Thursday, September 27, 2012

Michael Beasley, it's Time to Get Started.



Michael Beasley became a Diss player three years before the Diss was even born, and about five months before he played a game in the league.

It was July 2008. He had just been drafted second overall by the Miami Heat, who were ready to take whomever was the "loser" in the "who should Chicago draft, Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose?" question that bogged down the airwaves and blogrolls in the late spring and early summer of 2008.  Now he was poised to team up with Dwayne Wade and lead the Heat back to the playoffs, and eventually, an NBA title.


But first he had to get through his pre-rookie year summer, and that turned out to be tougher than we thought.  Of course, he got busted for smoking weed  (alongside Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur) and bringing girls up to his hotel room at the Rookie symposium, but the first "red flag" that was raised above B-Easy's head happened during his summer league debut.  Despite the fact that Beasley scored 23 points in 28 minutes (while nursing a cracked sternum), and according to John Denton, looked like the much better draft pick compared to a "jittery and shockingly unsure" Derrick Rose, most observers were shocked and concerned that Beasley scored all of his points while singing aloud.  This seemed to confirm certain misgivings that some teams and journalists had about B-Easy's work ethic and mindset.  At the time, Beasley disagreed.  "It's just basketball, man.  Played it in college, high school and middle school.  The same game, same concepts, the same rules.  I was just out there having fun."


As we enter Beasley's fifth season in the league, it's striking how much has changed, yet how much has remained the same.  Derrick Rose is no longer described as "shockingly unsure", and there are few doubts that the Bulls chose wisely in the Rose-Beasley debate.  Beasley is no longer a member of the Heat, and is now on his way to his third team.  His game, overall, has changed as well; he no longer "drives to the rim with reckless abandon", settling instead for long range jumpers.  But many things have remained frustratingly stagnant.  While B-Easy is still "just out there having fun" and continues to just "go and play", that has not translated to wins, or really even individual success.  And he's continued to deal with injuries.  Lots of them, in fact; he missed 8 games in 2011, and 19 games in 2012.  All of this has produced the player we get today: a player with career averages 15.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, but who has quickly become disposable due to his inefficiencies, unreached potential, and frustratingly inaccessible talents.

His last season in Minnesota highlighted the problems with B-Easy's current evolution into whatever he's turning into -- something less than a full-fledged bust, but certainly a career that looks strikingly different than the multiple All Star appearances that we all imagined for him.  Most of his numbers were career lows due to three reasons: injury, imbalance and instability.  His scoring fell to 11.5 per game as he settled on contested jump shots (from just inside the three point line; low-percentage attempts that yielded less payoff in the end).  His distance from the hoop didn't allow him to crash the boards with the gusto he had in his first two seasons (and his 5.7 average as a full-time starter put him in the lower half of the league compared to his fellow starting small forwards).  Much of this had to do with the fact that he never established a role with either of the coaching staffs he worked with in Minnesota.  He started as a full-time small forward with former coach Kurt Rambis, but mostly came off the bench as a three-four for standing coach Rick Adelman.  His efficiency indicies were troubling, as his PER (13.0), Win Share (0.5) and Offensive Rating (95) all fell from slightly above league average to below league average.  It was a nadir in a career that overall is trending downwards.


Yet, for all of his struggles, B-Easy did not lose friends. Why would he? By all accounts, B-Easy showed up for work on time, stayed out of trouble, and was a positive, outgoing presence in the locker room.  His famously bizarre personality may have rubbed some the wrong way while the ship sank in the second part of the season, but as he might say: "I felt like me."  His coping mechanism seemed to be the fact that litte has changed since his first summer league game against Derrick Rose way back in 2008. For him now, just like then, "it's just basketball, man."  This isn't to say he doesn't care.  Far from it.  But it's just basketball, man.  Why get too worked up?  It's just basketball, man.

And he's right.  It is just basketball.  Which is good that he's on his way to Phoenix, where the desert winds seem to cry: "it's just basketball, man".

*****


In July, Michael Beasley sold his Minnetonka home (as well as his book of Ingmar Bergman screenplays) and moved to a new city: Phoenix, Arizona, where he had just signed a three year, $18 million dollar contract to play for Alvin Gentry's Phoenix Suns.

The Suns exist as something as a NBA Mayo Clinic for troubled souls.  The Suns high octane offense, lauded training staff, and ability to consistently compete (and occasionally contend) have established themselves as a generally positive landing spot.  Many players have rejuvenated their bodies, minds, and careers while playing for the Suns.  Folks know the big names like Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal.  Some might even know the lesser figures like Jared Dudley, Jason Richardson and Marcin Gortat.


But many might not remember Tim Thomas at this point .  Thomas, of course, was the famously talented forward who, according to most pundits, did not "get it" in his ten season career.   Many teams  (either teams, though he was traded nine times) signed him, intrigued by the unique skill set he presented. As a 6'10' swingman who could reasonably defend all three forward positions, and whose long arms, ability to bang down low, employ a bit of finesse, rebound, and most usefully stretch the floor and hit deep threes, he was in many ways America's answer to the Euro-forward who was in vogue at the time.  But, as always, a questionable work ethic, poor conditioning and the always damning "locker room cancer" label followed him everywhere he went.  Tim Thomas was never going to "get it".

But in one spot -- Phoenix, in 2006 -- Tim Thomas got it.

*****

The thing was, in Phoenix, Tim Thomas was good essentially because he could be himself.  In all of his stops prior to Phoenix, Thomas was tasked with becoming whatever the narrative stated he needed to be to be valued in the public's eye.  In Philly, it was to be Allen Iverson's running mate, and a presence in the paint.  Fat chance.  In Milwaukee, it was to be the fourth member of the Big Three of Cassell, Big Dog and Ray Ray, and again, mostly muscle down low (all three of those guys were jump shooters).  Okay, maybe for awhile, but not with George Karl, and not in Milwaukee.  After that, in New York and Chicago, it was to stay out of trouble while playing for mercurial hard asses like Larry Brown and Scott Skiles, while playing inconsistently.  Nope, not a chance.  Thomas seemed unmotivated to become what others wanted him to be, especially when he never had a choice in the matter.

What we see is when Thomas got a choice, he made the most of it, and succeeded at being himself -- at least his basketball playing self.  When he arrived in Phoenix in early March, claimed off the waiver wires after almost four months on the shelf, he became a part-time starter, and full time shooter.  Phoenix used him, and implored him to do what he did best: score.  Mike D'Antoni's famous "Seven Seconds or Less" offense, a high-tempo, shot-happy system that relied upon jump shooters who weren't afraid to let it fly, was perfect for Tim Thomas.  He played the four and the five (Amar'e Stoudemire was out for that season recovering from microfracture surgery), and was taked with creating space and shooting when he was open.  He spent the regular season getting back into shape, and by the playoffs he was ready.


Though he didn't get a lot of time late in the regular season, he stepped up in the playoffs.  Big.  The offensive numbers tell a brilliant story: 20 games, zero starts, but averages of 15 points and 6 rebounds on 50% shooting.  His threes are amazing across the board: 48 threes on 108 attempts, good for 44%.  His advanced stats are wonderful as well: a player efficiency rating of 16.4, a stupendous offensive rating of 119, and a career high win share of 1.9.  It was a banner year for Tim Thomas.  By every metric, he was a highly efficient offensive player, and a contributing member on a team that went deep into the playoffs.


But they only tell part of the story.  Throughout that 2006 playoff run, Tim Thomas was a big game player; the Suns' version of Robert Horry.  When the Suns trailed 3-2 in their first round series against the Lakers, and facing elimination, it was Tim Thomas who hit the big three as time expired to force overtime, and hit another big three in the extra period to beat the Lakers.  The Suns would win Game 7 by 31 points, and overcome a 3-1 deficit.  In the next series against the Clippers, he would move to a starters role, and continue to pour in the points.  He hit big shots against the Clippers, and played a key role in the Game 7 thriller which sunk the other team from LA, doing what he did best: hitting shots.  Though the Suns would flame out against the Mavs in a six game Western Conference Finals, Tim Thomas stayed hot, averaging 20 points in the series, and putting up big shots until the very end.  For once, he got it.

And, unsurprisingly, as a free agent that summer, he got his: a 4 year, $24 million deal with the Clips.

*****


I think you know where I'm going with this by now.  I think Michael Beasley could learn much from Tim Thomas' success as a Sun.

The first is that Phoenix is the place for multi-talented offensive forwards to roam.  Tim Thomas was one of several offensively gifted forwards who have found salvation in the SSOL offense, a variant of which coach Alvin Gentry still utilizes.  As the team's presumptive starting small forward (though positionality still remains a suggestion, and not an all out requirement), Beasley will be asked to do many of the same things Tim Thomas was tasked with doing in 2006.  Already a gifted scorer from the wings, Beasley will have ample opportunities to launch jumpers from either of the corners, or drive to the hoop and attempt to get points at the charity stripe.  Defense -- never a priority for B-Easy -- will be put on the backburner while the Suns attempt to run every team out of the gym.  If he can stay healthy, and continue to hoist shots with the abandon that he's showed in his first four years, we may see a different, more valuable side of B-Easy.


The second is that Phoenix is the place for pro ballers who would sum up their job performances with an unapologetic "it's just basketball, man" -- that is, that there's far more to life than 48 minutes of pick and rolls -- to call home.  The Phoenix program was never just about basketball.  Rather, there was something subtly holistic about the Suns franchise; not only would playing there revitalize your stats, but it would also revitalize your body, mind and soul.  The Suns training staff doesn't just tape ankles and prepare ice baths.  It also changes body shapes through diet changes, increases muscle and memory through yoga and meditation, and provides players with a front office that clearly works in their best interests.  Players who spend time in Phoenix all gush about the camraderie of the team, and the time everyone spends together.  For a highly social guy like B-Easy, who seems to play basketball for social reasons as much as financial ones, this will be a welcoming environment.

The third thing that Tim Thomas could teach B-Easy -- and this may be the most important in both the short and long term -- is that when nothing is expected of you, the best thing to be is yourself, and let the pieces fall into whatever places they're intended to rest.  Thomas arrived in Phoenix as a castaway; a guy who lasted three regular season games before getting waived by the Bulls, and who had to sit on his butt for four months before someone gave him a chance.  He responded by turning his strengths into valuable, tangible assets; skills that could win games in the present, and determine a payday in the future.   And he succeeded.  The Suns went deep into the playoffs because he did what he knew he could do best: score, stretch the floor, start the break, and provide a fourth or fifth trailer option when a fast break fell apart.  And his efforts paid off.  True, he did not remain with the Suns, but he maximized his earnings, given the relatively hopeless state his career was in when he arrived in Phoenix.  He did everything he was supposed to do, and it paid off.


Beasley is not in as desperate of a situation.  He's young -- only 24 years old -- and he just got paid.  But little is expected of this Phoenix team, which is just starting its journey out of the Nash era into some sort of strange beyond.  This is a period of talent evaluation, where assets are judged, and either added permanently to the program, or sent elsewhere.

If SSOL remains the mantra by which the Suns live or die (and it shows no sign of being abandoned soon), Beasley stands a chance to be one of its newest success stories.  He will be the most talented, multi-faceted scorer on the team, flanked by equally dynamic offensive forces in Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic.  He will not have to come off the bench, and instead will be told to do one thing: shoot, early and often.  And get back on D.


Before he left Minnesota for Phoenix, Michael Beasley said that his offseason workout routine would be grueling. "Shoot a zillion jump shots a day.  Dribble a million minutes a day.  Just work on being an all-around player, from rebounding to defending to blocking shots to stealing basketballs to scoring to playmaking.  Just being an all-around great player."

This is a good goal.  And this is exactly the player -- a multi-faceted offensive force that can dribble, shoot, pass, and get offensive boards -- that will help the Suns stay afloat this season.

And frankly, he should be working on this anyways.  It's time to get started.


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