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Remembering And Forgetting Ricky Rubio: A Jeff Teague Preview

The Wolves new point guard will look to transcend the shadow of Ricky Rubio in Minnesota.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“I think Jeff is definitely more aggressive scoring, Rubio is a facilitator. [Jeff] gets the job done. He’s a winner. He’s going to figure out a way to bring his game and make this team win,” is what Aaron Brooks told me at Media Day when I asked about the differences between the Wolves new starting point guard and Ricky Rubio. “That ain’t no shot to anybody but [Jeff] is a winner. He’s got guys to the playoffs.”

We live in a stat-friendly world these days. The “Advanced” section of Basketball-Reference can sometimes lend more credit to a player like Rubio than a player who has won actual basketball games like Teague.

While it would be unfair to condemn Rubio for the dearth of talent that surrounded him in his six years in Minnesota, dismissing Teague’s role in the success of the Hawks would be equally naive.

It’s undeniable that Rubio-led teams fare better with him on the court. In his career, the Wolves may have only won 170 of 476 games but when Rubio was on the floor, those Wolves teams competed with a perfectly even net rating — good for the equivalent of a .500 team despite largely atrocious supporting casts.

In a recent piece for ESPN, Zach Lowe described this disconnect with Rubio. “No one plays quite like Rubio, and he remains something of an analytics black box,” he wrote. “His broken jumper is a glaring handicap that strangles spacing, but his teams always score better when he's on the floor. He does something hard to spot that just works.”

Lowe is describing the inherent confusion between the perception of Rubio and his actual production. Playing for a dysfunctional franchise has often led to an unwarranted lack of respect. When Brooks implies Rubio wasn’t a winner, part of that logic fails. While, yes, Brooks is correct that the Wolves were not a winning team, it’s unfair to dismiss the positive value Rubio brought.

On the other hand, it would make sense that Brooks would hold Teague in a positive light of “winner.” Turn on a basketball game from the past decade that Teague played in and his team was 20 percent more likely to win — with a career .577 winning percentage — than a Rubio-led team.

Unlike Rubio’s perplexing net-rating, Teague’s career net-rating of +2.0 falls in line, almost perfectly, with his winning percentage. Teague was simply dealt a better hand when he was drafted by the Hawks, fourteen picks after the Wolves selected Rubio in the 2009 NBA Draft. While it is true that Teague has won over his career and played a legitimate role in that success, he has not had to shoulder the same burden Rubio bore in Minnesota.

Team Success of Ricky Rubio and Jeff Teague

Player Ricky Rubio Ricky Rubio Jeff Teague Jeff Teague
Player Ricky Rubio Ricky Rubio Jeff Teague Jeff Teague
Year Team W-L Record Net Rating Team W-L Record Net Rating
2016-17 31-51 -5 42-40 -10
2015-16 29-53 -3 48-34 -3
2014-15 16-66 2 60-22 6
2013-14 40-42 -2 38-44 0
2012-13 31-51 3 44-38 -3
2011-12 26-40 3 40-26 7
2010-11 Overseas n/a 44-38 1
2009-10 Overseas n/a 53-29 5
Totals 173-303 (.363) 0 369-271 (.577) 2

In many ways, Rubio and Teague can be an apples to oranges comparison in how their value has been recognized during their time in the league. That said, you best believe this narrative of comparing the two is not going anywhere.

When Teague flashes athleticism and a scoring prowess previously foreign to the Minnesota backcourt there will be an onslaught of Teague-cappers proclaiming: “See, Rubio could have never done that.”

And if (probably when) the ball begins to stick on the offensive end in Minnesota this year, the Rubio-truthers will come out in droves declaring: “This is why we needed a true facilitator around Butler, Wiggins, and Towns.”

(I can promise you that I will do both. I’m weak.)

The challenge, as a fan, will be focusing on the present moment. Ricky is gone and Jeff is here. Being sad Rubio is gone is fair. Call it a lateral move at a high price if you want. That isn’t wrong. But know this is the future. Jeff Teague is the point guard; the enigmatic has been replaced with the predictable.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Who is Jeff Teague?

In Minnesota, we have tirelessly talked about the ambiguity of Rubio’s value and that enigma of understanding how his game best fits in this league. Who reading this hasn’t bantered among friends about Rubio? Arguing for his mastery or condemning his broken jump shot. Maybe you have done both.

But I wonder if we haven’t become too caught up in that, now fruitless, argument. It feels as if we may have lost Jeff Teague amidst our emotions in the Rubio trade. I know my attention pivoted, almost immediately (here and here and here) to how the $57 million spent on Teague could have been invested elsewhere. I haven’t written once about Teague specifically.

Did our attention remain focused on Rubio because we love him? Probably. But I’m beginning to think I, personally, let Teague fall through the cracks for another reason: I don’t know that much about Jeff Teague.

In his eight years in the league, Teague has only played the Wolves 15 total times. It would have been difficult to have taken much from (at most) two games a year.

And while, like many from #NBATwitter, I claim to be a League Pass maven the reality I hesitate to admit is that there are too many damn games to be informed on every player. If I’m being honest, I had my “League Pass Teams” and the Pacers didn’t make the list.

Sure, I watched a few halves of Pacers basketball on accident last season but was I breaking down Teague film with a truly keen eye? No. Was I thinking about how this Teague character would fit alongside a Towns or Wiggins? Hell no. Even when I have watched the Pacers (or the Hawks in previous years), Teague was a player who blended into the viewing experience. Watching a random NBA game on League Pass draws your eyes to the unique players. Again, that is something Teague is not.

So Really, Who is Jeff Teague?

I can tell you this was his stat line last season:

Jeff Teague (2016-17): 15.3 PPG, 7.8 APG, 4.0 RPG, 35.7 3P%, 22.1 USG%, .146 WS/48

And with a hat tip to Mark Montieth, here are a few more Teague related numbers that paint just that, a numerical picture.

  • Started all 82 games for the first time in his career, and became the first Pacers player to do so since 2007-08
  • Averaged a career-high 7.8 assists and four rebounds
  • Had a career-high 16 double-doubles
  • Handed out a career-high 17 assists against Chicago, most from a Pacers player since 2002
  • Set a career-high with nine rebounds, three times
  • Hit all 11 foul shots in two games, his most attempts without a miss
  • Scored 30 points twice and 31 points once, tying his most 30-point games in a season
  • Raised his average in the playoff series against Cleveland, averaging 17 points while hitting 49 percent of his field goal attempts and 53 percent of his 3-point attempts. He also averaged 6.3 assists and just two turnovers

But what about beyond the numbers? How does 15-4-8 and 36 percent from three while in Indiana translate to playing alongside Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns?

Sure, there are similarities between Butler and Paul George or Towns and Myles Turner but isn’t the more pertinent question: How does Teague play the game?

When the numbers are stripped away and there is just the game of basketball is being observed I can gather three characteristics and/or skills that define Jeff Teague as a hooper.

  • The ability to create from the midrange
  • The willingness to shoot threes
  • A small build that can be taken advantage of on defense

Teague Beyond The Numbers

Ability To Create From The Midrange

The ability to be effective from the midrange requires either the ability to score from the 10-16 foot range or a capability to distribute the ball from that range. If you can do the former (shoot the ball) than the latter (having the ability to set up a teammate) is only strengthened. Teague can do both.

Even if Teague hasn’t always been a knock-down jump shooter he has almost always been defended as if he was. That can be an asset of almost equal value. If the defender (or defenders) fear the shot going up there is a certain gravity of the defender and the help defender to the ball. This inherently creates space.

Teague does this here by acting as if he is going to pull-up while he really is patiently waiting for the second-defender (Millsap). Once Millsap has committed by leaving his feet the drop off for the lay-in is easy.

When Teague penetrates into the midrange he does so in an almost upright fashion. By moving in this way he can function a quick pull-up while also keeping his eyes peeled for the breaking of the defense’s shell.

Here, Teague sucks in the defense by penetrating both north-south and east-west. By not only moving towards the hoop but also laterally across the court he is drawing the secondary defender (Horford) to a point of no recovery.

Willingness To Shoot Threes

No need to go back to his Indiana or Atlanta days to see this play out. Teague’s first bucket in a Timberwolves uniform was a three because his defender (Lonzo Ball) did not come out and guard him as a threat.

This penchant for exploitation is not limited to the three-point line in Teague’s game. When he doesn’t feel like an aspect of his game is being respected he will attack it. That can be a three, a penetration lane, or the player he is guarding on the defensive end. He will attack them all. Teague plays with an air of confidence that says: there are no holes in my game.

On the three-point line specifically, we saw Rubio practice avoidance when it came to that weakness. While that sounds logical this often threw off the flow and could feel forced. When Rubio was in a place he didn’t feel comfortable passing or scoring from the offense could grow stale as the defense began to know where Rubio did and did not want to be. With Teague, there isn’t an area of the floor he feels uncomfortable even if that area is not a true strength.

Size Can Be Taken Advantage Of On Defense

When you see Jeff Teague in person, he is surprisingly thick. I would not call him frail. However, the context of my perception is important here. I’m a basketball blogger and therefore anyone in the NBA is massive to my normal understanding of humans. In the population of NBA players, Teague is small.

At the 2009 NBA Draft Combine, he measured in at 6’.25” and 175 pounds. Though he is now listed at 186 pounds, that is still definitively small. In a league that is only becoming bigger, stronger, and faster a player of Teague’s stature can be taken advantage of physically.

Match Teague up with one of the physical behemoths at the point guard position and you can be sure the opponent will look to exploit the mismatch. Teague will scrap and poke at the ball but much of that flailing will be for naught given his diminutive size.

In a 2016 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it took until the second possession for the Thunder to clear out for a Westbrook post-up. Teague is no match as Westbrook pushes him down to the block for a rather easy lay-in.

Much like Rubio, Teague is imperfect even if he doesn’t always agree. From this truth, the Teague versus Rubio narrative will be pumped all season. To many, Teague will always represent a more expensive version of something the team already had. However, the bet the Wolves are making is that even if Rubio and Teague are similar in overall value, Teague’s different style taps into something Rubio never could. The playoffs.