There are few players Tom Thibodeau has grown to trust more during his three NBA head-coaching stops than Taj Gibson.
Gibson was reunited in New York last season with Thibodeau, his coach with the Bulls and the Timberwolves. Gibson meant so much to the fabric of the Knicks and their first playoff berth in eight years that Thibodeau wanted the veteran big man back as a trusted lieutenant and safety valve in the paint, even with young center Mitchell Robinson’s expected return from March foot surgery.
“He’s a great veteran leader. It’s like having another assistant coach out there. He just knows everything,” Thibodeau said about Gibson after practice Thursday in Tarrytown. “He doesn’t make mistakes, he plays hard. He can guard every position. His shooting, really he’s always been a pretty good shooter, from 15 to 17 [feet], but now he’s really comfortable shooting the 3. He’s put a lot of work into it.
“So I think that’s what good veterans do. They continue to add to their game and he’s done that.”
The 23-year-old Robinson and fellow center Nerlens Noel, who has knee and hamstring issues, didn’t appear in any of the Knicks’ first three preseason games, although Thibodeau said either or both could dress Friday night against the Wizards in the team’s final tuneup before the regular-season opener Wednesday against the Celtics.
With those two out, in addition to taking a look at rookie center Jericho Sims, Thibodeau has afforded starter’s minutes to Gibson, who inked a two-year contract worth $10.1 million over the summer.
“My preparation is always the same. I always bring energy in practice. I always do my fundamental stuff, so I’m always just ready,” said Gibson, who had 21 points with nine rebounds and two blocked shots in 31 minutes in Wednesday’s preseason win over the Pistons. “I know once I get on the court, my defense is always going to be there. I can always count on my defense.
“Most of the time, I try to just do something I know can affect the game.”
The 36-year-old Brooklyn native has been affecting outcomes of games for 12 NBA seasons, and he will enter his 13th year in the league as its seventh-oldest player, behind big names such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and others (if Udonis Haslem, 41, makes the Heat roster, Gibson would be eighth oldest).
“My mentality as far as maturing, it’s really like I’m still the same guy,” Gibson said. “As soon as I came into the league, I already was older than most of the rookies. I always had to adapt differently.
“So every day I was a sponge and sucking up information. Now I’m a little older, I’m just reciprocating it and taking care of my body a little more.”
Gibson also continues to willingly serve as a mentor to Robinson, who is entering his fourth NBA season — and a contract year — after playing in just 31 games in 2020-21 due to hand and foot surgeries. Gibson said he often shares with Robinson stories about players he has faced or played alongside, such as former Bulls All-Star Joakim Noah.
“It’s great having Taj around. It don’t get better than Taj, man,” Robinson said. “We actually talk a lot, more than we did last year. For him to come over and he’s still helping me out to this day — especially because of what I went through with the foot and hand, he’s kind of kept me focused, my mental, straight. Hey man, you gotta appreciate Taj.”
Of course, a healthy Robinson and Noel likely will spell fewer minutes for Gibson, who averaged 20.8 minutes over 45 appearances last season.
“Our relationship, most of the guys, not just [Robinson], all the guys on the team, I try to work with, we just create a good bond as far as just working hard in practice,” Gibson said.
Asked if he believes Gibson will try his hand at coaching one day, Thibodeau smiled and said: “I hope so. He’d be an asset to any organization, and I hope I’m still around. I told him he can play about five or six more years and then we’ll go from there.”