MINNEAPOLIS — Shabazz Napier’s return to the Timberwolves from a hamstring injury on Sunday, Dec. 1, against Memphis brought up an interesting question: How would the point guard minutes be allocated?
Napier played well prior to his injury, and Jeff Teague is a quality veteran point guard who demands a spot in the rotation. But both are coming off the bench now that Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders moved Jarrett Culver into the starting lineup while sliding Andrew Wiggins over to the starting point guard position.
So, Teague or Napier? The answer on Sunday: Both.
Napier is on a minutes restriction as he works his way back from injury, but he and Teague played nine minutes together in the loss to the Grizzlies.
It didn’t go particularly well.
In that time in which the Wolves went with two point guards, the team shot 36 percent from the field and were outscored 30-16. Yikes. Saunders admitted the experiment didn’t work against Memphis, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to give up on it.
“I’ll continue to take a look at it,” the coach said this week. “I’m not big into overreacting. Shabazz, we have a minutes guideline for him. We want to be cautious of that. Getting back into a rhythm, too, you don’t want to just jump to conclusions after one game. Guys will have a fair opportunity.”
Teague said he and Napier didn’t play together long enough to get a feel for how it will work, and they hadn’t had much of a chance to previously rep that lineup in practice.
“That was kind of like our first time really playing together,” Teague said.
So maybe, in time, the two-point guard approach will work. Teague and Napier are probably two of Minnesota’s top 10 players. It, theoretically, should benefit the Wolves to get both players on the court. And it never hurts for a team’s second unit to feature an interesting dynamic that opponents don’t see on a regular basis.
It has worked for teams in the past, and still does. Wednesday’s opponent, Dallas, has used two small guards in the same lineup for years, with much success. Teague mentioned Boston, which was a championship contender playing with guys like Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley in the front court. Wise or not, Cleveland is building its future around a backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton.
Teague pleaded with former coach Tom Thibodeau on past Timberwolves teams to play more minutes with Tyus Jones, noting the benefits of having two ball handlers on the court at the same time. Much of Napier’s career has been spent alongside other point guards, from his time winning championships at UConn to playing with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland.
What are the keys to success with it?
On offense, Teague said, you have to play through the guards, and play with pace to best utilize the mismatches the guards present for their opponents.
“You’re making plays for one another and making plays for the team,” Teague said.
But what about the other end of the court? That’s where Napier said the guards must get stops in order to be successful.
“If you’re unable to do it defensively, it’s not going to work,” Napier said. “So, I think that’s one of the biggest things when you play a two-guard lineup is if you got guys that want to play defense, it works well. If you don’t, it’s not going to work well.”
On Sunday, Memphis shot 50 percent from the field in the nine minutes in which Teague and Napier shared the floor, including a 4-for-7 showing from deep.
But, again, that was the first time. It’s possible those two guards can do more good than harm moving forward, but if Saunders does indeed go back to that pairing, he will be sure to watch it closely.
“You’ve got to make sure you have point guards or smaller guys that are able to put the ball on the floor, shoot the ball, spread the court,” Saunders said. “But then they also have some toughness to them where they’re not giving up too much defensively.”