Jimmy Butler was traded to the Timberwolves on draft night in 2017, which seems like forever ago but really was just 2 1/2 years in the past.
The next day, Jeff Teague said back then, he told his agent he wanted to sign with the Timberwolves to team up with Butler.
Not long after that, he was introduced as the Wolves’ new point guard — owner of a three-year, $57 million deal bestowed upon him by basketball boss and coach Tom Thibodeau.
At his news conference, one far more subdued than the Mall of America theatrics from Butler, Teague said this: “I’ve had an opportunity to play against Thibs and see how hard he coaches his guys and how well-coached his teams were. It was a perfect fit for me and at this stage of my career, I wanted to win and I wanted to do it in a special way.”
What’s strange is that as I pondered Thursday’s trade that sent Teague to Atlanta, I had already written the headline above — about Teague’s tenure being all about the wrong fit — before I unearthed that ironic quote.
His first year here was his best, but it was filled with nonstop comparisons to Ricky Rubio — the beloved yet flawed point guard Thibodeau had not long before dispatched to Utah for a first-round pick (that became Josh Okogie).
In an odd way, the Rubio/Teague comparisons reminded me of two decades ago, when Stephon Marbury forced his way out and Terrell Brandon was ushered in. Marbury was ferocious with his drives to the basket, which often ended with contorting layups or last-second dishes for dunks. Every possession was an event.
Brandon was almost guaranteed to use those same high screens to shoot a 17-footer. (Seriously: 47% of Brandon’s field goal attempts in 2000-01 came from between 16 feet and the three-point line, a fact that would probably give Ryan Saunders night terrors if he coached through it).
But Brandon was good at what he did. He was relentlessly dull but efficient. Those 2000-01 Wolves won 47 games and made the playoffs.
Rubio wasn’t the same caliber of player as peak Marbury, but he played the position with flair and joy. Rubio’s highlight reel is packed with no-look passes; Teague’s is filled with floaters and craftiness.
Teague wasn’t bad that first year, nor were the Wolves. They, too, won 47 games and made the playoffs — with Teague’s dutiful work in 70 games serving as the heartbeat of a joyless march back to the playoffs finally for the Wolves and again for Teague, who had never missed the postseason in his career at that point.
But if the fit problem was perception and Rubio comparisons that first year, it all fell apart in Year 2. Butler, the player he said he came to join, abandoned the Wolves early last season in Marbury-like fashion. Thibodeau, the coach/GM who picked Teague to run his team, was fired midyear. Ryan Saunders, with a new style and a new emphasis, took over as interim coach.
Teague, who had never missed more than 10 games in his previous six seasons before joining the Wolves, missed several chunks of games — including the final 15 for an ankle that required surgery — and played just 42 total.
If you sign a three-year contract, Year 2 is really the make-or-break year in terms of an extension. It was clear after last season, and with all the offseason changes to the Wolves’ power structure plus Teague’s $19 million expiring contract, that Teague’s end time in Minnesota was a matter of when not if.
After 34 awkward games this year (13 starts, but mostly off the bench) with Teague’s constant dribbling and reluctance to fire from deep even though he’s a capable shooter clashing with the Wolves’ preferred new style, the “when” was Thursday.
His final stat line often looked functional this year and throughout his tenure, but Teague’s season was defined quite nicely by new Wolves boss Gersson Rosas.
“I’ll give Jeff a lot of credit for trying and doing whatever was asked of him, to try to be a good fit in our system,” Rosas told reporters on a conference call. “I think, big picture, it’s just a different game. And the way he plays, this system is maybe not as complementary in that we need our lead guard to be a guy who pushes tempo, is more of a creator than a scorer. … He’s been very successful in this league a long time playing the way he plays. But at the end of the day, I think as personnel develop you can either fit or not fit. Jeff did everything he could on his end.”
Not a bad player, just a bad fit. That’s the story of Teague with the Timberwolves.