Jeff Teague could have undermined Hawks’ success. He’s glad they didn’t let him

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BOSTON – Jeff Teague strolled through the Hawks’ locker room, joking with Al Horford about binging on a pregame meal (an indulgence Teague could make while sitting out the game before, something Horford was doing this night) and playfully tapping another teammate’s iPad screen as he passed.

Then, Teague returns to his locker, where he’d explain what makes these Atlanta Hawks so special.

“We have fun. We enjoy it,” Teague said Wednesday. “Guys really like one another. We hang out all time. We go out to eat. We enjoy each other’s company.”

Plenty of teams tout their off-court chemistry, and it’s essentially impossible for outsiders to gauge the veracity of those claims. But the Hawks click so well on the court, it’d be difficult to believe they’re not close off it.

The Hawks are the NBA’s feel-good story. They’ve won 10 straight and 24 of 26 since Thanksgiving to raise their record to an Eastern Conference-best 31-8. They’re playing so well, the franchise’s two (!) mostly distinct offseason racism scandals have faded to the background. Teague, Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll mesh well in the starting lineup, and Thabo Sefolosha, Dennis Schroder, Pero Antic, Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack and Kent Bazemore hit the right notes of the bench. Mike Budenholzer is building a strong case for Coach of the Year.

This team just works in every way.

But just two summers ago, Teague nearly broke up this group before it achieved its current near-perfect harmony.

Teague, a restricted free agent in a stalemate with the the Hawks, signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks. He even said he preferred Atlanta not match.

“It was a tactic to get a deal done,” Teague admitted. “I always wanted to be an Atlanta Hawk.”

Teague got his wish. The Hawks matched, and he said he was happy in Atlanta.

In truth, the Hawks probably weren’t that close to letting him leave. Budenholzer, hired that same offseason, said he was substantially involved in the team’s internal discussions after Milwaukee presented the offer sheet.

“I think it was easy,” Budenholzer said. “We were very, very excited to match and keep him.

“He’s such a gifted and talented player. I think we all appreciate his skill, his combination of strength and quickness and speed. And then he’s a great person. He fits in our locker room. He’s somebody that we wanted to work with and continue to help to grow and to improve. And it’s worked out well for both of us, hopefully.”

It sure has.

Teague is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game. His PER of 23.1 ranks No. 13 in the NBA and fifth among point guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry).

Not that many have paid attention.

Teague is the best player who hasn’t cracked the All-Star starter voting leaderboard.

“He’s just doing a lot of things, and I think a lot of kind of little things that maybe go unnoticed,” said Budenholzer, who specifically mentioned Teague’s pick-and-roll defense and off-ball activity. “Everybody sees the points and the assists and all of those other things, but I think he’s competing at a high level.

“All the minutiae that us coaches spend hours on watching film – you can see it and feel it.”

That’s why Teague, despite his lack of fan support, has a good chance of becoming an All-Star when coaches vote on the reserves.

Teague says it’s most important the Hawks’ early success earns them at least one All-Star, no matter who it is. And if it’s him?

“That’d be great,” Teague said. “That’s like the highest honor you can get besides winning a championship in the NBA, so I’d be stoked to get that.”

Teague obviously hasn’t heard my case that All-NBA should weigh much more heavily than All-Star when assessing someone’s career accomplishments. Regardless, he’s quite possibly in store for an achievement that unquestionably ranks higher: MVP votes.

Since the NBA began awarding MVP in 1956, 117 of 118 No. 1 seeds have had a player make someone’s MVP ballot.* And the Hawks are in strong position to land the No. 1 seed. They have a four-game lead over the second-place Wizards and a chance to increase their buffer over the pack tonight against the third-place Raptors and tomorrow against the fourth-place Bulls.

*The 1969-70 Hawks are the only exception. None their top players – Bill Bridges, Lou Hudson, Joe Caldwell, Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, Jim Davis and Gary Gregor – got MVP votes. Willis Reed, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier, Billy Cunningham and Connie Hawkins claimed all those.

Horford and Millsap should figure prominently for anyone looking to assign credit for Atlanta’s growth, but Teague’s status as floor general will generate support.

After years of the Hawks imploring him to take control, Teague has. Atlanta performs better offensively and defensively when he’s on the court, and though playing frequently with the team’s other starters partially explains that, he’s driving a lot of the production. He’s still one of the NBA’s quickest players, but he’s capitalizing more on his ability to blow by opponents and tilt defenses. On the other end, he does a much better job of sticking with his man while still finding opportunities to get steals.

The little improvements across the board are adding up.

Teague’s PER has increased each of his six seasons. Only four current players – Mo Williams, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett – have completed a six-season run of ascending PERs. Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, James Harden and DeAndre Jordan are also on pace to do it this year, but Teague has the most room for error over his PER from last season.

Here’s how Teague’s PER has progressed:

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“That’s the only goal I ever set at the beginning of each season, just to get better than the previous year,” Teague said. “If I can do that, I know I’m have a good year.”

By that measure, Teague is having a good year. By others – an All-Star appearance, MVP votes, playoff success – Teague is on track to hit the mark, as well.

As he continues along this career season, Teague is grateful the Hawks ignored his request two years ago.

“I thought about that a couple weeks ago, if I was in Milwaukee right now,” Teague said. “But I’m glad to be here with Atlanta. I’m happy with how we’re playing. The group we have here is so talented and so unselfish and fun to play with.”

He’s a huge reason.

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Boston, Philadelphia, Denver? (And some playoff talk)

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Will Kyrie Irving stay in Boston? If not, what is Plan B?

Is Jimmy Butler back in Philadelphia next season? If he is will Tobias Harris be back?

What are the next steps to turn Denver into a contender?

I get into all of those things with the wise Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports (and Celtics Blog, and Real GM), we break down those three teams recently turned out of the playoffs. We also start off talking about teams actually in the playoffs, particularly Toronto’s comeback in the Eastern Conference Finals, and how those teams can take advantage against the Warriors with Kevin Durant out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Nikola Jokic’s All-NBA first-team selection shows his meteoric rise

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Just four years ago, Nikola Jokic was a second-round pick still playing in the Adriatic League. Just three years ago, he was battling a struggling Jusuf Nurkic to be the Nuggets’ main center.

Yesterday, Jokic made the All-NBA first team.

Jokic has risen incredibly quickly. Before this season, he had never even been an All-Star.

That makes Jokic the first non-rookie in NBA history to make an All-NBA first team without a prior All-Star season (including ABA All-Stars).

The No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic is just the fourth second-rounder to make an All-NBA first team since the NBA-ABA merger. The others: DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol and Marc Price.

For most players not immediately deemed to hold first-round talent, it takes a while to build stature in the NBA. Jokic made the All-NBA first team in just his fourth season. That’s way sooner than Gasol (seventh season), Price (seventh season) and Jordan (eighth season):

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The Nuggets didn’t wait for this honor to make Jokic their franchise player. They gave him a near-max contract last summer, and by leading them into the second round of the playoffs, he triggered incentives to reach a max salary.

Denver has built a young supporting cast – mainly Jamal Murray and Gary Harris – to grow with Jokic. The Nuggets also signed veteran Paul Millsap, whose defense complements Jokic’s offensive-minded game.

So much is coming together so quickly for Denver, and Jokic’s honor is just the latest example.

Report: Trail Blazers sign president Neil Olshey to contract extension

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Just after a rumor emerged about the Wizards trying to hire Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

It’s nice to be wanted. It always adds leverage in contract negotiations.

Olshey has done well in Portland, building a winner around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum after LaMarcus Aldridge left. But Olshey’s job will get harder now.

Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless each have another season on the expensive contracts Olshey gave them in the wild summer of 2016. That’ll inhibit flexibility this offseason.

Then, Lillard is set to sign a super-max extension that will take effect in 2021. As great as Lillard is, it’ll be difficult building a contender around someone projected to earn $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34. There’s so little margin for error, especially if ownership is less willing to pay the luxury tax than the late Paul Allen was.

But Olshey has earned a chance to handle these dilemmas.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert hits super-max criteria for extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years

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Anthony Davis signed a max rookie-scale contract extension in 2015, between his third and fourth seasons. Based on the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time, the extension called for him to earn a higher salary if he was twice voted an All-Star starter or made two All-NBA teams during his first four seasons. Davis was voted an All-Star starter and made the All-NBA first team in his third season.

Unfortunately for Davis, he missed both honors his fourth year. The All-NBA and All-Star-starter tracks ran independently. Davis couldn’t qualify for a higher max salary by earning one of each.

That cost him $19,683,908 over the four pre-player-option seasons of his extension, which will end next year.

The current CBA’s more significant adjustments to super-max eligibility – changing the years for qualification, using Defensive Player of the Year instead of All-Star starter – obscured a minor tweak. The tracks now run together. A player can qualify with one Defensive Player of the Year and one All-NBA selection. He needn’t achieve two of one category.

So, Jazz center Rudy Gobert – who won won Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and made All-NBA this year – quietly became eligible to sign a super-max extension in the 2020 offseason. The extension’s highest-allowable value projects to be $250 million over five years. The first four years would follow the structure of the super-max Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers are set to sign.

Newsflash: Gobert isn’t Lillard.

Gobert is elite defensively and underrated offensively. But paying him $50 million per year from ages 30-34 in a league overflowing with good centers? That’s a recipe for disaster for Utah.

But Gobert earned eligibility. That makes it harder for the Jazz to tell him they don’t deem him worthy. That tension is an unintended consequence of the super-max rules.

There is room for negotiation. In this case, Gobert’s designated-veteran-player extension must be for five seasons and have a starting salary between 30% and 35% of the 2021-22 salary cap. But his salary can increase or decrease annually by up to 8% of his first-year salary. The deal can be partially guaranteed.

Still, the lowest possible designated-veteran-player extension for Gobert projects to be $155 million over five years. If fully guaranteed, that’d be expensive for a player of his age. If not fully guaranteed, the Jazz would get savings only by waiving him, and that’d mean dropping the cheaper latter years.

Because he doesn’t have enough experience to qualify, Gobert can’t sign a super-max extension until the 2020 offseason. He met the award criteria, but a player must have seven or eight years of experience. Gobert just finished his sixth year. He’s also under contract for two more seasons – locked into salaries of $24,758,427 next season and $26,275,281 the following year.

So, there’s time to figure this out.

But this is the most uneasy super-max situation so far – unless Gobert just doesn’t insist on the money. Good luck with that.