Usually when an article carries a question in its title that hints at skepticism, the author has a predetermined notion of the answer. In order to break with that tradition, allow me to preface this piece by saying I am coming in cold. I decided to not go through the deep data bank beforehand, as to keep myself open to the conclusion of my findings.
Jeff Teague joined the Indiana Pacers this summer, when he was traded in a three-way deal involving the Utah Jazz, essentially fetching the Atlanta Hawks the 12th pick in the draft.
For a former All-Star, the 12th pick in what most considered a weak draft seems cheap. However, Teague had been shopped by Atlanta at the February trade deadline, which strongly hinted that the organization wanted to move forward with up-and-comer Dennis Schröder. In addition to that, Teague had just one year left on his deal. Plus, with seven-plus years of NBA experience, Teague would be allowed a greater percentage (30 percent) of the cap on a future max contract than Schröder (25 percent).
As for the Pacers, they decided to cash in a lot of chips to acquire established talent to pair with Paul George, Teague included. Their projected starting line-up is Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, George, Monta Ellis, and Teague, with the primary bench participants coming in the form of Al Jefferson, C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Lavoy Allen, and Aaron Brooks.
George (14 percent) and Teague (13.9 percent) ranked 16th and 17th respectively in the league in isolation frequency last season for players appearing in 55 games or more. In Atlanta, Teague’s closest isolation competition came from Paul Millsap and his 7.9 percent frequency. Even Young (8.4 percent) has a higher rate, and Ellis (7.3 percent) isn’t far behind, isolating just 17 less times total over the course of the season than Millsap.
The real difference however is George. His 270 isolations dwarfs any number on Atlanta, suggesting Teague is going to have to sacrifice touches and isolation opportunities:
Millsap, Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Al Horford combined for 269, exactly one less than Paul had singlehandedly. Adding in Young and Ellis, and not even taking into account the presumed improvement of Turner and the incoming bench unit, the Pacers will have to find a balance in shot distribution:
With so many adept self-creators in Indiana, Teague should have plenty of spot-up opportunities. He ranked an elite third in the league in PPP (1.35) on spot-up jumpers for anyone with 100+ attempts, but given that his frequency was quite low, at 10.3 percent, the sample size is too small to suggest he could remain an elite shooter spotting up, if his attempt rate increases significantly.
Nevertheless, having a positive sample size is better than a negative one, and as such, Teague has the data working in his favor for an increased role as a spot-up shooter.
Moving onto transition, and it becomes clear Teague, Ellis, and George are used to running, albeit with mixed results. George ranked seventh in transition possessions, with Teague and Ellis checking in at 21st and 22nd. Out of 39 players with 200 or more possessions, Teague ranked 16th in eFG%, George 27th, and Ellis 28th, which in totality is in the middle of the pack.
Teague and Ellis are both careless on the break, with Teague coughing up the rock once every six possessions, ranking him 33rd, and Ellis on 18.8 percent of his possessions, ranking him 36th. George’s 15.1 percent turnover rate also has him on the wrong side of the half-way mark, ranking 25th.
Scoring-wise, Teague’s fit in Indiana is overall questionable. A lot hinges on his ability to remain an elite spot-up shooter, as it’s unlikely he’ll see as many isolation possessions this time around. Both George and Ellis like to handle the ball, and it’s up to Teague to adjust and find a way to stay relevant.
With Nate McMillan now on the Pacers’ sidelines, the sheer volume of scoring opportunities might also decrease. McMillan has coached 12 seasons, and had the league’s slowest pace three times, while also finishing 29th (twice), 28th, 27th (twice), 24th, and never topping out at more than 15th (2003-04 Sonics).
Combine that with Al Jefferson, who still likes to operate down low, and things are likely inclined to be slow all-around, which ultimately is a long way from Mike Budenholzer’s movement and cutting offense.
So is Jeff Teague the right point guard for Indiana?
On some levels, there is merit in the idea of him. He’s a strong shooter, he can finish around the rim, he can run an offense, and his defense — while not as strong as George Hill’s — is fundamentally sound. But there are worrying elements of fit here. How will he fit next to a ball-dominant wing who is the clear-cut first option every time down the floor? How much will Ellis cut into his touches? With Young and Turner combining for just 10 threes last year, how will the lack of pick-and-pops affect Teague’s driving lanes?
So the conclusion falls back on talent, and Teague’s mental profile. Given his diverse set of skills, the fact that he’s in his absolute prime, as well as how accustomed he is to sharing the spotlight, it’s entirely up to Teague to make the most of the situation. Being in a position where he’s the de facto ballhandler also allows him the necessary freedom to take the ball away from Ellis, which is probably advisable at this point, and use George as a pseudo-big who can be thrown into pick-and-rolls.
The talent surrounding Teague is intriguing, but to maximize it, he needs to be given the keys to the team. That’s not so say he’s going to get a larger role than George, but rather that the plays start with him and the offense flows through his decision making.
If set aside and left in the corner, the acquisition of Teague could end up becoming meaningless and ultimately a one-year rental. So the approach as to how McMillan is going to use him, and what kind of freedom he’s willing to give him, is the determining factor.