Wolves 119, Suns 108: Tyus Starts a Point Guard Conversation

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.

Until then.

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6 thoughts on “Wolves 119, Suns 108: Tyus Starts a Point Guard Conversation

  1. I miss Rubio a lot. This would’ve been the perfect year for him. Doesn’t have to shoulder a scoring burden, gets the offense moving, and plays really good defense. Thibs made a bad move.

    I like Jeff Teague and his saviness. He’s made some clutch plays for us this year. But he’s a scorer first and we’ve got too many of those. Our offense just doesn’t flow very well with him running the point. If he embraces a pass first mentality every game, that will make our offense even more unstoppable. He needs to be the 4th option scoring, but a lot of times he’s looking for his shot too much. He dribbles around for 18 seconds and then when he doesn’t have a shot, passes to someone and they have to throw up a prayer. We should’ve kept Rubio and signed a wing and 3 and D guy to give us some depth. A lineup of Rubio, Butler, Wiggins, towns, and belly would’ve been a lot of fun to watch.

    Another thing I’d like to see is Gibson play more with the 2nd unit. Not because he’s not good enough to be a starter, but because he can eat up the inside and create space for our shooters on the bench. The Spurs game last Wednesday is a perfect example of that.

    Once again, our starters played almost 40 minutes against a 7-13 team missing their best player. The score of this game should’ve been 118-85.

    I’m going to go out and say it, but Thibs should be fired. This team has so much potential and Thibs is squeezing the life out of it. He doesn’t maximize our players talents, nor does he properly gameplan for teams. He’s got his strategy and doesn’t change much. Doesn’t change his lineups, doesn’t infuse bench players properly with the starters, and overplays his starters. Not only will he wear our guys out physically, but mentally as well.

    We need an Erik Spolestra or Rick Carlisle as our coach. As long as Thibs is our coach, we will never reach our potential or win a championship. That’s just the reality and hopefully Taylor realizes sooner or later. The right coach could coach this team to a championship. Thibs is not that guy.

  2. I admit that I didn’t see the warts on Rubio that many stats geeks saw. I also don’t mind Teague as our starting PG. What I have always minded about Teague and even Taj isn’t how they play, but how much they cost for the production they give vs. what we could have gotten for the same amount of money had Thibs not rushed to get rid of Rubio and sign his replacement so quickly. Our bench, has some good assets. Crawford, Tyus, Belly and G are all worthy of bench time on good teams. Maybe not as the 6th-9th best players on a playoff team, but certainly not DNP-CD guys either. Thibs doesn’t know what to do with a deep bench, so he probably thought he had more than enough bench support.

    Now with Teague out as the starting PG, and his number one three point specialist in street clothes, Thibs once again is forced to see how thin his bench gets. Didn’t he learn after last year’s injuries and playing Rush and Aldrich more minutes, that having depth is a blessing not a curse? Tyus did well against some pretty pedestrian PG today, but Goran was difficult for our guys to guard and he isn’t in the John Wall or Russell Westbrook league either. Point being is that Tyus did his job today, but could he sustain it for a full season or even this homestand? More importantly, is Aaron Brooks even worth having on the team at this point in his career? I would rather have Melo Trimble or Michael Bryson up from Des Moines. They have size, better speed and can shoot a three better and would probably run through a brick wall for Thibs to stay up here.

    Teague has been in the top half of point guards in most categories, but Darren Collison is playing pretty good on a much less talented team and he is getting half of what Teague is getting. That $8 million additional would have gotten us some pretty good bench talent. I’m still surprised that we had to pay Taj $14 million, but he has been a key part of the success this team has gotten. You are right that with the way Tyus played today, he was able to not dribble into trouble as much as Teague sometimes does and in more Rubioesque fashion looked for his shot less, giving Wiggins, Butler and KAT played more leadership in the offense, which was refreshing to see. If it would have been against Portland, instead of Phoenix it would have been a much more substantial statement for Tyus getting more minutes going forward.

  3. I would have laughed at the idea of Tyus as our starting PG until I saw this game. The thing that stood out to me (and I get it’s just one game against a foe with it’s best scorer out and two important players out for us) is pace. Our lack of pace and pushing the ball seemed mostly systemic, or at least involving the coaching staff not forcing or even pushing Teague to play with more pace. Maybe not as much as I thought. Tyus took the same guys (minus Bjelly) and pushed pace when it was opportune, and that made us flow way better offensively even when we weren’t pushing it. This has reasons–you wear a team out with pace, and it also gives you a gear to change to, so there is added element of surprise, it helps you run up the score fast which mentally weakens a foe. On top of that, Tyus looked somewhat better at running the normal, slow half court sets. He didn’t dilly dally brining the ball up, and cut way down on the signature Teague dribbling, both of which added a bit to our shot clock. Tiny sample size, but a lot of issues with our offense suddenly looked better without Teague. As DemBluez (nice to hear from you!) pointed out, Rubio would have been a nice fit with this team in a lot of ways and we don’t really need yet another scorer at the PG position. We’d be so much more dangerous with a pass first PG who controls and pushes pace. On D, well, that’s not Teague’s strong suit so Tyus doesn’t have too much to make up there. Tyus’ lack of physicality is a concern. Teague is about the same height but feels longer and is stronger as well as probably a bit better athlete (although nothing to write home about). On D, Teague is not good but he makes up a bit of ground with vet wile. At the same time, Tyus seems to have a vet bearing even at his young age. His feel for the game may be his greatest strength. He uses this on D not to will himself into a great defender, miraculously, but to mitigate some of his shortcomings. He’s often overpowered on D, but not often out of position, and using his vision and feel for the game to at least get some (or 7) steals, which are disruptive and mitigate some of the possessions he allows an easy bucket.

    That said, I’m not advocating fully a seismic shift like Tyus over Teague. And Thibs will not be wanting to admit his expensive, hand picked PG acquisition is not working out as well as a young backup. He doesn’t seem like an optics guy, but his actions suggest he is. Or maybe it’s just stubbornness pure and simple. Either way, not a good candidate to get jiggy with this kind of decision making… However, it is worth noting that Teague might be out a while, depending on how bad his Achilles flair up is. It may also be worth noting that the flair up may be due to, in part, too many minutes, particularly when Tyus is so competent. Tyus could get more chances to prove himself in the games ahead.

    Along those lines, I’ve made a minor hobby out of dissing Thibs over his giant starter minutes and his lack of Bjelly playing time. But he may have been concerned about Bjelly’s foot and trying to keep his minutes down for that reason. Perhaps I was wrong to get on his back for not playing Bjelly more at this point, for health reasons.

    And yet… Interesting how we are down a starter and our best bench player as still, the starter minutes in this game looked nearly the same as a ‘normal’ night for us with Shabazz getting only 7 minutes. We kinda play minutes like we’re down two guys every night. In a recent game, with everyone, we played the starters 190 minutes, 189 in this one.

    I like the shot dispersal in this one: KAT 26, Bulter 19, Wiggins 18, Gibson 12, Tyus 6. You could get Tyus a few more looks and take one away from KAT and a couple away from Gibson, but pretty close to ideal. This is how nutty I am. We have a bunch of good offensive players. But they aren’t like, X factor amazing offensive talent (no, not even Wiggins) except for KAT. How do teams stop KAT, particularly as he builds on his skills and improves his ability to adjust and feel out situations? He should get the most takes every game, with plenty in the post.

    You know, we overpaid for Wiggins. He’s not my favorite. But if we get this Wiggins every night (good luck, consistency has been one of his huge problems) I’m happy, it helps us win a lot. This was basically do sh*t Wiggins (including a crazy little thing called D) and three point Wiggins. I mean, the slasher potential is there, I guess, and occasionally results in a highlight, but when he’s not shooting threes he’s taking a lot of difficult/long twos and not very efficient. More threes is good for his game. Rebounding, passing, defending, being generally opportunistic, and yes slashing to the rim are good for his game. I hope he looks more like this and less like first few seasons Wiggins.

    Butler seems mostly on track now! As happy as I am about that, and as much stuff as he does to help us win, it is pretty clear that he’s not a major offensive talent, nor really an all star type guy in the West. He’s a good two way player, but maybe a bit overrated, particularly in regards to offensive prowess. And I’m saying this after a game in which I was completely happy with his play. It’s just the reality.

  4. In regards to DemBluez wishing for a new coach, I wonder how many great coaches would love to swap teams with Thibs right now? You would think Carlisle would, but if he gets the first pick in next year’s draft and lands DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic to play with Smith and Barnes, they may have the makings of their own big three. Poelstra, given that he is in the East and has some talent to build around and South Beach to court players with probably wouldn’t want our team in exchange for his Heat.

    With a high probability that we don’t have any cap room or a draft pick next year, we are kind of stuck with the team that Thibs has created for a while and probably Thibs as coach too. Crawford is talented and seems ageless, but he has played a lot of minutes over the years. Same with Taj. We still will have the big three, but will they be as exciting next year, when teams like the Lakers will be loading up with talent and possibly Utah and Clippers as well? Philly and Milwaukee will be adding pieces through the draft and are already catching the eye of the folks that promote the league. We have two players in Belly and Tyus that play significant minutes, that will be asking for a raise or will be heading elsewhere. How do we replace those guys?

    I would love to see Glen take away Thibs role as President and team builder and have him concentrate on coaching. Either get Layden to do his job as GM or replace him with someone that can push Thibs to be more open minded about the way the NBA is moving. I would also like him to have to add some new idea guys on the bench that aren’t defensive yes men to Thibs. Brunson, Pinckney and Greer are basically all defensive guys that have been Thibs underlings for long time. Not one of them has shown the ability to help a player like Wiggins offensively or help KAT get better in the low post. Great coaches have trees that branch off from them. Thibs is more like a pole.

    1. Exactly. Thibs doesn’t develop talent nor does he look to evolve his coaching. He’s stuck in his ways and it will lead to our team not reaching the heights it could.

      We desperately need a Rick Carlisle or Erik Spolestra. Honestly, if one of those guys were coaching us, we’d be 16-4 right now and competing for the #1 seed. We have that much talent and scoring ability. It’s hard to see talent like this go to waste with a guy like Jimmy in his prime and Taj with maybe 2 more years of playing this much and being effective.

      Also, the wolves don’t look like they have much fun out there either. Obviously fun isn’t your top priority but when you’re enjoying what you do, you perform better and are better psychologically. I think the joy of the game is missing from them because Thibs sucks it all out with his coaching and playing his guys 40 minutes a game.

      Taking his role away as president would be a step in the right direction but that’s not addressing the real issue. Thibs way of coaching and doing things isn’t relevant in today’s NBA and he is consistently out coached every game. We are just lucky to have enough talent to get us by. I stand by what I said before that Thibs needs to be fired if this team wants to reach the heights that it can.

  5. There isn’t really a serious argument for Jones over Teague. Jones has played with Towns for 3 seasons and seems to work well off of him. Continuity breeds decisiveness, and that takes time. Additionally, their offense played decently at home against an opponent missing its star player; way to step over that low bar. Tyus is essentially Case Keenum, riding the coattails of his talented teammates against weak opponents but too limited to actually turn a loss into a win; the main difference is that Jones doesn’t seem to have the potential to turn a win into a loss, but that doesn’t really work for a good team.

    The minor staggering change that would seem to work well is Teague with Wiggins and Butler with Towns. The middle 12-16 minutes of every quarter should not have all 4 of them on the court together. I don’t think Jones has earned more than 16 mpg, though, and 32 mpg for Teague isn’t exactly overworking a starter.

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