The first domino of NBA free agency to fall wasn’t a signing at all, but rather a trade. The Minnesota Timberwolves dealt point guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz, and immediately began shopping for an upgrade. Hours later, that trade tipped over a second domino: The upgrade, in Minnesota’s eyes, is Jeff Teague.
According to The Vertical’s Shams Charania and multiple other reports Friday evening, the Timberwolves and Jeff Teague have reached an agreement on a three-year deal that will tab the former Pacers point guard as Rubio’s replacement. The contract is worth $57 million over the three years, according to Charania, with a player option for the third year.
The thinking behind it, from Minnesota’s perspective, is far from indecipherable. In a vacuum, Teague doesn’t represent a sizable upgrade over Rubio. The Timberwolves, however, clearly believe he’s a much better fit. The reason for the swap — and the reason Minnesota has been looking to move on from Rubio for some time now — likely revolves around 3-point shooting.
The Wolves have assembled a big three of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler after acquiring Butler on draft night. The biggest collective weakness of that star trio is outside shooting. Butler is a career 33.7 percent 3-point shooter. Wiggins is a shade below 33 percent, though he improved last season. Towns is hovering just above 36 percent. The Wolves needed a fourth capable offensive piece who could space the floor, and Rubio simply wasn’t that player. He was a brilliant passer, but just 31.5 percent for his career from beyond the arc, and hesitant to pull the trigger.
So Minnesota moved for Teague, who can facilitate in the pick-and-roll, but also step off the ball and knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers with Butler as the focal point of the offense on the perimeter. Teague isn’t known as a 3-point marksman, but he’s an upgrade on Rubio at 35.5 percent for his career. He’s also significantly better from deep off the catch: 37.6 percent last season, but 49.6 percent the year before, and 40.4 percent in 2014-15, per NBA.com tracking data.
The Wolves weren’t without other options. They could have at least pursued Kyle Lowry — undoubtedly a better overall player than Teague, and also a good fit — or George Hill. Both, even more so than Teague, are knockdown shooters. And with the demand for point guards expected to be low, the risk in passing on the opportunity to lock up Teague right away was negligible.
But Minnesota clearly likes what Teague, 29, brings to the table, and they feel comfortable with the price. That the contract is three years, and not four, is also a win for the organization. And the $19 million per year is manageable.
With Teague in tow, Minnesota will be expected to make a substantial leap up the Western Conference standings. Despite winning just 31 games a year ago, the revamped Wolves should make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and could challenge for 50 wins and, potentially, a top-four seed. One of many determining factors will be whether or not Teague is as nice a fit as the team believes he will be.