After trading Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas in February, and after losing Brandon Knight for all but 11 games at the end of the season, the Phoenix Suns were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA.
Channing Frye may have been a controversial figure two years ago due to his inconsistency, but it was clear that at least one aspect of his game, his spacing, was sorely missed last season. Anthony Tolliver tried to fill that void, but never quite found his shot in the couple of months he played for Phoenix. He was promptly traded to Detroit for cap flexibility that allowed for the acquisition of Brandan Wright.
But that still left the Suns without a "stretch four" going into the summer of 2015. Ryan McDonough clearly made note of that, as he acquired Jon Leuer on draft night, added Josh Harrellson to the Summer League team, and signed former Nets forward Mirza Teletovic to a one year, $5.5 million deal.
The Suns now have plenty of sweet-shooting bigs, and Teletovic is the best of them all. As soon as it was announced that the 29-year-old forward had signed with the Suns, fans applauded the acquisition of such a good shooter. 63 percent of Teletovic's career field-goal attempts have come from three-point range, and he has made those shots at a 36.2 percent clip.
However, there is more to know about Mirza's skill set. For instance, how is he on defense? Does he have any offensive capabilities other than shooting? Can he move the ball well?
I looked at the one Nets vs. Suns game from 2014-15 in which Teletovic played and closely examined his every move. One game may not be a fully accurate representation of the player, but it can still lead to some good conclusions. In this particular game, Teletovic logged 33 minutes, scored 16 points and collected seven boards. Let's take a closer look.
For all of the following clips, I would advise you to pay attention to what Teletovic is doing rather than watching whoever has the ball.
Regarding the videos, they are from Streamable rather than YouTube because YouTube had difficulty processing them. The embedded windows are very small, but if you click on the logo in the upper right hand corner of each video it should open up a full sized version in a new tab.
We'll start off with the obvious. This is the main reason that Teletovic was signed.
On about 60 percent of the Nets' offensive possessions, Teletovic would start off by simply standing behind the arc. Either he would directly involve himself in the play by setting a screen for the ball handler and performing a pick-and-pop situation, or else he would simply spot up near the top of the key while the team's offense performed a play.
This first clip is simple. Gerald Green hits a three on one end to gain some momentum for the Suns, and the Nets counter with a Teletovic three just seconds later. Teletovic inbounds the ball to Jack and then acts as a trailer. He quickly runs to the three-point line, calls for the ball, and has enough space to let one fly. There are 19 seconds left on the shot clock when Teletovic receives the pass, and the Suns defense hasn't even had time to set up. Both Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris are paying close attention to Kevin Garnett in the paint rather than worrying about Mirza, the last man to cross the half court line.
The second spot-up opportunity is the perfect representation of the effect of spacing. This is a play where Mirza is not required to set a pick, choosing instead to stand on the wing.
First, Mason Plumlee sets the screen on Bledsoe to allow Deron Williams to drive right. Bledsoe comes over the screen to contain a potential jumper, while Alex Len steps out to contain the drive. In the meantime Markieff Morris, who had been guarding Teletovic, needs to switch onto Mason Plumlee for a second to stop his roll to the basket.
After the Williams drive is sufficiently contained, Len can switch back onto Plumlee and Morris can go back to Teletovic. But by that point it is already half a second too late. Williams throws a pass over his shoulder to Teletovic, who nails another three despite a jumping Morris in his face. The Nets add three points to their lead.
In that instance the defense was not bad at all, but the offense was better. If Kevin Garnett had been playing PF at the time rather than Teletovic, it is likely that Morris could have quickly switched onto Plumlee and then recovered with ease. But just that little bit of extra space is enough to find an open shot.
The final spot-up example is a pick-and-pop situation. The play starts out with Teletovic being guarded by Marcus Morris in the post. Jack, Garnett and Bogdanovic have all cleared out so that Teletovic and Joe Johnson are the only ones on the right side of the court. Because Teletovic isn't actually a post-up threat (more on that later), he comes up and sets a screen for Johnson to go left.
Green and Morris are not great defenders, but recognizing Johnson's shooting ability they trap him along the baseline. In the meantime Teletovic has slipped out of the screen and gone to the corner for an open shot. Johnson has just enough space to make the pass to Mirza, who has all the room in the world. Green tries to recover but is far too late, and Goran Dragic comes running but had been guarding Bogdanovic all the way at the other corner and is too far away.
What these clips mainly show is that on offense Teletovic will operate in a very similar way to Frye. Just two seasons ago Frye and Dragic developed one of the most deadly pick-and-pop combinations in the league, and perhaps a similar relationship is about to sprout between either Knight or Bledsoe and Teletovic.
But of course, Mirza doesn't always have to set the screen. The Suns have an absolutely terrific pick-and-roll finisher in Tyson Chandler, and forcing the defense to choose between a Bledsoe drive, a Chandler dunk and a Teletovic three is a recipe for success.
I had to include this one clip, as it is quite a rare sight. By my count, the following play was the only time that Teletovic attempted to post up in 33 minutes.
After Gerald Green and Markieff Morris switch on the screen, Teletovic is given the opportunity to back down the smaller Green in the post with no other defenders around. Teletovic tries unsuccessfully to back down Green for a few seconds while Markieff draws close enough to add some extra pressure. Eventually Morris has sagged off of Johnson enough that Teletovic appears to have a clear pass for an open Johnson three, but instead Markieff intercepts the pass and starts a fast break opportunity. Teletovic's turnover occurred at a critical point in the game.
Teletovic has about 35 pounds on Green, and yet he wasn't able to get anywhere in the post and the offense remained stagnant.
The stats also indicate that Teletovic is not a post-up threat. Just 4.8 percent of his possessions came in the post, and he shot 2-8 from the field (25 percent) on those attempts. His PPP (points per possession) in the post ranked in the 4.7th percentile among all NBA players.
Expect Teletovic to mainly stick to the perimeter.
While off-ball defensive awareness is key to any savvy defender, on-ball defense usually gets the most attention. Though individual defense for a power forward often involves guarding post-up plays, in this game against the Suns Teletovic was mostly matched up against Markieff Morris. Morris uses the low block occasionally, but his bread and butter is the mid-range in isolation. No matter your opinion on Morris' attitude, any defender who doesn't take his mid-range game seriously is asking for a loss. And Teletovic did a fantastic job of being physical with him.
In this first play, Morris sets himself up on the low block and waits for the pass from Dragic. He has isolated himself so that Teletovic is the only defender in his vicinity. But Teletovic stays with him quite successfully, shuffling his feet well and keeping his hands up to contest the step back. Whether he would have had the quickness to stay with Morris on a drive is uncertain, but he did a great job contesting the jumper. Morris can make those anyway, but you can't ask for better defense.
This second play shows some serious physicality. Teletovic even knocks Markieff to the ground at first, a move that many refs would have immediately called a foul. Play continues and Teletovic sticks close to Morris, forcing him to focus on his dribble and pushing him almost all the way back to the three-point line. Morris takes a long, contested jumper and misses.
Teletovic is not a huge player, and yet he does not allow himself to be pushed around. This is the same guy that got into a fight with LeBron James a couple of years ago after a hard foul. His rim protection is sorely lacking, but his physicality can at least partially make up for that.
Unfortunately, many people still choose to evaluate a power forward's defensive ability based on that flawed stat known as "blocks per game". BPG cannot be used to accurately judge any player, but for power forwards it is especially deceiving.
How many "rim protectors" actually play the PF position besides Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka? It is a great cherry on top, but the foundation of defense at PF is based on pick-and-roll defense. In an era in which teams are using more on-ball screens than ever before, it is essential that a PF has the quickness to hedge and recover on screens.
There are about 80 million different ways that NBA teams defend pick-and-rolls. But, let's look at what Teletovic's strategy was against the Suns.
Take a look at this play, which occurred in the late first quarter. Notice that Teletovic is guarding Anthony Tolliver and not Morris, which is an important detail.
First, Tolliver will set a screen on Deron Williams to allow Bledsoe to drive right. As soon as that happens, Teletovic will switch onto Bledsoe, extending his arm and intentionally getting in the way so that Bledsoe is forced to either make contact with him, dribble higher to avoid contact, or pick up his dribble altogether. In the meantime, Williams goes underneath the original screen, recognizing that Bledsoe is more of a threat driving than he is shooting.
This is what is commonly referred to as a "Contact Show", where the big man will temporarily trap a timid ball handler on the perimeter while the defending guard is able to go underneath the original screen. In this scenario it was very successful, as Bledsoe felt trapped and picked up his dribble.
However, the play is far from over. As soon as Williams has recovered on Bledsoe, Teletovic must track down his original assignment who is rolling to the basket. Because Tolliver is far from being an explosive finisher, this is not particularly difficult.
But just a second later, Teletovic is again forced to play a major role in defending the pick-and-roll. After he has tracked down Tolliver, Alex Len runs up to set a screen for P.J. Tucker. Because Lopez is busy containing Tucker's drive and Johnson is busy fighting over the screen, Teletovic must stay underneath the basket to contain Len.
The end result is that both Tucker and Len have nowhere to go. This does leave Teletovic's original assignment open in the corner, but there is no way to easily direct a pass there. Bledsoe eventually gets an open mid-range jumper to end the play, but only because he confuses the slower Deron Williams with a drive inside the perimeter. Other than that, everyone on the Nets played flawless defense.
The second play occurs just a minute later, and this time Teletovic is forced to hedge and recover on two consecutive screens set by Tolliver. The first time he steps out on Bledsoe until Bogdanovic has regained his ground and then runs over to contest a potential Tolliver three. When he recovers Tolliver is several feet behind the three-point line and poses no major threat.
Then the exact same thing happens again, only with Isaiah Thomas as the ball handler. This time Teletovic is just a millisecond late recovering on Tolliver, and Lopez runs out to the three-point line to contest the shot. Joe Johnson does the right thing in this situation by switching onto Alex Len underneath the basket, but Len is too close to the rim to be stopped. The Nets defense will settle for the foul understanding that Tolliver's spacing is hard to account for.
Finally, here's an example of when pick-and-roll defense goes wrong. It is difficult to always know where to be when defending the pick-and-roll, but this puzzling play is caused by a miscommunication between Garnett and Teletovic.
When Dragic gets a screen at the top of the key, Teletovic originally does the right thing by switching onto the rolling Plumlee. After all, both Garnett and Bogdanovic are preoccupied with the slithering Slovenian.
However, Teletovic suddenly has a change of heart. He runs back out to the perimeter to guard an open Markieff Morris, who was his original assignment. This would not have been a problem had Garnett had time to recover on Plumlee down low, but that never happened. Therefore, Teletovic gives Plumlee an open lane for a dunk. With three minutes to go in a two-point game, that is a critical mistake.
Overall, if Teletovic were a terrific defender you likely would have heard about it by now. The truth is that he simply isn't, but he is not a turnstile either. Chandler and Len can mostly cover up for his defensive deficiencies so long as he continues to bring effort, physicality and off-ball awareness.
Finally, I wanted to show one last clip to demonstrate Mirza's rim protection. He averaged just 0.4 blocks per game last season and allowed opponents to shoot 52.4 percent at the rim, which is approximately the same as what Markieff Morris allowed.
Just as the Suns are attempting to make a comeback in the late second quarter, Teletovic allows not one but two easy layups. He does nothing to contest Gerald Green's layup, and just seconds later after a turnover he allows Marcus Morris the same privilege. Those types of plays are perhaps what earned him a poor reputation on the defensive end in the first place. Although rim protection is not a necessity for a PF, it's still a valuable skill.