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.