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.