Even after signing a new $32 million contract this offseason, it would be hard to blame Jeff Teague if he felt unwanted in Atlanta. Teague entered the summer as a restricted free agent, but appeared to be little more than an afterthought for the Hawks.
First, Atlanta drafted touted German point guard Dennis Schröder in the first round. Plan A for the Hawks in free agency involved teaming hometown boy Dwight Howard with former AAU teammate Josh Smith, a delusion of grandeur essentially doomed from the start. All the while, Teague languished on the open market until the Milwaukee Bucks set a price tag reasonable enough for the Hawks to match.
Now, Teague is with the Hawks again, playing without the departed Smith for the first time in his career, forced to watch over his back for the 20-year-old Schröder. It doesn't sound like the ideal situation for the now 25-year-old point guard, but it just might be what Teague needs to thrive. He's about to have more responsibility than ever before, and with responsibility comes opportunity. That's all a young player can ever ask for.
The Hawks are a franchise in transition. Atlanta missed the playoffs eight seasons in a row before signing Joe Johnson and developing draft picks Smith and Al Horford, a core that went to the postseason six straight years starting in 2008 but never advanced past the second round. Atlanta felt stuck and chose to blow it up, first dumping the max contract of Johnson in a trade with the Nets and then letting Smith walk to Detroit in free agency this summer.
With all the cap space, Atlanta signed power forward Paul Millsap to a sensible two-year deal, re-upped Kyle Korver and added minor pieces to the bench. The Hawks' new "Big Three" will be Millsap, Horford and Teague, a core that could still compete for a playoff spot in the bottom half of the East while shedding all the long-term financial commitments. Of course, it'll only come to fruition if Teague steps up and raises his game to another level.
Teague has started the last two years at point guard for Atlanta with varying degrees of success. He isn't the biggest or quickest among the NBA's current crop of dynamic young lead guards, but he's a league-average starter, if nothing else. Teague can shoot from deep (35 percent from three-point range the last two years) and finally honed his playmaking skills last season, averaging a career-high 7.2 assists per game in his first year away from Johnson.
Johnson earned the nickname "Iso Joe" in Atlanta for his propensity to do it himself offensively, but Teague learned some hard lessons in his first season without him in the backcourt. With defenses keyed on Teague, his production in the pick-and-roll fell off a cliff. Two seasons ago, playing with Johnson, Teague averaged 0.91 points per possessions and shot 46.2 percent in the pick-and-roll, according to MySynergySports.com. Last season, as his attempts nearly doubled, he averaged .72 points per possessions and shot 36.4 percent in the same situations. Teague's turnovers also increased by nearly one per game, up to an average of 2.9 each contest last season. He'll have to be more careful with the ball and better at finishing after a high screen.
Fortunately, there's a historical precedent here. There was a time when Mike Conley was considered a league-average-or-worse starter at point guard, but the Grizzlies still locked him up to a $45 million extension in 2010, a decision questioned by many around the league. Memphis thought the security would help Conley take his game to new heights, and that's exactly what happened. Now, many would say he's one of the league's 10 best point guards.
Whether new money will have the same effect on Teague remains to be seen, but there's plenty here to work with. Teague had 10 games last season in which he finished with at least 20 points and 10 assists, a feat only matched or bettered by LeBron James, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Stephen Curry.
Teauge's numbers also compare favorably to those of Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson, the point guards taken right in front of him in the 2009 draft. Holiday and Lawson received more money than Teague in contract extensions and both have loftier reputations league-wide, but Teague holds his own in comparison statistically.
Schröder's presence has thrown a fork into Teague's future in Atlanta, but that doesn't mean he's about to become irrelevant anytime soon. Teague's career is about to reach a boiling point in his fifth season. If he elevates his game again, the Hawks will have a value buy at point guard or, if they decide to, a great trade asset in the process.