By: Charles Modiano
March 1, 2009 1:06 PM
“King of Fools”
“He is a loser”.
These were some of the early media descriptions of Stephon Marbury after he parted ways with the Knicks to join the Celtics. If Marbury is a “cartoon character”, we can thank our sports media for drawing the daily comic strip. For those innocent souls who have so mistakenly bought into the cartoon journalism, then... "You Don't Know Marbury"!
If he is also a “loser”, we can thank a misleading media once again . We are told how his former teams improved “after he left”, but not that those overall rosters also improved . Sure, after two playoff appearances with Minnesota, Marbury would play on many losing teams. But how often have we read how those same rosters fared without Marbury?
41% - winning % of his games after leaving Minnesota 29% - winning % (62-152) of those teams in his absence .
Translation: Marbury has played on some god-awful teams!…
Stephon Xavier Marbury is the most mismanaged, miscoached, and misunderstood Knick talent that I have ever seen .
Please allow Bill Simmons to warm us up:
“As a basketball fan, I can't fathom why the Clippers would sign Baron [Davis] then bog him down in a half-court offense. It's like hiring Simon Cowell to judge a reality show then preventing him from being mean.” – Bill Simmons
As a basketball fan, I know exactly how you feel Bill. And welcome to Marbury-land Baron, and sorry about your shooting drop from 43% to 36%. Maybe one day coach Dunleavy will allow you to call your own plays again like Nellie once did. Maybe he will also break up that clogged Clipper frontcourt next year. Or maybe your next four years will be just like Steph’s last four. Let’s hope not…
Much has been written about Marbury’s feuds with past coaches, and everyone has an opinion . However, this analysis is strictly X’s and O’s. It’s time for some real basketball questions:
1) Why would you start line-ups that minimize or eliminate the exceptional skills of your best player?
2) How can you justify taking the ball out of the hands of your best point guard?
3) How on mother earth does an elite “penetrate-and-dish” point guard go his entire career without playing alongside top 3-point shooters?… or even just good ones?
Before answering these questions let’s first revisit our main Knick characters. No, not current Knick coach Mike D’Antoni. His inexplicable benching of Marbury was simply the culmination of coaching that Larry Brown started and Isiah Thomas perfected. Brown and Thomas were once former all-star point-guards in the ABA and NBA. Instead of coaching Stephon according to his strengths, each coached him to THEIR strengths. The only Knick coach that ever grasped Marbury’s exceptional skills was that other former all-star point guard: Lenny Wilkens.
Stephon and His Knick Coaches
Stephon: Marbury’s success begins with his ability to penetrate, draw double-teams, score, or find the open man on a crisp kick out. He is not a “pure point guard” in the mold of Jason Kidd or Steve Nash, but resembles that third all-star PG on that 1996 Suns team: Kevin Johnson. Just like KJ, Marbury could destroy his man off the dribble; use his strength; finish strong; pass; get to the line; run the fast break well; and excel at running tightly executed pick-and-rolls, and pick-and-pops. This type of point-guard is usually maximized with one strong low-post threat, floor-spacing shooters (more than slashers), and two “dirty-work” guys who don’t need the ball. While KJ would consistently have players that complemented his strengths . Marbury’s post-Minnesota career would be the exact opposite.
Lenny – Right Coach, Wrong Talent: All-time wins leader Wilkens was hired in January 2004 just days after trading for Marbury. At the time GM Isiah said Lenny was “the perfect person” to coach Stephon, and he was right. Prior to Steph’s arrival, this old slow Knicks team was 14 -21, and its only top player (Allan Houston) had bum knees and a pending retirement. Enter instant turnaround. Marbury and Wilkens would lead the team to a 25 – 22 finish and into the playoffs while averaging 20 points and 9.3 assists. The following year, Stephon would average 22 points and 8.1 assists with an efficient 46% shooting. Because the team won only 33 games, Marbury’s greatest career season went unnoticed on a squad that had no business winning 23. With the exception of fast breaks, Wilkens would harness all of Marbury’s strengths. However, Isiah would fire him at midseason, leaving him with a 40-41 record as a Knicks coach (succeeded by Herb Williams).
Larry – Young Talent, Wrong Coach: Brown arrived to NYC with a special media moniker never afforded to Wilkens: “Hall-of-Fame Coach”. The shield title – repeated ad nauseum – had a distinct purpose: “Larry Brown was always right.” Just check the resume. Unlike Wilkens, Pat Riley, and other great coaches, Brown is a great coach like Jack Nicholson is a great actor – he only plays one role. Seasoned veterans? Brown might land a championship. Young players? Brown might blow an Olympic gold medal . Brown decided to forget coaching that season in favor of his mantra to “play the right way” – even if that way meant losing. “Play the right way” was much more than a phrase -- it was a stand. It symbolized a basketball, generational, and racial “culture war” where everyone took a side. Where Wilkens saw amazing talent worth harnessing, Brown saw a point guard who did not play the position “the right way”. So Brown basically tried to turn him into Eric Snow. An often mechanical looking Marbury would post career low stats, and Brown would produce a 23-59 record.
Isiah – Best Talent, Wrong Coach: After inheriting possibly the worst roster in NBA history (no hyperbole), Isiah received brutally unfair criticism for his tenure as Knicks GM. That criticism should have been reserved for Isiah the coach. His famous benching of Marbury would overshadow his dysfunctional starting line-ups, head-scratching substitution patterns, and few set plays beyond “can Jamal or Nate take his man off the dribble?”. After an adequate first year (33-49) that involved key injuries, the second year was like watching ball at Rucker Park – except with fewer team assists. Finishing where Larry started, Thomas would render Marbury useless.
CRIME #1: LINE-UP LUNACY - From 42 to 45
Lenny: The 2004 turnaround was a remarkable feat considering that year’s most common starting line-up was 1) Marbury; 2) Shandon Anderson; 3) Tim Thomas; 4) Kurt Thomas; 5) Nazr Mohammed. While most were usually bench players for other teams, together with Marbury, the Thomas-Thomas-Mohammed frontline was 30-31 over two seasons. Tim could still help spread the floor, Kurt brought gritty defense and his best season of rebounding, and Nazr would play his finest ball in his career. Marbury was particularly efficient at running 15-foot “pick and pops” with teammates like Kurt, Nazr, and Keith Van Horn (before Nazr). He even made Michael Doleac look good. Was this frontline talented? No. Good floor balance? Yes. The entire frontline would soon be traded traded for long-term benefit .
Larry: Mad scientist Brown would: start a front-line of shot vets over promising youngsters; give no steady minute patterns; and set an NBA record with 42 line-ups. That year’s lone bright spot brought a 6-game winning streak where Marbury started alongside rookies Nate Robinson and David Lee. The latter two would soon find themselves into Brown’s infamous rookie doghouse, out of the starting line-up, and receiving 30 or three minutes on any given night. Lee, in particular, would be underutilized by both Brown and Thomas. That year, Marbury’s injuries would leave the Knicks 5-17 without him. If Larry could never make up his mind about line-ups, Isiah could never change his.
Isiah: Starting Marbury alongside a 5-scorer line-up is absurd. Starting Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph together is absurd. Starting a can’t-shoot-unrecovered-from-surgery Q Richardson is absurd. Doing all of the above requires a new word… Don’t spread the floor. Check. Clog up the middle. Check. Eliminate point-guard penetration. Check. Eliminate ball movement. Check. Duplicate defensive liabilities. Check. Blame it all on your point guard. Check… Despite plenty of better fits on the bench, Isiah would not break Eddy-Zach-Q frontline for four months! The Knicks would get crushed every first quarter, but magically play teams even in the 2nd quarter (check the stats). If the number 42 is Brown’s Knick coaching legacy, Isiah’s should be 45: the amount of games that Eddy-Zach-Q started together.
Stephon: Eddy-Zach joined the Marbury-Steve Francis backcourt as Isiah’s second disastrous starting pair. Injuries had robbed Francis of his once great athleticism, but not his head-down-ball-stopping style. In 2006 the Knicks rolled out to a 7-14 record before Isiah decided to bench Francis. For the next 41 games or half-a-season Marbury and Eddy Curry would lead the Knicks to a 21-19 record before injuries to Lee, Jamal, and Q would end their playoff hopes (and bring return of Francis as starter). The young team was running, exciting, and even losing heart breakers with passion. The media would often credit Marbury’s suddenly new “leadership”, or claim that the December 2006 fight with Denver “brought the team together”. The truth? A simple line-up change. In 2005-2006:
Marbury with Francis: 12 points on 38% shooting
Marbury w/o Francis: 18 points on 44% shooting
During this same time, Eddy Curry’s dominance would also rise. Marbury – starving for an inside presence since his Suns playoff year with rookie Amare Stoudemire was more than happy to play second-fiddle. By that summer Stephon would say:
“This is Eddy Curry's team, not Steph's team. This is Eddy Curry's team, and we all have to understand that.”
CRIME #2: COACHING CRAZINESS - Jamal is Not A Point Guard!
By 2007-2008, it was neither Eddy nor Steph’s team – it was Jamal’s team. Crawford’s ankle-breaking crossover, and monthly career game scoring outbursts often worked to seduce fans into thinking one-night-stands might ever become true love. Coupled with his mature off court demeanor and poised interviews, it also seemed to work on his coaches. It seemed as if one play was called in any close game: Jamal-take-man-off-dribble-from-top-of-key. The play calling became so ludicrous that one game the Knicks would lose in overtime as Crawford missed his final 12 shots including the final three taken in regulation. Such an instance is symbolic of both Isiah’s and Larry’s coaching of Crawford. There was none.
Worst of all, both coaches also decided that Marbury share ball-handling duties with Jamal as was once done with Francis. Insanity… Let’s start here.
Marbury Assists Per Game:
9.0 - under Lenny
6.4 - under Larry
5.3 - under Isiah
In Stephon’s first two years under Lenny, the Knicks averaged more than 20 assists per game despite inferior team talent. Under Larry (17.9) and Isiah (18.7) the Knicks were dead last in NBA assists. Transferring partial point-guard duties did not just hurt Stephon – it hurt the Knicks.
Having Jamal bring the ball up meant less team assists, less ball movement, less-fatigued opponents, and less wins. On the plus side, Jamal did throw nice alley-oops to Curry. On the down side, Jamal is a low percentage shooter, is a poor finisher near the rim, does not get to the line much, and can barely run the pick-and-roll. Most importantly, he doesn’t draw double-teams on his drives. Jamal can only break down his man, but Marbury can break down team defenses.
By last year, the combination of crazy line-ups, reduced ball-handling, and even the abandonment of two-man pick plays  would make Marbury more liability than asset. The coaching of Thomas and Brown was so perplexing that fan theories of sabotage were just as likely as coach incompetence. The most benign explanation just might be this: Marbury as a ball dominating point guard offended Brown’s “pure-point-guard” sensibilities, and Isiah could never accept that the double-point backcourt just might fail if the other guy isn’t named Joe Dumars.
CRIME #3: MANAGEMENT MANGLING - Where are the 3-Point Shooters?
In sports it’s like peanut butter and jelly. Pair a great quarterback with a great wide-receiver (sorry Donovan); get a great hitter some back-up protection (sorry Barry), and get an elite “drive-and-dish” point guard some 3-point shooters.
With a one year exception of Kerry Kittles (Nets), Marbury never started alongside another sharp-shooting guard. Beyond one season, his best two 3-point shooters were forwards Keith Van Horn (Nets), and Shawn Marion (Suns) – neither of whom could shoot prior to his arrival. In his two full seasons with Stephon, Marion would shoot 39% from behind the arc, but never higher than 34% in any other season despite playing with both Kidd and Nash.
The minute he arrived to the Knicks, Marbury’s drives to the hoop had amazing results. Spreading the floor widened Marbury’s penetration lanes, and in-turn, his ability to break down defenses aided those shooters right back. Stephon’s kick-outs often began an “around the horn” passing sequence that resulted in no assist, but three points. As a result, every single Knicks long range shooter benefited:
3-Point Shooting Before and After Marbury Trade (2003-2004 season):
Allan Houston: 38% to 51%
Keith Van Horn: 31% to 46%
Tim Thomas: 36% to 41%
Shandon Anderson: 24% to 34%
It is amazing what can happen when a hand is removed from one’s face! Sadly, Houston would only get to play 38 total games with Marbury, and the Knicks would never sign a top long-range shooter after him . That no GM actively and deliberately sought to spread the floor for Marbury is a crime of NBA management.
Perhaps it was because so few could see through awful rosters, the villainizing journalism, and their own “pure point guard” biases to realize that:
Stephon makes his teammates better.
It just has to be the right teammates.
No, he won’t make Crawford better. Jamal, reliant only on his crossover, will shoot 41% with the Bulls, the Knicks, the Warriors, or the Showtime Lakers. No, he won’t make Randolph better. Zach will get his 20 whether Stephon, Baron, or Mardy Collins throws that entry pass. And he definitely won’t make Steve Francis better… But he made the entire 2004 Knicks much better. During the few glimpses of sensible line-ups, he also made Eddy Curry, Channing Frye, David Lee, and Nate Robinson better. A prime Marbury would not just make the currently constructed Orlando Magic better, but possibly champions. Ditto for a younger Allan Houston coupled with an older Ewing.
Sorry Larry, there are no “right ways” to play the point, just “right systems”. Says Marbury’s newest coach and former point guard Doc Rivers: “I never thought he was a pure point guard”. Nor does he care, even if Marbury has lost a step.
This is just how it goes with point guards. High-flyers like Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, and Kenyon Martin will thrive under Jason Kidd – but Josh Howard won’t. Steve Nash goes from a borderline all-star to a borderline Hall-of-Famer -- just by changing his coach. Gary Payton (at any age) goes from an all-star to bum should you reduce him to a spot-up shooter role in a triangle offense. Styles make fights, styles make perceptions, and when misunderstood by media -- styles make villains. But…
What if Joe Dumars spent his whole career with the Pistons cast that averaged 24 wins in back-to-back seasons from 93-95?
What if John Stockton was told to be great, but just forget that whole “pick-and-roll” thing?
What if Baron Davis never gets to runs the break or drive to the hoop again?
And if a player like Stephon Marbury can reach a .500 plateau with the right system and the wrong talent, what could he have done if equipped with both?
These are the real questions we should be asking. Even if it might take away from our favorite “cartoon character”.
 Marbury’s rookie season helped bring the Timberwolves a 14-game improvement and first-ever playoff berth, but his departure began the “selfish” label. In New Jersey, a “loser” label was added, but few reminders that he joined a 3-16 squad. His Suns experience would not be defined by the respectable 2003 playoff showing, but their poor start the following injury-plagued year. Despite averaging over eight assists per game, all of the above would contribute to a “Marbury-as-selfish” narrative before playing a single Knick game.
 Marbury's old teams were followed by the era’s best two point guards, but few reports that Jason Kidd and Steve Nash also received vastly improved rosters. The Nets did not just receive Kidd, but had Kerry Kittles return from injury, had Kenyon Martin move past rookie year growing pains, and drafted Richard Jefferson. The Suns actually got worse after Marbury left. The following year they signed Nash, had Amare return past his second year injuries, and had a maturing Joe Johnson. By comparing Marbury’s tenure to overhauled rosters, Steve Nash is also loser because his Dallas Mavericks team went to the finals “after he left”.
 The 29% winning percentage takes into account his games missed due to injuries and how his past/new teams fared without him from the two midseason trades. Marbury’s winning totals while playing: New Jersey (66-106), Phoenix (92-105), and New York (113-174). Winning totals in Marbury’s absence: Nets (7-35); Suns (17-32); Knicks (38-85).
 A friend tells me of Marbury’s coaching feuds: “if you get into five car accidents, then you are a bad driver!” This makes sense on the surface, but is overly simplistic. Marbury is not blameless by any stretch, but he is both perpetrator and victim. Firstly, Marbury’s last three coaches (D’Antoni, Thomas, Brown) all have their own share of car accidents (Brown’s license should have been revoke 20 years ago!). More accurately, Marbury is that kid with a past felony on his record and cops know full well that they could treat him any way they choose while receiving immunity. His last three coaches all knowingly took advantage of this power dynamic in initiating unfair treatment while Marbury’s reactions to feeling wronged would often help their cause.
 After trading for KJ in 1988, the Suns soon signed a big man complement in all-star Tom Chambers. KJ would run the pick-and-roll all day and night with Chambers when not driving-and-dishing to sharp-shooters like Hornacek and Eddie Johnson. Those latter two names marked an entire career that featured two long-range marksmen (also Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge, Wesley Person, Rex Chapman, etc) for KJ to spread the floor. In a couple of years, the Suns would sign Charles Barkley and go from a perennial playoff team to legitimate title contenders.
 After winning a championship with the Detroit Pistons , Brown would fail to win the Olympic Gold medal. Most notably, he would leave a young Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony on the bench while Lamar Odom and Richard Jefferson logged heavy minutes.
 Seeking youth and athleticism, Isiah soon traded the entire frontline in what eventually netted David Lee, Nate Robinson, Eddy Curry, and Wilson Chandler.
 Isiah virtually abandoned the pick play in favor of one-on-one play by his second year. Gone was Channing Frye’s floor-spacing an occasional pick-and-pops, and in came Zach – the starting line-ups third ball-stopping vacuum. Like Eddy, Zach is only effective for a team as the only low post presence. Marbury was essentially reduced to throwing entry passes – and not very good ones at that.
 In Brown and Isiah’s tenure, the best 3-point shooter would be Nate Robinson, but he and Marbury would rarely play together – presumably for defensive reasons. When not bothered by his back injuries, Quentin Richardson is still only an adequate shooter.