Among the many new changes we can expect to see with the beginning of a new regime under Byron Scott, one of the most important will be the new roles and expectations for different players. This means more to Daniel Gibson than perhaps anyone else on the team.
Lost at the end of Mike Brown’s bench for years for reasons that are still not entirely clear, Gibson has been vocal all summer in expressing his excitement about the new opportunities he has to win over a new head coach. For his part, Byron Scott has echoed that excitement in seeing how he can use Daniel Gibson on this year’s team.
This potential for an increased role on the team has been covered ad nauseam over the past couple weeks, but it was something Byron Scott said about Gibson before the first preseason game that caught some people’s attention. For all the aspects of Gibson’s game that people talk about, defense is not one that he’s known for. However, prior to the preseason game Tuesday Byron Scott called Gibson the team’s best perimeter defender.
That comment certainly caused some ears to perk up, and I’m sure there were plenty of jeers from people saying things like “Well if that’s the case, then the Cavaliers are in for a long season.” The catch, though, is that seemingly unnoticed by most, Daniel Gibson has transformed himself into a very good defensive player over the last year.
If you paid attention to this team last year, you would have seen the improvement in Gibson’s defensive game. It was a sharp contrast like night and day from the prior year, and whenever people tried to use Gibson’s defense as justification for him not playing last year, I tried to explain that it simply wasn’t the case. Not only is Gibson possibly the Cavs best perimeter defender this year (the jury is out for me until I can see Sessions play in this defensive scheme with my own eyes), but last year he was already arguably the Cavaliers’ best true perimeter defender on a consistent basis.
Yes, the Cavaliers had LeBron and he had another supreme defensive season overall, but LeBron’s on ball defending last year suffered from a seeming lack of focus, thus making him a better and more valuable help defender than actual perimeter on-ball defender. We know about Mo Williams’ defensive woes, but it was supposed to be Delonte West who would pick up the slack. With all of his off court troubles, though, Delonte never really recovered and never really looked like himself last season, particularly on defense. Delonte had his moments for sure, but he just wasn’t there on a consistent enough basis.
Though Gibson’s minutes were few and far between last season, when he actually did play meaningful minutes, he was the only Cavaliers defender who would fight through the high screens and stick with opposing backcourt players. Gibson worked hard in that offseason on his defensive discipline and it showed, not just on the court, but the defensive numbers showed his improvement as well.
If you recall, going back to Gibson’s epic breakout performance against the Pistons in the clinching Game 6 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons, it was the following season that was supposed to be Gibson’s year. He was penciled in to be the team’s starting PG in the 2007-08 campaign, and he actually played quite well that season. His impact on offense was evident (109.6 pts per 100 possessions with him on the court vs 105.3 pts with him off the court) but his defense was solid as well (net (-1.2) where negative numbers are good). Injuries derailed his season, though, and his 3 pt shot fell off and Mike Brown lost faith in Gibson. He would never earn his way back into Brown’s good graces.
In the 2008-09 season, while the Cavaliers were enjoying their most successful regular season in team history, Gibson was having the worst season of his career by far. Still banged up, his offensive game was woeful and his defense was even worse. That year opponents scored 105.0 pts per 100 possessions when Gibson was on the court vs just 101.6 pts when he was off the court for a net +3.3. He was an enormous defensive liability with no lateral quickness and he still couldn’t reliably find his 3pt shot and he tried to be more aggressive with his offensive game to disastrous results.
Last season, however, Gibson came into the season healthier than the previous year and although the damage had been done with Mike Brown, Gibson still showed signs that he was a vastly improved player on both sides of the ball. Although he still ocassionally tried to do too much on offense, he found his stroke again and shot 46.6% from three (up from just 39.1% the year before). More importantly, though, he suddenly had lateral quickness again and he began to put together long stretches of minutes of stellar on ball defense, drawing charges and fighting through screens trying to disrupt offensive flow.
With Gibson on the court, the Cavaliers allowed 104.3 pts per 100 poss. while they allowed 106.2 pts with him off the court, for a net (-1.9). The net number may not be a league leading number, but it’s better than LeBron (-0.7), Anthony Parker (-0.3), and Mo Williams (+3.7). Gibson was 4th on the Cavaliers last season among players who played 10+ mins per game in charges drawn per 40 minutes (0.34) behind only Leon Powe (1.02), Anthony Parker (0.58) and Anderson Varejao (0.52). These numbers show that while Daniel Gibson may not be an opportunistic defender who gets a lot of steals, he is a very capable on ball defender.
In the NBA, it can sometimes be hard to outrun your reputation. It took LeBron years to overcome the perception that he was a poor defender. His first 2 years he played mediocre defense, but by the 3rd season he began turning it around and playing good defense. It wasn’t until his 5th season, though, that he began to get credit for his defense. Gibson’s size, injury history, and previous seasons of poor defense have given him a reputation as a poor defender. However, the truth is that he has worked himself into a very good defender. Now that Coach Scott is here and willing to give Gibson the minutes he needs to prove himself, he has an opportunity if he can stay healthy to silence his critics and show everyone what he is capable of as a defensive player. Without LeBron here, the Cavs will need players to step up on defense to try to limit the damage. Daniel Gibson will try to show that he can be one of those guys for Byron Scott.