The Timberwolves this past offseason made an all-out pitch to D’Angelo Russell, trying to woo the free agent guard to Minnesota as a major building block alongside his pal Karl-Anthony Towns.
Turns out it’s too chilly in Minnesota — at least that was Russell’s explanation a month ago — and he signed instead with Golden State.
Wolves President Gersson Rosas and the rest of his front office team pivoted to an offseason strategy of low-cost signings to fill out the roster and hopefully unearth some high-upside rotation players for the future.
It was a good strategy, and it has played out reasonably well through a 10-10 start, but it left one conspicuous question mark at point guard. As in: What’s the long-term plan at point guard, and how would the short-term plan at that position shake out this season?
The long-term plan could very well still involve Russell, who appeared destined for a trade almost as soon as he signed with the Warriors — a sentiment that has grown stronger as Golden State languishes in a nightmare season. Free agency rules say he can’t be traded until Dec. 15, but that date is fast-approaching.
The short-term plan — Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier holding it down — got off to a decent start. Then both missed some time and Andrew Wiggins assumed a larger ballhandling role — an expansion that fueled a surge by Wiggins.
But the Teague/Napier duo never felt close to ideally suited to the up-tempo, three-point, rim-attacking offense the Wolves are trying to run this year. As both point guards returned the the lineup and Wiggins has come back down to earth a little — he’s still taking the right shots, he’s just not making them as frequently, and he’s never going to have a point guard’s vision even if his passing is improved — the mix feels even more clunky.
And there’s this: Having “point Wiggins” doesn’t mean you can’t also have another combo-style point guard on the floor at the same time. In fact, that’s probably ideal. Napier might fill that role more capably as he shakes off rust from his hamstring injury, but he’s more ideally suited for 15-20 minutes. Teague is a reluctant shooter, and this year his accuracy is down to 25.6% from three-point range.
Teague volunteered to come off the bench, a move designed to keep Wiggins flowing and illustrating that Teague is a good team player. But in the four games since he moved to a reserve role, Teague is just 6 of 25 from the field — including 27 minutes, 44 seconds in Wednesday’s loss at Dallas in which he was 0 for 5.
Teague is making $19 million in the last year of his three-year deal, and during Wednesday’s game Wolves analyst Jim Petersen offered a blunt but honest assessment of Teague’s production relative to his contract — giving voice to what is plain to see.
“Jeff Teague needs to start playing like a veteran player, and he needs to start producing,” Petersen said late in the second quarter after a bad pass by Teague led to a turnover. “Because he is being paid like a top-level point guard in this league. … He turns down way too many open jump shots. I just think Jeff has the talent to do it. I don’t know if he’s injured, but you can’t turn down open shots. When you turn down open perimeter jump shots, you hurt your team. … He’s too talented to settle for what he’s settling for right now. He needs to do more and this team needs him to do more.”
None of Teague’s five attempts came at the rim (0-3 feet) in the loss to Dallas, while Napier’s 0-for-3 night included just one attempt at the rim — a fact that Petersen might have been referencing late in the game after Mavericks backup point guard Jalen Brunson drove for a key layup to put Dallas up seven.
“What a difference to have point guards that can attack and score,” Petersen said.
To that end, Russell might not be the perfect fit here — just 9% of his attempts this season have been from the rim. But he’s not afraid to let it fly and lead an offense. Last year in Brooklyn, Russell had the fifth-highest usage rate in the league.
But this much is clear: It would be nice to see the Wolves’ offense run by a point guard more suited to run it, particularly next to the version of Wiggins we’ve seen so far this year.
If the Wolves don’t get more from their point guards in the short term, a promising start to the season that has already slipped back to .500 could head south of that mark in a hurry during a flurry of games against quality opponents.