There are two things to discuss here:
The game that was just played, and the team’s point guard situation.
First, the game.
The Wolves beat the Phoenix Suns on Sunday afternoon at Target Center. The score was 119-108, and for most of the second half, the result didn’t seem in much doubt. The Suns are pretty bad to begin with (7-13 entering this game) and are even worse when they are without their young star shooting guard, Devin Booker. He had 35 points and 6 assists when Phoenix upset Minnesota a few weeks ago. That he was out with a toe problem on Sunday made a Wolves win seem like a nearly-foregone possibility.
Adding a dose of unpredictability to matters was the Wolves’ own injury report, which included both Jeff Teague (Achilles soreness) and Nemanja Bjelica (foot soreness). When they played without these two — their starting point guard and best bench player — against the Miami Heat on Friday night at Target Center, the Wolves looked terrible. Would things be any better this go-around?
As it turned out, the answer was “yes.” The two differentiating factors between the egg they laid against Miami and the convincing win over the Suns were: (1) Tyus Jones started this game and played well; and (2) the opponent was not nearly as good or as well prepared to attack the Timberwolves’ weaknesses as Erik Spoelstra’s Heat were.
By rightfully replacing the washed Aaron Brooks in the starting lineup, Jones improved the starters’ defensive intelligence and capability, and increased the pace of their offense. That he took just 6 shots in 38 minutes was a boon for the rest of the scorer’s-mentality starters. Taj Gibson scored 16 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. Andrew Wiggins regained his perimeter shooting touch, scoring 21 points and hitting on 4 of 6 from downtown. Jimmy Butler made his all-around impact, scoring 25 points to go along with 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. And Karl-Anthony Towns, coming off of a nightmare performance against Hassan Whiteside and the Heat, fared much better against Tyson Chandler and the Suns. KAT scored 32 points and grabbed a dozen boards.
Jones himself had 9 points, 7 assists, 0 turnovers, and a whopping 7 steals.
The starters controlled most of the minutes they were on the floor. The game got closer than it should have been in the 2nd Quarter after the Wolves bench — weakened by the Jones/Brooks swap and the Bjelica injury — struggled to do much of anything. For the Suns, 27-year old rookie guard Mike James got hot off the bench, ending with 26 points and 7 assists. But as the game moved along and the number of possessions increased, the simple talent disparity won out. The Wolves’ starters all played well, with plus-minuses ranging from (+13) for Towns to the game-high (+22) for Tyus. The bench’s numbers were negative, punctuated by Aaron Brooks’s team-worst (-11). It isn’t clear that Brooks is an NBA-caliber point guard right now — not when 6-foot dudes who can dribble, pass, and shoot kind of grow on trees and can be found in the G-League or all over Europe. Thibs was reluctant to bury Brooks and his career when asked about him in the post-game presser, but he didn’t give him any vote of confidence either. He seemed to be open to the possibility that he needs a different third point guard.
Speaking of point guard, a resounding win in Tyus Jones’s first career start is going to open up the floodgates to people calling for a starting point guard change. In the wake of the unpopular decision to trade away Ricky Rubio, fans and followers of this team are less interested in giving Jeff Teague a fair shake than they are having their loud and upset voices heard. It’s not easy to remain level-headed in the hysterical online world of sports–or just about anything–but it’s important that we try.
As someone who has spilled a fair amount of virtual ink pushing for a greater role for Tyus, and open mindedness about his potential upside, I’m not quite ready to hop on the bandwagon that believes he should be the starting point guard over Teague — not yet, anyway.
Before explaining myself, let’s begin with the argument FOR Tyus Jones as the starter. I think it goes something like this:
The Wolves starting unit has too many primary scorers in it, and would benefit from having a pass-first facilitator like Jones at point guard rather than a dribble-drive scorer like Teague. As the Suns game showed, when Jones plays the rest of the guys get shots and score a ton. Chemistry and pecking order are important, and Jones is better for those factors than Teague is.
Some important stats back up Jones’s case for starting point guard duties. His net rating (plus-minus per 100 possessions) is up to (+3.4) ahead of Teague’s (+2.0). The offense performs better with Jones on the floor (109.7) than with Teague (108.2) despite the fact that he plays so much with worse scorers around him. In the small sample (50 minutes) of “Tyus + the 4 other starters” lineup, the Wolves are crushing opponents, scoring 126.2 points per 100 possessions and allowing 107.4, good for a wild net rating of (+18.8).
Finally, Jones is only in his third NBA season, meaning that the Wolves can realistically expect to be able to keep him around for at least five more years, versus two more before Teague will likely be an unrestricted free agent. Those five years will constitute the front end of Jones’s career prime. If he continues to improve at even half the rate he’s shown over two years since being drafted, he’ll be a valuable part of the team in his hopes for sustained title contention. Playing him more now will benefit the future as much as the present as he develops greater chemistry with Wiggins, Towns, and Butler.
Okay, I need to stop making the pro-Tyus argument now, before I actually convince myself of that position.
Thibs is not going to even entertain this idea — he interrupted the first post-game presser question that had the word “Tyus” in it to set the tone that the starters were very good and that’s all that needs to be said.
While I think Thibs’s public support for his own positions is important for locker-room dynamics and I think that he understands this as well as anyone, and we can never quite tell what he is truly thinking (see: his year-long disproportionate praise of Kris Dunn leading up to the Dunn & LaVine for Butler trade) I think that a stubborn insistence on Teague starting is a reasonable way forward for this team.
First, the numbers are not exactly UNKIND to Teague in the starting lineup. That main five-man group, over a much-more-reliable sample of 415 minutes — and against far-greater competition than the Booker-less Suns — is outscoring opponents by 5.7 points per 100. They score really well (109.6) and defend reasonably well (103.9). Against the 30 teams in the league, those marks would make for a 4th-ranked offense and 15th-ranked defense. Top-notch offense and decent defense is about as good as most expected of this year’s Wolves and tinkering with something as important as the starting point guard spot might be violating the adage about fixing things that ain’t broke.
Second, Teague is a 9th-year veteran with a long body of work suggesting that he’s simply a better player than Jones. His numbers are a little bit down this season, 18 games in, but he deserves a long opportunity to fit in next to all of the stars that surround him here. Teague’s PER in the past three seasons going backwards in time was 19.2, 17.9, and 20.6. Right now, it’s just 15.4. His win shares per 48 minutes are likewise down, at 0.070, versus recent marks of .146, .125, and .166. Jones’s PER before Sunday’s game was just 10.1, and his WS/48 were 0.050. He’s hitting just 39 percent of field goals.
When one player has such an overwhelmingly-better body of work than the other, and the team is just a fourth of the way through the season, patience with the veteran seems wise.
Now, with that said, it might help to stagger Jones into the starting group more often and increase his minutes up to something in the low 20s, from the 16.0 where they are right now. This would violate the Thibs trend of playing his starting unit together, heavily, but the bench might benefit from a player like Teague who can break down the defense, and the starters seem to have a special chemistry with Tyus. It’s worth minor experimentation, anyway.
What is clear to everyone is that against decent competition, the team needs two healthy and capable point guards. With Teague out and Brooks in, they have only one of them. Washington comes to town on Tuesday night. Even with John Wall out injured, the Wizards will pose a real challenge for the Wolves and they’ll need as many healthy bodies as possible to compete for that win.