We all remember when Kevin Love broke his hand.
It was October 2012. The regular season was about to begin. Wolves fans were feeling good about the team. The prior season was spoiled by Ricky Rubio’s injury and a lack of depth. Now, they had Rubio on the mend and nearing a return to game action. As importantly, Rick Adelman boosted the roster with steady veterans Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger, Dante Cunningham, and (briefly, as it turned out) resurrected Brandon Roy. To make things more fun, they also acquired 2012 Olympic star Alexey Shved, from Russia. (Eds note: The only part of the roster overhaul that had some bothered was the unusually light complexion of the roster.)
This team was supposed to accomplish what Rubio’s injury prevented six months earlier: a playoff berth. When the news broke that their star got hurt, and the injury might be serious, there were two basic reactions that followed in short succession.
The first was shock and disappointment. Love was the best player on the team and nobody could have expected this news–especially when the injury occurred off the game floor and away from the eyes of fans (or any of his teammates or coaches…)
The second was LOLing at the explanation offered by Love: he said that he broke his hand (in two places!) from doing “knuckle pushups” with his personal trainer, Rob McClanaghan. While we immediately questioned Kevlar’s story at Punch-Drunk Wolves, we were far from the only ones struggling to understand how knuckle pushups could cause an athletic twenty-something’s hand to explode. The Star Tribune was openly questioning Love’s version of events, and Love told Woj in The Interview that he was upset about how Wolves brass didn’t believe the story either.
Love’s injury prevented the Wolves from breaking the no-playoffs streak in 2013. He tried playing in 18 games, but it wasn’t working (he shot 35 percent from the field) and they sidelined him so he could have surgery. Despite really good coaching from Adelman (before his wife fell ill and he checked out, anyway) and fun stretches of play from Shved, AK47, and Nikola Pekovic, that team went 31-51 and missed another postseason.
The part of this story that is easily forgotten is the opportunity that Love’s injury was supposed to provide to Derrick Williams.
“D-Thrill” was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft. He was a classic “talent over fit” selection made by David Kahn despite the fact that Williams played the same position as Love. At the time, the pick was not controversial — some even believed Williams to be a better prospect than the guy taken ahead of him, someone named Kyrie Irving. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that later-selected players like Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard would’ve been better. In his rookie season — the fun 2011 campaign when Ricky (and Rick) arrived and brought winning to Minnesota for a couple months, Williams was a pretty ordinary rookie, a backup who showed some flashes. With Love out indefinitely, the Wolves needed two things: a power forward, and scoring.
Williams seemed like the perfect candidate for the job.
It didn’t work out. Williams wasn’t exactly terrible that season — that would be overstating the failure — but he was not good. More importantly, he wasn’t good at scoring, which was supposed to be his specialty — the thing that made him a starting-caliber player and maybe an eventual All-Star. Williams started 56 games that season, but lost significant playing time to Cunningham, who was the more reliable all-around player. He scored 12.0 points per game (17.5 per 36 minutes) on a team devoid of a go-to guy and in need of scoring. (They finished 25th in the league in offensive rating, according to Basketball Reference.) He had zero 30-point games. Worse than his modest scoring output was his weak efficiency. An explosive power forward who fits the profile of a strong finisher at the rim, Williams shot just 43.0 percent from the field. He had a maddening habit of hanging way too long in the air when trying to score around the rim. By the time he released the shot, the ball was so low that just about anyone could block it. And as @PDWolves Twitter followers know by now, “Derricking” at the free throw line was all too common. He shot 70.6 percent from the line, and I’m pretty sure all of the “2 for 2s” came in the most meaningless of game situations. If the game was in doubt and Thrill was at the stripe, he was Derricking.
So the opportunity for Williams created by the Love injury was a wasted one. Williams now plays in China for a team called the Gold Lions.
It doesn’t change the fact that injuries sometimes have silver linings drawn by the opportunity provided to a different player. The day after the Love news, I
delusionally optimistically wrote a short blog post about the time in baseball history when Bobby Thomson broke his ankle and needed to be replaced by a 20-year old kid named Hank Aaron. That worked out okay for the Braves. And as it compares in hindsight to the Love/Williams swap: LOL.
But those things do happen and recent NBA history includes a yuge example as well.
Draymond Green was never supposed to be a starter. That is both generally and specifically true.
Generally, players who fit Green’s pre-NBA profile struggle to stay in the league and never amount to more than bit role players. He was a four-year college player, a second round pick, and perceived to be a “tweener” without the physical qualities to play any of the five positions at a high NBA level. If Webster added “upside” to the dictionary, it would describe someone very unlike Draymond in 2012. He was more comparable in a lot of ways to former Timberwolf Robbie Hummel, whose long Big Ten career at Purdue spanned the same time Green played at Michigan State.
Specifically, Green was never supposed to be the starting forward for the Golden State Warriors. Steve Kerr has candidly and humbly admitted that a David Lee injury was the only reason that Green was ever afforded an opportunity. Chris Ballard detailed the story in a February 2015 feature for Sports Illustrated:
Then, in November, Kerr got lucky. David Lee got hurt, straining his left hamstring. A two-time All-star and a favorite of Lacob and many fans, Lee is a gifted playmaker and finisher. He is also a subpar defender who lacks the range to be a stretch four. Assistant coaches had pleaded with Jackson to move Lee to the bench the previous season in favor of Green, arguing that it would tighten the starting unit’s defense and provide a desperately-needed offensive boost to the bench, but Jackson stood firm.
Kerr claims he intended to do the same. “If David Lee doesn’t get hurt, he’s still starting for sure,” says Kerr.
But Lee did get hurt. And thus Kerr unleashed upon the league a unique, and uniquely voluble, defensive force.
With Lee out and Green in, the Warriors opened that season with a ridiculous 21-2 record. Draymond was an integral part of that success. By the end of the year, the Dubs won 67 games, Green was First Team All Defense, and they won their first of two rings (and counting).
Derrick Williams was a player who seemed to deserve an opportunity, and he wasted it. Draymond Green was a player who deserved nothing, but seized the only chance he would ever get.
That Jeff Teague’s knee injury creates an opportunity for Tyus Jones is a point that hardly requires any unpacking. But let’s do it anyway.
Last year in his second NBA season, Jones showed up a dramatically improved player. While his individual stats were nothing to get excited about — 3.5 points and 2.6 assists in 12.9 minutes per game — his plus-minus, “team performance” metrics stood out on the roster. Of all regular rotation players, Jones led the team in net rating, at (+2.5). Far more talented guys like Andrew Wiggins (-0.5), Karl-Anthony Towns (-0.9) and Ricky Rubio (-1.0) trailed him. While some of this was presumably attributable to playing versus benches instead of starters, consider that Jones’s stats with other Wolves starters were better than his averages.
In the time Jones shared the floor with Wiggins — a situation that presented itself in 47 games — Jones’s net rating was a wildly-good (+12.2). Without Wig, it dropped to (-4.4). With Towns, Jones was likewise better, at (+3.8) versus (-0.5) without him. It’s not a perfect measure of Jones’s performance versus starters, but it sure seemed like the Wolves played well when Jones shared the floor with talented teammates.
A similar phenomenon is taking shape this year.
Jones is once again right at the top of the team’s net rating ranks, coming in just behind Jimmy Butler for best on the team. (Butler is (+6.0) in 1,279 minutes, while Tyus is (+5.3) in 615.) And once again, Jones lineups are performing significantly better when he’s paired with first-unit talent: due to the recent Teague injury and a pair of games he missed earlier this year, we have 114 minutes of pure “Tyus plus the other starters” data to look at. So far, so good: they’re scoring at an elite level (116.1 points per 100 possessions) and defending at an elite level (allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions). That net rating of (+15.2) is wildly better than Tyus’s already-good (+5.3) overall net rating. [Eds note: after Sunday’s lopsided win at Indiana, Tyus moved to first in net rating, now at (+7.6) and the “Tyus plus the starters” lineup net rating bumped way up to (+25.4).]
Despite some evidence that Jones should be a starter, there are a big list of big barriers to his potential entry in the lineup. Let’s just tick them off one at a time.
First, the ordinary starting lineup, with Teague/without Tyus, is already very solid, rocking a net rating of (+7.4). Thibs has a stubborn streak and is maniacally devoted to the process of improving. He doesn’t tinker with things. And giving Tyus some of Teague’s minutes, in Thibs’s mind, is probably “tinkering.”
Second, Thibs-Layden, LLC just committed 57 million of Glen Taylor’s dollars to Teague. Presumably then, Thibs would be reluctant to start somebody at point guard not named Jeff Teague until his hand is truly forced. Also, that financial commitment betrays a high regard that Thibs holds for Teague. If you are a regular listener/reader/follower of Thibs’s remarks to the media, you know how often he goes out of his way to praise Teague, even at times when it doesn’t make sense after the game that was just watched. He clearly thinks Teague is a good ball player.
Third, Teague is, pretty much, a good player. He’s got flaws — he’s not been a good defender and he sometimes stops the ball from moving on offense. But overall, he’s very solid. He can shoot from three, score in the lane and has made a lot of clutch baskets this season. He made an All-Star Team a few years ago and it isn’t like his game has changed much (or at all?) since then.
Fourth and perhaps most importantly for this discussion, Thibs has signaled less enthusiasm for Jones’s game, whether intentionally or not. In his intro presser after taking the Wolves job, a bunch of the young players were in attendance and sitting in the front row at Target Center’s event. Thibs talked about the exciting young talent on the roster he inherited, mentioning by name all of Wiggins, Towns, Zach LaVine, and even Shabazz Muhammad. It was awkward when, later in the conference, Thibs realized that he forgot to mention Tyus, who was sitting right in front of him. He then said something about how he was aware of the great things he had done at Duke. Throughout that season, Thibs fouled off local reporter questions about Tyus, who was playing well, and heaped disproportionate praise on his preferred guard, Kris Dunn, who happened to be playing like hot garbage. When you’re around him all year long, you can sense what Thibs really feels and believes, as much as he tries to play things close to the vest. It is easy to see that Thibs has doubts about Jones, much like Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr had about Draymond, before he was plugged into the starting lineup for an extended period of time.
Should we want Tyus to earn the starting job in Teague’s absence?
I say yes, for two basic reasons:
The first is that the starting lineup has too many “primary scorers” in it. Wig alluded to this at Media Day and it’s the second biggest problem with that lineup. They perform well offensively because they have so much talent, but it’s far below the sum of the parts. When one or two guys play well, it almost necessarily means that another one or two struggle. When Tyus plays, the talents of KAT and especially Wiggins seem to be more unlocked and the team’s ceiling is raised. When you watch the stretches of play where Wig and KAT go off, you see a future championship-caliber team. With Jones, that happens somewhat regularly. It happens with Teague pretty rarely.
The second is defense. Neither Teague nor Jones will ever become a defender in the Patrick Beverley or Marcus Smart mold. And that’s okay. Starting point guard defense is important, but lots of great NBA point guards are mediocre or worse on defense. But Tyus is already showing that he’s better than Teague on that end of the floor, and he’s so young (doesn’t turn 22 until next May) that further improvement should be on the way. It’s worth finding out if that “starters + Tyus” defensive rating of 100.9 (or something close to it) is sustainable. When Teague plays with the starters, it’s 103.4. Per 36 minutes, Tyus collects 2.5 steals; tops on the team. Teague gets a respectable 1.6. But Tyus is too small, you say — no, he’s really not. He’s a little bit taller than some great point guards like Chris Paul and Mike Conley, and he’s a little bit smaller than some others like Steph Curry and John Wall. According to Draft Express, he’s 6’2″ and Jeff Teague is 6’1″ (with shoes on). I personally watched him alley-oop dunk in the local pro-am league last summer, providing the sort of “in a different context” perspective of just how athletic every NBA player is.
Thibs likes Teague more than Tyus, and probably for legitimately good reasons, but sometimes even the best coaches screw up talent evaluation. The Draymond/David Lee example is one. One of my favorite posts I wrote for PDW was about the late, great Drazen Petrovic, and how Rick Adelman (then coaching the Portland Trailblazers) severely underestimated what he had in the foreign-born guard who left Portland and quickly became All-NBA in New Jersey. It’s something that happens. Lots of players need lots of minutes and freedom to prove themselves and the system is logically engineered for the highest drafted and highest paid to be afforded those opportunities. Sometimes, there are diamonds in the rough that only get their shot through luck or circumstantial changes.
Okay, but even if you’re with me and believe that Tyus might be a key to improving this team’s performance, is it at all realistic? What would it take for Tyus to take Teague’s job?
For starters, it would take something very similar to the Draymond-David Lee case, where the team goes on a tear in the normal starter’s absence. So far, that’s off to a rough start with the loss at Milwaukee, though it should be noted that Jones played well in that game and the loss had much more to do with fatigue (road tail end of back to back) and Jimmy’s ball-stopping offense for the ENTIRE fourth quarter than anything Jones did wrong. That they built a 20-point lead against a good team on the road was a sign of positive change. But for this scenario to play out, the Wolves need to win a bunch of games, and win them convincingly enough for Tyus to win over Thibs.
I think it might also require Jimmy Butler intervention.
Two things have become increasingly clear this season:
1) The only personality more dominant than Tom Thibodeau’s is Jimmy Butler. However he did it, Butler went from a late-drafted rookie who couldn’t crack Thibs’s lineup in Chicago to a superstar veteran who can basically say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, to his spastic head coach.
Butler controls the Wolves locker room every bit as much as Thibs does.
2) Butler likes Tyus. This is evident from observing their interactions in the locker room, how they play together on the floor, and from off-court things like Butler (and Jamal Crawford) attending the high school game of Tyus’s younger brother, Tre.
Make no mistake, a point guard change would affect the locker room and Thibs understands that completely. When in the season opener at San Antonio Teague played poorly and Tyus played the fourth quarter minutes, Thibs immediately went into damage-control mode, emphasizing to the media that Jeff would finish 99 percent of games. He understands the NBA game — a player’s game first and foremost — and how money and managing egos play a big part in things. In order to entertain the idea of starting Tyus, he’d probably lean on Butler for support. Or, as it might be, the decision might have to be Butler’s first, ultimately executed by Thibs.
Anyway, the tales of Derrick Williams and Draymond Green draw out opposite extremes of what can happen with an injury-caused playing time opportunity. Chances are, Tyus Jones’s brief audition at point guard will fall somewhere in between those cases, in terms of how it changes or affirms our presently held notions about the young guard.
Right before publishing this, Jerry Zgoda tweeted an update on Teague’s condition:
Teague will be active, in uniform and available to play back home in Indianapolis this afternoon but won’t play
— Jerry Zgoda (@JerryZgoda) December 31, 2017
Clarification on earlier tweet: Available to play is not the same as able to play. There’s been no miraculous recovery for Teague. But technically, he’ll be suited up and, say, available to shoot a free throw if they needed him to do so
— Jerry Zgoda (@JerryZgoda) December 31, 2017
Perhaps this opportunity isn’t lost on Teague, as he keeps his friends close and his playing-time enemy closer, suiting up for games despite a weeks-long recovery ahead.