A couple weeks ago, Jimmy Butler arrived at the Mall of America for his introductory Timberwolves news conference. Music was blaring and the crowd was estimated in the thousands. One man I talked to came all the way from Baltimore just to be there. Butler oozed charisma and star appeal — memorably, at one point, giving out his cell phone number to anyone who had a problem with him.
That introduction cemented the notion that the Wolves had acquired a true running mate for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — a no-doubt member of a “Big Three.” Minnesota had tried to include Zach LaVine as part of a young Big Three before trading him to Chicago, but it always felt like a Big Two and maybe one more.
Monday afternoon, the Wolves had another introductory news conference — this one to welcome free agents Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson to the mix. It was held in the atrium of Mayo Clinic Square, the former Block E building adjacent to Target Center which now houses the Wolves’ practice facility. A smattering of non-media folks watched and applauded politely from the skyway level as Teague and Gibson walked out slowly and solemnly.
As they took their seats between head coach/personnel boss Tom Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden, Teague and Gibson continued looking quite serious. It looked like the start of a subcommittee meeting on a proposed new water treatment facility than a basketball news conference. It couldn’t have been more different from the Butler experience.
That’s not good nor bad — just an observation. Teague and Butler eventually smiled after a couple minutes, but even the subject that lightened the mood was instructive: A story from Thibodeau about the 2010-11 season, when he was coaching the Bulls and Gibson was on the team and Teague, then a lightly used reserve, lit them up during a playoff series when he was with the Hawks.
The message from Thibodeau and Layden was loud and clear: these two veteran players were brought in for their specific skill sets — Teague as a pick-and-roll guard who can score, Gibson as an elite defender who can guard multiple positions — and for their 127 combined playoff games between them.
These guys are professionals, and they are here to play basketball.
Both are being paid quite well in the modern NBA economic scheme — Teague is getting $57 million over three years, while Gibson received $28 million for two years — but both also appear to be low-ego players driven to contribute while not needing top billing.
Teague, in particular, offers an interesting case.
On the spectrum of NBA point guards, I keep coming back to this analogy even if it is a stretch: Teague is a comparable player to Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford. Both should be considered above-average but not elite — somewhere in the No. 10 to 15 range at their respective positions among respective peers. Both can win you a game, but they’re better at not losing you a game by seamlessly and quietly executing a game plan.
(Both also arrived in Minnesota replacing players who were wildly popular though also polarizing, but I’ll stop the comparisons there).
Teague, of course, takes over for Ricky Rubio — a charming personality and wizard with the ball who, himself, was once part of a “Big Three” along with Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love.
The primary reason for Thibodeau deciding he needed a change was likely style of play and being convinced you can’t win consistently and/or when it matters most with a point guard who isn’t enough of an offensive threat. Teague won’t make anyone think of Russell Westbrook, but he can beat you with a shot, or at the hoop, or in the pick-and-roll.
A secondary reason for the switch, though, might be the further establishment of a clear pecking order. As long as Rubio was here, a piece of this was going to be his team molded by his identity.
For better or worse — and I would argue it’s mostly for better — we know who the Wolves are now. They are a team built around the emerging offensive talent of Towns and Wiggins, plus the two-way gifts of Butler, a player entering what should be the three best years of his career. They can’t do it by themselves, but everyone else falls into line in support of those three guys.
Teague seems to know this already, saying Monday that he told his agent he wanted to play in Minnesota after learning of the Butler trade while also saying his opinion of the Wolves had started to change after watching Towns and Wiggins — his chosen players for his chosen team in the video game NBA 2K, by the way — early in their careers. He told a story Monday about Thad Young, his Pacers teammate last season, marveling at Towns’ abilities while grousing about trying to guard him. Towns racked up 37 points, a few of them on a fadeaway three-pointer that led Young to conclude there was nothing he could do to stop Towns, in a one-point Wolves win.
Thibodeau, like any coach really, values consistency and the comfort of knowing what he’s going to get from the players he puts on the court. That goes a long way toward shaping identity, and the Wolves have more of that than they have had for a long time.