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The Works: Michael Beasley Is Back; What Is What It Takes?

Nov 18, 2010 – 11:55 AM
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In The Works today: why research matters and those tragic Blazers. But first, why you should watch Michael Beasley.

Open Your Eyes

After Kevin Love had his Game of Games (the 30/30 one), I asked the Twitter-verse why it was that rebounding on a bad team was so much more admirable, and impressive, than scoring in bunches for one. The response, of course, was that rebounding takes effort and ingenuity, whereas you or I could go into a game today and start chucking shots at the basket. I guess. The point is well taken, though; someone has to score the point. There's no rule that someone on lottery-bound squads has to dominate the glass.

Historically speaking, it's just a lot harder to get 30 boards than, say, 40 points. So that settles that.

There are plenty of other reasons to be skeptical of Michael Beasley's Minnesota renaissance. For one, Beasley has funny hair, might still be kind of loopy, can't rebound like Love, and by his own admission, benefited from getting to be a big fish is a small, festering pond. Not to mention that the redemption narrative is about the most hackneyed trope in all of sports. There are good and bad years. Days, too. It's not the gods at work.

All that said, Beasley's turnaround is one of the more remarkable stories of this young season. One torrential shooting performance doth not a young star make. But [insert less hood-sounding nickname here] lately has made a habit of putting up 25-30 every night, and has a decent shot at Most Improved Player, in a rare instance where that honor actually makes some sense.

It's no mean feat to put up those kind of numbers consistently, no matter how lousy the team. I know, numbers ain't crap, we're only a few games into this totally premature victory lap, and come on, it's Michael Beasley. Since high school, he's been basketball's version of Murphy's Law -- despite having always been one of the most talented prospects around. When David Kahn acquired him from the Heat, the joke was on him, for the simple fact that Kahn plus Beasley makes for ineluctable comedy.

If you're still doubting, though, I would advise actually watching Beasley in action. Basketball is, above all else, a game of fine details and subtle dynamics that box scores can't capture. Many advanced stats folks acknowledge that, at the end of the day, the numbers have to be cross-checked with what the eye can see (hence the rise of Synergy, and other uber-rational, atomistic video breakdowns).

Last night, Beasley's Timberwolves got a win over the equally woeful Clippers. A close one, no less. I know, both teams are incapable of playing hard, so the only good players out there (Beasley, Love, Blake Griffin) ran wild in a playground of muck. Maybe. By that logic, that Heat performance last night was a function only of the Suns' interior weakness -- not their emerging strengths. This paradox will drive you plum batty, I do say!

But I digress. Watch Michael Beasley play. For one, questionable hairstyle aside, for the first time as a pro, he looks like that fluid, powerful, dynamic, mind-bogglingly skilled teen who ran roughshod over the NCAA at Kansas State. He's slimmer, but solid with muscle. He bounces with energy, surveying the court for how to best get involved. Beasley can go off the dribble naturally; fire away from long range; or take any defender at the hoop. At 6-foot-10 (really, now) and in peak condition, he's the kind of freak forward teams will always covet, not the hopeless tweener he was in Miami. That's just scoring, but his defense and rebounding are both improving, as well.

I can't convince you that Beasley is now in fact that second-best player from that draft, or imagine this happening in a situation where, you know, anything was at stake. I'm not even sure I want to go to bat for the "30 points, all the time, is no fluke" position. I can tell you, though, that if you ever watched Beasley in college, and projected greatness for him, you might want to turn on the Timberwolves some night. You won't be disappointed. (BS)

Open Your Eyes, Part 2

Our friend Neil Paine at Basketball-Reference has a post adapting an Aaron Schatz/Football Outsiders maxim that says, essentially, championship teams are defined by their dominance over lesser teams, not their performance in close games. This is well-steeped in science, both in Schatz's NFL data and in Paine's look at the NBA.

The impetus, as with every bit of soul-searching and data-mining in today's NBA, is the Miami Heat. Everyone's least favorite superpower has smoked the softer part of its schedule and failed in close games against good teams. Ergo, they don't have guts, grit or WHAT IT TAKES.

Whether a team has WHAT IT TAKES is determined in the Finals and conference finals; Paine collected data from recent years on how teams who beat up on crummy teams a lot versus teams who had a lot of close wins over good teams. Turns out the former -- teams like the Heat, that dominate the dregs and struggle against the elite -- do better in the conference and NBA Finals than teams that don't dominate lesser teams and edge good teams more frequently.

Don't expect that to change anyone's mind. Blame the fetishization of the "clutch" and of "grit" on that. Studies like the one Schatz did, and that Paine adapted, will be dismissed by basketball lifers as "meaningless stats" ... just numbers.

Old heads know a winner when they see it, right? Winners don't dance, smile, take jumpers when taller than 6-10 or team up with other superstars before winning it all on their own.

This isn't a screed against LeBron James critics, or the world's only John Wall critic, or the hordes of parishoners at the church of Kobe Bryant. At the very crux of the battle of the meaning of statistics is the issue of what we see, what we know and how different they are. Those fans, scouts, analysts, coaches and executives generally unsupportive of robust statistical analysis think they can spot greatness, that they can spot winners. Some of these folks also likely remember seeing Johnny Unitas hitting a home run for the Celtics in the 1950s, the halycon days. In other words, the human mind is fallible, and the anti-stats crowd refuses to acknowledge this.

Think about the idea of "clutch" for a moment. Someone argues that Kobe, for instance, is a "clutch" player, and as such, someone you should prefer to have the ball with the championship on the line. "You have one shot to win it, you give it to Kobe." Now, let's forget that data tells us Kobe has been nowhere near the most effective shooter in closing minutes of tight games. (In other words, if clutch exists, he's not it, if you look at the facts, as in what actually happened on the floor during the game.) Let's ignore that. If you think Kobe is clutch, and that makes him more valuable than a more productive player who isn't "clutch," you are arguing that his (Kobe's) performance at the end of a tight game against an elite team in the Finals (the most clutch opportunity there is) would be worth more than that of the otherwise superior but unclutch player.

Now data says that superior production in games against inferior teams actually predicts how those "clutch" moments will go as opposed to how previous "clutch" minutes turned out. Or, if you beat bad teams handily, you'll, in the end, have WHAT IT TAKES. That's real, that's data, that's what has happened on the floor. It's not invented or contrived. It's what has happened.

Yet, in bowing at the altar of Clutch, at hurrahing the sloganeering of (ring-less) Charles Barkley, we fetishize the image of that which is not real. We triumph the successes of the gutsy without acknowledging that the gutsy just weren't good enough to win without drama. I don't know why it feels like I'm spitting on the memory of last week's amazing run by the Jazz -- I swear I'm not! -- but this can go on no longer.

Gimme points margin, gimme blowouts over the Kings and Raptors (not literally), and give me freedom from the tyranny of blind men's eyes. (TZ)



Requiem for a Team

Anyone making jokes about the Portland Trail Blazers this morning, or busting out their "I told you so" posts from the 2007 draft, is just a jerk. It's been apparent for some time that Kevin Durant is a stratospheric player, and Greg Oden at best was never going to match what Durant hath wrought. Brandon Roy's knee issues this year have been their own kind of slow death knell. No disrespect to Rich Cho, but Kevin Pritchard's exit was itself a crucial blow to what fans invested so much feeling in.

And technically, Greg Oden still could return. His microfracture procedure isn't on the same knee as before. He's still young. Medicine gets faster every year; for all we know, Oden could be a pioneer in the same way Amar'e Stoudemire proved to be. Oh, in case it matters, Kenyon Martin had this work done on both knees, and returned for a few years of jumping and running before other injuries, and age, dragged him down.

But big picture: In Portland, the dream might well be dead this morning. Kevin Pritchard built the Blazers future on a foundation: Roy, Oden, and the never-quite-there LaMarcus Aldridge. Roy may never be the same again. Oden, if not done forever, has suffered so many setbacks, and proved so little, that it's getting harder and harder to hold out hope -- unless you want to put the "fanatic" in fan. And Aldridge, let's face it, is not going to wake up and serve as a franchise player. He benefited immensely from being a part of KP's plan, but now, that contract is burdensome.

I'm sorry if this is bumming you out. And I would love to see everyone get healthy, Cho pick up the pieces, or both. However, as things stand now, this is a team in shambles. Everything is broken. It's not funny, just really, really sad. (BS)

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The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.

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