Project: Timberwolves (pt 1) - What Happened in Miami?

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"I've been in a groove like this my whole life. Except for Miami." ~ Michael Beasley

Let's start by saying this: the Timberwolves are coming together. Whether that's by accident or intentionally....because of management or in spite of it...is somewhat of a theoretical debate at this point. It's happened. It's working.

This three part series takes a look at some of the storylines that are shaping the Timberwolves early on this season, starting with Michael Beasley and what might have gone wrong for him during his two years with the Heat.

Beasley's struggles in Miami are well documented, from his questionable attitude, to his drug abuse, to simply not living up to expectations and his own potential. But very few have ever asked the real question about it all: why? What happened in Miami? Because the Michael Beasley that played for Miami was very different from the Michael Beasley playing for Minnesota....and the Michael Beasley that played for Kansas State.

Much like one my favorite memories of the Timberwolves, one of my favorite memories of Beasley at KState was a losing effort.  In January 2008, the Wildcats had finally broken "the curse" by upsetting their in-state rivals, the Kansas Jayhawks 84-75. Beasley put in 25 points and 6 rebounds to lead KSU, handing Kansas their first loss of the year.

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That March, the 'Cats and 'Hawks met for the second time that season, this time in Kansas. The game was big on hype, with Beasley stirring the pot when he declared "We're going to beat Kansas at home. We're going to beat them in their house. We're going to beat them in Africa. Wherever we play, we're going to beat them." The Jayhawks didn't forget that, nor their loss to the 'Cats 3 months earlier.

Kansas beat Kansas State 88-74 that night, but that score doesn't indicate how competitive the game really was....nor how sensationally Beasley played.

The reason this game sticks in my mind is because Beasley probably didn't play more than 3 or 4 minutes consecutively at any point in the game. He got into early, early foul trouble and was in and out of the lineup all night. Yet despite never staying on the floor long enough to develop a good rhythm, Beasley absolutely racked up the numbers: 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks. It was an amazing testament to his talent and competitive nature that he could put up such a performance with just bits and pieces of playing time to work with.

Keep in mind, this Kansas team was no pushover. They were talented and deep, featuring Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, and Sharron Collins. They ultimately won the championship that year, infamously topping Derrick Rose and the Memphis Tigers in the tournament finale.

Beasley's lone college season with KState was the stuff of legends. He put in gaudy averages of 26 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 53% from the floor...numbers that eclipsed even Kevin Durant's 25-11 from the season before. In fact, heading into the draft, many experts were saying Beasley had even more potential than Durant, whom Beasley grew up with and still considers one of his best friends. He had strength and weight that Durant did not. He had a power post game that Durant did not. And he had a mean streak...and undying competitiveness....that Durant did not. Micheal Beasley was the Ron Artest to Durant's Rashard Lewis. KD would light you up; Beas would not only light you up, but also mess you up in the process.

Then, Miami happened.

On draft lottery night, the final order came in Chicago-Miami-Minnesota. Despite being considered the top talent in the draft, Beasley wasn't assured selection by the Bulls. The NBA had become infatuated by point guards riding the success of youngsters like Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and Derrick Rose was a Chicago native besides. Likewise, there was talk that Pat Riley had a strong preference towards USC's OJ Mayo, envisioning a dynamic shooting/slashing backcourt of Mayo and Wade.

Many hardcore Wolves fans remember seeing Beasley, in an episode of The Rookie, infamously saying "Not Minnesota, not Minnesota" to KState teammate Darren Kent.

In the end, Beasley was selected 2nd overall by the Heat.

On paper, the fit seemed perfect. The Heat had a bona-fide superstar in Dwyane Wade, who would take pressure off of Beasley and allow the Heat to develop him patiently while still being able to cover his mistakes. They also had plenty of minutes available for him; the team's frontcourt was thin, with just Udonis Haslem and aging Jermaine O'Neal and Shawn Marion around to compete for burn.

Lots of minutes and opportunities for open shots? What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out.

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Beasley never took off with the Heat. His minutes were limited. His scoring was streaky. His defense was streaky. He never found his role with the team, or established himself as other members of his draft class such as Rose, Mayo, and Love did.

It wasn't all on him, either. Dwyane Wade never seemed to accept him as a teammate. Head coach Erik Spoelstra never learned to trust him as a player. Very little was done to develop his game....to the contrary, the Heat seemed to expect perfection right from the beginning, and where quick to shut Beasley down when they didn't get it.

But most telling was the change in Beasley's behavior. Once known for his fiery competitiveness on the court and easy-going, comedic personality off it, Beasley lapsed into long period of lacksidasical, disengaged play and moodiness. The downward spiral culminated in a series of scary Tweets in August 2009, followed shortly thereafter with Beasley checking himself into a rehabilitation center for drug abuse and depression.

Why one of the league's most talented, upbeat, enthusiastic, and charismatic young players crashed and burned in Miami has never been fully explained. But some educated guesses can be made.

To start with, Beasley was not the player Pat Riley wanted in the 08 draft. Riley wanted OJ Mayo, staging a secret pre-draft workout with the guard, then reportedly attempting to trade down from the #2 spot to draft him at a more reasonable position. Although Beasley did end up being the player the Heat took, it was rumored to be at the insistence of Miami's scouting department, who went as far as to corner Riley to insure Michael would be the player they took.

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Riley is not fond of young players, as a coach or general manager. To him, lottery picks...or young talent, or simply rebuilding in general...means his team isn't competitive, which he takes as a personal indictment of his own failings from the season. Riley made his name as a coach directing the talents of established veterans and stars; he won four championships as coach of the LA Lakers with rosters that included Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and our own Kurt Rambis). He then went on to coach and manage veteran-heavy rosters in New York (Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson) and Miami (Alonzo Mourning, Jamal Mashburn, and Tim Hardaway), which culminated in a fifth coaching title after he sent away promising young forwards Caron Butler and Lamar Odom for Shaquille O'Neal.

While Riley may have picked Beasley...given in, as some would say....he never particularly grew to like him. His comments of him were often distant, and sometimes cold, and very rarely would he defend Beasley against his critics. While the Heat made the playoffs both years Beasley played there, they clearly were not a contending team, and as evidenced by Miami's free agent haul over the summer, Riley was clearly less concerned about developing the talent he had on the team and more concerned about stockpiling cap space to bring in superstars who wouldn't need development.

In the meantime, the Heat were obligated to show Wade that they could be competitive. They had to win games, and convince Wade they could keep winning them. That put Beasley on a short leash not unlike the one Kevin Love was on himself. Every mistake was grounds for Beasley getting pulled from the game. The Heat simply couldn't live with his inexperience; they needed sheer production, and needed it every night. Patience, development...and absorbing losses because of it....were luxuries that the Heat simply couldn't afford. And, in all appearance, didn't want to do anyway. As Beasley's production became less reliable and his attitude became less engaged, head coach Erik Spoelstra lost faith in him, cutting his involvement and ultimately his time on the floor.

For Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, Beasley's youth wasn't potential to be fulfilled, but rather a liability to be hidden.

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Wade didn't help matters much either. Although the speculated rift between the two players is probably overblown, it's clear the two never figured it out on the court. Whether is was simply because Wade is a ball-dominant player, or simply didn't like or trust Beasley's game is a matter for debate, but ultimately no chemistry developed between the two, with Beasley getting frozen out of the offense for long stretches at a time.

Further, not only did Wade fail to defend Beasley against critics, he actively agreed with them several times, throwing Beasley under the bus for poor performances or game-losing mistakes. The worst of it came during the Heat's first round loss to the Celtics in the playoffs last season, when Wade flatly declared, "I'm tired of answering questions about Beasley not doing this, not doing that. It's on Michael." Beasley, who admirably kept from feeding into any rumors of contention between him and D3 for most of his career with the Heat, also admitted, "We were almost fighting each other" during the series. 

Like Riley, Wade simply had other priorities. He needed to get healthy. He needed to be assured that the Heat were actively looking to improve, and fast. And as this past summer proved, his plan was less about getting Beasley to a superstar level, and more about trading him in for other players who were already there. The inception for Wade to team up with LeBron and Chris Bosh began in 2006, when the three opted for shorter contract extensions that included player options to bail on their respective teams all at the same time, if they wanted, and the possibility would have only grown stronger after Beasley's arrival, as the super trio won gold at the Olympics, and the Heat and Raptors both struggled to be competitive after.

Environment matters. Being accepted and encouraged matters. Being given a chance to grow up matters. As an 18 year old living in a party city and playing basketball with the weight of the world on his shoulders, it's little wonder that the constant negative feedback and criticism got to Beasley. He was made a scapegoat for playing the way any young player would play, and making the mistakes any young player would make. He was constantly pulled from games for making those mistakes, yet the coaching staff never truly worked with him to correct those mistakes or develop his game. For someone in Beasley's position, it must have felt like he was being hung out to dry for no discernible reason.

I've worked jobs where my bosses have nitpicked over every thing I've done. I've worked jobs where coworkers have criticized and laughed at me for no reason. Those things really do change a person. I would wake up in the morning thinking "I just hope I can make it through the day without getting yelled at for not doing something I wasn't told to do in the first place" or "I just hope so and so will keep quiet and let me work". Constantly feeling like you're under fire is not fun. Constantly having someone attack you over little mistakes and misunderstandings is not fun. If Beasley's experience with the Heat was anything like my own at some of these jobs, then simply going into work was an incredibly stressful thing. You never know what's going to be said or done at your expense, and you never get an explanation as to why those things get said or done at all.

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When David Kahn took over the Timberwolves and hired Kurt Rambis, one of the first statements they made was that the Wolves were going to be a bastion of player development. This team is meant to be a team where young players can grow and thrive.

Kurt Rambis is a teaching coach, and he's assembled a staff of teaching coaches. Rambis is very engaged in developing young players; to him, it's not just a necessity, it's a challenge. A privilege. Kurt took more than his fair share of shots last season as the Wolves struggled to even look like a basketball team, which is to be expected when a team is as bad as the Wolves were last year. Everyone looks for someone to blame. Everyone thinks all involved are incompetent, or have their own agendas, or are just plain stupid. Guilt by association.

But Rambis has some rather unique qualities for a coach. The passion and enthusiasm to be a teacher, but also the insight and knowledge to be a leader. Usually coaches are one or the other. That's why teams often change coaches as they progress....Hubie Brown is a great coach to get a struggling team off the ground, but a bad choice to lead a team to contendership. Larry Brown is a fantastic coach for veteran teams who need to outsmart the champs, but don't expect him to develop any rookies. Kurt appears, at least by my eye, to be on both sides of the coin, similar to Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, and Kurt's own mentor, Phil Jackson. Rambis has the patience to live with young mistakes, while still having the strictness to not allow any excuses. He has the ability to communicate strategy and fundamentals to young players, while still having the acumen to diagram complexity and disassemble other teams' playbooks. And he recognizes which players need positive encouragement (Darko Milicic) and which ones need a kick in the pants (Kevin Love)

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Although Rambis has been questioned strongly over his ability to be a legitimate NBA head coach, his effectiveness ultimately is showing through with the progress being made by guys like Corey, Darko, Wes, Love....and yes, Beasley.

Now, here with the Timberwolves, Beasley is getting everything he should have gotten in Miami. A chance to play his game. A chance to make mistakes, and to learn from them, and to be instructed in practice on how to avoid them. A chance to work with a coaching staff that will develop his game, rather than simply expect it to all be there immediately. He gets carried along when he gets down, and kicked in the rear when he gets stubborn. And more importantly, he gets praised when he does things right.

But more than anything...and most important for Beasley...Rambis has instilled and shaped a positive environment for the team. The Wolves feel like a fraternity, with its players genuinely bonding with each other. Complaints are at a minimum. Camaraderie at a maximum. Players are not critical of each other....they support each other, encourage each other, and defend each other.

Beasley and Love have known each other for a long time. They competed with and against each other in AAU, and kept a close eye on each other in college. Likewise, Beasley has a real connection with Jonny Flynn, for the same reasons. Flynn, in fact, had a big hand in sparking Beasley's scoring run this season, simply telling him to "Be who you are". Somehow I doubt anyone in Miami ever gave him that sort of advice or support. And while we might joke about the dubiousness of Jonny telling teammates to conform less and score more, the results are impossible to argue with: Beasley's scoring average currently sits at 22.4 ppg, tied with Pau Gasol for 14th in the entire NBA. In his 12 years as a Timberwolf, Kevin Garnett himself only topped the 22.4 average 3 times....think about that.

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What we've seen for Beasley early this season has been, as Bill Simmons so aptly put it, a revelation. It's more than just his stellar play on the court...it's the complete change in his demeanor. Beasley's playing basketball with passion again. Beasley's cracking jokes again. Beasley's yapping at opponents, motivating his teammates, and psyching himself up again. Encouraging his team, dominating box scores, yelling and pounding his chest when he makes a great play. This is not the conflicted, tortured soul that suited up for the Miami Heat. This is the fierce, chatty, joyous soul that broke records at Kansas State and captured the hearts of basketball fans around the world.

When Jonny told Mike to "Be who you are", he probably meant "Play like the player you are". But in many bigger, more significant ways, Beas has not only become the player he used to be, but also the person he used to be. He has fundamentally altered his take on life for the better, and it speaks volumes about the front office and coaching staff to have helped bring that about in such a short amount of time. To have built and environment and support system that can get the most out of a player and person that everyone else in the NBA had given up on as a lost cause.

When David Kahn took over the Timberwolves and hired Kurt Rambis, the Timberwolves set out to change the organization by first changing it's culture. That was step one of Project: Timberwolves...make Target Center a positive place to play basketball again. I think we can now say with certainty that that step has been accomplished successfully, and the reason is the guy in the Wolves uni wearing #8.

Michael Beasley is happy again. It's that simple.

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