Defense is a thorny subject when it comes to player evaluation.
On the one hand, you’ve got guys like Klay Thompson, who are excellent defenders by reputation but who get murdered in the advanced stats because they’re constantly put on the other team’s best player, and if they’re not quite the superstar defender their reputation makes them out to be, the problem compounds into a point where they have the same advanced stats as the guy who hides on the opponent’s fifth option and can’t even guard him.
And on the other hand, you’ve got a guy like LeBron James, who is a perfectly capable defender and whose decision from sheer laziness to stick himself on the other team’s worst player (Zach Lowe pointed this out on ESPN Friday and it’s an astute point) leads to his best defensive season in the past three years even though his actual defensive quality is atrocious.
LeBron looks more like Shaqtin’ Era James Harden out there, but he’s supposedly good for plus 2.0 points per 100 possessions defensively. Give me a break.
Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying that what I’m about to attempt here—putting Taj Gibson into context—is going to be a lot tougher to do well than the usual Is He Any Good spiel, because neither counting nor advanced stats on defense are effective in evaluating a primarily defensive player’s value.
But that won’t stop me trying. Criteria here: If Gibson overcomes the limitations of defensive stats to show out as a starter-caliber player, he’s Confirmed. If the whole thing’s a disaster, Busted. Anywhere in between, Plausible. Got it? Good.
The Counting Stats
A total of 10.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks may not look like much on the surface. Indeed, the real threat in counting stats like those is that Gibson might be Andrew Wiggins out there. (Wiggins, who by some metrics is the worst player in the entire league, averages 17.6 points and 4.9 rebounds.)
Here’s the difference. Wiggins plays 34/9 minutes per game. Gibson plays 24.7.
Which, in turn, means Gibson is averaging 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, in a role where he’s only taking 11.2 shots in that time-normalized (but not adjusted for pace) frame.
Wiggins takes 17 shots per 36 minutes and scores 18.2 points, pulling down 5.0 rebounds in that time frame.
OK, so Taj Gibson is better at basketball than the worst player in the league.
My point is that Gibson, who is the fourth or fifth option in Minnesota’s offense, is a better scorer than the max contract guy, and on their own merits, his stats stand strong with any other lunchpail power forward in the league.
Consider Thaddeus Young (15.1 points, 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes) or Derrick Favors (17.4 points, 11.3 rebounds) for guys in the same general class as Gibson in terms of base-level big man counting stats per 36.
So far, so good; if your criteria say “competent starter” and the guy’s comps are competent starters, that’s a QED for counting stats.
So let’s get advanced:
The Advanced Stats
Let’s consider something else here. The Pacers and Jazz are much better teams than the Timberwolves.
So Gibson is up against the wall with the advanced stats, which tend to inflate for guys who are on good teams (especially Win Shares per 48; we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Gibson’s PER (17.3, his best ever) and True Shooting (.610, matching a career-high set in 2017-18) speak to a guy who’s making the most of his limited touches to turn them into points, exactly what you want that down-lineup guy to do as the fourth or fifth option. They must necessarily be efficient because their only shots come in what are generally situations where they’re not being relied upon to do something just because they’re the star (which leads to the inverse correlation between usage rate and scoring efficiency.)
Let’s consider again Young (16.7 PER, .569 TS%) and Favors (20.8, .612) as the brackets around Gibson’s tier of fourth-option player (and let’s also argue ourselves hoarse about whether Young is the third or fourth option now that Victor Oladipo‘s hurt if we’re all Pacers fans.)
And now let’s consider the clincher.
Gibson is putting up .143 WS/48 on a team that has Andrew Wiggins on it.
Wiggins’ WS/48 of .015 is so bad that if every player on the Timberwolves had a WS/48 that bad, the team would be expected to go 6-76 in an 82-game season.
A team of nothing but Taj Gibsons (at least in terms of WS/48)? 59-23. That would probably get you the 1 seed in the West and a trip to the NBA Finals.
Now granted, Gibson’s 1.2 BPM and 1.2 VORP (and, tellingly, the 0.5 Defensive BPM, above zero even though Gibson’s got a lot of the same kinds of defensive responsibilities as defensive specialists on other teams) aren’t “five of them will put you in the Finals” level, but they’re certainly “five of them will get you into the playoffs.”
Which, oh by the way, is more than the Timberwolves can currently say for themselves in the standings, since they’re 29-33.
Gibson, along with Karl-Anthony Towns, are the guys playing most like they belong on a 46-win team like the one Minnesota was last year. A good argument can be made that with Jimmy Butler gone, Gibson’s the second-best player on that whole roster (shut up, Derrick Rose stans, we’ll get to him next week.)
When you’re the second-best player on a playoff team, you’re pretty good.
When you’re the second-best player on a team that should make the playoffs but their coaching and front office are a Dumpster fire, it’s awfully hard to ding you for that, especially if you only play 24.7 minutes a game.
So is Taj Gibson any good? Hell yeah, he is. Confirmed. Don’t blame him or KAT for the Wolves’ ill fortune.
NEXT WEEK: Derrick Rose.