This past off-season the Minnesota Timberwolves shipped fan favorite Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz, reportedly at his request. The trade came after several years of frustration from missing the playoffs and continuously hearing his name involved in trade rumors.
The Rubio years weren’t fruitful by any stretch of the imagination for the Timberwolves. Matched up with Kevin Love, they were anointed to save the franchise from being mired in the abominable mess that they found it in. But poor free agent signings and bad draft selections quickly derailed that. A few short years later, Love was traded to the Cavs and a new era was ushered in. One that left Ricky Rubio, simultaneously, the only remaining player from those dark days, and in the past.
Whether you cringed at his poor shooting, observed in awe of his court vision, respected his defense, or just liked to watch him flash that smile, it was tough to watch Rubio go this past summer, knowing that he gave his all to the franchise while he was in a Timberwolves uniform.
For good measure, the Wolves parted ways with number 5 pick of the 2016 draft, Kris Dunn, and quickly re-upped by signing Jeff Teague, the once All-Star point guard who was coming off a quietly solid year in Indiana, to a 3 year/ $57 million dollar contract. A lot of fans, including myself were skeptical about this. Why disturb the chemistry you have between Rubio and the young core of Towns and Wiggins? Especially when you have actual pieces coming in like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson -- who could be the final links in a team pining for a playoff spot? It definitely wasn’t a perfect relationship between Ricky and Tom Thibodeau, but toward the end of the season, Rubio was really starting to make some strides offensively, and after the trade, it was looking like the Wolves were going to have to scrap that and start from square one with a new point guard.
I’ve been reticent to attack this topic for mainly those marks of uncertainty. In the very dark and hopeless years of Timberwolves basketball, Rubio was the one to keep a lot of faithful Timberwolves fans watching. You just knew he was always going to give it everything he had until the final buzzer. He wasn’t the championship caliber point guard you’d hope for; a lot of the time he struggled just to live up to expectations. But you always had the feeling he’d pull it together one of these years -- and you wanted it to be while he was in Minnesota. So to have Jeff Teague come in and take over that spot, it was a tough and uncertain course.
Through the first 14 games of the season, Teague is averaging 13.9 points per game on 44% shooting. He’s also bringing in 7.4 assist and 3.1 rebounds per game. For a team like the Timberwolves, who are practically loaded with offensive talent without Teague, numbers like these are imperative coming from your point guard.
The knock on Teague coming into the season was the Rubio was younger, a more skilled defender, and a better leader. As far as youth is concerned, Teague’s number more than address that. Defensively, Teague is averaging career-high 1.9 steals. The exact same number of steals that Ricky Rubio is averaging. Teague currently has 26 steals on the year to Rubio’s 28. The marginal difference obviously isn’t costing the Wolves and wins, and Teague isn’t even the defensive anchor to this team. As far as leadership, maybe he isn’t the best leader. He turns the ball over, struggles to get his teammates involved at times, and has shown a tendency to disappear in the scoring column when the Wolves need him most. But this is overlooking the simple fact that on a team with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague is far from the leader on the court. Which is maybe what the Timberwolves needed.
Sure, Rubio is a fantastic floor general and a great moral guy when things got thick, but the veteran experience of a guy that has been the playoffs, been an all-star, and has played on some very efficient and dangerous teams is far more valuable off the floor. The Wolves needed to remove the safety blanket of Ricky Rubio and fully commit to placing either the blame or the praise in the hands of their star players.
Now, Rubio is a fantastic point guard who still doesn’t get the praise he deserves for everything he does for his team. And for someone that put so much into this franchise, it’s upsetting that he isn’t going to be around to be rewarded for all he’s done. So this isn’t a slight to Rubio -- it’s not even meant to compare him to Jeff Teague. But you have to understand, the Timberwolves haven’t had a point guard who averaged at least 14 and 7 since Sam Cassell in the 03-04 season. The last season the Timberwolves made the playoffs.
The great thing about having a point guard like Teague is that even though he is older, his game is molded to preserve himself. He isn’t built on speed or driving hard to the basket. He makes smart passes, creates a shot when he needs to, can run a finely tuned pick & roll, and is a perfect example of what a pass-first point guard should be. Fans that worry about his age or contract length should take a big sigh a relief right about now. Jeff Teague is built to stand the test of time.
His shooting has been a point of emphasis for the Timberwolves offense this year. Going from a guard who struggled to hit 40% from inside the three-point line, to a point guard who is hitting at 44% overall, has opened up so many windows for the Timberwolves offense. He and Towns have developed a great P&R chemistry already early on in the season and Teague has been comfortable using that pick to either get in the lane or pull up at the nail.
His comfortability behind the three-point line has been even more refreshing for the Timberwolves. While defenses struggle to contain the brigade of Towns, Wiggins, and Butler, Jeff Teague is able to drift out to the arc and calmly sink 42% of his three-pointers; a career high for Teague and second on the team only to Nemanja Bjelica (henceforth known as NemanGOD).
Not to go unnoticed is Teague’s relentlessness on defense. As mentioned earlier he’s averaging 1.9 steals per game, good for 9th in the league. In the past, Teague was never known as a big threat to opposing offenses. He mostly struggled to average more than 1.5 steals and before this season, he topped out at 1.7 in the magical 14-15 season with the Hawks. But he’s turned a corner this year and has remained focused on that end of the floor with hustle plays and an unshakeable attentiveness.
Watch as he puts a little too much elbow on this layup and causes a near three on two fastbreaks for the Spurs who are deadly in those situations. There’s no sulking, there’s no looking to the ref for a foul, he just turns on the jets and pokes the ball away from Manu Ginobili, a player who is usually responsible for causing those types of turnovers, which turns into two points for Andrew. This is a heads-up play for everyone. Bjelly recovers the loose ball, Wiggins knows to turn and get to the basket, and Gibson is able to hold Joffrey Lauvergne on his back long enough that he doesn’t get a chance to defend the pass. But none of this happens without the awareness of Jeff Teague.
But steals are just one dynamic on that side of the floor though. Opposing point guards are still finding ways to score on Teague. Even though the steal numbers are there, this is arguably a down year for Teague defensively. His defensive rating is sitting at a career-high 107.6 and he struggles to keep his man in front of him at times as he’s allowing a career-high 33.6 points in the paint. Another big fault of Teague’s is his turnovers.
He’s averaging 3.5 turnovers a game, which is a contributing factor to allowing his opponents 11.8 points on fast breaks. A lot of this can be chalked up to chemistry issues this early on in the season, seeing as his usage rate is the lowest it’s been since his first three years in the league. Most of his turnovers are products of him either forcing passes into bad situations or over dribbling. Both of these are incredibly easy fixes that can be solved with a few sessions of reviewing game film. Or getting his ear drum busted by Thibs’ screaming at him. Either way, this isn’t a huge worry for Teague and the production he’s giving, far outweighs the defensive missteps.
Point guard is arguably the most important part of an NBA team. He is the lifeblood of the offense, and oftentimes, the first line of defense. It’s also arguably the hardest position to replace due to these factors. So when you move forward without a point guard that you’ve cultivated and developed into a fan favorite and someone that knows the ins and outs of the defense and offense, it isn’t unwise to think that your team as a whole will suffer and struggle. But in the case of Jeff Teague and the Minnesota Timberwolves, it’s more than just a patch fix while each party waits for someone better to come along. Jeff Teague is already a tightly woven and integral thread to this franchise.