The ‘Michael Beasley Project’ belongs at power forward


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.

Tags: Michael Beasley

  • john

    Great writeup, and I couldn’t agree more.

  • Ty-Sun

    Yes, the problem seems to be that the Suns have too many 4′s and not enough 2′s. Even though Beasley’s defense is suspect at the 4, I could live with weak D if it playing him there made a significant improvement in his scoring and rebounding.

    Oddly enough, I think that Beasley might actually work very well in a lineup with him at the 4 and Frye (when healthy again) at the 5. Until then perhaps the Suns might even try a small second unit lineup sometime with Beasley at the 4 and Morris at the 5.

    And although Brown is exceeding my expectations at the 2 so far this season, the Suns still need to look toward obtaining another true 2 guard for the bench. If he get injured then the Suns could be screwed while he’s out. He’s been playing a lot of mins since Beasley went to the bench and Dudley was moved to the 3 spot.

  • Harry

    Beasley did not play SF against Utah after the first quarter. He played PF for all but 3:12 in the second quarter. Here is the gameflow.

    http://popcornmachine.net/cgi-bin/gameflow.cgi?date=20121214&game=UTHPHO

    He may indeed be best suited as a PF but the sample as a Suns is too small to decide that. One thing that that the Suns may have to accept is that Michael Beasley just isn’t good enough to start. Clearly, the idea that he could be a facilitator was flawed. Maybe the idea he’s this great talent is as well.

  • http://none Sillmarillion

    What does this gameflow chart tell me, I am not familiar with it o.O ?

  • suns for life

    beasley should be designated blunt roller for the team

  • Harry

    Sillmarillion,

    The gameflow shows who played at each moment in the game. It also has other data listed but for purposes of showing what position Beasley was playing, this is where one should look. The highlighted bars show when a player was playing. Look when Beasley was playing and look at the other players on the floor to determine his position.

  • SHAZAM

    harry what are your conclusions about beasley at power forward using this chart?

  • Jason A.

    Well done, I couldn’t agree more. I think the right play is to move Scola in the offseason when he becomes eligible for trade. A combination of Scola, picks, and cap relief to a contending team a few pieces away should net us a great young player.

  • Scott

    Well … this was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? Everyone saw this coming except Blanks, Gentry, and the Beasley fan club.

    I half-anticipate that they’ll try starting Beasley at the 2 next. After all, they DID say he could play there. :p

    Seriously, though, if Beasley can be properly effective at the 2nd unit PF spot, I’d like to see how a 2nd unit comprised of C Morris, PF Beasley, SF Johnson, and some combination of Telfair, Marshall, and Garrett at the guard spots would work. It might be a potent scoring unit if the ball moves well, as Morris would either pull his defender out of the paint, clearing room for Beasley, or the defenders would switch, leaving Beasley with a speed advantage, or Morris would be left open for a lot of 3s.

    Also … I’m curious about how Zeller is coming along. We don’t get to see him in games much, and since his primary issue is lack of shooting accuracy in games, shouldn’t he be getting time in the D-League? Or are the Suns reluctant to send two players there at a time?

    With Marshall returning, maybe Zeller will be next to head to the D-League.

  • http://espn flaco

    suns need to play at a fast pace and they will win most of there games and make the playoffs and this lineup is working for them now they need to learn how to win on the road and they will do fine

  • http://n/a Keith

    Agreed with most or all of the above. Having Beasley at the 4 and frye at the 5 would be pretty tantalizing. That might actually work, at least on offense.

  • cdubbb

    Lol @ people saying play Morris at the 5… he is already undersized at the 4 on most nights. He would get demolished by true centers, if u think he gets in foul trouble quickly now, you dont want to see him at center. Not to mention we have a legit (on most nights) starting center and a very legit backup center who coukd probably start. Simply dumb to even try putting morris at the 5 unless a certain matchup dictates.

    As for Beasley, he is a hybrid forward. Just as gentry said. I understand he produces sonewhat better while going against PFs, because he can move better then most. But his game and skillset is still that of a SF. Beasley is a jumpshooterfirst and foremost. His style is outside-in. He isnt a guy you can put on the block against a pf, he would be beaten up way to easily. The best answer is to just use him in mixed roles as we are, for now. Eventually, he will carve out his niche in the NBA.

  • Scott

    @cdubb -

    Of course Morris is undersized for center, and could not be expected to do well against huge, dominant centers.

    However, he could probably play well against any of the skinny or 6′ 10″ sized centers, like Tyler Zeller, David Lee, or LaMarcus Aldridge (who has at times played center). Also, if Morris was shooting 3s on offense, he might be able to play against 7 footers who struggle to score and rebound, like Robin Lopez or maybe Andris Biedrins.

  • Harry

    Shazam,

    Sorry I didn’t respond sooner to your question but I was having computers troubles. I assume your question relates to the chart in the link I provided. If so, my answer would be that you can’t draw conclusions from one or even from several. Stats based questions really require a lot more data than most people use to try to draw accurate answers. In this case, there just isn’t sufficient.

    My guess is that the author, Dave, believes that Beasley is best suited as a power forward based upon what he is watching. That’s fine, he understands the game quite well, and I would probably agree with that assessment. My point is that drawing conclusions about something and then finding data to fit that conclusion while ignoring data that doesn’t support it (eg, Beasley’s best offensive game as a sub was as a SF against LAC) is unfair.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned about Beasley and is far more important than where he should play, is how many shots he takes. He leads the tam in shots per minute. One would assume that when benching a player it’s because of his production. Yet, Beasley is taking slightly MORE shots per minute as a sub. To me, this is poor coaching. Nothing in Michael Beasley’s previous 4 years indicate that he will ever be an efficient scorer. The first part of this year has yielded similar results. Why does Gentry continue to let him jack up so many shots?

  • Dave Dulberg

    Harry, I appreciate the comments.

    However, I didn’t come to my conclusion based on his two brief appearances at PF against Memphis/Utah. Obviously, his best performances of the season (four 20 point games) have come at SF. That’s where he has played about 95 percent this season.

    I’m drawing my conclusions based on one simple thing, it hasn’t worked this year at the SF. End of story. He’s not an efficient shooter, as you mentioned, and he never will be. So, as Gentry has tried out on a few occasions, why not play him more at PF, where his touches can start out 8-12 feet away instead of 20-24 feet away.

    The Memphis/Utah part of the article was just to illustrate that in the brief instances he’s been placed at the four, he’s been pretty efficient because athletically it’s a mismatch at the offensive end. I would like to see Gentry play him more there. I’m not excluding what he did against LAC off the bench, he had the hot hand in the 1st half and was effective.

    But in spite of a few notable games (LAC included) on the whole it’s not working at the three, that’s the premise of my article. Why would you continue to commit to him at the three, if he’s proven he’s not an efficient scorer, or for that matter this season, as very capable scorer from the perimeter?

  • Harry

    Dave,

    I think we largely agree on the fact that Michael Beasley has been a problem. As you say, the SF experiment hasn’t worked and one would logically have to question if it ever will so a try at PF doesn’t seem unreasonable. However, as you mention in your article, this leaves a lot of questions about the Suns line-up structure, both currently and moving forward.

    Beyond the immediate Beasley playing-time situation, I think a greater point is the way in which this front office and coaching staff have handled it. While I wasn’t opposed to bringing him in, from what I have read it appears the Suns overpaid as there may have been very few, if any, other teams interested in his services. Then, to somehow think that he was the answer to the offense was just downright silly. What in his background would lead them to think this? Now if they had a plan in place to somehow change his game I would understand but we now know that wasn’t the case. They somehow just assumed that a change of scenery was sufficient (as they also appear to have done with Wes Johnson). It makes one assume that if you were able to view this management team’s plan for the Michael Beasley ascendancy flowchart, there would be a box that contained the step, “Insert miracle here”.

    I have a problem with the Michael Beasley situation, not the guy himself. I really want to see him succeed. Like you, I think he’s really trying, almost too much. My problem lies with management and Gentry. Now we hear things like he’s a “long-term project”. If they really thought that, then why was he the focal point of the offense and not Dragic?

  • bill.thomas

    A change of scenery would definitely solve the problems of Blanks and Babby. Maybe they should be sent to head the Knicks’ FO.

  • bill.thomas

    Or better yet, the Hunan Tigers.

  • cdubbb

    @Scott

    Why go small just for the sake of going small? We have a legit 7 ft backup center that is skilled and can move well. We all have seen what JO can do, he is feeling better then he has in the past 3-4 years and it shows on the court. He has played against those guys like Zeller and Aldridge already this year and has had a ton of success doing so. His defensive presence is huge in protecting the lanes and the rim because he has been contesting or blocking shots at the point of attack. Not to mention the veteran leadership he brings out on the floor for the younger/less mature or less experienced group that our bench is. He simply provides to much upside in his matchups against backup big men, to the point where he is taking minutes from Gortat occasionally.

    To simply throw all of that away just to have Kieff come in and shoot 3s (low percentage) is a pretty dumb and risky move. Especially when your job is on the line and your already having to do enough work trying to mesh a group of 9 new players that have never really played together.

    I understand we need Morris to develop, but taking away time from a major stabilizing force in JO just “because,” is counterproductive and detrimental to the team.