The moment Tyus Jones gets off the bench, you can hear a groundswell of cheers permeate Target Center. No doubt the crowd is excited because Jones grew up in Apple Valley, but they also are excited because the Timberwolves point guard has blossomed before their eyes.
In his third season, Jones is in line for career highs in minutes (18.3 per game), points (4.9) and assists (2.7), and has acquitted himself well in 10 starts when when Jeff Teague has been injured.
Jones played so well that some fans and corners of the internet called for him to replace Teague (33 minutes, 13.0 points, 6.9 assists) in the starting lineup. Just where did that come from? And is coach Tom Thibodeau likely to make that move at any point?
Those who want Jones to start like to point to one advanced metric that shows him as one of the best in the league during the minutes he plays — ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic. That statistic is one developed specifically for ESPN in 2014 by Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Illardi, both of whom worked in NBA front offices. It attempts to show how much a given player contributes to his team’s success compared to a league average player during the span of 100 possessions, or a league average game, regardless of who is on the floor with him and which team he’s playing against.
After crunching the numbers Jones comes in eighth — in the entire NBA — at 4.86, ahead of All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis and his own teammate Karl-Anthony Towns (3.85). Teague, meanwhile, is minus-0.65 — worse than 34 other point guards. An average player rating is 0.
That metric alone would have you believing Jones is an All-Star and Teague is a bum. It’s much more complicated than that, of course. For one, Real Plus-Minus (RPM) is purely a rate stat and spits out numbers on a per-minute basis, regardless of how many minutes someone plays. The more minutes you play, the more your RPM might level off.
So the question is, if Jones played starter’s minutes, would that number be as lofty? To come up with Real Plus-Minus, ESPN calculates a player’s offensive and defensive plus-minus separately.
Jones’ defensive RPM is plus-2.75 while Teague’s is minus-0.65. Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who doesn’t dismiss analytics in basketball, questioned the legitimacy of defensive plus-minus, or any defensive metric that tries to quantify an individual’s contribution on that end of the floor.
“I haven’t seen an accurate defensive rating system yet,” Thibodeau said. “There’s so many variables that go into defense. That’s why I don’t put much into that. … Containment of the ball, challenging shots, can you defend your position, can you defend multiple positions? Do you read the ball well? Do you read situations? That’s the thing that makes it hard.”
Those who want Jones to start might want to look at another advanced statistic to help their cause: John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER).
Hollinger, who worked for ESPN and now works as the vice president of basketball operations for the Grizzlies, attempted to create a statistic that was a catchall number to evaluate overall impact. Everything a player does is counted, either positively or negatively, in a formula with the league average being 15. Like Real Plus-Minus, PER is also a rate stat, so it is possible for a player to have a strong number while not playing a lot of minutes.
Jones’ rating is 13.6 and paints a much different view of his play than RPM, while Teague’s is 14.5. That’s rotation player-level in PER ratings. That’s not good for Teague, since — given he signed a three-year, $57 million deal — he is expected to be much more than that. In previous seasons his PER reflected that. Over the past three seasons his PER was 19.2, which put him in All-Star territory.
What’s more is that Hollinger has admitted PER is lacking in evaluating a player’s defensive output. So somebody like Teague, considered reliable on offense but weak on defense, should benefit from that stat. He has in the past, but not now.
What has changed for Teague? Teague said it has been hard finding a balance between creating for himself and others.
“It’s probably been the most difficult this year with us having so many scorers on our team,” Teague said. “The way we play offense, it’s not really a free-flowing offense. It’s a little different, but you try to do your best to be aggressive at times, knowing you have to get the ball into these guys’ hands.”
Teague’s field-goal percentage is .427, which has him on pace for the second-worst year of his career (Jones is shooting 46 percent). Teague is getting to the free-throw line less often than he has in the past six seasons, while still committing close to the same number of turnovers.
The shooting angle
Because Jones comes out way ahead of Teague in RPM but trails in PER, that probably indicates they aren’t all that far apart. Thibodeau likes Teague because his reputation causes defenses to respect his scoring ability. Jones, who defers more on offense, doesn’t require the same focus from a defense. Thibodeau said Jones needs to hunt for his shot more.
“When he’s aggressive and looking for his shot, it opens up everything else,” Thibodeau said.
Until that happens on a regular basis, don’t expect Thibodeau to switch Teague’s and Jones’ minutes, especially in a playoff series, when defenses might just lay off Jones and make him beat them.
“When you look at what Jeff has done throughout his career, he has always run one of the top offenses in the league,” Thibodeau said last week. “So I think when you look at, ‘OK we have the third-ranked offense in the league,’ when you look at assists — I think he’s fifth in the league in assists. You’re talking about an elite point guard. Tyus is still growing and learning. I like the things Tyus is doing.”
Teague is now ninth in assists (7.1 per game), and the Wolves still have the third-most-efficient offense (110.7 points per 100 possessions).
It’s also hard to ignore lineup statistics. Jones has performed better than Teague when he has played with the other starting four — Towns, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson. With Jones, that combination is eight points better per game than its opponents. With Teague, it’s 3.5. Of course, Teague has logged more minutes with that group.
Jones’ development has been a good thing for the Wolves, and it’s a good problem to have him pushing for a starting spot. Don’t expect this conversation to go away this winter unless or until Teague gets back to his All-Star level of effectiveness.