The Teague Conundrum

The last time the Timberwolves led in their devastating potato of a game in Phoenix, Jeff Teague hit a three-pointer to put them up 103-97. In the final three minutes of the game, once the Suns took the lead 104-103, Jimmy Butler stepped out of bounds. The next Wolves’ trip down the court, Teague wrestled away a tough offense rebound away after an Andrew Wiggins missed. The rebound resulted in Jimmy Butler jacking a wild three-point bank shot from 31 feet away, but on the following possession, Teague stole the ball, pushed it up court to Butler, and Butler turned it over again. The Suns never looked back.

Reading this description of the Phoenix game’s final minutes, one could put a considerable amount of blame on Jimmy Butler (who, oh by the way got absolutely torched by Devin Booker throughout the night). But Butler was the prized offseason possession who has the power to completely alter the losing culture of the team, and, is for now, off limits for criticism. Instead, on Twitter, all scorn was directed at Jeff Teague.

To be fair, Teague played like garbage in Phoenix, struggling to adjust to Jimmy Butler’s newly found alpha scoring mindset. Yet in the nascent Timberwolves season, Teague has become the object Wolves fans’ scorn and the scapegoat for all that ails the team. In addition to folks’ reservations about his hefty contract (third year is a player option!), some unforced turnover issues, and his lower-than-career-average field goal percentage, Teague suffers from comparisons to backup point guard, Tyus Jones, and beloved former Wolves’ point guard, Ricky Rubio.

A considerable contingent of Wolves’ faithful rally around Jones, in part because he’s a Minnesota guy, in part because despite his terrible numbers, he seems to perform on time. And Rubio, well what is there to say? He’s one of the most important Minnesota athletes of all time and brought as much joy to fans watching him play as a Randy Moss or (peak) Johan Santana. Teague is living in the shadow of both Jones and Rubio, and his uneven play hasn’t helped win him many admirers. Me, on the other hand? I’m #TEAMTEAGUE for life. I think it makes most sense to explain why by examining the guy’s shortcomings and his comparisons to Jones and Rubio.

Let’s start by comparing Tyus Jones to Jeff Teague. As of writing, Tyus is shooting 37% overall, and averaging only 5.1 assists per 36 minutes. Tyus continues to be undersized and despite a respectable effort he just can’t match up with taller guards at his position. His defensive rating is worse than Teague’s, and if you look at additional advanced statistics…wait, are we actually discussing whether Tyus Jones is as good as Jeff Teague???!?!?!? Indeed, there a contingent of Wolves fans is clamoring for Jones to play far more minutes, and I’ve even heard a few calls for Jones to start. I will contend that Tyus is more fun to watch than Teague, and he seems to have some intangible grit, but he is simply a back-up PG who is far more likely to contribute to a loss than a win the more he plays (check his minutes in wins versus losses).

The Rubio comparison is trickier because Rubio is clearly a superior defender to Teague, which is essentially where all the problems lie with the Timberwolves. There is a decent argument to be made that given Rubio’s masterful ability to get steals and deflections, as well as his size, his defense would offset any offensive benefits that Teague provides. (As a sidenote, here is a not-so-conspiratorial conspiracy theory on Teague’s defense: Thibs invests in the guys he has signed and not the guys brought in by Flip Saunders (like Tyus). Given the big signing of Teague, Thibs is incentivized to mask some of Teague’s defensive deficiencies with schemes that ask Teague to force guys to the baseline (rather than just play them straight up one-on-one). These schemes require other guys to help at the rim, which has typically been a losing proposition. Yet, all we see Teague get the blame for these blow-bys when he’s actually doing what he’s supposed to do (keep guys out of the middle of the lane). Where this is a little more than conspiracy, Jim Pete actually noted this during the Mavericks game after a couple Dennis Smith Jr. drives to the rim past Teague. He diagrammed a play showing that Teague is being asked to force Smith baseline and others (Wiggins, Towns, etc.) weren’t filling their roles. I digress…)

Defense aside, there is one clear benefit that Teague provides over Rubio that makes him a superior fit for this team (putting aside that Thibs had basically pulled the plug on Rubio regardless and putting aside that $19 million a year is a LOT of money for Jeff Teague). Teague’s advantage over Rubio is his offense, sometimes by reputation alone, mean teams can’t really double-team anybody. Not Jimmy Butler, not Karl Anthony Towns, and not Andrew Wiggins. Teague is hitting an impressive 39% of his threes and any attempt to double one of the big three should result in easy buckets for Teague (or Taj). I say should because I actually think Teague should be shooting more 3s than he actually is given his ability off the catch and shoot. A couple years ago, Teague was the BEST IN THE LEAGUE at catch and shoot threes. The Wolves’ offense is winning them games, and Teague is keeping the machine running by keeping teams honest.

And look, I know I said it myself. Offense is a secondary concern at this point. We miss Rubio’s heady defense. Teague also doesn’t see the crosscourt pass as well as Rubio did but he can break down defenses and dish, which is where most of his assists are coming from. And yes, another aspect where the comparison breaks down is the fact, that goddamn it, we just miss Ricky and those crazy things he does. As with Tyus, where Teague lacks in comparison to Ricky is he just isn’t as fun to watch aesthetically.

But here’s the good news, it doesn’t really matter where you stand on Jeff Teague because his play ultimately has relatively little effect on the Timberwolves’ wins and losses in comparison to a host of other factors: In fact, I think 86% of the Wolves’ success going forward will be based on whether KAT and Wiggins can get it together on defense. Another 11% will come from whether Thibs figures out how to get Bjelica (and possibly Jones) more effective minutes. And then another 2% has to do with whether Jimmy Butler can adjust to a non-alpha role. Teague ensuring he doesn’t repeat his Phoenix game is all that’s left over after that, but given what we have seen from him so far, I’m not concerned.

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3 thoughts on “The Teague Conundrum

  1. I was wrong on Teague. Looking at his career I thought his 1 year of good 3 point shooting was an outlier, but he is shooting very well. He has my support now. He was set up to be the target from the get go. 19 million to be the 4th option and replace a popular player, there is not really a chance for him to get a fair shake.

    I think a lot of the growing pains are understandable. KAT and Wiggins have not made the leap we all hoped for, but the Wolves replaced 60% of the starting lineup, and they are not real contenders this year anyway. As long as they make the playoffs this year and show improvement throughout the year i am satisfied.

  2. I have said that losing Rubio wasn’t as bad as spending $19 million for basically a similar quality player in Jeff Teague. The additional five million could have been used for obtaining a pure shooter or a defensive player, which this team sorely needs. But, for better or worse, Jeff Teague is our PG and so how do you maximize his skills to the team Thibs has assembled? It should be the coach that tailors his style to his players or get players that match his style. Pop changed his team this year to help Aldridge feel more comfortable. Thibs needs to do the same.

    As a veteran that has played in playoff games his whole career, Teague has to be a stronger leader than he has shown so far. He looks indecisive and not moving players and demanding more from his team. Demanding more is on Teague, but Thibs maybe causing Jeff to be tentative because his teammates aren’t helping Jeff do his thing. Thibs and Teague have to be on the same page if this team is going to move forward. Last year, Thibs used Rubio early in the season incorrectly and the results were awful. When Zack got hurt, he finally let Ricky run the offense as he liked to do it, and the results were better. No more pass to Wiggins and go stand in the corner to shoot a three, he couldn’t make. As I watch Teague, he seems to be playing like he did in Atlanta and in Indy, so why the drop off? Partly, because the rest of the team keeps clogging up the middle and not letting him get open drives to the basket. The spacing with Atlanta was perfect, he had Korver, Milsap and Horford to clear out and let him drive to the basket. In Indy, he wasn’t as good, but with Ellis, George and Turner he had similar results. With Butler, KAT and Gibson, he has less spacers, or outside shooters and that may be what is limiting his play. So maybe it is time to play Belly as a starter at PF and bring in Crawford with the starters, especially if Wiggins is off with his three ball. Create the spacing that Gibson clogs and maybe we start seeing the Teague that played Charlotte more often.

    Tyus Jones is a player that keeps getting better. It isn’t where a player starts, but how much he improves each year. He still isn’t in the league as a Rubio or Teague, but he keeps playing hard and adding to his game, and that energy gets players moving too. When a Tyus Jones has a greater plus/minus than your high paid PG, that isn’t good. When your starting PG sits and the team does better, that is also not a good sign. Jeff needs to be more of a general on the floor. He and Thibs should be in complete sync with what they want to do offensively and what he gets the starters to do. Otherwise, Thibs is putting another square peg PG in a round hole. That is on GM and coach Thibs, not a player that has been to the playoffs each year and an All-Star.

  3. It is a pretty fun pastime to sit in a sunlit corner and try to imagine Rubio on this team, with this scoring talent around him, and then compare what you see from Teague. But it’s really quite pointless because Rubio is not on the team and Teague is. In other words, the concept of this write-up seems to be ‘comparing Teague to 2 other PG’s we know and how they might possibly do in his role’. But you can’t really. One isn’t on the team, and one is a clear backup. I prefer to simply analyze Teague as a cog in this team, and maybe versus the expectations, what he’s done in the past and the money we are giving him. Given this, it would be pretty easy for Teague to do well enough to make me happy. The offensive talent he walked into, the Butler leadership and distributing help he walked into make his road to competence and winning help pretty simple and easy. Yet I’m not happy. There is one reason–inconsistency. You never know what to you’ll get from him (so far). A great scoring game? A Rubio scoring clunker? A good dishing game? A game where he can’t run the offense at all? Turnovers or steals? Anything is possible on a given night and it is frustrating. When Teague has played well, I’ve liked what he brings. But it’s not every night or even close to it. Hopefully he settles in.

    I don’t personally know any Wolves fans who want Tyus to start nor see much talk like that here or on Canis. The idea is silly, but Dr. points out that Tyus has a certain plucky flair that the dead-eyed Teague lacks. Sometimes getting your team and fans excited is a skill in itself. Tyus and Rubio are pretty good at that. But, there’s no reason Teague can’t be a Rubio level player with more scoring, and he’s probably never going to get serious threat from Tyus short of injury.

    I sort of disagree with the conclusion, that Teague has little role in the outcome of games. I think by design Thibs is trying to minimize the importance of the PG slot in the outcomes (for whatever reason). But with Teague, a big part of his game and his swagger is scoring. If he is struggling to score the other things drag, too. And he does less non scoring things than say Rubio to help a team win. Rubio does things that are there most nights–D, effort, leadership and running the offense well. Teague’s interest in these things wavers, particularly if he’s not scoring and in that way he’s a big plus when hot and a bigger minus than we’d like when he’s cold. Tom brings up a great point—he’s not a leader. His body language, his lack of directing traffic, he’s not a floor general and some nights seems to shrink from his vet role. He’s wily, but that’s not the same as an example or a leader. True we have so much talent that they share the burden of win and loss, so it is watered down for each individual. But I think Teague was a major factor in several of our losses. PG’s usually are…

    Tom also digs up the misuse of Rubio last year. I guess this is a bit of a counter to Dr.’s talk about using Teague ‘right’ to cover his sins (to put it more bluntly). I don’t totally blame KAT etc for not picking up Teague’s assignments that he by system is forcing toward them. Bigs have a lot to do on D, and if they leave to pick up penetration they may be leaving someone on the dunkers’ spot etc. The point is that Thibs is desperate to cover Teague’s D sins, and that desperation is partly on Thibs and partly on Teague’s inadequacies on D. How KAT gets dumped with all that is beyond me. But back to what Tom said, the early misuse of Rubio last year by Thibs wasn’t so much about Rubio, although it showed a lack of respect for the value of what Rubio does for the team if allowed to. It was done to help Wiggins be the player Thibs wanted him to be. But it was a gross miscalculation. Wiggins at the time was massively ill suited to be the teams go to decision maker and distributor on offense. He’s never had a good feel for passing or distribution, has meh court awareness on a good day, and has struggles with decision making. He’s also not a leader, and unlikely to be a 1st option type player on a good playoff team. That’s just not him. So all that time trying to make him do that stuff was a waste, largely of his, Rubio’s, the team’s and the fans’ time. This season is sort of an admission of that fact, with him playing off ball, having the crux of the offense be Butler, and the biggest force on it KAT. Wiggins is allowed to play with less pressure, not create his own (or anyone else’s) shot and doing really well in this more natural role. He still has a lot of work to do, but it feels like he can make real progress in this conducive environment.

    My eyes will be on Teague to see if he can settle in an be more consistent.

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