Written By Dane Moore (ZoneCoverage.com)
Imagine grinding away, doing great work at a start-up company that not only gives its employees minimal exposure but also comes with low pay and no real route to a payday. That was Malik Beasley‘s existence for the Denver Nuggets; a burgeoning enterprise in desperate need of a venture capitalist funding (the ability to pay the luxury tax).
Working for the Nuggets, Beasley was confined to a role in the organization that had no upward mobility.
The reality for Beasley, with Denver’s unwillingness to pay the tax, was that his outsized talent level for the role made it so he would need to leave the company when his contract expired at the end of the year. And because Denver acknowledged this truth, they licked their wounds and liquidated Beasley’s asset value via trade. The return in the liquidation process: Houston’s 2020 first-round pick, re-routed to them from Minnesota, who had just picked up that pick in their own liquidation of Robert Covington.
In Minnesota, Beasley did his best to prove the developing theory in Denver that his production would grow with greater bandwidth. In 14 games for the Timberwolves post-trade deadline, Beasley tallied 21 points, 5.1 boards and 1.9 assists per night while making nearly 43 percent of his 115 3-point attempts.
But because it’s hard out here in the workforce, Beasley will still find himself at a tricky crossroad when the offseason comes around. With the Wolves season likely finished in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, Beasley’s opportunity to double the 14-game sample size he put together in Minnesota has been taken away. In no fault of his own, Beasley will be without a contract whenever 2020 free agency rolls around, forced to enter a confusing and likely dilapidated marketplace.
“Regardless, I have to stay in shape and be ready if this season starts now or if the season is next season,” said Beasley via Zoom Wednesday afternoon when asked about his impending free agency.
“And then I’ll let Gersson decide the rest of that,” he added with a chuckle.
Gersson Rosas and the Timberwolves front office do have a decision to make on Beasley whenever the offseason rolls around. It was a decision they signed up for well before the outbreak. By acquiring Beasley from Denver, Minnesota inherited not only a talent but also his restricted free agency rights.
Objectively, it was a burden justifiable in its inherent upside. Being as Beasley is a restricted free agent, that puts Minnesota in an opportune situation when it comes to negotiating his next contract. The constraints of restricted free agency provide Minnesota the opportunity to match any contract that Beasley is to receive on the open market. In other words, Beasley can go out and set his market rate, and Rosas can decide if that is a worthwhile investment.
This will likely prove more favorable for the Wolves than it will for Beasley. With only six teams projected to have salary-cap space this summer, Beasley’s suitors were always going to be limited. But if the lost revenue in the wake of the stoppage of play forces the cap to drop below the prior projection of $115 million, the spending power in that already limited market will diminish.
Now, Rosas & Co. do not need to let Beasley’s contract negotiations hit the restricted market place; there is nothing preventing the two sides from mutually agreeing upon a deal. The restricted free agency process can be messy, and paying a slight premium beyond a player’s true market value can go a long way in keeping a relationship with a player — and their agent — in good graces.
From the day he was acquired, the Wolves have appeared committed to Beasley as a major piece to the puzzle going forward. Rosas was also on the conference call this afternoon and frequently referred to Beasley as part of the team’s young core alongside D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns.
“Malik has played in the league for four years,” said Rosas “We’re big fans of Malik. We paid a very, very strong premium to get him here in Minnesota. But we’re excited. I think the small sample size we saw with him with the Minnesota Timberwolves showed his potential.”
Other than James Johnson, 33, the oldest player on the Wolves roster is Jake Layman, who just turned 26. At 23 years old, Beasley fits the Wolves age curve perfectly; he’s nine months younger than Russell and twelve months younger than Towns.
“We’ve got a young group of guys that are around the ages of 22 to 26,” Rosas continued. “Malik, his work ethic; his dedication; the taste of success in Denver; and now, he’s got a bigger platform to impact the winning at a higher level. He’s got a great couple of teammates in D’Angelo and KAT that complement each other well. So we’re excited. We’re excited about what the future holds.”
A negative externality of the season potentially being over, for both the Wolves and Beasley, is that the young core will not get a chance to play together at full-strength before Beasley becomes a free agent. The Towns/Russell/Beasley group only shared the floor together for one game before Towns went down with a broken wrist.
Tragically, COVID-19 has touched Beasley’s family just as it has Towns’. Beasley shared on the call that he recently lost a family member on his mother’s side to the virus. In light of the tragedies, basketball has necessarily become a secondary topic. Before that, though, Beasley said he, Russell and Towns had been watching film together virtually, specifically looking at the game the three played in against Toronto, deciphering what could best maximize all three of their skill sets.
“We had one game against Toronto where we had all three of us, and that was a great experience,” said Beasley. “That kind of showed what we’re capable of. I feel like once we get a rhythm and once we go through a training camp or go through things together to incorporate a championship mentality that we’re going to be able to do that. I just feel like we’re going to need time together. The virus, the trade, there’s just been a lot going on.”
While the three cornerstones were not able to get substantial time together, Beasley and Russell did have the chance to play together in 12 games. That shouldn’t be brushed over. Would it have been better to see all three in tandem? Of course. But the fact that Russell’s best two-man pairing since the deadline was in partnership with Beasley and that Beasley’s best partnership was also with Russell means something.
The Russell-Beasley duo, expectedly, thrived on offense. They also, expectedly, struggled to defend. On the call with Beasley, it was a pleasant bout of honesty to hear him acknowledge that he has work to be done defensively. While the team has struggled immensely on that side of the floor the past five seasons, the elephant in the room has rarely been named.
Tom Thibodeau blamed youth his first year at the helm in Minnesota (2016-17), while his team ranked 27th defensively. The following season, with Jimmy Butler in tow, Thibodeau blamed execution — the lack of “playing on a string” — for the 25th-ranked defense. And since Ryan Saunders has taken over, injuries have been a common justification for the team ranking 27th the second half of the 2018-19 season — after Thibodeau was fired — and 21st during the 2019-20 season before the shutdown.
The reality of the situation, defensively, is that they’ve just been bad at it. Period. To improve, sure, schemes matter and so does execution. But to improve, the issue needs to be named and addressed. Beasley seems willing to do that.
“It definitely takes chemistry, familiarity and going over our principles on the defensive end,” he said. “Also, it’s a mental mindset, I believe, on the defensive end. I have to make sure me and the guys are really ready to defend every night. This is not about offense. We create offense for ourselves, we just got to defend. For me, I’ve been trying to watch film on defensive guys.”
In an interview with the Denver Post last summer, Beasley said he was spending his summer digging into the defensive film of Avery Bradley, Tony Allen and Andre Iguodala. But with his clout in the league increasing with another season under his belt, Beasley says he’s taken that studying to the next level by actually calling those guys, asking them for tricks of the trade.
“How I can improve a lot, most of that is on the defensive end,” said Beasley. “I have great athletic ability to do the things I need to do. I feel like, for me, it’s more mental… I’ve learned a lot of new things since I’ve been in quarantine being able to talk to a lot of people. Other players, questioning them on things like that.”
The Timberwolves are Towns’ team but they need leadership to come from every level. Like Beasley, Towns’ defensive shortcomings are not physical. They can both similarly improve, and they can do that together. If Beasley can render a greater mental commitment to the defensive end out of Towns and Russell, that alone might justify paying him $15 million per year.
Nothing is certain these days, and that includes Beasley’s future with the team. But there’s plenty reason to believe that if Beasley’s rollercoaster of 2020 ends with him signing a new contract in Minnesota that it could bring a tide that raises all boats. In 14 games in Minnesota, finally, Beasley received a platform Denver could not provide. And with that exposure, 14 games might even be enough to get him that payday.