Last year, in the weeks leading up to the NBA season, I ranked the League’s go-to guys. Using the rationale that even the most balanced team has one identifiable if-all-else-fails leader that they look to in crunch time (see Team USA and Kevin Durant), I picked one player per squad for a final list of 30. Again, ONE PLAYER PER TEAM.
Being a go-to guy isn’t always about who takes the last-second shot. It’s the guy who regularly gets the basketball when things are getting tense in the fourth quarter; the guy expected to calm things down when teammates are getting antsy; the guy called upon to snuff out an opponent’s rally or spark a rally of his own; the guy who’s not just supposed to make shots, but make the right decisions. Bottom line: Who do you want the offense to run through when everything is on the line?
Last year I was hesitant to hand “go-to guy” status to a brand-new player on a team, but with so much roster turnover in 2010′s unprecedented free-agent summer, with so many teams looking completely different than they did at the end of last season, I could bend those rules this time around. So there may be more speculation involved than in previous versions, but ultimately, most choices were a result of consulting with some trusted basketball people. With that, here are the League’s go-to guys, from #30 to #1…
MICHAEL BEASLEY, Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s not a good sign for the Wolves that their most reliable crunch-time play this season might start with a brick.
After trading away Al Jefferson in the summer, the Wolves don’t have a proven, go-to scorer on the block or on the perimeter. Wayne Ellington and Corey Brewer have Final Four M.O.P. trophies at their respective homes, and Damien Wilkins (presumably) has big-time scoring in his blood. Other than that, nothing on paper stands out about any player on this roster that says “Clutch.” On some nights, Minnesota’s best bet to get a crucial score might be to miss a shot on purpose and hope Kevin Love can get a tip-in or an easy putback via offensive rebound.
But that’s only if Michael Beasley doesn’t work out. In his second chance at fulfilling the superstar potential every observer has seen in him, Beasley comes to Minnesota with a chip on his shoulder and baggage strapped to his back. He has already said he’s approaching this season looking to make people pay for writing him off as a bust, and as part of a rebuilding youth movement in Minnesota, he should have the freedom to operate in a system that’s more in his comfort zone, with room to make mistakes and learn from them.
Beasley can score. At 6-10, the left-handed forward had stretches during his time with the Miami Heat where he was almost dominant, and at least productive. His mid-range jumper is solid, and he can be crafty or downright beastly when he gets closer to the rim. When he gets to the line, he knocks down 80 percent of his free throws.
Beasley averaged 14.8 points points in Miami last season in less than 30 minutes per game. And according to 82games.com, Beasley put up 29.1 points per 48 minutes of “clutch time” — stats recorded during the 4th quarter and overtime, less than 5 minutes on the clock, neither team ahead by more than 5 points — ranking one spot ahead of ex-Minnesota go-to guy Al Jefferson, as well as ahead of Zach Randolph, Amar’e Stoudemire, Baron Davis, Danny Granger, Tim Duncan, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, to name a few.
But the errors in that statistic are the lack of reps and the players around Beasley. Forty-seven percent of Beasley’s clutch time baskets were assisted — compared to 20 percent for Carmelo Anthony and 37 percent for Granger. (Other players had lower numbers, but ‘Melo and Granger play somewhat similar styles to Beasley as forwards who can play the three or the four.) In other words, Beasley thrived off the presence of Dwyane Wade drawing defensive attention and getting him open looks. (Only 12 percent of Wade’s clutch time baskets were assisted.)
Beasley only logged 68 minutes of “clutch time” during the season, by far the lowest of any player in the Top-30 of the 82games list. (Wade, by comparison, played 144 minutes.) A lot of times, Beasley wasn’t even on the court when the Heat were in close games down the stretch because of his defensive liabilities or the fact that coach Erik Spoelstra just didn’t trust him yet.
Such is the benefit of low expectations in Minnesota. There is no pressure on the Wolves to win now, so developing players like Beasley will get more late-game reps, even if it means they’ll lose a lot of games along the way.
Once upon a time, a young power forward in Minnesota went through similar lumps. The kid eventually grew up to be Kevin Garnett. Beasley has the talent to crack that class of truly elite forwards in the game, and now he has the stage on which to hone his craft. All that stands in front of him now is air and opportunity.