While a number of players across the roster have enjoyed breakthrough seasons on some level or another for the 2021 Boston Celtics, Jeff Teague has disappointed. Signed to a minimum contract this offseason, Stevens and the Celtics hoped that Teague could step in and fill the void left by departed reserve guard Brad Wanamaker. But while Teague has certainly demonstrated Wanamaker’s aptitude for frustrating Celtics fans at times, he’s done it without contributing positively to the team’s success the way Wanamaker did. Through 13 games, he’s having the worst season of his 13-year NBA career. So what’s gone wrong?
Some part of this is just a cold stretch. Teague may have shown some decline in his previous two seasons, but his 46% true shooting percentage this season beggars belief. He may not be as young as he once was, but we’re still looking at a very small sample, and a veteran guy with a long track record of some dependability deserves the benefit of the doubt and should be able to rebound as the year moves along.
Digging deeper into the data behind his play thus far suggests that there are plenty of adjustments that need to be made beyond just hoping he improves, however. There have been some ugly trends to Teague’s game that have contributed to his frigid start. The numbers surrounding Teague’s debut season in green are bizarre in almost every direction. He’s shooting a blistering 43% from behind the three-point arc. That’s good! From everywhere else on the floor, he’s shooting just 28%. That’s terrible! Adjustments are undeniably needed.
We’ll start with possibly the most frustrating aspect of Teague’s game: the floaters. Over a third of his shots have come between 3 and 10 feet from the basket, and he’s shot a ghastly 35% on those attempts. These are simply dreadful shots.
There has always been a sizeable dose of short-mid attempts in Teague’s game, but they’ve always been relatively balanced with a healthy share of attempts at the rim. Last season, he paired 145 shots from floater range with 148 attempts at the rim, which accounted for about a third of his attempts. This year, those looks have all but vanished. Just 11 of his 88 attempts have come within three feet of the basket. And though he hasn’t been a world-beater on those looks at the rim, it doesn’t seem like he’s entirely lost his ability to finish, either.
So Teague needs to improve his shot selection. That goes deeper than merely attempting a lesser (but still substantial) amount of bad shots. As I mentioned earlier, Teague is shooting north of 40% from behind the arc. He’s been really effective on both catch-and-shoot (41%) and pull-up (45%) threes. The three-ball has hardly been an emphasis of his game — both this season, and historically throughout his career. He’s never attempted a particularly high volume of triples (career-high of just 3.5 attempts per game in 2015), and it seems like he’s overdue to adjust. The Celtics could benefit greatly from him launching more attempts like these.
This doesn’t mean the ball should be taken entirely out of Teague’s hands. “On-ball” and “off-ball” are fluid roles in Stevens’ democratic system; they change from lineup-to-lineup and possession-to-possession. Teague is still likely a better passer than Payton Pritchard, and as he grows more comfortable in the offense (remember: there was barely any training camp acclimation period for Teague or Tristan Thompson), he can probably be expected to move the ball around more comfortably in time. But at 32 years old, while perhaps not getting downhill with the ball as well as he used to, a shift in focus seems to make some sense.
The superlative play of Pritchard is perhaps the tool that allows the Celtics to unlock this potential weapon. With Pritchard vastly exceeding expectations in his rookie season, the Celtics now roster three capable point guards beyond Teague, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown also assuming significant ball-handling responsibility in the offense anyway. Teague came to Boston looking like the de facto replacement for Wanamaker as Kemba Walker’s backup, but Pritchard’s play has changed that equation.
This depth could allow Teague to thrive in an adjusted role, but at the same time, it could result in Teague’s leash being shorter than expected. He already has some competition breathing down his neck, first with Pritchard’s emergence and now with Carsen Edwards seeing surprisingly effective minutes against Cleveland and Chicago. Stevens has a lot more viable tools at his disposal than he typically has, and if Teague can’t find a rhythm, he could become the odd man out as a veteran on a veteran minimum.
Still, the Celtics are a better team if Jeff Teague figures out his niche. The 2021 season has already been fraught with setbacks, and roster depth therefore looks to be more important than in an average NBA season. After all, in a season filled with entropy, there are worse tricks to have up your sleeve than a seasoned veteran point guard on your bench.