The 'Michael Beasley Project' belongs at power forward

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There is an era of good feeling around the Valley these days, and while that era might be as temporary as the Phoenix Suns’ current four-game win streak, it’s safe to say both have something to do with Alvin Gentry’s recent lineup changes (reinstating Jared Dudley and Luis Scola as starters).

The Phoenix Suns have used five starting lineups in 2012-13, four for personnel reasons and one due to illness. However, the constant flux among the starting five (a change every 5.2 games this season) seemingly has less to do with the entire roster and more to do with one Michael Beasley.

When Beasley signed a three-year deal worth $18 million to come to Phoenix back in July, the Suns thought they had found quite an offensive find to help bridge the gap left by the summer’s departures. They didn’t come right out and say it nor were there a line of billboards with Beasley’s mug scattered around town, but from his first press conference to a candid lunch held by President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby and GM Lance Blanks before the season began, it became clear that the former No. 2 overall pick was expected to be one of the cornerstones of the franchise as early as 2012-13.

His talents are very marketable: great athleticism, can get to the basket at will and has decent footwork in the paint. It all sounds nice, but his NBA résumé also speaks for itself.

If it wasn’t apparent why a player with Beasley’s natural abilities was on his third team in four years, well, 26 games with Phoenix has certainly explained the transient nature of his career.

With the Suns, Beasley is averaging career lows in points per game (10.9), rebounds per game (3.8) and field goal percentage (37.3). He has just four games of 20 or more points, six games where he shot 50 percent or better from the field and only three games where he made two or more three-point shots.

Enigmatic? Yes. Frustrating? Yes. Lost cause? Not just yet.

“I understand the need for immediate gratification, and we all wish [Beasley] were playing more,” Lon Babby said in an interview with Arizona Sports 620 Wednesday. “But when we took this on, we took this on as a long-term project. He’s under contract for three years, and I want to assess this over a period of time. The issues that we are working with him, on the court and off the court, whatever they may be, they are not going to get resolved in 20 games. And, we understood that.”

While Alvin Gentry in particular has tried to give Beasley every chance to succeed, whether it was making him the focal point of the offense early in the season (he took 101 shots in his first seven games), starting Markieff Morris alongside of him to create a different look spacing-wise or even deciding to have him come off the bench — as he’s done the last six games — to take some of the pressure off his shoulders, none of it has seemed to click so far for Beasley.

In Phoenix’s 82-80 win over the Memphis Grizzlies last Wednesday, Beasley had arguably his worst performance of the season (four points on 2-of-11 shooting in just 10 minutes) and didn’t see the light of day in the second half after taking 11 of the Suns’ first 33 shots. However, in the face of such offensive futility, Beasley did provide a glimmer of hope with the two buckets he did convert.

After subbing in Beasley for Scola midway through the first quarter against Memphis, Gentry opted to play the former Kansas State star at power forward with Marcin Gortat still on the floor. After Beasley missed his first few attempts, Lionel Hollins elected to play a much slower Maurice Speights on him. Realizing the mismatch, Beasley uncharacteristically took the ball right to the basket and connected on a layup and a three-foot bunny. He then shifted over to small forward and finished the night with four jump shots, all of which missed the mark.

In Phoenix’s 99-84 victory over the Utah Jazz two days later, Beasley once again subbed in for Scola at the four in the first quarter. With Paul Millsap guarding him, Beasley took an early touch to the basket and then dished the ball out to Dudley for an easy 11-foot jump shot. Beasley then proceeded to score eight of the team’s final 12 points in the quarter, but after briefly shifting over to small forward in the second quarter, he never got back into any sort of rhythm and scored just three points the rest of the way.

These were minute sample sizes, but they indicate exactly what Michael Schwartz detailed back in August: Michael Beasley is better suited to play power forward than small forward.

Here’s Schwartz’s reaction to a Weak Side Awareness post that essentially foreshadowed this rationale in great detail:

The post provides three pieces of data to support the conclusion that Beasley has failed because he has played far too much as a small forward when he’s really a power forward.

First off the post points out that Beasley is closer to power forward size and athleticism rather than small forward size.

Second, there’s a chart that shows he is “really good at the rim and shockingly he has an above average efficiency on both long jumpers and threes,” but the problem is in the distribution of attempts. Over 60 percent of Beasley’s shots every year have been long twos, and he’s never even had 30 percent worth of layups/dunks/tips.

Although he is a pretty good relative long two-point shooter, it’s impossible to be an efficient player when you take so many shots from that inefficient range. According to their chart, he took 11.1 two-point jumpers per game in 2010-11. 11.1!

Then, there is team fit. With Udonis Haslem in Miami and Kevin Love in Minnesota entrenched at the four, centers with a big contract in both locales (JO in Miami and Darko in Minny) and “easily replaceable and cheap role-players at small forward” it seems obvious why he got more minutes at the three than the four.

Finally, the piece cites a list of lineups that played together for at least 30 minutes on 82games.com and found all but one above average Beasley lineup has him at the four and 16 of 28 below average lineups have him at the three.

Gentry has been dealt a tough hand, because Phoenix’s deepest position is at power forward. Despite an 11-game demotion to the bench, Scola has proven that the Suns are a better (3-8 with him on the pine) team when the multifaceted forward is on the floor as a starter. Morris also deserves a hardy dose of minutes at the four, not only for development purposes but because he’s earned it (four double-digit performances in December and three games with at least two blocks). And with that said, even he has been limited during the season-high win streak, as the former Kansas standout has just 19 shot attempts over the last four games.

If Beasley is a “long-term project,” then it’s important to be patient but it’s also imperative to maximize his strengths. The Suns have been handling him with kid gloves, and maybe for good reason, but if the organization is committed to making him a part of its future, the team needs to actually put him in a position where he’ll be most successful.

He may have the skill set of a “hybrid” as Gentry has been fond of calling him throughout the season, but he has proven that he is not capable of playing the small forward position at a high level. Unless the organization brought him in solely for his shot-blocking prowess (the only major statistical category he ranks in the top three in among Suns players), they need to realize as much.

With Beasley on the court in 2012-13, the Suns are a -12.9 per game. With him sitting on the bench, the team is a +7.8. That math isn’t easy to swallow at $6 million per year. He also has an atrocious -0.053 Win Shares per 48 minutes, meaning when he’s played this season he’s theoretically done everything within his power to hurt Phoenix’s chances of winning.

Since Dudley’s insertion back into the lineup as the team’s starting small forward, the five-year veteran has averaged 16.7 points per game while shooting 56.1 percent from the field. Dudley, a natural three, has provided a noticeable spark at both ends of the court over the last six games, and frankly the difference between his basketball IQ at the position and Beasley’s has been staggering to watch.

While speculation may continue to run rampant that Beasley doesn’t care and that he doesn’t have the will to be great, the reality is he does care and he does want to contribute to the Suns’ success but likely won’t until the team deals with its power forward situation moving forward.

There’s no telling if the front office will actually move one of the team’s fours — be it Scola, Morris and/or a still-recovering Channing Frye — in the off-season, but if Babby and Co. truly want to see some semblance of returns on their “project,” a move of some sort seems necessary.

Michael Beasley has plenty of talent, there’s no debate on that. But he’ll never be the face of the franchise let alone an impact player within the organization if his talents are wasted out on the perimeter shooting ill-advised jump shots.

Beasley will likely always be a volume scorer who takes plenty of shots at whatever position he’s put on the floor to play, but if 26 games have illustrated anything, it’s that a small forward he is not.

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