Poor Marbury

By Kevin Pelton
For Hoopsworld.com
Oct. 19, 2002

Itís not easy to feel sympathy for any professional athlete, especially one who hasnít helped his own cause by orchestrating his own trade from a city, then wearing out his welcome there -- not to mention an arrest for DUI.

But if it is possible to pity such a player, then I think I do pity Phoenix Suns guard Stephon Marbury. Over the past year, Iím not sure that any player has taken more unfair criticism (much of it is warranted, but Iíd say more is not) than Marbury.

You see, Marbury didnít decide to trade himself for Jason Kidd. Credit for that decision goes to Rod Thorn of the New Jersey Nets; blame to the Colangelos (pick your favorite out of CEO Jerry and President Bryan) of the Suns. Because those two sides agreed to the deal, Marbury was inseparably linked to Kidd last season, and probably will be at least until one of the two leaves their current team; perhaps theyíll be compared for the rest of their careers.

That Marbury and Kidd are being compared is not a bad thing; itís only natural to make a head-to-head comparison when two players are essentially swapped for each other, as Kidd and Marbury were (oh, sure, you think Soumaila Samake was the key to the deal). When the comparison becomes unfair is when it becomes the 2001-02 Phoenix Suns versus the 2000-01 incarnation, or the same comparison with the New Jersey Nets. There is no denying that the Nets experienced a dramatic turnaround last season and the Suns drop-off, while probably exaggerated, also canít be denied.

However, the implication that Kidd or Marbury are wholly, or even mostly responsible for the differences of the teams is completely unfair to Marbury, who had to play with weaker personnel in each location. In addition to Kidd, the Nets made a number of significant additions before the 2001-02 season. They filled their hole at center with Todd MacCulloch, a dramatic improvement compared to an overmatched Aaron Williams or an underwhelming Evan Eschmeyer. Shooting guard saw a similarly huge upgrade, with a healthy Kerry Kittles replacing over-the-hill Kendall Gill and marginally effective Stephen Jackson. Beyond this, the Nets revamped their bench with the additions of rookies Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins as well as a stunning improvement by backup shooting guard Lucious Harris. The final piece of the puzzle was improved health for forward Keith Van Horn, who played in 81 games last season and only 49 the year before.

Add it all up, and the 2001-02 Nets that Jason Kidd had the opportunity to quarterback shared little in common with Marburyís 2000-01 team. Kidd clearly played a role in New Jerseyís improvement, but to credit all of it to him, as many MVP voters apparently did, is to pretend the contributions of MacCulloch, Kittles, Jefferson, and Collins simply donít exist.

On the other side of the country, Marbury joined a Suns team that had lost more than Kidd from its 2000-01 nucleus. Starting power forward Clifford Robinson was essentially given to the Detroit Pistons in a luxury tax-motivated move; though he was eventually replaced by Bo Outlaw, Outlaw could not come anywhere close to matching Robinsonís effectiveness. Despite that downgrade, the Marbury-led Suns were still in the thick of the playoff hunt before collapsing in the month of February. That motivated Phoenix management to deal impending free agent forward Rodney Rogers and guard Tony Delk to Boston for a package headlined by then-rookie guard Joe Johnson. With two of the teamís top bench weapons out of the picture, the Suns were unsurprisingly a far worse team down the stretch, leading to an exaggerated gap between their 2000-01 and 2001-02 performances.

None of those facts, however, have helped Marbury, who has had to endure unending criticism of the trade and his style of play. The implication is that Marburyís shoot-first offensive style is to responsible for the Sunsí failure last season, but that really doesnít make sense given that they were still a solid team through January. Did Marbury suddenly change his game and become more selfish? I find that proposition a bit difficult to believe.

As well, if Marbury wasnít as effective as the Suns had hoped heíd be last season, he had an easy excuse -- bone spurs in both ankles kept Marbury from playing at 100% for the majority of the season. After Phoenixís season ended, he had surgery on both ankles. With the new state of health came a new state of mind; Marbury showed his dedication to the team by showing up throughout the summer to team events, such as rookie workouts prior to the Draft. He led his younger teammates like Johnson, forward Shawn Marion, and rookie Amare Stoudemire in voluntary workouts during the month of September that helped foster a greater sense of team unity amongst the Suns. And, to his credit, instead of running from his DUI arrest, Marbury faced it like a man, admitting his guilt and serving his time in jail.

Entering training camp, everything seemed to be in place for a revitalized Marbury to have a fine season, prove his detractors wrong, and maybe even lead Phoenix back to the playoffs. That pretty picture was quickly shattered. Before the Suns had even played a game, the pain returned to Marburyís left ankle. A visit to a specialist in New York revealed more bone chips, with the expectation that he would undergo surgery. Instead, Marbury decided to play through the pain and started the next night in Phoenixís exhibition opener against -- who else? -- New Jersey.

Iím not entirely sure what I think of Marburyís decision. The conventional wisdom is that we should admire him for being able to play through pain, but if Marbury is hurting his team by playing at less than 100%, not having the surgery might actually be selfish. Thatís unlikely, however, given the Sunsí poor options to replace him, with Johnson having to serve as point alongside Anfernee Hardaway. Even a Marbury at 85%-90% is a dramatic improvement for the Suns.

Either way, Marbury loses. If he has the surgery, heís more concerned with his own health than the welfare of his team. If he plays and his stats remain depressed, as they were last season, he gets roundly criticized for not being better. The traditional media can be funny that way. And if the Suns again miss the playoffs, things get even worse. Every season preview article written about Phoenix makes it clear that the media sees the teamís fate as entirely tied to Marbury. If they miss the playoffs, itís because heís selfish, immature, and not the player that Kidd is.

From covering the Suns since late May, even if from 1000 miles away, Iíve gained the opinion that Marburyís attempts to play a larger leadership role are sincere. I also donít think heís a selfish player -- at least not any more selfish than Gary Payton, Jason Terry, Steve Francis or any shoot-first point guard. None of those guys have faced the same kind of criticism as Marbury (of course, theyíve never been traded for Kidd either). Why Marbury? I donít think itís unfair to say that his maturity might have been lacking during his early years in Minnesota -- he wasnít old enough to drink when he got there . . . of course he was a little immature! -- but this outdated perception seems to have held on too long.

This might have become the season where Marbury turned things around and became the hero and not the villain. Bone spurs seem to have significantly reduced the chances of that happening. But there is still time for Marbury, since he is part of a talented young group of players that is only going to continue to improve, especially when the Suns are able to shed the contract of Tom Gugliotta and, eventually, Hardaway. If he stays in Phoenix -- and, based on his public comments, he desperately wants to -- Marbury and the Suns can put together something special.

Maybe then, Marbury can stop hearing his arrival in Phoenix described as an awful trade. It will only be fair.

Kevin Pelton is the lead Pacific editor for News@Hoopsworld.com He can be reached via e-mail at kpelton@sonicscentral.com.