Believe It: Jeff Teague Is One of the Best Defensive Point Guards In Basketball
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Want to be an NBA player like Jeff Teague?
Okay, go and find your biggest friend, preferably someone muscular and sweaty who weighs around 250 lbs (If that task poses some difficulty, using two smaller friends isn't great, but it's an acceptable approximation).
Now stand that friend (or friends) in a wide doorway of your home, get them into a balanced stance, and tell them not to let you past.
Take a deep breath, and take a shot at running through the door.
That's more or less the job Teague is asked to do many times each game, and Teague's level of proficiency at dodging big men has made the leap from good to great this season.
An NBA rule change took away hand checking in 2004, and since that point, teams have used the pick-and-roll to initiate their offense with ever-rising frequency. Consequently, the ability of a point guard to defend his counterpart in pick and rolls has become one of the key ingredients to a successful defense.
When people think of great defensive plays, they may think of a swingman jumping a passing lane for a steal, or a center rising up to swat a shot away from the rim, but the job a point guard does when fighting around a screen can be just as important, even if the unglamorous task doesn't always catch the eye on first glance.
"Sometimes it's hard for all of us, even me. I have to go back and watch film (to) see his effort and things he's doing," head coach Mike Budenholzer noted.
Teammate Al Horford, who often defends pick-and-roll plays with Teague, credits the continuity that comes from being in Budenholzer's system for another season.
"I just think he's more engaged," Horford said. "He's understanding what Coach (Budenholzer) wants from him. Now that he has a better understanding, I feel like it makes everything easier, and that's why our defense is that much better."
Last season, players guarded by Teague made 43.6% of their field goal attempts, including a 51.6% success rate on their two-point shots.
This season, Teague's opponents have connected on just 38.4% of their shots overall, and just 42.8% of their two-point attempts.
Those numbers from 2014-15 compare favorably with his fellow Eastern Conference All-Star point guards.
Field Goal Percentage of Opponent When Specified Player is Defending (through All-Star break):
Jeff Teague: 38.4%
John Wall: 42.4%
Kyle Lowry: 43.2%
Kyrie Irving: 44.7%
John Wall, in particular, noted that fighting through multiple hundreds of screens can add up over the course of a season.
"It's definitely tiring, especially when you get quick guards that know how to use them," he said. "It's tiring, but that's the most fun part. If you do your job pretty early, you don't have to worry about fighting (through screens) too much. As the years get older, you figure out how to fight over the top."
With the help of the play-type data that has been added to NBA.com/Stats, we can specifically target how well Teague has defended the pick and roll. Of the 224 pick-and-roll possessions guarded by Teague that have ended with a shot, foul, or turnover, the ballhandler guarded by Jeff has scored 0.69 points per possession, a mark that puts Teague ahead of about 75% of defenders.
Rethink that number for a moment though. The vast majority of NBA players aren't point guards, meaning that they also aren't having to defend point guards.
If we limit the list of players to those who have defended 175 or more pick-and-rolls (a list that consists almost exclusively of point guards), Teague's relative standing looks much better. There are 40 players on the list. Teague ties for the second-best mark -- just a notch behind Irving (0.66 points per possession) and equal with Brandon Knight and Stephen Curry (0.69).
Effort in the pick-and-roll is only one factor of a point guard's defense, even if it is a crucial one. Golden State guard Shaun Livingston, who has posted a top-tier 0.72 points per possession mark in the same situations, suggests a couple of other strategies for slowing opposing point guards.
"You know, just try and throw his rhythm. Once a point guard is in his flow, in his rhythm, he's just trying to play at his own pace. And then go at him (by trying to score on him) on the defensive end."
For his part, Teague himself summed up his defensive improvements succinctly and without any self-congratulation.
"Effort. And wanting to win. That's it."
Fortunately for Teague, the effort is working, and it's a huge reason why the Hawks have 43 wins at the All-Star break.
Story by KL Chouinard