Three weeks ahead of the trade deadline, the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves hammered out a three-player deal that sends Jeff Teague back to Atlanta along with Treveon Graham and Allen Crabbe going from the Hawks to the Timberwolves. No picks were involved in the trade.
In no uncertain terms, this trade is a big positive for the Hawks. They haven’t had a quality backup point guard in nearly a full calendar year; after Jeremy Lin was bought out shortly after the 2019 trade deadline, they rolled with Jaylen Adams for the remainder of the 18-19 campaign, then brought in Evan Turner in an ill-fated move that lasted less than two months before he was shut down. Teague gives them a starter-quality player at the backup spot behind Trae Young, which was by far their biggest need once it was clear that Turner was not going to be able to fill that role.
The numbers tell the tale – Atlanta is a league-average offense when Young is on the floor and far and away the worst offense in the league when he’s on the bench. In the last few weeks, they’ve gone with two-way point guard Brandon Goodwin to run the second unit and while he has some upside for them, they were clearly uncomfortable giving him the reins for the rest of the year. They can still retain Goodwin long-term and try to develop him into that player, but in terms of getting capable backup play this season, there’s no doubt that Teague is massive upgrade over Goodwin.
Teague is still a very good pull-up shooter and scorer in pick-and-roll. He can get to his spots in the midrange and will bring a level of competence to the second unit that Atlanta has been sorely missing. He’s a capable playmaker and will allow the Hawks to see how their developmental prospects work with a different type of point guard, as Teague isn’t nearly as domineering an offensive presence as Young.
He’s far too good to play solely a 15-minute backup role – Teague will get minutes with Young in a dual point guard alignment for Lloyd Pierce’s men. Having another starter-quality point guard on the floor may push Young into move of an off-ball role in those lineups, an area of his game that has screamed for improvement since he first entered the league. Young has very few holes in his game offensively, but his off-ball work is the most glaring of them.
Developing Young as an off-ball threat will have cascading effects throughout the roster years in the future, long after Teague has departed. Pushing Young into that role long-term will positively impact the Hawks’ other young players – Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish are all in Atlanta’s development program as future secondary playmakers, but for secondary playmakers to develop, the ball can’t be in the primary playmaker’s hands nearly every possession down the floor. The Hawks have been better lately at getting Huerter his touches as a secondary creator, to their credit. Teague-Young lineups without Huerter will give Young more off-ball opportunities and make him more comfortable in those spots for when he plays with Huerter, both this year and down the line.
It remains to be seen what Teague’s mentality is. He’ll be a free agent in July and turns 32 shortly before that, so he’ll be looking for his last significant contract as his career winds down. Going from a bad team in Minnesota to an even worse team in Atlanta isn’t exactly the best way for him to raise his league-wide profile, though the mere fact that he’ll be able to steer the Hawks’ second unit out of being the worst offense in NBA history will help his case for a backup role on a good team in the summer. Atlanta’s 2020-21 cap situation also means that Teague’s full Bird rights are essentially useless to them – they already have more cap space than they’ll know what to do with, so Teague doesn’t get the extra advantage of being acquired by a team who might want to retain him using those Bird rights.
Graham is essentially just a throw-in for Minnesota to save some cash. The Hawks already had a roster spot open before making the trade, so a 1-for-2 move means they don’t have to cut anybody to make room for Graham. He hasn’t been able to hit water from a boat from 3 the last two years in Brooklyn and Minnesota, which won’t help the Hawks’ league-worst three-point shooting. Graham brings value as a league-average defender at both forward spots, but if Atlanta has one area in which they’re actually decent defensively, it’s been on the wing. Hunter, Reddish, and De’Andre Bembry are all league-average or better defensively, so throwing Graham into that mix essentially gives them more of the same. Those three have struggled offensively, and adding Graham to that crew isn’t going to help matters.
For now, Graham will slide into the Hawks’ final roster spot, but it would surprise nobody if they move on from him quickly, either in a further trade or by cutting him to open that spot for someone else.
Both Teague and Graham can be immediately aggregated in a future trade, as the Hawks acquired them with cap space rather than an exception. They could combine Teague and another large salary to take on an even larger salary without having to wait the customary 60 days, which would have taken them past the trade deadline if they had been an over-the-cap team. Atlanta cut their available cap space down to $2.6 million in the deal.
It’s not always true that a positive move for one team is a negative for the other, but that is certainly the case for this trade. Unless Minnesota has something lined up that made this trade absolutely necessary, there doesn’t seem to be a world in which this makes any sense for the Timberwolves. In essence, they moved a capable point guard on an expiring contract for a shooter on an expiring contract and saved about $1 million in cash in the process. They clear a roster spot by dumping Graham in the deal, but that could have been done without the Crabbe-Teague swap.
Crabbe addresses the Wolves’ need for a shooter on the wing. Their wing rotation was mostly bereft of outside shooting other than Robert Covington, but finding a shooter should not have been nearly as expensive as the price Minnesota paid in this deal.
Crabbe’s a fine shooter whose percentages look worse than they should because of how many late-clock no-hopers he’s had to shoot for the Hawks this year. Still, his 48.2 percent true shooting this season is downright awful and 32.3 percent on three-pointers won’t have anybody calling their dad about the second coming of Reggie Miller. A deeper dive into his stats show that he’s better in more normal situations – he’s hit 43.3 percent of his unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers this year, per Synergy, so he’ll open up the floor for Minnesota in a meaningful way. Opposing defenses have to guard hm out there and will respect his reputation as a shooter.
Even if the spacing is a positive for the Wolves, that’s the only plus trait Crabbe brings to the table. He’s a sieve defensively and doesn’t make plays for his teammates on the other end of the floor. Both Crabbe and Teague were negative-value contracts, even with just a few months left on both, but there’s still nuance to that – Teague is a far, far more valuable player on the open market than Crabbe is. Crabbe comes with full Bird rights if the Wolves want to retain him this summer, but he will be very low down the pecking order for nearly every team and doesn’t figure to be a big part of their long-term plans as a shooter off the bench.
Covering up one hole has created another for the Wolves, and their new hole is going to be harder and more expensive to fill. They have a wing shooter to command opposing defenses’ respect, but now they have no starter-quality point guards on the roster, with apologies to Shabazz Napier, who is fine but not taking the Wolves where they want to go, in this season or any other. They’re rumored to be in the market for a point guard to replace Teague, so they’re not done making moves, but any move they make for a point guard in the near future would have been just as easy, if not easier, with the roster they had before this trade.
A few hours after the trade news broke, The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski reported that the Wolves have reignited their pursuit of D’Angelo Russell, who would certainly fill the point guard spot in a big way. Further reporting in that story lay out just how active the Wolves plan to be ahead of the February 6 deadline, with Robert Covington perhaps the league’s hottest commodity on the trade market right now.
Sending out 2-for-1 creates a roster spot for the Wolves, though they could have easily done that a number of other ways, including just giving Graham away to whomever wanted to send them a top-55 protected second-round pick for a free rest-of-season look at him. The value on the trade as a whole is still quite poor for Minnesota – Teague should have had a lot more value than Crabbe on the open market, given the league-wide need for capable ball handlers compared to one-dimensional shooters. They weren’t going to get a first-round pick for Teague, but they should have done far, far better than they did here.
In total, we’ll have to wait to judge the Wolves’ trade deadline as a whole until it’s completed, but even if they make a move or two involving Russell and Covington, it doesn’t make sense that this Teague-Crabbe swap had to be a part of it in order to make that happen. Crabbe was acquired with Minnesota over the cap, so he can’t be aggregated with Covington in a trade for Russell, which Teague could have been. Making the Teague-Crabbe swap first severely limits what Minnesota can do in terms of aggregating salary to bring back Russell, which adds to the negative value the Wolves generated in the trade with Atlanta.