The 2011-2012 version of the Atlanta Hawks doesn't look that much different than the 2010-2011 team. The departure of former Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford is the most notable subtraction, but the team returns All-Stars Al Horford and Joe Johnson as well as Josh Smith from last season's team that upset the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs.
Atlanta has invested heavily in its core group, having previously signed Marvin Williams and Smith to extensions while re-upping both Horford and Johnson last season. Despite the familiar names on the roster, the pressure of carrying the team forward and pushing it beyond the second round falls on the shoulders of the third-year point guard that was an afterthought through out much of the 2010-11 season.
Jeff Teague stepped in as the starting point guard in Atlanta's second round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls due to an injury to Kirk Hinrich and more than held his own against the reigning NBA MVP in Derrick Rose. There were many times during that series that Teague looked like the best player on the floor for Atlanta and showed that just maybe the franchise had finally found the answer in its search for a long-term solution at the point guard position.
Teague's teammates noticed, and it was Joe Johnson who offered that this was now Teague's team to run at the Hawks annual media day, even citing that "When he turns that corner, the Atlanta Hawks are going to turn that corner as well."
Whether finally or out of necessity, Hawks coach Larry Drew realizes it as well. During the 2010-2011 season Teague's minutes were sporadic with no defined role coming from Drew. Midway through last season, Atlanta dealt then-starting point guard Mike Bibby to Washington for Kirk Hinrich with Teague remaining as the fourth guard in a three-guard rotation that also featured Johnson and Jamal Crawford. Only after Hinrich was injured in Atlanta's series clinching victory did Drew turn to Teague as his point guard against Chicago. Now more than ever Drew realizes that its now or never for Teague.
"Looks like he's had a really good offseason. Judging by the first practices he's really playing at a high level. His speed and quickness just makes us a totally different team. I expect him to take the bull by the horns. I don't want him to have to wait on anybody. Let's force the other guys to keep up with him. He's the type of player that can impact the game with his speed and quickness."
Now Teague enters this season with the job and with little depth behind him thanks to Hinrich suffering an offseason injury that required shoulder surgery.
Atlanta needs Teague to prove that last season's performance against the Bulls wasn't a fluke. Teague averaged 17 points and 4.2 assists against the Bulls through the first five games of the series and topped the 20 point mark three times. The Hawks need him to nail down the job where 40 minutes a night of his speed and quickness on the floor will change the way other teams gameplan for dealing with Johnson, Horford and Smith.
For the Hawks, who are capped out in terms of salary, it is important that improvement comes from within, and Teague provides the best chance for that. The point guard position has become a revolving door in Atlanta dating all the way back to the day Mookie Blaylock was traded for the draft pick that eventually became Jason Terry. About the time Terry was realizing his potential, he too was gone, and the Hawks were left searching again. Atlanta's now-infamous decision to pass on both Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005 has haunted the franchise.
Now Jeff Teague looks to turn that corner and become the solution to Atlanta's point guard problem.