Q&A: Jeff Teague on the Hawks, Jimmy Butler and his free agency

With free agency nearing, point guard Jeff Teague spoke with HoopsHype over the phone to discuss several topics, including what he’s looking for as a free agent. Teague also discussed his time with the Atlanta Hawks at the start of his career and as a mentor to Trae Young, his time with Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, his post-playing plans, and more. Below is a transcription of the conversation. 

You started your career with the Atlanta Hawks and coach Mike Budenholzer. What stuck out to you the most from those years with Atlanta and Budenholzer? 

Jeff Teague: Bud was just a guy who would let you be yourself, but he also had a system, and that system was five out, try to penetrate, get to the rim, and shoot threes. At first, it was an adjustment for me coming from an older style playing with Mike Woodson and Larry Drew. When he got there, he just let you be yourself, but he also had a way of reeling you in. I think he did a really good job with our group in getting the most out of us. 

When you look back on that time with Atlanta and those teams, did you feel like you left something on the table? How did you feel about those years? 

JT: I think we did a great job. I don’t think anyone expected us to be that good the year we won 60 games. To be able to come together as a group and play at that high level, I think it was everything we could ask for. I felt like we were a championship contender, but we went up against that guy. That guy is LeBron (James). As you know, as the world knows, it’s tough to get by him in seven games. 

When you went to Minnesota, you, Jimmy Butler, and your other teammates helped end their 14-year playoff drought, and it was your ninth straight individual season in the playoffs. What did that mean to you given they didn’t have much success prior? 

JT: That was the whole reason for going there when I signed there, and I found out they were going to get Jimmy. I was like, ‘I’ve got to go there.’ Playing with Jimmy and Taj (Gibson), those were my guys, and Thibs (Tom Thibodeau). I’ve always been a fan of the way he coached playing against him. He was a hard-nosed guy, but I knew he had a softer side and a funnier side from being around him and playing against him just talking to him during games, so I was excited to play for him. With Jimmy, as you can see again this year, he knows how to rally his guys and get guys to play outside themselves. I shouldn’t say outside themselves but just gives you that confidence to be yourself and to play at a high level. I think he did that with us in Minnesota.

Thibodeau is returning to coaching with the Knicks. What did you think of that and any other memories you had of him as a coach that stuck out to you? 

JT: Thibs is one of my favorite coaches ever, him and Bud. Thibs is just a great guy. He’s hard-nosed, but he loves the game. He’ll talk basketball with you all day. What he doesn’t get a lot of credit for is that he wins. Wherever he goes, they win. When he was in Chicago, they won. When he got to Minnesota, he got the guys he needed, and we won. That’s what he’s going to do in New York. When you get the guys around him that he needs, he’s going to win. I think it was the best hire the Knicks could’ve done. I think he’s going to be perfect. I think Thibs is perfect for New York. That was his dream job. We used to talk all the time. He always wanted to coach the Knicks. I think it’s a match made in Heaven because they’re going to win. Once he gets his guys in there that he needs, they’re going to win. 

You also touched on Jimmy. What were your thoughts on the team and the locker room dynamic? 

JT: The first year, we were nice. If Jimmy didn’t get hurt, I think we’re a top-five seed in the West. Our team was good. We were locked in. Jimmy just wants to win. He doesn’t care how many points he scores. He doesn’t care about the assists. He just wants to win. That’s what I loved about him. I don’t think anybody really had a problem with that. He’s hard-nosed, so he wants to win at any cost, so he’s going to get on you. As a player, you’ve got to be able to accept that. I think, for the most part, most of the guys accepted that he’s going to get on you because he’s going to work just as hard. You can get back on him because he wants that kind of energy too. As a veteran, I loved that. If I’m not in the right spot, get on me. If you’re not in the right spot, I’m going to get on you. I think that’s what helped our team get a lot better. 

The following year Jimmy got traded. What was your reaction to the trade coming off a playoff trip? 

JT: I did everything in my power to try to get Jimmy to stay and be a part of it, but it just didn’t work out. They had different views, and it just couldn’t come together. I understood it. I understand the business side of basketball. But Jimmy’s my guy, so I was happy for him. When he went to Philly, I thought they had a chance to win a championship when they got Jimmy, to be honest. Kawhi (Leonard) hit that shot, but wherever he goes, he’s going to win. He’s a winner. Obviously, he won in Minnesota, he got Philly a chance to compete for a championship, and Miami made the Finals this year. He’s just one of those guys that winning follows him. 

When Jimmy was traded, that season was the first time in your career you missed the playoffs. What was that like for you after being used to making the playoffs? 

JT: That was different watching it on TV and not being a part of it. I usually play my best basketball during the playoffs. I was kind of bored that summer. I wasn’t really watching basketball as much because I usually want to play, I’m a competitor, and I enjoy winning. I wasn’t really used to that situation. Then, to go into the next year and be in a similar situation with a new GM and new everything, and I knew we were in rebuild mode, so I felt like I was a little more hurt by the situation because I knew when I came to Minnesota what the team looked like and what the potential was for that team. I thought we were going to be able to compete for many years to come.

You got traded back to the Hawks, and it’s a different scenario than your last stint there, and they have Trae Young and the young guys. What was your mindset at the time? 

JT: I have a special place for Atlanta in my heart, so I wasn’t upset or anything. I was more like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I get to go back to Atlanta.’ I have a home there, so the trade was a little easier for me because I’ve never been traded during the season. When I got there, the dynamic was totally different. They have a young team, they’re trying to find themselves and get their nucleus together. They’ve got a lot of talented players. We all know Trae is a star. John Collins is a stud. They’ve got two young wings that I think can really be good. I see the potential for their team can be like Boston. I’m not saying they’re at Boston’s level right now, but the potential to be like Boston if Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter grow as I think they can, I think they can be like a Boston team with Clint Capela at center and a couple more veteran pieces, that group can be a special team. The future is bright in Atlanta, and I always enjoy my time there, even when I was there for those couple of games. Like you said, the dynamic was changing. It’s a young team. We weren’t really playing to win at that time. The season was kind of out of reach for them, but it still was a good time.

For you, it was a different role. What was that role like for you in Atlanta? It seemed like you were the mentor they wanted for Trae to help him get to that next level while playing some minutes too. 

JT: Like you said, I came from starting, so it was a totally different role for me. In Minnesota, I didn’t start some games because I was sick a couple of games and so I would be back in and out of the lineup, but for the most part, I played a lot. It was a different situation coming there and not being able to contribute like I think I can. I can still play at a high level. Before I got traded, I was still playing really good basketball. I’m not saying I’m not open to coming off the bench or anything because I’m capable of playing in any situation. I did it a little for Minnesota, but it was just different because you really didn’t have an impact on the game. You knew you were only going to play spot minutes because they’re trying to grow these young guys. It was different, but I learned a lot, and it was fun to meet and get to know those guys and see them play, grow, and see what the team could be. 

What role do you envision for yourself on a team next season? 

JT: Honestly, I just want to go to a team where we’re playing to win. I want to win. Like you’ve said, I’ve been to the playoffs for the first nine years of my career. That’s all I know is winning, competing, and trying to get to that ultimate goal of a championship. That’s what I want to play for is to win. If that’s starting or coming off the bench, I just want to play a significant role in winning. That’s really it for me. I know if I get a chance to play and compete, I’m going to play well. I’m not really worried about an exact situation, or I need to be able to start or whatever. I just know if I can get on a team and we’re going to win, I’m going to help in any way, and I’ll affect us winning. 

Is there anything besides being on a winning team that’s on your free agent checklist? 

JT: Nah. I really don’t have one. I’m really open to all scenarios. Like I said, winning is just the whole thing. I don’t want to go to a team where we’re trying to build for the draft. I don’t want to do that. I want to try to compete to win. I enjoy playing in the playoffs, and most of the teams in the NBA are striving to get to the playoffs and compete. That’s the beauty about our league. 

Where do you think you rank among the free-agent point guards in this year’s class? 

JT: I’d have to look at the list. Honestly, I kind of just focus on myself, but with this offseason being injury-free, being able to get my body to 100 percent again, and feeling really good about myself, I feel like one of the top free-agent guards. I’ve been playing for a long time. I compete at a high level. I’m a winner. I’ve been solid all across the board for most of my career, so nothing’s changed. I don’t feel like I’ve aged a bit. I don’t feel any lack in my game. I feel like I’ve gotten better, stronger, and shooting a lot better. I feel like I’m one of the top ones. 

For a team that’s going to sign you, what’s your sales pitch to why they should heavily invest in you if it’s a multi-year deal? 

JT: I think everyone knows I’m going to compete. I’m a winner. I have no issues off the court. I’m going to come to work every day. The biggest thing is I’m willing to help. I’m a basketball junkie. I live in the gym. I watch ball all day. I can talk ball all day. I get along with all the young guys. Me and the young guys have strong relationships on most of the teams I’ve played on. I like to take them under my wing and try to be a leader to them. I’m going to compete, I’m going to play at a high level, and I’m going to be there every day. 

What have you been doing training-wise to get ready for next season? 

JT: I’m lucky to have a gym facility here that I built (in his house). I’ve been able to play every day for months, be able to work with my trainers, and have some guys to compete against. We had Lance Stephenson in the building, Glenn Robinson (III), and some really talented players that have been in the gym. We’ve been competing and playing. Some people are just starting to rev it up, but we’ve been revving it up because we’ve had a lot of time off. There’s nothing else to do in Indiana but play basketball. 

What are your goals for the rest of your career? 

JT: I want to keep playing. I want to play another five or six years. I don’t feel like I’ve aged a bit. I don’t feel like I’ve played 11 years at all. I feel great. When that time comes, and it’s time for me to hang up the shoes, I’m a basketball junky, so I couldn’t see myself not being a part of basketball coaching or working in a front office or anything like that. I have to be a part of basketball. That’s a ways away, but that’s my future plans for it.  

MORE: Find out where Jeff Teague ranks among our top 2020 free-agent rankings

You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto


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