Two weeks ago, the Phoenix Suns had a hole at the backup power forward position after trading their last two 'stretch four' backups - Anthony Tolliver and Marcus Morris - to the Detroit Pistons for a grand total of one 2020 second round draft pick.
To supplement starter Markieff Morris, the Suns have been on the lookout for a power forward who can stretch the floor by being a serious threat to shoot three pointers, which would pull an opponent's big man out of the paint for drives to the hoop by other Suns players.
The Suns were linked to such stretch forwards as Spencer Hawes, Ryan Anderson and even Danilo Gallinari for the past year. Hawes was a free agent a year ago, while other two would have had to be acquired by trade. None was a perfect fit. Anderson and Gallinari aren't big enough to man the PF position for more than short minutes, and Spencer Hawes is a better center than PF.
Even this summer, fans and media tried to find good fits at the stretch-four position for the Suns, but had little luck finding that perfect combination of shooting ability and size required to play the power forward position effectively on defense.
Frankly, good stretch-fours with pure three-point range and the heft to defend PFs are hard to find.
Enter Mirza Teletovic
Then out of the blue, the Suns agreed to terms on one-year contract with 6'9", 250 lb. Mirza Teletovic. Teletovic has had a highly successful international career as a stretch big man in Bosnia, then played three up and down years with the Brooklyn Nets. His last season was a disaster due to fatigue and then blood clots on the lungs.
Teletovic can light it up, and has even become a passable defender.
"Teletovic came into the league strictly as a catch and shoot player," former Nets Assistant GM Bobby Marks told me via email recently. "Really has developed his game over the last 2 years to do more than give you instant offense. Would not have stayed on the court if he could not defend and rebound. Got a lot better on the defensive end."
The Nets really liked Teletovic and wanted to keep him, but have been mired in salary cap hell for the past couple of years after trying to buy their way into a deep playoff run. This summer alone, they've agreed to pay Deron Williams $5.5 million per year for the next five years just to go away. While ugly, the move saves them tens of millions of dollars in luxury tax payments this year alone.
Just this week, Mirza confirmed at a press conference in Bosnia that the Nets wanted to bring him back anyway but he chose the Suns instead.
Teletovic: I always loved Phoenix Suns, I loved Charles Barkley back then. I already have few friends there and I look forward to be there— Igor Marinovic (@sofoklo13) July 23, 2015
In a sad note for Bosnian fans, it appears the Suns want Teletovic to be well-rested for next season.
Mirza Teletovic: Phoenix @Suns advised me not to play for NT this summer. I had illness and this my team, so I decided to skip EuroBasket— Igor Marinovic (@sofoklo13) July 23, 2015
Teletovic: My wish to play for NT was never in question, but circumstances are different now. I believe I'll be back next summer— Igor Marinovic (@sofoklo13) July 23, 2015
Behind the scenes, via Ryan McDonough
The Suns had not been linked to Teletovic at all, but apparently had been working with Teletovic's agent and the Nets since July 1 to acquire him. He agreed to terms within minutes of being "non-tendered" by the Nets to become an unrestricted free agent.
"It happened quickly," Suns GM Ryan McDonough confirmed this week, in a one-on-one with Bright Side. "Right after Tyson Chandler's press conference. He's another guy (along with Markieff) who might benefit from playing with guys like Tyson Chandler and Alex Len.""
Sure enough, while the Tyson Chandler media scrum was happening, with GM McDonough and President Lon Babby in the room the whole time, news broke that Teletovic was made unrestricted, followed quickly by agreeing to terms with the Phoenix Suns.
It happened so fast, you had to wonder how orchestrated the whole move between Teletovic, the Nets and the Suns had been. Teletovic entered the summer as a restricted free agent, meaning that the Nets could match any offer he received from another team.
"That was something where, in the context of restricted free agency, you're obviously never sure what a team's going to do," McDonough said of the Suns interest immediately after the clock truck midnight eastern time on July 1. "If they're going to match an offer if you make an offer."
He explained the Suns and Mirza's agent started laying the ground work early in the process.
"That was more a partnership with Mirza's agent, Jeff Schwartz, who also represents Tyson," McDonough said. "He kind of gave us a heads up, he didn't think Brooklyn would match if we made an offer."
While Teletovic confirmed the Nets wanted him back, the likely sticking point was the salary the Suns were willing to offer despite only wanting it to be a one-year deal. Anything the Nets gave Teletovic would have been taxed heavily because the Nets were so far over the luxury tax threshold for so long. A $5 million contract would have cost the Nets $10-15 million in real money.
"I think because of his relationship - there's a mutual respect with him and Billy King with Brooklyn - once they knew we had interest and the number was going to be above the qualifying offer [of $4.3 million]," McDonough explained. "I think they agreed to make him unrestricted and that cleared the way for us to sign him."
The Suns could not have made a one-year offer if Teletovic was still restricted, per CBA rules. Likely, the Suns stuck to a one-year offer to see how his health progresses. Issues with blood clots in the lungs generally go away, but there are no guarantees. Also, the Suns likely wanted the freedom to re-enter the market next summer with the most cap space they could muster.
"We factored in the projected cap spike next year when we made him the offer," McDonough said.
I wondered why Teletovic would agree to a one-year deal, considering he would lose his Bird Rights by doing so. The CBA allows teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own free agents to fair market deals, as long as they've either been under contract or been with the same team for at least two years.
Teletovic will have been neither of those, and has too many years in the NBA to become 'restricted' next summer. The Suns would have to use cap space to re-sign Mirza next summer.
At the moment, the Suns project to have $21 million in cap space next summer after the cap jumps by $20 million for all teams, thanks to the new TV deal. If the Suns spend their cap space elsewhere, they may not have enough left to bring Teletovic back.
Basically, the Suns are rolling the dice here. They will have the cap room to replace Teletovic with a much better player if they so choose, or they could just spend their own cap space to re-sign him to a fair market deal like any other team. If he really likes Phoenix, that might work great for both sides.
But the rising cap is why Teletovic was okay with a one-year deal. At least 25 teams will suddenly have plenty of money to spend next summer by dropping under the new cap (estimated $90 million), while the rest will have the full MLE ($6 million per year). That's a huge market for a stretch four next summer.