Grades: Timberwolves Find Point Guard Fit With Jeff Teague

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Saturday July 1st, 2017

The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the process of fundamentally remaking their roster. The most significant part of that process was trading for Jimmy Butler on draft night, the sort of talent acquisition that in itself reorganizes a team’s internal hierarchy. Within the week Minnesota consummated its long-pursued trading of Ricky Rubio, freeing up the requisite cap room for a different kind of point guard. The Wolves found one in Jeff Teague—the 29-year-old creator who will be signed into Minnesota’s cap space for $57 million over three years.

How much the Wolves gain from effectively swapping Rubio for Teague is debatable. What is not is that Teague is better in the exact ways that Rubio is often found lacking. Opponents who would go under Rubio’s ball screens will have to pay more respect (even if a token respect) to Teague’s jumper. His pull-up presents a legitimate threat, as does his range shooting (37% over the past three years) away from the ball. That means more to the Wolves (whose most reliable three-point shooter otherwise may be Karl-Anthony Towns) than it would to some other teams, a contextual snag that complicated Rubio’s value. 

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The offsets come elsewhere. Teague can fair decently in a team defensive concept but will never disrupt the way Rubio does. At best, Teague competes; he has size and quickness enough to keep involved, though Teague doesn’t guard with particularly notable timing, length, or physicality. As a playmaker, Teague will never see the angles of the game like Rubio. He can be the steward of a balanced offense but won’t pass his teammates open with the same anticipation, finding opportunities in the space where there appear to be none. That might be acceptable for a Wolves team that would like to see the ball in the hands of Butler, Towns, and Andrew Wiggins anyway, but it will not come without some operational costs.

No matter the skill-by-skill calculus of Rubio vs. Teague, there can be some value in change for its own sake. Tom Thibodeau’s regard for Rubio’s game became clear the moment he drafted Kris Dunn. It was confirmed in how he managed Rubio’s minutes, rotations, and responsibilities over the course of their season together. The disconnect was pronounced. Good players and quality coaches don’t always align perfectly, and in this case the Wolves have opted to exchange Rubio’s more extreme, angular game for a plainer, more balanced alternative. This could be exactly what the franchise needs. If the Wolves weren’t going to trust Rubio’s playmaking to let him chase the spectacular, they would likely have suffered too much from his limitations. Teague isn’t perfect, but his weaknesses don’t have to be considered quite so carefully or quite so constantly. His presence will aid most lineups by virtue of doing most things well enough. 

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Problems can arise when Teague is put under playoff scrutiny, but the Wolves—who haven’t made the postseason since 2004—would love to have that problem as an organization. Teague is talented, productive, and adjustable. His game can help push Minnesota further than it’s been in a long while, no matter how little it offers in terms of definitive, long-term answers.

Grade: B-

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