The Minnesota Timberwolves signed Jeff Teague this offseason to be their new starting point guard after the departure of Ricky Rubio.
Teague had flashes of brilliance and moments of ineptitude to start the season; and while his backup Tyus Jones was playing the best basketball of his career, the reality of a starting lineup switch was not even a consideration.
Teague injured his knee on Dec. 27 against Denver and was expected to be out two to four weeks. While that robbed the Timberwolves of the depth of Jones and Teague at point guard, unlocked the opportunity that many who follow the team have been craving: an opportunity to see more of what Tyus could do while sharing the floor with the rest of the starting lineup.
The results have been nothing short of extraordinary.
The Wolves have upped their play on both ends of the court to levels that have rarely been seen this year, and while there’s no realistic way to credit just Jones’ inclusion for that change, given the exceptional play of Butler and Towns, the stats that Jones’ move to the starting lineup have created are eye-popping.
Via lineup data from NBA.com, as of Jan. 9 (after the Timberwolves’ blowout win over the Cleveland Cavaliers), the five-man lineup of Jones, Wiggins, Butler, Gibson and Towns has the both the highest net rating in the league and a tie for the best defensive rating in the league among five-man lineups with at least 180 minutes played.
For a direct comparison, here are the offensive and defensive ratings of the Wolves’ starting lineup with each of Teague and Jones this season.
Jones/Wiggins/Butler/Gibson/Towns: 249 minutes, 119.3 offensive rating, 91.3 defensive rating
Teague/Wiggins/Butler/Gibson/Towns: 712 minutes, 110.8 offensive rating, 103.4 defensive rating
While the Teague lineup’s sample size looks considerably larger, that lineup has played the most minutes together of any five-man lineup in the entire NBA by a considerable margin. The next highest is the Chicago Bulls’ starting lineup of Kris Dunn, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez at 457 minutes.
The Jones lineup, while a little on the low side, has played comparable minutes to many other NBA starting lineups.
With Jones in the starting lineup, Minnesota’s starters have played like the single best starting lineup in the league. Better than Golden State, better than Houston, better than Boston.
This is a jump from above average (the Teague lineup’s +7.4 net rating is still 14th best in the NBA) to exceptional (the next closest team to the Jones lineup’s +28.0 is Houston’s James Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela flamethrower at +21.2 in fewer minutes played).
As stated before, it’s impossible to give Jones alone all of the credit for this spike in play. The defensive effort was trending in the right direction before Teague’s injury, and the past week has shown some of Towns’ best individual efforts of the season.
However, the difference in eye-test between Jones and Teague, specifically in terms of how smoothly the Wolves’ offense moves, has been there since October, and requests for more time for Jones and the starters have been there nearly as long, particularly since Teague’s first missed time in late November with a strained achilles tendon.
The question now, with Teague due to return as soon as Wednesday night against Oklahoma City, is what happens next?
It seems criminal to delegate Jones back to the role anchoring the bench that he played before Teague’s injury, but the standing power dynamics in the NBA dictate that Teague, the veteran free agent signing who stands to make more than ten times Jones’ salary this season will return to the starting lineup, no matter how amazing the lineup has performed with Jones in his place.
It’s hard to find a parallel for this situation in recent NBA history: a bench player entering a starting lineup coinciding with the lineup making a significant positive leap.
The closest parallel might be with the 2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost Russell Westbrook to a third knee surgery from late December until after the All-Star break, and had Reggie Jackson in his place.
Jackson, like Jones this year, was in his third year in the league, and while both players didn’t start a game in their first two regular seasons, Jackson started nine playoff games in 2012-13 after Westbrook’s initial knee injury. Jackson had also been given significantly more responsibility in games that he did not start, often playing similar minutes to his starting appearances.
Jones, as many have noted this season, has only twice played more than 18 minutes in any game that Teague has been available for (the blowout loss against Miami and the season opener in San Antonio).
The five-man lineup with Jackson and the Thunder starters (Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha) was actually significantly better than that with Westbrook.
The Jackson lineup had a +5.8 net rating in 550 minutes, and the Westbrook lineup had a -2.6 net rating in 349 minutes. The Thunder were also successful, going 20-7 in Jackson’s midseason starts.
Jackson is obviously a more offense-minded player than Jones, and carried a larger scoring load even next to Durant than Jones is ever likely to do. However, Jackson struggled with consistency partially because of his increased importance in replacing a superstar, where Jones has lower expectations and has been an extremely consistent player since his entrance into the NBA.
Jackson played well enough to earn himself a starting job after being traded to the Detroit Pistons the next season, and has started all but two games he played since that trade. He also was obviously never going to replace Westbrook in Oklahoma City’s lineup.
Jones’s situation moving forward is far less clear.
Jones is likely to have a much smaller sample size of starts (Jackson started 36 games in 2013-14; Jones has 10 starts through 42 games and, while Teague’s return is uncertain, might not start another game after Teague’s return), but Teague is no franchise cornerstone: while his contract runs through 2019-20 (assuming he picks up his player option for that season), his overall value to the team ranks well below that of (at minimum) Towns and Butler, and Jones is likely to be a cheaper option, even should the Wolves negotiate an extension with him before next season.
The Thunder starters were also not as dominant with Jackson as this Wolves lineup has been (over a smaller sample size). The Thunder’s Jackson lineup ranked 13th in the NBA in net rating of lineups that played more than 320 minutes, and the Westbrook to Jackson jump in net rating was 8.4.
The Teague-to-Jones jump in net rating is 20.6, and while the Jones number is likely to decrease as the sample gets larger (and the Teague number could increase if the rest of the starters play this well with him), the change is still an enormous impact.
Tom Thibodeau has decisions to make around Jones and Teague. And while many may accuse him of making the same old “Thibodeau decisions” and “sticking to his plan” should Teague return and nothing change (and rightly so), this is a unique case in recent NBA history.
How he handles it will be another fascinating chapter in this Timberwolves season.
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