From Rubio to Teague: A Transition of Responsibility

Change can be difficult. If the Timberwolves have had any sort of stability over the past 6 years, it’s been in the form of a skinny Spaniard with a gift for passing the ball. Losing a player (and human) of Ricky Rubio’s magnitude was not, and is not, an easy transition for a sizable chunk of Wolves fandom.

Shortly after the announcement that Ricky Rubio was being sent to Utah for a first round pick, word came in that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden had already found their replacement in Jeff Teague.

This was tough news for some to take in for 2 reasons. One being, as mentioned above the loss of a fan favorite. The other being Teague’s basketball history.

To be fair, Teague’s career has been a good one overall. Since he first started getting his share of playing time, his averages has stayed steady in the 15 points per game range. He’s nowhere near Rubio in terms of passing, but he did put up a career high in assists a season ago at 7.8 per game.

But bare stats can be deceiving. What makes Teague’s career so excellent is that he has always done a great job fitting in with teammates. With the exception of his last year in Atlanta, he played around the talents of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll perfectly. At the peak of the Hawks, which occurred in the first half of the 2014-15 season, they played the ideal form of basketball in terms of watchability.

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They moved the ball, played within themselves, and never settled for a bad shot. All that happening, and Teague was a key component to their success.  Again reverting stats, yes, but he was the team’s leading scorer and assist man that year. He (and 3 of his teammates) made his first, and currently only, All-Star game that year.

He got there by running effective pick and roll with Horford and Millsap, and occasionally deferring to Korver and Carroll. And when he played off the ball, he played well. He shot 41 percent from three-point land off catch and shoot, and 42 percent from the field overall. A year later, when his point guard talents were less on display, his catch-and-shoot numbers managed to rise to 48 from the field and 49 from deep.

Last season with Indiana, those numbers dropped to the mid-30s. In short, we don’t know what his catch and shoot effectiveness will be in Minnesota. As badly as the Wolves need three point shooting, Teague’s effectiveness has varied by the year. But he can do it. He’s done it before.

Having a scoring point guard is, based on the acquisitions he made this summer, essential in Tom Thibodeau’s offense going forward. Ricky Rubio has a lot of gifts: passing, defending, disrupting passing lanes, and playing catch with cute kids. But, as much as he worked to improve, he’s never been able to string together a full season of consistent shooting.

The offense, as it should, will be run through Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins. Jeff Teague’s role will be to bring the ball up the floor, yes, but it won’t be to run the offense. Not in the way that Wolves fans have grown accustomed to watching over the past 6 years.

There’s no perfect comparison for the rest of the league, but look at George Hill in Utah, Patrick Beverley in Houston, or even the way Teague played last year in Indiana as a reference for how his role may look next year. All are good traditional point guards in their own right, but played off their team’s star wing (Hayward, Harden, George) to be most effective. Of course, Beverley and Hill are both stellar on-ball and team defenders, an area Teague’s game is severely lacking.

But at the price that the Wolves were realistically looking at, the reports that Hill didn’t want to play in Thibs’ system, and the fact that Rubio simply does not fit in what Thibodeau envisions for his team, the Teague signing makes more sense.

But that still doesn’t make this an easy transition for Wolves fans, even if there is some basketball sense to it. Teague’s effectiveness offensively, while certain to be there in some regard will be a mystery. Will the Wolves get All-Star Jeff Teague, or will they get former All-Star Jeff Teague? Shooting aside, Wolves fans knew they were getting gritty defense and a cohesive offense with Ricky Rubio. The mystery that surrounds his successor is what draws an uneasy feeling for some.

For now, the waiting game is all that can happen. Overall, the Wolves have improved substantially with the Butler acquisition alone. Taj Gibson will provide depth up front. Teague? He’s no Ricky Rubio, but the responsibility (and the pressure) bestowed on Rubio is a different beast.

He’ll have his own challenges to deal with as Minnesota’s new point guard, but they’ll be unique to him.

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7 Responsesso far.

  1. Brian says:

    As always, great insight from AWAW. Just one suggestion, as one who misses Ricky a ton: Since he’s no longer with us (although like KG he always will be in spirit), instead of ending every article with “Share this because Rubio would pass this along”, how about “Share this because Rubio would have passed this along”. Just a thought.

  2. pyrrol says:

    1. Rubio is super likable and unique. Teague is a bit of an everydude and kind of a dirty player.

    2. I don’t buy this ‘Teague fits Thibs’ system’ jazz. I mean, are you a good coach if you can’t utilize the best and most unique talent available to you? Are you a good coach if you can only have success with not only good players but ‘my guys’– player who fit a narrow vision of what you like or what fits your ability as a coach? What is Thibs’ system that he need such specific pieces for (has to overpay Teague and get rid of all the good things Rubio did for cheaper)? Because I can’t even discern his system… I can tell he likes a scoring PG that doesn’t pass that well and a point forward. Why, I have no idea, because I can’t discern an actual structure around which these likes are built. On D, other than hearing it is ‘complex’ and you have to ‘do your job’ I have no idea what our system is. But Rubio is a better defender than Teague. I guess you could say this is the biggest sign yet of Thibs tailoring the team to his abilities as a coach rather than coaching to his players’ abilities. Which is a concern. We should be better–older KAT, less responsibility Wiggins, added All Star, and Teague is no slouch. Adding a true PF (Gibson) is helpful. But this crazy science experiment could go less well than we’d like.

    3. So many offenses in today’s NBA amount to ‘dump it off to your best player and have him score or pass when he attracts too much attention’. I think basketball misses a 3rd dimension when it is played like this. With superstars like LeBron, Durrant and Curry out there it works. Teams with lesser superstars (Harden) emulate this model. And even the worst teams have hero ball and awful ball movement. I think having a true floor general with great mobility and passing (a PG!) initiate a pass heavy offense is the way to go. But teams (particularly with the 3 point line ever more important) often don’t have to do this to compete. So we get kind of boring basketball. Point forward basketball is often pretty dull and pretty 2 dimensional. I guess being 2D is one way Thibs is modern. Otherwise he’s a fossil.

    4. I said it before, but Rubio earned the chance to play with this team. It’s kinda scuzzy that Teague gets to basically be a low responsibility PG that does half of what Rubio does just because he’s a decent scoring PG (not elite or anything…). Rubio could have worked well with this exact roster (minus Teague) with a little imagination. But creativity was never a Wolves strong suit. Traditions!

  3. gjk says:

    It’s been interesting to see how the writers who understand the numbers but also do a lot of video analysis, like Zach Lowe and Amin Elhassan, think the switch from Rubio to Teague was a good call. That was surprising.
    Theoretically, there’s some logic to the idea that a team can’t have a great offense if their primary playmaker isn’t a good scorer, and maximizing Rubio’s effectiveness means having the ball in his hands a lot. The elite offensive teams put pressure on the defense when multiple guys are passing and/or they have guys who can draw and then pass out of double teams; that’s a higher-percentage path to being an elite offense than relying on the PG to do all of the setting up when that PG doesn’t scare the defense. They can be a better offense than last season if they’re not just using Teague as a catch-and-shoot guy or as the main playmaker; it has to be a mix of spotting up, running pick-and-rolls, and scoring in the lane off of cuts or dribble handoffs. Those are all things that, hypothetically, Teague will be better at. And he’s not that far off of Rubio as a passer when it comes to productivity; Rubio was 6th in assist % and Teague was 9th.

  4. pyrrol says:

    I honestly think that’s how they are going to try to use Teague–in a varied way. Actually, I hope that. Because at the beginning of last season they tried to use Rubio as a hack spot up in the corner guy. Rubio of all people. The temptation would be even greater with a true, proven point forward on the roster and Teague’s better shooting. I hope Thibs instead uses Teague in P&R, as a Rubio-like instigator, as well as a spot up bit of shooting on the perimeter while KAT and Jimmy do their things. He could also move a lot with and without the ball–with to tie some knots before running the offense, alla Rubio, and without to get open looks at the rim or the perimeter. One thing that will be good about Teague is his more consistent ability to finish at the rim. Rubio was quite good at finding his way to the rim, but a really bad finisher overall. If we can use Teague’s strengths well in a not lame offense, this might be a wash or notable improvement. I’m actually optimistic. I’m largely mad because Rubio is a fun player who promotes a fun style of basketball. There are few players with magic, who do things that make you say, ‘how did he do that?’ Rubio is one. KAT has a little of it, but nothing like Rubio. This isn’t to say Rubio is a better player than KAT or anyone for that matter, just that he has this inexplicable, magic aspect to his game that is very rare and fun. I’d like to see a team go with that, without fear and nagging. It won’t be us. Was it ever?

    In this respect, a knock against Rubio is always ‘you can’t have a contender with a PG who isn’t a scorer.’ But is that really true? Particularly if the other 4 are scorers? With the Wolves this was always a laugher question because we were so far from competing as a contender for a thousand reasons ahead of anything involving Rubio. It is certainly worth asking though, once you are all in on being a contender. And that seems to be what we are doing, or at least quickly working towards (maybe not at the best time…). It’s also worth mentioning that this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Rubio’s shooting and scoring seems to be improving for real such that he’s not a liability, and might be a scoring asset. He covered his liability in this aspect fairly well much of the time with his ability to get to the line and hit free throws. That’s not going away even as his scoring improves. Utah should be interesting to watch, if not playoff competitive.

    For even the best teams ever, your personnel always limits you from being the ‘ideal team’. That said, the way the Spurs do it is pretty close. And as gjk says, it involves good passing across the roster. You only saw that briefly on the Wolves when Rubio’s passing became contagious and caused an outbreak of shareitis. Ideally, you want a system and a teaching coach who can make everyone a quick, willing passer, so your team puts defenders heads on swivels until they are tied in knots. This amplifies your actual offensive talent. It breaks defense down before you even have to beat them with pure skill and talent. Pop would probably welcome a dominant passing talent like Rubio if he felt it fit his roster and budget. But how many are there? You pass as well as you can as a team, like the Spurs. But this isn’t really thrown off by having a super passer, either. Because individual passing talent has been so limited in this era, the only realistic thing is to try to be the Spurs. And so it is with us. We’ll look at Teague being a bland version of Tony Parker in his prime. Other teams will try to as well. Others will also just try to spread and spread and spread the D thin, and not worry about putting on team passing clinics. In fact, mostly expect that.

    It is going to be a strange season. I have no idea what to expect. From the Wolves or other teams. The West is crazy good. So many question marks. We should be much better. If we aren’t a playoff team… that’s going to be a problem. Lots of oddities. After Westbrook chased away other stars availing him to average a triple double and get butt hurt in the playoffs, he’s back to star sharing with Paul George. How the heck will Chris Paul and James Ball Hog Harden work together? Even the bad teams out west are interesting and made themselves better. So who knows what will happen. It will be interesting.

    On a side note, this is why stats are so misleading at times. I mean, Teague is nowhere near Rubio as a passer. He’s just not. It’s obvious. Teague is a slightly above average passing PG, and Rubio is one of the best passers in the league over the past 5 years. I think we’ll be fine with Teague, even though it is disappointing to me as a fan. I’m excited for some of the new things he will bring. One of these things isn’t Rubio-like passing. Oh well, in today’s NBA that kind of passer is a luxury, an extra, at best.

    • gjk says:

      Curry, LeBron, and John Wall are all elite passers in the same way Rubio is. Comparing those 3, though, it becomes obvious that there are limitations if your elite passer isn’t a dominant scorer. Wall is way better at getting to and scoring at the rim than Rubio, but teams in the playoffs usually find a way to make him shoot because they’ll live with the results of him making a shot more than getting his teammates involved. The only reason that strategy doesn’t work with Curry or LeBron is because Curry’s teammates are awesome passers and play unselfishly and LeBron can get to the rim no matter who is front of him or how far they play off of him. Nash was just as good a passer as Rubio and so much better as a shooter, and the Spurs kept beating his Suns teams in the playoffs by letting him shoot. Even if Kidd wasn’t a great shooter, he was similar to Wall in how he could score at the rim well and get there, along with having an underrated post-up game going all the way back to playing with the Suns.

      That’s where “how much better Rubio is than Teague as a passer” comes in to play. My point was simply that Teague isn’t a score-first or score-only point guard. Ultimately, will missing Rubio’s passing make the offense worse, or will Teague’s other offensive skills make it better?

  5. pyrrol says:

    This sort of analysis is really tough because it’s not done in a vacuum. I mean, could Curry on skill and talent be as good a passer as Rubio? It’s quite likely. But he’s so focused on shooting and scoring, and not so much on passing. Rubio’s main priority on offense is always passing. So the result is that last year, Curry averaged 6.8 apg and Rubio averaged 9.1. You should never sleep on Curry as a passer, but if practice and focus brings out the best in a skill, then Curry’s limited focus on passing will keep him from being consistently elite at it.

    I like Wall a lot, and the Wizards’ failure as a team isn’t his fault per se. Teams like to force him to shoot because he’s not that good of a shooter. As a pure scorer he’s country miles ahead of Rubio, but he’s not an elite scorer, and Washington leans on him too much for that. Glancing at his stats, he looks like an ideal Rubio–not a pure scorer, but a good scorer, and a pure passer in one body. But the results always seem disappointing from a team perspective. This is in part due to who they surround him with, but in the weak east, as is, they should be better. I think Wall is a very skilled passer and he also values that skill more than most, so I appreciate him for that. But the results have been disappointing. He has flaws as a scorer, and despite averaging a crazy 10.7 assists a game, there is an argument that he’s not as good a passer as Rubio or Paul. Again, this isn’t a vacuum, and the amount of time Wall is asked to have the ball in his hands of offense due to his passing and scoring is bigger than Rubio’s. So this could help inflate Wall’s numbers as a ball dominant yet willing passer type PG. At his most extreme, Rubio isn’t nearly as ball dominant.

    LeBron is a totally different case. He’s always had a natural talent for passing. And he’s a really good passer. But lets be honest–the ceiling for passing from ball dominant superstars and forwards is lower than for floor general PGs. LeBron is one of the hardest to stop scoring threats in NBA history, and this opens up passing opportunities virtually no other skilled passer has, and at 6’8″ even other elite scoring threats who are great passers like Curry can’t see what he sees and get the over the top angles he gets. Make no mistake, for a forward LeBron is a beyond elite passer. It’s extraordinary. But in raw ability is he as good as Curry, Rubio, Wall? Not usually…

    I’m not sure what the point is about Nash. This was long ago in a very different NBA, but yes he was a good passer and good shooter. I’m not sure that has anything to do with the reason they couldn’t get over the hump (D comes to mind..). The run and gun offense that he was in would have inflated Rubio, Curry, Paul, or Wall’s numbers a lot…

    Chris Paul is a very smart player and a good passer. He’s a working man’s passer. Usually not flashy or doing things with his passing that is breaking the D down, but the on time on point, smart nature of his passes, consistently, makes him an elite passer year in and out. Speaking of Paul, he’ll now be teamed with Harden in Houston. I think Harden is an illustration of just how easy it is to inflate assist totals based on situation. He’s generally been an above average assist man for a 2 guard. But when moved to extremely ball dominant PG last season he jumped from 7.5 (5.7 career) to 11.2 APG. Was he always a PG waiting to come out of the chrysalis? No, I just think he’s a giant ball hog who enjoyed the absolute ball dominance PG can deliver. This isn’t to say that I was not impressed by his improved passing ability. But stats aren’t everything. 11.2 APG? That’s a crazy number from a guy with somewhat pedestrian passing ability, which should raise eyebrows about stats a bit and how they are so relative. Paul himself, though a willing sharer and pure PG is pretty darn ball dominant, so how are these two going to coexist? It’s risky… and will be interesting. Could be spectacular or a disappointment and waste of money.

    Speaking of relative, Rubio’s teams he’s been surrounded with (and coaching, systems and strategy for that matter) plus his lack of ability to instill any fear from his scoring suggest that his ability to change games like he does with his passing in the league is unmatched, as an isolated skill. Could Wall, Paul, Curry etc pass like Rubio, with the system we use, the ineffectual rosters and Rubio’s lack of scoring? No. Of course this begs the question as Rubio comes into his prime–will he score well enough to be an overall asset for a competitive team? Or are the guys who are more impressive as scorers always going to be above him because of the opportunities that scoring always gives you with your other skills? We will see. My point isn’t so much that Rubio is better or as good as any of these players (or any PG including Teague) as much as I just like the way Rubio plays. I enjoy it. And also speaking of relative, the Teague vs. Rubio debate (if there is one) won’t ever be solved, because the roster was so hugely improved and changed this offseason that it’s a complete apples to oranges thing. We can never know how Rubio would have faired leading this team compared to Teague. I think Teague will play well for us.

  6. Tom says:

    I hated to see Rubio traded with strategy to get cap space, then sign a nice PG for $5million more. I have heard that Lowry was option one, but priced himself out of the discussion. However, jumping in right away for Teague, showed a lack of patience that the POBO should have and the coach typically does not. We now have Bledsoe being dangled as trade bait, who was making the same as Rubio, allowing us to keep $5 million to fill out our roster. And we have Kyrie listing us as a potential landing spot, with nothing to give the Cavs until December at the earliest.
    My concern was that Rubio wasn’t the tough love kind of guy to his teammates that a Teague will be. With Thibs barking from the sidelines all game, our young guys probably felt a little fragile and Rubio would be the kind of teammate that would go against his coach and lift their spirits. I believe (yes, I know I have no proof) that Rubio was sent away because of his lack of Thibs type leadership, and not because of how much he scored, defended or anthing else. Thibs has one goal for this year, get KAT to the playofffs and get guys that will push Wiggins, Belly, and KAT to be more complete players. I believe in a couple years, he will ship out Teague and Taj to some team that wants to rebuild and get elite players that want to play with KAT, Jimmy and Wiggins for a run at a championship

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