Taj Gibson had just completed his rookie season in Chicago, already a starter almost every game when the team switched coaches and brought in Tom Thibodeau as a first-time head coach. And for all but a handful of games, Thibodeau pushed Gibson to a bench role, a role that he would hold much of his career after that.
But instead of some hard feelings, Gibson has followed Thibodeau from the Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves and then this offseason, passed up other offers to reunite with him again.
The two, along with Derrick Rose, have seemed meant for each other, joining forces in every stop on Thibodeau’s career path. And even now, far from the young players they were when it began, they are keys to the Knicks success.
"Well, my whole career with him has been great," Gibson said before the Knicks took on the Bulls Wednesday in their final game of a six-game homestand. "He’s taught me how to basically manage and be ready for all facets of the game. He had me be a starter, he always wanted me to be more diverse, be able to start games when we need you to start, a guy that you can count on late in the fourth quarter, to be a solid professional.
"He’s always been throwing different tacks at me and always ready to weather the storm. Like I said before, in the NBA, there are so many different things coming at you — you may not be playing, you may be playing, you may be starting, you may not be able to touch this level of basketball. He’s just been a great coach in how to be ready in all facets — to be a sixth man, starting, not playing, I’m just always ready."
Rose and Gibson were just in their second seasons in Chicago when Thibodeau arrived and they combined to lead the Bulls to a 62-20 record and a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals before they were defeated by the Miami Heat and the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. What seemed like a budding championship contender was done in by injuries and they never got the ring that they seemed bound for at that time.
While they likely won’t in New York this season, they have done what they have done at every stop — bringing professionalism and skill, providing a base for Thibodeau to build a winner. While this group isn’t winning 62 games, there are some things — besides the faces — that remind Thibodeau of that Chicago group.
"I think each season is different," Thibodeau said. "There are some similarities in terms of the characteristics of the team. They’re a very hard-working type of team, high character. They love the process of working together as a group, so there are similarities there. I think you look back and you see some characteristics that are similar and some that are different. Obviously, the makeup of this team is a lot different than that one. In terms of the work ethic, that is similar. Teamwork is similar."
Gibson was with the Knicks last season, but he was without a job in the summer and even at the start of the season.
"I had offers from other teams, to be honest," he said. "It was kind of a last-minute thing. I did the little training camp we had in New York right after the season. And we were in contact. I was coming to the gym all the time. I was driving up, still using the gym even when — I was just waiting. So then I went to L.A., came back.
"The Knicks were in contact the whole time. We have a good relationship, talking, asking how everybody is doing. I had other teams lined up. But they just wanted me to come in. I felt safe. I felt like I knew the coaching staff, I knew what they wanted me to do. But the coaching, the staff wasn’t the reason why. Everybody was calling me and understood what I bring to the table."