It’s mid-December. Brad Stevens attends his first post-game presser of the new season. Stevens’ gushed when asked about his latest veteran’s performance in their first pre-season game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“He got us several baskets that were just easy. Pushing the ball up the floor, it doesn’t look like he’s breaking a sweat; sometimes it was him, sometimes it was others. But really, in the first 30 minutes, I felt like that was the only time the ball was moving the way it needs to was when he was in the game, and we need to improve when he’s not.”
Jeff Teague had just put the 76ers to the sword with an exceptional showing of speed and skill, notching 18 points in 19 minutes while acting as the Celtics offense’s metronome when on the floor.
Despite that game being Teague’s first in Boston and his first under Brad Stevens, this wasn’t the first time the Celtics head coach had lauded the veteran entering his 12th season.
Brad Stevens in 2015 (many moons ago): “I think you have to look and redefine who the superstars are with our own eyes every day. ... And I don’t know what qualifies as a superstar but I know this: nobody in the league can keep Jeff Teague in front of them. Nobody.”— Jay King (@ByJayKing) November 22, 2020
For reference, when Stevens was singing Teague’s praises, he was coming off the back of the Atlanta Hawks’ 60-win season. Boston’s starting five back then was Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Jared Sullinger. A lot has changed.
Since then, Jeff Teague’s career has steadily declined from All-Star to journeyman point guard. After a successful-ish year in Indiana throughout the 2016-17 season, Teague found himself applying his trade in the Western Conference for the Minnesota Timberwolves - fitting as this is where his game went cold.
In his three seasons in Minnesota, Teague’s regression was clear. Cleaning The Glass tracked his on/off numbers:
- 2017-18, ON: +3.0
- 2017-18, OFF: +0.9
- 2018-19, ON: +0.3
- 2018-19, OFF: +3.0
- 2019-20, ON: -3.5
- 2019-20, OFF: -1.8
A short stint back with Atlanta failed to rejuvenate the veteran, as he limped his way to 7.7 points on 33% shooting over 25 games, posting a -1.7 on/off rating.
Then, Boston came calling.
“He’s just a proven guy; he’s had some really good games against us in the past. He’s been on some very good teams. He will be a very good guy in the locker room as well. He still has some juice; he had some 30 point games last year. And we still think he can step in, especially early on, to bridge the gap until Kemba (Walker) comes back ready to go. But also play a significant role off the bench or in a starting role.” - Danny Ainge pre-season press conference.
On paper, the move made sense. The Celtics were in dire need of some veteran leadership after the Miami Heat ruthlessly exposed their youthful shortcomings. For all his regression as a scorer, Teague had seemingly reinvented himself as a facilitator, ranking in the top 10% of guards for assist-to-usage ratio for the last two seasons running.
Teague’s most recent history coupled with a productive preseason performance against Philly were the foundation for a promising season. Teague looked poised in possession, engaged on defense, and generally controlled the game’s flow - we have seen nothing like that from him since that night.
Instead, Teague seems disengaged, focused solely on his performances as he runs isolation after isolation, eyes only for the basket.
When the Celtics first announced they had acquired Teague, I did what I usually do - re-watch film from the player’s previous season to try and pick up on trends we’re likely to witness.
Teague PnR Ball Handler tendencies— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) December 7, 2020
- Will pass-up shooting opportunities off down screens to drive the lane
- Doesn't reward roll man, prefers to finish himself
- Favors scoop layups high off glass - gets blocked a lot
- Likes to hesitate to put guys in jail & draw contact
Of those trends, one has been incredibly prominent in Teague’s performances so far - he doesn’t reward the roll man. For a pick-and-roll savant, refusing to utilize the roller is lunacy, but here we are, with the veteran guard preferring to kick the ball outside and reset the offense than to feed a rolling big.
In 52 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler, Teague has passed off to the roll/pop man just once. Instead, the veteran guard prefers to force the issue, attempting scoop lay-ups, pull-up jumpers or veering to attempt to draw contact - he’s been largely unsuccessful in each of these areas.
A veteran presence is supposed to be a calming factor on their team, someone who comes off the bench and provides a steady hand while the stars catch their breath. Unfortunately, in Teague, the Celtics have found themselves playing the lottery every night, wondering which version of the swashbuckling guard they’re going to get.
There have been four games so far where the 12-year vet has gone scoreless, totaling 69 minutes and 23 seconds, while his effective field goal percentage is an ice-cold 38%. You could point to the 41.4% from three as a reason for optimism, but with Teague shooting so poorly from everywhere else, this feels like the exception and not the rule.
As you can see in the above clip, there are times when Teague locks in on defense and manages to provide a good account of himself. Then, there are other possessions like the below, where an evident lack of effort lets the team down.
Defense starts the moment you’re no longer in possession of the ball, be that because of a turnover, out-of-bounds, or made bucket. Perhaps watching Marcus Smart throw himself around the court has ruined us. So, when Teague watches the ball bobble towards a group of 76ers, without a care in the world, it feels very anti-Celtics.
There’s also the elephant in the room that needs addressing: would we be more accepting of Teague, warts and all, if Payton Pritchard hadn’t burst onto the scene, embodying everything we love about Boston sports?
If Pritchard wasn’t defending every possession like his life depended on it or playing offense like his grandma is sitting courtside, would we still be disheartened with Teague’s start to life in Boston?
In all likelihood, yes, we would, because we’re not getting what was advertised on the tin. Or maybe we are, perhaps we’re getting precisely what Minnesota and Atlanta got before us, and we were just spoiled by the Brad Stevens School for Underrated Veterans?
After all, we saw Stevens turn Jordan Crawford into a Player of the Week. Evan Turner got the bag after playing for Stevens. Amir Johnson had some of his best years in green. But Teague? Maybe that was one step too far, even for a miracle worker.
Of course, it’s still early days. We’re only a quarter of the way through the season, and Teague is more than capable of figuring it out. Yet, with each passing game, the shining light of that hope fades a little more as the realization continues to set in.
A realization that perhaps signing Jeff Teague was a mistake.