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It's Time to Stop Overlooking Jeff Teague as the Atlanta Hawks' Brightest Star

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2015

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 19: Jeff Teague #0 of the Atlanta Hawks looks to drive against Brandon Jennings #7 of the Detroit Pistons on January 19, 2015 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

It's far too easy to diminish the individual importance of Jeff Teague or any of his Atlanta Hawks teammates.

This is, after all, a roster built to be greater than the sum of its parts.

At their best, the Hawks function like an assembly line. Each player has a certain task to perform, and when everyone plays his part they operate with machine-like precision.

That didn't happen by accident. It's part of the sweeping systematic changes Mike Budenholzer has made since grabbing the coaching reins in 2013. As Budenholzer discovered under the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich, that selfless style has as much to do with personalities as it does tactical strategy.

"I think I can really appreciate having guys that understand the big-picture things we're trying do to," Budenholzer said, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "Starting at least a step or two ahead instead of coming in at ground zero."

The beauty of such a philosophy is easily gleaned from the results. The Hawks sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 35-8 record. They're currently riding a 14-game winning streak and have picked up victories in 28 of their last 30. Atlanta has yet to lose since the calendar change and hasn't suffered back-to-back losses since the middle of November.

Whatever Budenholzer is selling, this team is buying and transforming into something of substance.

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However, there's an unfortunate aspect of playing this brand of basketball in the superstar-driven NBA. The more fans see this team as a singular entity, the less they appreciate the individual parts that make it as successful as it is.

Case in point: Check the last round of All-Star voting returns. Teague, who leads Atlanta in points (17.2 per game) and assists (7.4), didn't even rank among the East's top 10 backcourt vote-getters.

Apr 4, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) protects the ball from Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) during the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Cavaliers 117-98. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports

It's among the most egregious crimes hoops fans have committed in recent memory. Making matters worse, this face-palming blunder could be seen coming from miles away, as Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver noted:

The causes for Teague’s snubbing are common: the Hawks weren’t a major factor in last year’s playoffs, the franchise has possessed a blah identity and dealt with a shaky and scandal-filled summer, the 26-year-old Teague has taken his game to new heights this season, and he plays for a coach in Mike Budenholzer who has kept his minutes to a modest 31.4 a night while also fostering a climate where the ball is shared so selflessly that no one individual reaps the rewards. In other words, Teague is swimming upstream against past stagnancy, name recognition issues, and a stat-deflating style.

Just because there are reasons this happened does not make it acceptable.

Teague is relatively new to the spotlight, at least in terms of his association with one of the league's top teams. He started and logged heavy minutes during each of Atlanta's last four playoff runs, but only one of those lasted longer than the opening round. The exception was the Hawks' trip to the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals, where they were dispatched by the Chicago Bulls in six games.

Today's stars are born one of two ways: posting eye-popping numbers or performing deep into the postseason. Teague has never really checked either box, which has kept him flying below the radar.

But he can't remain there any longer. There is too much success here—both on team and individual levels—for his value to go on unnoticed.

This is his sixth season in the leagueand easily his best.

But the previous five years, for those who paid attention, were building blocks leading to this point. His track record is essentially a giant arrow pointing up. He has increased his scoring average and player efficiency rating during each of his six seasons and only once failed to raise his assist numbers from the prior campaign.

"The game has clearly slowed down for Teague," wrote NBA.com's Sekou Smith. "... The Hawks don't take over the top spot in the East without his work running the show."

Teague is the head of the East's most poisonous snake.

Offensively, he's the one keeping opponents on their toes. He stays in constant attack mode, probing for a weak spot and exploiting it once he's found it. He averages 11.5 drives per game (fourth-most in the NBA), and those attacks directly result in 12.1 points per game for the Hawks.

The simple strategy for corralling him is to stop his dribble penetration. But as Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens observed, Teague has a top gear rarely found in NBA motors:

Ben Rohrbach @brohrbach

Stevens: "I don't know what a superstar is, but I'll say this: Nobody in the league can keep Jeff Teague in front of them. Nobody."

That pretty well demolishes the theory that the "superstar-less" Hawks will eventually be derailed by their lack of a finisher. Truth be told, Teague has been at his best when it's winning time.

In clutch situations (under five minutes with a point differential of five or less), Teague owns a 114.8 offensive rating and 94.5 defensive rating. He has a better true shooting percentage in those moments (58.9) than reputed closers Damian Lillard (56.6), Manu Ginobili (56.1) and Carmelo Anthony (53.2).

If there's any stain on Teague's resume as a crunch-time performer, it's the fact that he might be a little rusty. The Hawks have been so good, he hasn't had to play that card much of late. During their 14-game winning streak, the Hawks have outscored their opponents by an average of 12.2 points a night.

Assuming the Hawks eventually need a late-game basket, Teague has many different ways to create one.

With his aggressiveness and freedom to attack, Teague has averaged a career-high 5.0 free-throw attempts per game this season. He's also converting a personal-best 64.4 percent of his attempts within three feet of the basket, so he can be a one-man scoring act even in this equal-opportunity system. He has 19 outings of 20-plus points in 39 games this season, four fewer than he had in 79 appearances last season.

That being said, Teague isn't a scoring point guard. It would be impossible to label him as such when he's creating 17.9 points per game off assists, the seventh-highest average in the league. He also quarterbacks an offense that ranks sixth in efficiency (106.9 points per 100 possessions) and first in assists percentage (68.7).

"On a team with the best record in the East that also leads the conference in assists per game (26), it begins with the point guard," wrote ESPN.com's Israel Gutierrez. "A lot like Tony Parker in San Antonio, Teague won't put up gaudy numbers often, but he's letting results speak for him."

Eric Gay/Associated Press

For all of the "Spurs of the East" talk, there aren't a lot of great direct comparisons between the two rosters. Atlanta doesn't have a Tim Duncan or a Manu Ginobili, while San Antonio has some snipers but no Kyle Korver.

The Parker-Teague comparison is about as close as it can get.

"Both point guards rely on their breakneck speed, burning defenders on the pick-and-roll and in transition," wrote Hardwood Paroxysm's David Vertsberger. "Both were inconsistent with their jumpers in the early going but improved over the course of their careers. Both have benefited hugely from their similar systems."

Like Parker does for the Spurs, Teague sets the Hawks in motion with his gravitational pull on the offensive end. Once defenses move to stop his attacks, he moves the ball to an open teammate who either looks at the rim himself or passes to the next player.

Since the ball rarely sticks—Atlanta averages 326.3 passes per game, fourth-most in the league—it typically finds its way to an open shooter or an overlooked slasher. It's no coincidence this offense averages a world-beating 110.7 points per 100 possessions with Teague on the floor and a pedestrian 101.4 without him.

No one else on this roster poses the same scoring/passing/driving threat as Teague. The more attention he commands, the easier it becomes for his teammates to finish possessions.

Teague has Parker-type control of his team, and that opinion comes from guys who have worked with both.

Boston Celtics guard Evan Turner said, per MassLive.com's Jay King: "I remember when we played them in Philadelphia, [76ers head coach] Brett Brown said, 'If you take the name out of it, if you take all the hype and everything out of that, who is that?' He said, 'That's Tony Parker with probably equally as good a jump shot." 

Before Brown landed in Philly, he too was a disciple of Popovich in the Alamo City.

But Teague isn't Atlanta's brightest star because of the numbers he helps put up. There's a level of trust that a coach needs to have in his point guard in this type of offense, and Budenholzer has that player in Teague.

This system isn't a series of tightly controlled plays. It's more of a chain of reactions based on what the defense does.  

"It's probably like 25 percent of the time he calls a play," Teague said of Budenholzer, per CBS Sports' James Herbert. "It's kind of we just know what we're going to do. Everything is reads."

And those reads require Teague to make the correct one first. The stat sheet shows just how often that's happening.

At the defensive end, where Atlanta sports the third-best efficiency rating, Teague is a constant source of discomfort for opponents. He shows good focus, energy and instincts as a defender, a combination that has helped him come up with 1.8 steals per game.

"He's just doing a lot of things, and I think a lot of...little things that maybe go unnoticed," Budenholzer said, per NBC Sports' Dan Feldman. "Everybody sees the points and the assists and all of those other things, but I think he's competing at a high level."

The Hawks have needed all hands on deck to reach this point: Horford's interior toughness, Korver's three-point stroke, Paul Millsap's versatility, DeMarre Carroll's energy, a wealth of contributions from the second team. Their team-first approach hasn't aided their ascensionit's the reason they have climbed this high.

But that shouldn't overshadow the tremendous impact Teague has had on this team. Great individuals make great teams. That's been the case in San Antonio for years, and it's becoming equally more apparent by the second in Atlanta.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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