Taj Gibson has been the unsung hero for the New York Knicks.
The 35-year-old backup big man will never put up flashy stats — even during his prime in Chicago the best you could expect of him was around 12 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1 block. In fact, Gibson’s 5.1 points per game this year is the lowest of his career.
What Taj does bring, on top of a decade-plus of experience, is defensive intelligence, high intensity, and a win-at-all-costs attitude. The old cliches apply: Taj brings all the intangibles and immeasurables a team needs to be successful. It is no coincidence that Basketball Reference’s stated nicknames for Gibson are “Lunch Pail” and “Hard Hat”.
Gibson has played an important role for Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks this year, anchoring the second-team defense when Nerlens Noel is on the bench, and he has thrived. Of five-person lineups that have played over 100 minutes this year, the unit of Quickley-Rose-Burks-Toppin-Gibson has the second-best defensive rating in the entire NBA, behind only Utah’s Mike Conley-Bogdan Bogdanovic-Royce O’Neal-Joe Ingles-Rudy Gobert.
New York Knicks fans couldn’t have been too sure of what to make of Gibson after his 2019-2020 season, in which he started 56 games but only averaged 16 and half minutes. His play was plodding and ineffectual and seemed doomed to be remembered (or, really, forgotten) by fans as a warm body on a tanking Knicks team that had its season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, there wasn’t much fanfare for Taj when the Knicks organization announced they were bringing him back early on in the regular season. It was assumed that Thibs had merely wanted a familiar, experienced player in the locker room — a feeling seemingly confirmed by Gibson’s 11 straight DNPs, and 13 of 15 DNPs overall, after his return to the roster on January 8th.
Taj was only inserted into the lineup after Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel each suffered nagging injuries at different times in late January and early February. Taj then became a permanent fixture in late March after Mitchell Robinson suffered his season-ending injury.
That the team has flourished since losing Mitch is in no small part due to the steady hand provided by Taj Gibson.
Now that the New York Knicks are in playoff position, and here, once again, Gibson will loom large. Whereas most of the roster has limited to no postseason experience, Taj has played in sixty-six playoff games and twelve series overall — most of those with Thibs in Chicago and Minnesota. Gibson treats every game like a playoff game, and he will have no trouble guiding the younger guys through adversity while bringing his trademark fire and toughness against the East’s top teams.
Taj does not have many years left in his career, so it is wonderful to see the Brooklyn native thriving, especially after the doldrums of the 2019-2020 season. He is the epitome of a thankless leader and deserves more credit — especially during this exciting late-season run — than he has received.