Michael Beasley, after missing 11 of 13 shots in loss to Dallas: ‘I shot the ball great tonight.’ He was serious.


PHOENIX — When the Suns signed Michael Beasley as a free agent last summer, they had high hopes that by immersing him in their offense-first system, he’d turn out to be the team’s main scoring threat on a very consistent basis.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way for Beasley in his first season in Phoenix. He was anointed as “the man” by Alvin Gentry and the previous coaching regime before he was able to meet those expectations on the court, and since he found himself essentially out of the rotation for extended stretches after being unable to live up to that moniker, he’s been struggling with consistency, in terms of both minutes and production.

Under new head coach Lindsey Hunter, however, the directive has changed. Instead of solely coaching to win games on a nightly basis, Hunter is tasked with developing the younger players on the roster, and that includes Beasley. He’ll get his minutes and his chances, but he remains the same inconsistent player he’s been to this point in his five-year NBA career.

Friday night, during the Suns’ loss to the Mavericks, Beasley regressed once again. After dominating and pouring in 27 points while leading his team to a comeback win over the Lakers on Wednesday, Beasley managed just four points on 2-of-13 shooting, with a team-high three turnovers in 28 minutes of action.

The problem isn’t Beasley’s overall inconsistency, which seems to be more in the player’s head than anywhere else. No, the problem is the way that Suns management — and to some extent, their interim head coach — is treating Beasley with kid gloves.

“I just think he was just a little off,” Hunter said after Friday’s loss to Dallas. “I don’t know if he was so hyped or so ready that he just got himself off a little bit, but I’m not worried about him. I’ll take what he did tonight, the shots, I’ll take all of it. I’m looking long-term with Mike, and as long as I see progress with Mike, I’m happy.”

There hasn’t been any progress, at least not any visible to the naked eye.

Beasley is still hesitant at times offensively, even after Hunter has given him the greenest light possible. Before the game on Friday, Hunter explained how Beasley has been instructed not to worry about passing, and just to attack and shoot when he gets the ball in a position to score.

And still, 2-of-13 shooting.

“Some days you can come and play and do everything right, and the ball will not go in for some strange reason,” Hunter said. “And other days you can come and feel like it’s not your day and you can’t miss. That’s the way basketball is. It’s a humbling sport. But you stay even keel, and you put the work in. And if you put the work in, more times than not you’ll be alright.”

The Suns brain trust — president of basketball operations Lon Babby and team GM Lance Blanks — are clearly not ready to give up on Beasley just yet, nor should they. Every opportunity should be given to the players brought in by senior management to succeed. But it shouldn’t be done in a vacuum and with blinders on, and that seems to be some of what is going on with Beasley in Phoenix.

Simply put, the amount of positive reinforcement heaped upon Beasley — even after one of his more dismal performances — seems to be borderline delusional.

“I thought I had a good game, the shots just didn’t fall,” Beasley said, after a performance where he missed 11 of his 13 shot attempts, and led the team with three turnovers, two of which came while attempting to inbound the ball on the baseline after the other team had just scored.

When Beasley was asked what the difference was tonight after putting in such a solid game in Wednesday’s win over the Lakers, he refused to even acknowledge that he took a step back.

“I shot the ball great. I shot the ball great tonight,” he said. “I got shots I wanted, the ball just didn’t fall. That’s it.”

Unfortunately, that’s not it.

Beasley was completely serious when he said “he shot the ball great,” which is the true sign that the team is telling him what he wants to hear in hopes that keeping things positive will help him gain some measure of consistency. It hasn’t thus far, so there’s no reason to think that’s the way to continue to go in the future.

When Beasley was subbed out for the final time on Friday midway through the fourth quarter, he was the only player huddled away from the bench with the entire Suns coaching staff. When asked what was said during that brief meeting, Hunter said it was simply a discussion of reassurance.

“I was just encouraging him, telling him ‘Hey, it’s OK.’ It’s part of the process,” Hunter said. ‘Hopefully one day we’ll be playing for a bigger picture than this, and we’ll be able to look back on this and kind of say wow, it was tough then, but this is the fruit of [that effort].”

The way the Suns are treating Beasley is reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode, where the town folk are all scared of a little boy who can wish destructive things on people with his mind. They all placate him by being overly-enthusiastic while reassuring him that whatever he does, no matter how wrong, that it’s “good,” or “a real good thing.”

This is how the Suns approach Beasley’s dismal performances. And like that episode of the Twilight Zone, things are going to end badly in Phoenix if the team doesn’t change its course of action where Beasley is concerned.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

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James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.