As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. Today we continue with Michael Beasley, Ian Mahinmi, and Steve Nash.
I was actually pretty shocked that Batum was so commonly mentioned as the answer to yesterday's first riddle (in case you forgot: just a statement that this player had the worst new contract signed in the west this offseason). It's not that I'm in love with Batum's game (ask Tim Varner, I'm absolutely not), nor that I think he was signed to a good contract (too many years / too much money for a player that still has to take a proverbial leap to be worth that much). It's that there are simply so many better choices. You can go for Jamal Crawford -- actually, to be totally honest, I'd forgotten the exact terms of that contract. That one's probably the worst. Or you could go with Eric Gordon, if you think his health problems are more concerning than I do and you have a less sparkling assessment of his game. Considering his injury trouble and the fact that he's been legitimately maxed out, you might have a case. Or you can go with the player I was actually talking about, who somehow managed to wrangle $18,000,000 in guaranteed dollars from a dismal team that's going nowhere. A player who has not once displayed an above-average NBA capacity at any broad scale on a basketball court. A player who Kevin Love was explicitly happy to get rid of. I refer, of course, to samurai legend Michael Paul Beasley.
Beasley's general play is misleading, to most people. Most would assess him as a generally poor player, but few would realize just how harmful he can be when he has his bad nights. A few facts about Beasley's play. First, while he rebounds passably for a large wing (barely above average, but at least he's at the average there), he's one of very few players whose rebounding gets no better whatsoever when he plays the four. Every moment he's switched into the four-spot, Beasley ends up letting rebounds sky over his head like it's nobody's business. Offensively, he's not the worst, but he's pretty bad on-the-whole -- he's a ball-stopper extraordinaire, and a huge proponent of the "I'm Michael Beasley, clear out and let me work my magic" play-calling strategy. This strategy would work extremely well if Michael Beasley was actually good at picking his spots -- unfortunately, his shot distribution is obscenely frustrating, and he generally just ends up turning the ball over or missing the shot entirely. Believe it or not, if Beasley would pick his spots better, he would potentially be a very good offensive player for his position -- he's actually at or above average at every individual range on the floor for the SF position -- more a symptom of weakness in the position than a serious assertion of strength, but he's got that going for him. He also has, overall, one of the lowest assist rates at his position and one of the lowest %AST totals (that is, he both assists others far less than everyone else and gets assisted by others less than everyone else).
The first part (low assist rate) is awful. The second part (low percent assisted) isn't the worst, and would actually be a potential asset to him -- the idea that he's creating the majority of these shots for himself would tend to indicate that if Beasley backed off and let others create for him, he could be a markedly more effective player. The issue with that logic is that it assumes Beasley has the capacity to make that leap and realize he'd be more effective if he did it. And that's a relatively big assumption to make at this point. He's been in the league for 4 years and (if anything) has gotten worse about it as time goes on. At some point, a player essentially is what he is. I don't know if we've quite reached that point with Beasley yet, but we have to be close. And this barely even touches on Beasley's defense, which is a tour de force in not giving a crap. A bold new talent at falling asleep on rotations. A visionary approach to fouling like a madman and refusing to talk. Compound that with the actively poor shot selection, his general disregard for his teammates, and the bleeding-edge inefficiency with which Beasley plies his trade? Pretty poor picture. I have no idea why the Suns gave him $18,000,000. Even if he was worth that much (and I can see absolutely no way he's worth even half that over the life of his contract), they were bidding against nobody. This is like going to a silent auction with only your 5-year-old nephew there to bid against and putting in a seventeen thousand dollar bid on the shiny red Radio Flyer wagon to head the 5-year-old off at the pass, never once realizing that the 5-year-old has absolutely no money and hates wagons anyway. Really. The Suns have made a lot of questionable personnel decisions over the last few years, but I'm not sure any are as questionable as this one.
While Spurs fans weren't looking, Ian Mahinmi found a way to (somehow) morph into a decent player. This in and of itself is enormously frustrating to me, because in San Antonio, he did basically everything he possibly could to turn Spurs fans off to his play and make himself expendable. Once he got into the Carlisle system and was able to wrangle a defined role on that Mavericks team, he managed to break out relatively nicely. Mahinmi has his flaws -- specifically his incomprehensibly bad rebounding (not quite as bad as Ryan Hollins, but relative to his size, Mahinmi is one of the most disappointing rebounders in the NBA) and tendency to get in enormously quick foul trouble (last season is the first in his career his per-36 numbers didn't feature 7-8 fouls a game) -- but he's finally carved out a role by finding a few pluses as well. He could always finish at the rim, but in Dallas, Mahinmi finally solved the art of getting there, which allowed him to actually cut to the rim when he got into in-game action against real NBA players. Before that, he could only really get to the rim or put up stats against the scrub backup's scrub backups. He's developed some proficiency with a nice 15-foot pop shot, and he has a few (awful, but existent) post moves.
The big key with Mahinmi (and the place where he's a legitimate value-add) isn't really in his relatively incomplete offense, it's in his defense. In my view. Although his poor rebounding does hurt him a bit in the overall team picture, he's a quality defender. He has serious mobility, and a knack for timely shot-blocks. His instincts aren't great, but his mobility combined with a decent system (thanks, Carlisle) made him into a legitimate asset for the team defense. In fact, with Mahinmi on the court, the Mavericks (already a solid defensive team with him off it) played better defense in 2012 -- they allowed an offensive rating of 100 to teams with Mahinmi on the bench, but only 98 with Mahinmi on the court. This was primarily rooted in the Mavericks slowing the pace down with Mahinmi on the court and playing to their old-man strengths. Mahinmi helped that by leveraging his mobility and helping to cut off passing lanes. I imagine Mahinmi will keep doing the same in Indiana -- in any event, he's a galaxy beyond the cringe-worthy pairing of Hansbrough and Amundson, and if Miles Plumlee can give the Pacers anything they'll have drastically upgraded their backup-big rotation.
Also, specific note to regular reader Mike, who had a well-thought out rebuttal in yesterday's comments to my general observation in yesterday's riddles that the Pacers overpaid to get Mahinmi. I still do think they overpaid -- while Collison didn't fit in Indiana, from a talent-in/talent-out perspective, Collison has a far higher ceiling than Mahinmi does. He wasn't working out in Indiana, though, and I agree that D.J. Augustin is a talent upgrade from what Collison gave them last year. Which does make Collison worth "less" to the Pacers than he necessarily was for any other team. The Pacers also gave away the crummy contract of Dahntay Jones, who was absolute bollocks in Indiana this past season. So while they may not have necessarily won the deal from a talent-in/talent-out perspective, from a fit and team improvement perspective, you may be right that the deal was a net positive for them. We'll see. Still, quite an apt observation. Thanks for reading.
This one was a bit tough to write. I want to clarify something regarding the broader point of the piece. I'm not trying to say the Lakers are going to be bad -- far from it, I think they'll be extremely good next year. But I think simply saying they'll be good and assessing them without paying heed to their incoming peaks and troughs is mistaken at best and actively misleading at worst. Age brings increased production volatility, and just about every word in this piece on degenerative aging I've applied to Nash could apply just as well to players like Pau Gasol (older than you think), Kobe Bryant (who experienced the same peak/trough give and take this past season), and almost everyone on their bench. Even Dwight Howard is going to find himself more prone to peaks and valleys next year, coming off a relatively bad back injury that may (for a time) lend itself to sap his overall game every few nights as he recovers. By playoff time, Howard should be fine. But having so much volatility to contend with confuses the picture, at least for me.
Consider it this way. The Lakers in years past embodied the natural Phil Jackson style on effort when it came to playoff basketball (try really hard and dominate certain games, then follow those up with tepid efforts that could scarcely beat an 8 seed), these Lakers may unintentionally embody that style even if they're trying their hardest. Age works in strange ways for NBA players, and more than anything, it lends itself sadly well to the idea of "on" nights and "off" nights. The Lakers, with everyone having an on night, are unbeatable. With one player having an off night, they're very good, and still a title contender. But not a title favorite. And with two or three players having off nights, on a team that top-heavy? They're going to have trouble winning a game against ANY decent competition, let alone a team like the Thunder or the Spurs. Just look at Miami without Bosh.
It's not that such games will happen often, or that they won't have a non-fleeting affair with generation-defying dominance. They'll have nights where they may be the greatest team the world's ever seen. It's just difficult to really figure out what the whole picture is going to look like until we have a better inherent understanding of the volatility we're dealing with. In today's piece on Steve Nash, I take a deeper look into this phenomenon, and reflect on both personal lessons of fragility in age and the multi-faceted legacy Steve Nash will leave behind.
When Nash has good games, the Lakers should be quite literally unbeatable. I don't think it's too hyperbolic to say that. Imagining a fully-functioning Nash-Howard pick and roll with Gasol and Kobe as weakside options is absolutely sublime. The wealth of top-flight talent on this team, combined with a fully-active Nash, could manifest as one of the greatest teams to ever take the court. It could be -- and may be -- just that simple. If Nash is healthy, his good days will more than make up for his bad days. But that's the thing. While we can envision this to the high heavens and assert the Lakers to be the new title favorites, that isn't how age works. Once you get into the weeds of extremely old NBA age -- which, make no mistake, is exactly where Nash is headed -- you start to get into unprecedented territory. The only really distinctive, all-encompassing fact is that players who stay in the league at Nash's age tend to see an increased volatility in their contributions. One night they'll be classic -- or even better. A shining example of everything they always were. One night later they'll have no lift, no instincts, no shot. So on, so forth. Variance inflates, and merely assessing the "average" game becomes more and more misleading.
For the 2012 Lakers to match their potential and become the unbeatable teeth-gnashing beast we've imagined, they require much of Steve Nash. At least considering that Artest is virtually gone, Howard's back is balking, and the Gasol-Bryant dynamo is aging as we look the other way. They don't simply require some certain set of averages, a dismal checklist of mean production. They require Steve Nash's guile to remain intact. The creativity to sustain. They require Nash's candle to flicker at just the right time. There can be no letdown game, no nagging injuries, no disappearing act behind the velour curtain. Part of the great conceit of this roster is the concept that they must be better than the sum of their parts. That Nash's brilliance will salve the cuts and soothe the wrinkles away. That Pau Gasol, in Nash's presence, will return to his 2010 form. That Bryant will become more efficient without having to carry such a heavy load. That Howard's offensive game will emerge from the fire's of Mordor even better than before, and pole-vault Bynum's production. On Nash's good nights, none of this will be a problem. It should be rudimentary, in fact. And on Nash's bad nights? It could be troubling.
In a lot of ways, the frequency of those bad nights decides the fate of the Lakers' season.
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Smart guess from twitter follower @JoshsPseudonym, who got a 3/3 rather quickly.
- There was Linsanity. Then there was Sloansanity. Then there was [Player #172]sanity, at which point I began to question Cleveland('s)sanity.
- One of my favorite stories ever comes from contributing writer Alex Arnon, regarding his exploits with an intimate relation of Player #173. (Yes, this riddle is basically just an excuse to link you to it.)
- He's been OK in recent years, but I expect Player #174 to go "belli" up in Chicago. (Pretty sure this the worst pun I've ever scribed.)
Have a good weekend. Hoping I can get a full 15-player suite done next week. Fingers crossed, eh?