Every basketball coach plays favorites, but Tom Thibodeau – who both coaches the Wolves and dictates their personnel moves – has gone out of his way to acquire two of his from years past. The first was Jimmy Butler, a star wing with a hard-nosed style whom Minnesota acquired via trade. The second was Taj Gibson, who on Sunday agreed to a two-year, $28 million deal to help accelerate the young Wolves’ defensive growth.
The way Gibson carries himself is a significant part of his appeal. With him, there will always be an adult in the room. Every lineup in which he is a part will benefit from his steadying influence. Players who don’t quite know where to be or what to do can look to Gibson or ask him; teammates past and present respect him almost universally for the way he contributes to organizational culture. It helps, too, that he brings it. Gibson has his limitations, but he always plays with an admirable edge and intelligence. It’s hard not to respect a veteran so competitive (just ask the forwards he bullies) and yet so self-aware.
Gibson arrives in Minneapolis with a complete understanding of Thibodeau’s concepts and his place within him. That alone makes him a smart pairing for Karl-Anthony Towns, who has the physical makings of an All-NBA defender if not yet the exceptional focus and court sense of one. He can learn from Gibson. Along the way, the Wolves get two years of solid power forward play to fill a position of need. Gibson isn’t the picture of basketball modernity, but Minnesota has only signed him to a transitional deal. Two years from now, the Wolves could go in any number of directions with their power forward spot – presumably with Towns, then almost 24, a more complete player.
Thibdodeau will sleep a bit better at night, assuming he sleeps at all, knowing that he can rely on Butler and Gibson to help execute his defense. That the Wolves finished last season 26th in points allowed per possession must eat at him. It’s one thing to sign up to coach an inexperienced team and quite another to live it, one blown assignment at a time. Improvement on that side of the ball tends to come incrementally, but if Minnesota can even sniff the league average on defense, they could be a real and immediate problem. Remember: Warts and all, Minnesota was a top-10 team on offense last season. Changes in the balance of the roster will take some getting used to for the players involved, but significant additions and internal development point to yet another efficient season.
There aren’t any standout three-point shooters among the assumed starters (Butler, Towns, Gibson, Andrew Wiggins, and the recently added Jeff Teague), but Minnesota got by fine last season while ranking dead last in three-point attempts and 20th in three-point percentage. Better shooters and improved spacing would be helpful. But the Wolves have experience buoying an offense by drawing fouls and hitting the glass already, and they stand only to strengthen those dimensions of their play through Butler and Gibson. If the Wolves can produce similarly on offense while playing mediocre defense, they’d put themselves into the statistical company of teams like the Celtics, Wizards, and Blazers. Actually taking those necessary steps can be more difficult than it seems, but for once the Wolves’ roster has both a high ceiling and a practical foundation.