Season Outlook, Part Two: Tyus or Teague?

USA Today

As we covered in Part One of the season preview, perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the Wolves this year (besides the very real potential for a chemistry-induced implosion) is how to coax improvement out of a roster with little-to-no financial flexibility and few valuable trade assets. The most likely path involves proper role and minutes management, combined with internal development from the remaining young guys. Outside of the obvious names at the tip-top of the roster, both of those considerations also factor into a key positional battle which could heat up throughout training camp and the regular season at point guard. With all due respect to Derrick Rose’s Corpse, the two-man race for minutes at the 1 between Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones could be both contentious (more turmoil!) but also instrumental to any marginal leap forward in the team’s performance, and a deeper dive into the numbers suggests the choice is not as obvious as it might seem at first blush.

The “Tyus Jones as advanced stat darling” narrative got quite a bit of play during the season, but it’s worth revisiting to see if it can tell us anything useful about minute/role allocation going forward now that we have more of a sample size. First, let’s talk about Teague. The only vaguely remarkable thing about Jeff Teague is his metronomic consistency. He has never played less than 70 games in a year (not counting the ‘11-’12 lockout year, when he played all 66 games). We tend to think about NBA careers as an evolution, where a player’s mind, body, and game gradually improve, peak, and then gradually decline. We obviously haven’t reached the decline phase of Teague’s career yet, but the front half hasn’t “evolved” at all in the way one would expect.

Since he became a starter in ‘11-’12 at age 23, his minutes, counting stats, and advanced metrics all look remarkably similar year over year. Somehow, over seven seasons and three teams, he’s basically the same player — moderately above average on offense, and moderately below average on defense. He made the All Star team in ‘14-’15, which was more of a tip of the cap to the lightning-in-a-bottle 60-win Hawks team than it was to Teague’s individual performance; in a lot of ways, his one season with Indiana (in ‘16-’17) was actually better, and I didn’t hear much “snub” talk surrounding his exclusion from that year’s squad. At age 30, he is what he is: a perfectly fine, competent player who any team would be happy to replace if a better option became available. It’s not entirely clear why Thibs thought that player was worth 3 years/$57 million (the ramifications of which we’ll discuss in a bit), but it’s far from the craziest contract we’ve seen since the cap spike.

Which brings us to last season. Our known quantity came over to Minnesota on the aforementioned questionable contract, and in his first season did…exactly what he always does. Teague played 70 games, averaged 14/3/7 on 45/37/85 shooting, and rated just a skosh above league average by nearly every advanced metric. Minnesota got the exact Jeff Teague for which it paid, and I suspect if Thibs hands him those same 33 mpg this season, he’ll get those same type of numbers again because it would be foolish to expect anything else.

There are only 240 available minutes of court time in a game, and every one of them counts. When a team is trying to show improvement at the margins, can it afford to give 33 of them every night to “slightly above average,” when it’s entirely possible there’s a better option already on the roster? Enter Tyus Jones. After spending the majority of his rookie season in the G-League, and bouncing in and out of the rotation in ‘16-’17, he played all 82 games last year, averaging around 18 minutes a night and starting 11 games Teague missed. His counting stats, per-36 numbers, and advanced metrics all look pretty pedestrian, but something special happened in those games and minutes when Jones played with the other four starters (not including Teague): the team took off.

Cover your ears because the stats are about to get really noisy, but the following are all indisputable facts. Tyus Jones played 1,467 minutes last year; 261 of those minutes were played alongside KAT, Wiggins, Butler, and Taj Gibson, which isn’t a staggeringly large sample, but it’s not nothing either. In those minutes, the Wolves had an unfathomable net rating of +23.6 points per 100 possessions. 23.6! In the 11 games Jones started, he averaged around 33 minutes per game (sound familiar?). His rate stats changed very little regardless of role, his offensive counting stats clearly did not match up with Teague’s, and the team went only 6-5 in games he started, but as a starter, Jones had a +/- of +18.4 (vs. only +2.3 as a reserve). Basically, when Jones started, the team either won in a blowout or lost in a tight contest.

His sterling on/off numbers as a starter suggest his absence may have been kneecapping the bench, a problem which would theoretically be mitigated by a healthy Teague playing with the reserves, but also that something interesting was happening when Jones was on the court with the top unit. The overplayed “there’s only one ball” trope has been deployed (and thoroughly debunked) frequently as an argument against star stacking over the last several years, but let’s look at it from a different angle, since it’s what we do around here. Fundamentally, TOOB is an argument about usage rate and opportunity cost — usage by one player is, to some extent, a zero-sum game, and takes away usage from someone else on the court. This is overly simplistic, but bear with me. While TOOB’s base conceit of diminishing returns on stars has been effectively disproven, what if the other side of the coin — replacing a higher usage non-star with a lower usage one who does “non-star” things better, thus amplifying the actual stars — is true?

Is this what was happening when Jones took Teague’s spot in the lineup? Is there any true signal within all the statistical noise? And most importantly, if there is, will Thibs recognize it and adapt or stick to his usual “because that’s the way I’ve always done it” ethos?

On the last question, the evidence so far points to the latter conclusion. Throughout last season, as the calls for more Tyus minutes would come (sometimes from inside the house!), Thibs consistently defended his veteran PG, calling him coachspeak-y phrases like a “winning” player and an “elite” point guard (as Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”). Don’t get me wrong; a coach should defend his players, but he also should not look at them through rose-colored glasses.

So which are we supposed to believe, the coach or our lying eyes (and stats)? A winning player is someone who helps the players around him to consistently create a delta on the scoreboard between his team and the opponent, and however many asterisks and caveats you want to apply to the data, Jones just seems to have a bigger effect in that regard than Teague. And even if you prefer to dismiss the analytics entirely and enjoy your takes hot and spicy, we’ve got you covered there, too. [Stephen A. Smith voice] TYUS JONES WAS THE MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER IN THE FINAL FOUR. HE LED HIS TEAM TO VICTORY IN THE MOST PRESSURE-PACKED CIRCUMSTANCES, WHEN HIS BEST TEAMMATE WAS JAHLIL OKAFOR. JAHLIL OKAFOR! MEANWHILE, JEFF TEAGUE IS BEST KNOWN FOR BEING ON THE TEAM THAT BECAME SYNONYMOUS WITH REGULAR SEASON SUCCESS COMBINED WITH PLAYOFF FUTILITY. IS HE REALLY THE PLAYER YOU WANT STARTING FOR A TEAM WITH CHAMPIONSHIP ASPIRATIONS?

Whoa, what happened there? I blacked out. Where were we? Oh yeah, about to bend some more semi-misleading stats to fit my argument. The most obvious area where the team can take a step forward is on defense (17th out of 30 in opponents’ scoring, 27th out of 30 in Defensive Rating), and while a lot of that is on Towns and Wiggins to step up their levels of effort and attentiveness, more consistent Tyus minutes could help out as well. Outside of the eye test, which paints Jones as simply a more focused, attentive, and tenacious defender than Teague, the stats also back it up. The on/off numbers are somewhat predictable: opposing offenses had a higher rating when Teague was on the floor than when he was off, and vice versa for Jones. This makes sense when you look at roles. Teague started every game he played, so he was generally matched up against other starting units consisting of the most skilled offensive players, whereas Jones played the majority of his minutes as a reserve against less-skilled opposition. All well and good so far, nothing to see here.

But…what about when Jones played with the starters? His Defensive Rating as a starter was actually better than as a reserve, possibly putting the lie to the “level of competition” argument. The data point sticks out like a sore thumb. Remember, otherwise Jones was statistically almost the exact same player, regardless of role. His Offensive Rating, already higher than Teague’s to begin with despite the discrepancy in counting stats, remained unchanged. His usage actually ticked up slightly as a starter, though it remained shockingly low. And while he shot worse from 3 as a starter (albeit on only 33 attempts, a pretty low number from which to draw any meaningful conclusions), his overall FG% was nearly identical.

We can argue about the sample sizes (370 minutes as a starter, 261 with the other four starters) until we’re blue in the face, but at a certain point, the data is so crystal clear it just HAS TO mean something. And the data all points to one thing with no ambiguity: when the Wolves change nothing else besides taking Jeff Teague off the court and replacing him with Tyus Jones, the offense scores more points and the defense allows less points. We can try to wrap explanations and context around it as much as we want (as I’ve been trying to do for 1,800 words now), but the fact is indisputable, and not at least attempting to see if the effect holds up over a larger sample size of minutes amounts to, at best, stubbornness and, at worst, organizational malpractice.

The good news is the minutes crunch may, to some extent, work itself out organically. Barring something catastrophic (and maybe not even then), the Wolves won’t bring back the decrepit Jamal Crawford, freeing up his 21 minutes per night from last season. Chances are good Teague and Jones will share the court more this season, and even though having two guys on the floor together who are both 6’2” and shoot threes at roughly league-average percentages is far from ideal both defensively and in terms of floor spacing, siphoning those minutes off from Crawford (who was serving as the sixth man on a playoff team despite being borderline unplayable by most any statistical metric) can only be a net positive. One can only hope, despite handing him a baffling veteran’s minimum contract, Thibs will finally divorce himself from the notion that Derrick Rose is still an NBA-caliber player, ideally amounting to a few more minutes Jones can soak up.

On the other side of the ledger, it remains to be seen how much of Thibs’ trust (and the corresponding burn) rookie Josh Okogie will earn. Despite Thibs’ well-chronicled habit of leaning heavily on veterans, as the only bench option with real length and athleticism on the wing, Okogie may get thrown into the fire early out of sheer necessity, whether he’s ready or not. I’m high on Keita Bates-Diop as well and think he was an insanely good get at #48 in the draft, but he profiles as more of a small-ball 4 rather than a wing, meaning he may struggle to steal minutes from Anthony Tolliver, who will be taking over Nemanja Bjelica’s “20 mpg off the bench/spot starter/only reliable floor spacer” role.

Besides all the statistical wrangling, Teague, Jones, and the team also all have massive financial incentives to figure out the proper minutes and role allocations. Jones will be a restricted free agent after the ‘18-’19 season, and a breakout season from him would obviously go a long way towards securing a big payday next summer (either from Minny to remain as the starter or elsewhere if the Wolves won’t match). Additionally, the interplay between Jones’ RFA dance and Teague’s own contract situation will also be fascinating. Teague will make $19 million this season, and has a player option for ‘19-’20 at another $19 million. While it’s tough from a PR standpoint to have a guy making $19 million coming off your bench (I’m picturing Coach Thibs and Front Office Thibs facing off on opposite sides of a chess board, a la Jerry and his penis on Seinfeld), as a capped-out team, there may be some appeal in persuading a then-31 year old Teague to opt out of his deal and seek one more long-term contract in lieu of a reduced role, then playing hardball with Jones on his new deal and matching the offer if something else materializes.

While there will be more cap space available next summer after the Great Cap Crunch of 2018, there will also be a glut of free agents available. At a moment in the league ecosystem where the supply and demand calculation for starting-caliber point guards is decidedly off, the Wolves could find themselves getting a bargain on Jones while also creating additional flexibility to chase a new backup PG and/or retain Jimmy Butler while dodging or minimizing the luxury tax. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but all the alternatives seem worse, financially and competitively, so why not shoot for the moon?

Part of maximizing a championship window is betting on upside at the right times to create excess value. Jeff Teague is a perfectly fine player, but he has absolutely no potential for excess value. He is exactly what he is as a player, and his contract, while not untradeable, is certainly not going to have teams lighting up Thibs’ phone with offers. Tyus, on the other hand, is a 22 year old ascending player with the exact combination of pedigree, skills, intangibles, and fit the team should be looking for on this roster. His presence on the court already appears to amplify the performance of his star teammates, whereas Teague’s higher usage and questionable defense provide diminishing returns for a lineup which tends to need the opposite.

Will Thibs be willing or able to gamble on upside this year? His history doesn’t suggest as much, but if he is so concerned with fielding “winning” players, maybe it would make sense to stop yanking around the minutes of the only guy on your roster who has actually led a team that, you know, won something.

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