwolves to have a fresh 24 seconds on the clock, and just overall, the time spent wearing down the defense by keeping the ball on their side of the court.
The value of Taj is immensely present just by watching one-quarter of a game, never mind the stat sheet. He can score, space the floor, defend, but perhaps the most important thing he brings to the Timberwolves is that subtle ability to continue giving the Timberwolves chances to score. Scoring opportunities are valuable to a young team that is stacked with scoring and learning to play with high expectations still weighing on them.