Tom Thibodeau ready to lean on Taj Gibson again
Wherever Tom Thibodeau is, there seems to be a role for his favorite player.
Taj Gibson both started and came off the bench from 2010-15 during the Thibodeau years in Chicago. Gibson latched back on from 2017-19 with Thibodeau’s Minnesota teams before following his head coach to the Garden.
And before a season in which the 36-year-old’s playing time has been expected to dip, having played 16.5 minutes and 20.8 minutes per game the past two seasons, there already is another opening for Thibodeau’s crush.
If Mitchell Robinson’s surgically repaired foot remains an issue into the beginning of the campaign, the Knicks would ask Nerlens Noel to start, and the sturdy, 6-foot-9 Gibson likely would become backup center.
Last year, a small-ball Knicks lineup that lacked a true center — Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Gibson — had the fourth-best defensive rating in all of the NBA among groups that played at least 100 minutes together. Asked about the smaller look’s defensive success, Thibodeau pointed immediately to Gibson.
“That’s the great value in having a guy like Taj. Taj has been an elite defender throughout his career,” Thibodeau said Thursday at Knicks training camp. “Even though he’s a little older now, he stays ready, he stays in great shape, he’s locked into everything he’s doing.”
Gibson is probably more of a forward, but he is flexible enough to move under the hoop.
And in truth, he might be more of a coach than player as he enters his 13th year in the league.
“Whether he’s [in or] not in the rotation, he’s practicing hard, helping his teammates, helping the team any way he can,” Thibodeau said. “If you have to play him off the bench, he can handle that. If you want to plug him in as a starter, he can handle that. He’s played two positions his entire career.
“He’s invaluable to us.”
Shooting guard RJ Barrett has acknowledged he wants to take the next step of his growth, which the team hopes involves an All-Star Game.
The step also would include picking up the opposing team’s best wing scorer after the loss of Reggie Bullock, who typically had the job last season.
“I think [Barrett] has a better understanding of the tendencies of the players. I think he understands schemes a lot better. He’s gotten stronger,” said Thibodeau, who was optimistic Barrett could take that leap. “But I think it’s a challenge for our entire team to stay locked in and to improve.”
In all, the Knicks were the fourth-rated defensive team last year, but they lost Bullock and Elfrid Payton, standouts on that side of the floor.
For the Knicks to avoid regression, their coach did not want to focus on individuals picking up the slack.
“It’s important for us to start at zero base,” Thibodeau said. “We have to put the work into this. It’s very difficult to guard in this league individually — it’s collectively, what we can do as a team.”