The Michael Beasley experiment has not gone well but I refuse to blame the Suns for taking the risk. It was always going to be a gamble but with the position the Suns were in, why not roll the dice? The upside was great, the risk low.
For any rebuilding team, the number one question is: how to acquire superstar talent.
The answers generally come down to the draft, trades, or free agency. Michael Beasley represents a fourth way. You sign a guy whose value is diminished, but
clearly maybe has tremendous upside potential.
The most obvious example of this working is the Memphis Grizzlies who traded for Zach Randolph in July 2009. The fact that the Grizz traded Quentin Richardson for Z-Bo instead of signing him as a free agent, as the Suns did with Beasley, is irrelevant. They moved an expiring $8.7m contract for the two years/ $33m-owed Randolph.
Noted Grizzlies admirer and NBA hyperbole meister, Matt Moore, said this about the deal from a Memphis perspective:
It Would Take A Room Of MIT Mathematicians With Calculators Working 18 Hours A Day 7,000 Years To Determine Just Exactly How Stupid The Memphis Grizzlies Are | Hardwood Paroxysm
Two years, $33 million. That’s what they’re paying. Think about this. They could have gotten four years of Charlie V. for that.
I won't bore you with Randolph's sordid history prior to arriving in Memphis and (FINALLY) finding a home for his prodigious and heretofore under-realized potential. Suffice it to say, things worked out well for the Grizzlies (and the Clippers for that matter).
Memphis understood that they needed more talent and they took a giant risk -- to the tune of a net $25m over two years -- to see if they could be the ones to strap a team to Z-Bo's big backside and ride him to the playoffs.
The Suns did exactly the same thing with Beasley...only it hasn't worked. Failure isn't always about missing the shot. If it's the right shot at the right time, you don't blame the player if the ball doesn't go through the net.
First, to be clear on the details, we talk about Michael's three-year/$18m deal, but it's actually a two-year/ $15m deal since that third year isn't fully guaranteed. The Suns are now on the hook for one more year at $9m.
That's a lot of money both in the real world AND even in the fantasy world of NBA finance. But the real point is the opportunity cost. Does or will Michael Beasley's contract prevent the Suns from having enough money to jump on other opportunities in the marketplace of free agency?
The answer is, no.
Phoenix Suns' payroll this year is at or near the bottom of the league. Going into this offseason, they will have plenty of money available to take advantage of what's basically a lame free agent class. And if by some miracle they identify a true max-worthy player and don't have the cap space to sign him outright, they could easily do a sign-and-trade to move a few minor contracts to make room.
The Lakers certainly didn't have cap space when they got Dwight. The Knicks didn't have cap space when they got Melo. The Rockets didn't use cap space to get Harden. Even the Heat, who had a ton of cap space, used sign-and-trades with both Bosh and LeBron.
In fact, when was the last time a max player was signed completely using cap space?
So, someone needs to explain to me how the Suns have hurt their flexibility by having Beasley's contract on the books. I don't see it.
I also find it ironic that the Suns still get slammed for being "cheap" for draft picks sold over half a decade ago (2007 was the last pick sold and it was for a guy now getting beat up by fans in Europe). The team easily could have signed some low risk player on a one-year deal instead of taking the Beasley Gamble. That would have been the frugal thing to do.
The one critique I'm more sympathetic to about the Beasley signing was the process.
Some folks point out that the Suns went after Michael immediately when free agency opened and made him a big offer before other teams proved their interest. They essentially "bid against the themselves".
This might be true. We don't really know what other teams were willing to pay Beasley at the time. Just because no rumors surfaced about a competitive offer from someone else doesn't mean it wasn't made.
More importantly, who cares? All that argument is saying is that the Suns could have gotten Michael for less money. They could have played hardball and squeezed every last dime out of the negotiation. Instead, they seemingly did everything in their power to make Beasley feel wanted and valued in the hopes that would improve the chances for his success in a Suns uniform.
At this point, I agreed with most people that Beasley is a bust. But worst case, he costs Robert Sarver some extra money, which is not something I lose sleep over.
Fans don't know what to make of the Phoenix Suns' long-term plan. National experts don't know what to make of it either. Even local media waffle back and forth on what they think the Suns' plan is.
The Phoenix Suns, for their part, have never once deviated from their message to the fans. President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby has repeated himself, time and again, to anyone who asks the question. It's just that no one is listening.
Babby hates the word "tanking". He says the draft is a crapshoot with no guarantees and that once you get on that treadmill of losing on purpose for the sake of a high draft pick, it's very hard to get off of it. When you go totally young and you teach those guys that it's okay to lose games so the team can draft a better player to replace you, there's nowhere to go but down. That's a losing culture.
Yet, Babby has also said that they are building for the future, and that their decisions will be based on their record. He wanted a team fighting for a playoff spot this season and didn't get it. So, he and the organization realized it was time for change.
And that the change was going to be a really hard one this time. No more pulling that band-aid off slowly. It was time to rip away and deal with the pain.
First, the 13-28 Suns replaced their fan- and player-favorite head coach Alvin Gentry with a guy who's never coached on any level before. Lindsey Hunter knew what he wanted to do and the Suns wanted exactly what Hunter wanted - a hard nosed defense-first team of fighters - so it was a good match.
They kept pulling on the band-aid and, to make the transition easier for Hunter despite the public relations nightmare it would create, they let most of his loyalist coaching staff go too. Better to start with a clean slate and no chance of subterfuge.
Local media hated the move, panning the Suns front office at every turn. "Leaks" from the locker room indicated that veteran players wanted someone else, not a rookie who had never been on the staff. Editorials and radio shows grabbed their pitchforks and lamented the lack of loyalty.
But the Suns held firm, believing they had a formula that could work.
And they were just getting started.
The rookie coach then started giving backup minutes to unproven, younger guys over proven veterans. He has given 10 straight DNP-CDs to his third-leading scorer in favor of a career disappointment with an expiring contract. Soon thereafter, the rookie coach replaced 3/5 of the starting lineup with those young, unproven backups. Finally, the Suns grabbed a guy basically off the street, who hadn't played in two months, and plugged him into a vital role against a West playoff-caliber team.
Disaster, right? Every one of those moves screams the word no one wants to say out loud: tanking. Yet the team still said they wanted to win games. That they didn't care about their draft pick position as much as creating a winning culture.
What gives? You can't have both!
Somehow, some way, despite all the moves that everyone says were evidence of tanking, this team is winning games.
They are 9-13 in 22 games under novice head coach Lindsey Hunter, including 5-5 since the All-Star break. While that's not impressive, it's better than the 13-28 record the team had before Hunter took over.
More impressive: Under Alvin Gentry, the Suns were 5-21 against teams that currently have a winning record. Under Hunter, the Suns have gone 6-8 against such teams.
In the ten games since the All-Star break, the Suns have reversed their rebounding differential (from -2.4 to +3.1 per game), and improved their defensive field goal % (from 47% to 45%), while upping their steals (from 7.7 to 8.7 per game).
At the same time, the Suns' offense has remained terrible while the team focuses almost entirely on defense during practice these days. Since the coaching change, the Suns sport a bottom-five offense and middling defense. Prior to that, the Suns sported a middling offense and a bottom-five defense. The Hunter formula is winning more.
But with the playoffs not even a consideration and the draft set up the way it is, why bother winning any more games?
Why aren't the Suns losing on purpose?
"Tell them to go to work and not do their job," Hunter says to those who want the Suns to purposely lose games.
"If I lose on purpose I might not have a job next year," says Dudley, echoing the sentiments of every player on the Suns roster.
Lindsey Hunter wants the team to win a lot of games next year. He and the team believe that winning games tomorrow starts by working as hard as you can to create a winning culture right now.
"I think that trying to create winning culture is the focus now," P.J. Tucker said about the rest of the season. "As we get close to the end of the season, we are probably not going to make the playoffs so now we try to win as many games as we can and keep progressing as a team and as an organization."
What's important now to the Suns is to build a culture of winning basketball around a defensive system that harasses and bothers the other team into playing worse than they could.
"The biggest thing that I stress a lot is impacting the ball," Hunter said to hoopsworld reporter Alex Kennedy. "That's like a pet peeve of mine; I hate to see the ball handler not being harassed. I hate to see guys pick their dribble up and nobody is pressuring them so they just make passes.
"It's tough, but to be really good, I think you have to be able to do those things. There's no easy way to get there. You just have to go through the hard part of learning, and we may lose some games because of it, but I think in the long run we'll be better for it."
The hard part is taking what's basically the same exact group of players that's been raised on "offense overcomes defense" to "defense covers for offense". Hunter has extended practices and made guys work harder late in the season than they have ever worked in-season before.
"It's not like I'm saving them for the playoffs," Hunter replied to a pregame question on long practices the other day.
At least one veteran is already firmly in Hunter's corner.
"I think he's going to be a really good coach in this league," backup center Jermaine O'Neal said of Hunter to Kennedy. "He isn't afraid to get in a guy's face. That's his mentality. That's what makes teams really good. That's what makes young teams better, because it holds you accountable and you learn from your mistakes. But at the same time, he pats you on the back too, when needed.
"I think there has been a lot of focus on ‘no experience,' but his experience is that he played 17 years. Basketball doesn't change. The X's and O's don't change. The mentality and intensity that he brings are going to have this team moving in the right direction.
"We've gone all the way back to drills that I haven't seen since high school, literally. He's gone back to the bare basics of basketball and that's what this team needs, with our youth and our experience.
"He has done a great job implementing his style. He's very aggressive with everybody on their attention span and their approach. If you don't bring it, he's going to let you know about it. That's what this team needs. This team is very young and they need that aggressive nature to put them in the right direction."
Ok, so that's one guy. We all heard earlier this season that, apparently, the core players would not have chosen Hunter if given the choice. My guess is that players prefer the known quantity over the unknown. Now that Hunter is better known, and the team is winning some games, the players are starting to turn the corner.
"It's a little bit different," point guard Goran Dragic said to Kennedy. "We run more and Coach Hunter is emphasizing defense, which is totally opposite."
Reportedly, the D'Antoni and Gentry Suns have spent the past nine years shaping the offense while spending little practice time on defense.
Now under Hunter, the entire focus is defense while Hunter just wants the offense to function enough to get the job done. He told reporters he would change the offense anyway, but needs the summer to get that done.
For now, Hunter is just trying to get by on offense.
"Simplifying things, trying to get guys familiar with situations," Hunter said. "Doesn't matter what you run. If the guys don't execute it, it's no good."
"It was fun playing for Alvin and it's fun now playing for Lindsey. I like him because he makes everybody engaged," Dragic continued, on Hunter. "If you don't do the job right, he's going to get into you. He'll tell you straight to your face. I think that helps everyone. It doesn't matter if you're in the starting five or coming off of the bench. Everybody has to do the same things. If he's yelling at me, it's only because he wants to help me. He has a lot of experience. He has two championship rings. I can only learn from him."
Of Dragic fitting into the coach's new style, I think the jury is already in on that one. Hunter has consistently praised Dragic since the day he took the job, and given Dragic more minutes while cutting back the minutes of all the other veterans.
"Those are the types of plays that we want to be known for," Hunter said of Goran diving for a loose ball on Saturday night to keep a late possession alive, ultimately ending in Marshall making shot to give 7 point lead.
"Blue collar, desperate attitude."
Quite a shift from the old Suns.
Earlier this season, I sat down with Phoenix Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby while the team was entrenched in a seven game losing streak. At that point, key acquisition of the summer Michael Beasley was not proving itself fruitful.
"It is 20 games into a three-year project, and we knew it was going to be a project," Babby said after a fifth straight loss back in December. "If we can help him become successful, then it will be as gratifying as anything I have ever done in my career, or Lance Blanks has done in his career, and Alvin Gentry has done in his career. That is the goal."
That was nearly four months ago to the day.
At that time, Beasley was putting up a paltry 11.4 points per game (27.4 minutes per game) on 37.4% shooting from the field. He was struggling with consistency as he had all throughout his career. The coaching staff was working to figure out where Beasley was most successful. They started him, played him at the three, the four, and with all different combinations.
All season, the opinion of Babby was the consensus of the coaches, front office, and his teammates, which was that Beasley was an untapped mine of talent. The lure of his potential and talent has worn lifeless and the shtick is not amusing anymore as the battle to determine if the mine was filled with gold or coal has seemingly revealed its answer.
"I don't know if it is that, but it is hard to put your finger on it," interim head coach Lindsey Hunter on Beasley as of late. "Some nights, he comes out and he has a better focus. Some nights, he doesn't. The hard thing is finding out why and trying to repeat the process to get him to be more consistent. I think the onus is on him to figure out the formula for himself. I think we have given him all the tools here to help him, but he hasn't figured the rest of it out."
Patience only goes so far. It is a lot easier to have a willingness and desire to help a player improve. It is another thing to put that player on the court when you are trying to win games with the way Beasley is playing.
The defensive culture that Hunter is trying to establish requires the type of focus and energy that P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Wesley Johnson, and Jared Dudley provide, or at least on a more consistent level.
Sometimes, Beasley can get complacent on the defensive end. Sometimes, he does not play with the energy that is required to give his team an advantage. Not much has changed over the course of the season as, during Hunter's time as coach, Beasley has averaged 11.4 points per game (21.1 minutes per game) and 43.2% shooting from the field.
The Suns gave Beasley 18 million dollars over the course of three seasons to find himself and reach his potential here. This is only 63 games into a 246-game commitment, but depending on how you say that sentence, it can have a very different meaning.