Some time in the not too distant future, some enterprising opera company is going to present a work by a hoops-loving composer based on the life of former New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury. In fact, with the latest chapter in Marbury’s star-crossed saga—his exit from the Knicks after the world’s longest buyout negotiation—and his joining the world-champion Boston Celtics, Marbury’s story has all of the elements of a classic drama. The reason that it will be better suited for opera than a made-for-TV movie is that it isn’t going to end happily if it ends in Boston.
Steph has “baggage,” but in his case, it’s more than that. It’s a mentality that has gotten him driven out of four NBA cities in 10 years. His skill set isn’t a good fit for his new team, and his attitude hasn’t shown any signs of impending maturity. If the Boston Celtics felt they needed more help to defend their title, they are going about recruiting that help in a strange way.
Marbury has been the poster boy for the era of the selfish basketball player. He has compiled stats that at a glance might seem to put him in the elite of all NBA backcourt players. His career averages of 19 points, seven assists and three rebounds a game suggest that he fills up the stat sheet like few guards. But look closer; there are key omissions. He isn’t a good shooter, he’s 43.4 percent for his career which is just below the league average; this is where these numbers deserve attention. Marbury has always been the No. 1 offensive option on his teams. If the No. 1 option can’t even shoot at the league average, then it makes that offense really inefficient. Only twice in Marbury’s 12 seasons has his team ranked among the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Add to this substantial detriment in his game, the fact that Marbury is at best an indifferent defender, and you get the sort of player for whom stats don’t tell the full story.
It is often noted that Marbury’s teams improve markedly when he leaves, and it’s true. The teams either become much better defensively as was the case with the New Jersey Nets who went to the NBA finals in their first two seasons post-Steph, or they become an offensive powerhouse as was the case with the Phoenix Suns after they dumped Marbury on the Knicks toward the middle of the ’03-’04 season. The Knicks have already won more games than they did in all but one of Marbury’s full campaigns with the team.
Marbury understandably chafed at the criticism, but rather than engage in self-examination, he offered memorable quotes. A few years ago, he told the New York Post that he thought he was the best point guard in the league (which proved to many that in their ineptitude, the Knicks truly were in a league of their own). He told New York magazine that if he didn’t play the way that he did that he wouldn’t have received a maximum contract. This baffled those who thought that once an athlete is all but guaranteed eight figures annually that wins and losses should factor into the priority list.
Marbury’s exit from the Knicks was one of the strangest and most protracted goodbyes in sports history. At the start of the season when it became apparent that Marbury did not fit in with the schemes of new coach Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks offered the guard a buyout at a standard NBA rate of about 75 cents on the dollar. This would have amounted to getting a lump sum of more than $16 million to go on about his way and revive his career with a team better suited to his abilities. He refused; he told the press that he wanted every cent that was owed him. I think that’s an admirable stance for an hourly wage worker, but in Marbury’s case it was idiocy. According to Basketball Reference, he had already earned $130 million playing ball before this season. Holding out for several months in an attempt to get three million more made it clear that he was still the same immature ballplayer that wore out his welcome with every team he’s played on.
Reportedly, Marbury and the Knicks split the difference between the original offer and the full contract, meaning that Steph’s intransigence won him a couple million dollars. But it’s the best NBA example of winning the battle and losing the war. Unless Marbury joins Boston and is a shining example of a team player as the Celts roll to another title, the latest stain on Marbury’s reputation is probably too big for him to get another chance in the league. Times are a-changing; teams are strapped for cash and not likely to gamble money on players with questionable reps. The days when a marginal player like Marcus Banks could score a five–year, $25 million contract on the basis of a coach’s hunch are over, and they ended while Marbury was holding out for a better buyout offer.
All that said, I don’t see how Marbury helps the Celtics that much. His role will be as fourth guard behind Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Eddie House. It is pretty rare for a fourth guard to make a major impact. He is a better ballhandler and scorer than Tony Allen and Gabe Pruitt, the players he will replace in the Celtics’ backcourt rotation, but he’s a weaker defender. The Celtics win with defense. Last season, they were one of the best defensive teams in the last 30 years. This year they lead the league in points allowed per 100 possessions.
There is one way that I see Boston coming out OK in the mess. Every team that Marbury has played for improved markedly after he left. Perhaps the Celtics are bringing him on board just to release him and enjoy the bounce just in time for the playoffs.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.