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.

Zion Williamson’s attorneys work to avoid him answering questions about improper benefits at Duke

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MIAMI (AP) — Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”

“Plaintiffs’ irrelevant and invasive requests are designed to harass and not calculated to lead to discovery of relevant evidence,” Friday’s filing states.

It is the latest exchange in the fight over the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s endorsement potential.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed her lawsuit last summer in Florida, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings – offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family – sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Williamson’s attorneys seek a stay while appealing the December denial of their motion to dismiss the Florida case based on lack of jurisdiction, or a protective order as an alternative.

At the heart of the dueling lawsuits over Williamson’s marketing rights is this: Williamson says the contract he signed with Prime Sports is illegal under North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA) because Ford was not registered with North Carolina to negotiate with amateur athletes (which Zion was at the time, having just played for Duke). Ford and Prime dispute that, saying this was a legal and binding negotiation.

One key reason NBA may return with 22 teams: Players want regular-season games

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Nothing is set in stone about an NBA return — at least not until next Thursday — but momentum seems to be building behind a plan that would bring 22 teams to the Orlando bubble.

That plan brings every team within six games of the playoffs when the season was halted into the competition, a total of 22 teams (13 from the West and nine from the East, the playoff teams plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Washington). There would be some regular-season games played, likely five to eight, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds, then the playoffs with full seven-game series each round. Exactly what that play-in tournament would look and if the NBA would stick with the conference playoff alignment or seed 1-16 is up in the air (although the conference alignment seems to have more backing).

Why that plan? For one, it gets more cities and more fan bases involved — and it happens to bring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the mix, a big television draw. It also could help a few teams reach a 70-game broadcast threshold with local broadcasters.

Mostly, however, the players want it because they get some games under them before the playoffs start, something Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported on at ESPN.

Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the National Basketball Players Association has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games to be played prior to the start of the playoffs, sources said. That has been a prevailing sentiment among several contending teams that prefer a tuneup before beginning the postseason, sources said.

A lot of players — influential players — have pushed for some regular season or meaningful games before the playoffs start. It’s about health, as trainers told us at NBC Sports, go from zero to 100 jumping straight into the playoffs and teams are asking for injuries. Players understand that.

Maybe only 20 teams end up in Orlando, that plan is on the table as well, but either way expect some regular-season games before the playoffs start. If the powerful players want it to happen, it will.

PBT Podcast: 2020 NBA Mock Draft crossover podcast, Part Deux

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We’re back at it… and not just drinking beer during a podcast. Although we do that, too.

For the third consecutive season, Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk and I collaborated for a first-round mock draft. Rob knows the prospects better than anyone; I provide some knowledge about what the teams might be looking for. The result is a unique listening experience breaking down who will be picked where based on fit.

The first ten picks can be found over on the College Basketball Talk feed.

Here we finish off the lottery and run through the entire rest of the first round.

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.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant make top 10 of Forbes highest-paid athletes list

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LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant make more money off the court in endorsements than they do in salary from their teams. Which is not a surprise.

It’s enough money to vault them into the top 10 of FORBES Magazine’s list of highest-paid athletes for the last year.

LeBron is fifth at $88.2 million, of which $37.4 million is salary (although Forbes lists it as much less). Stephen Curry is sixth at $74.4 million, and Durant is seventh at $69.3 million.

Rounding out basketball players in the top 20 are Russell Westbrook at 12th ($56 million), James Harden at 17th $47.8 million, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at $47.6 million. Overall, 34 NBA players are in the top 100, including rookie Zion Williamson at 57th ($27.3 million).

Tennis legend Roger Federer topped the list at $106.3 million, and he was followed by soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar, before we got to LeBron.

Despite all the work that goes into them, these Forbes estimates have a reputation for being off the mark. That said, it makes for a fun debate and ranking, and we could all use that right now.