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Monday, March 09, 2009

"Marbury Effect" May Tip the Balance in Tight Race for Top Seed

After Cleveland's disappointing loss in Boston on Friday, some commentators took the predictable and easy route of jumping off of the Cavs' bandwagon and proclaiming that the Celtics will finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. This is yet another example of hype and superficiality triumphing over thoughtful analysis. As things stand right now, the Cavs are two games ahead of the Celtics in the loss column; Cleveland has 20 games remaining, while the Celtics have just 18 games left.

The Cavs are 28-1 at home and will play 12 of their last games at Quicken Loans Arena. Only two of their eight upcoming road games are against teams that currently have winning records. The Cavs are 8-2 since the All-Star break, which is right in line with their overall winning percentage this season. If they maintain that pace, they will finish with a 65-17 record.

The Celtics will play nine games at home and nine on the road. They are just 5-4 overall since the All-Star break. If Cleveland wins 65 games, then the Celtics would need to go 16-2 down the stretch to tie them.

Obviously, the April 12 meeting between these teams in Cleveland looms as a hugely important game. It is worth remembering that the home team has won the previous 15 games in this series, which means that Friday's result was not some landmark event but rather a continuation of a trend; that also means that it is reasonable to say that Cleveland will likely win the April 12 game, which would force the Celtics to make up three games in the loss column in their other 17 games down the stretch.

Just by looking at the schedule, it is obvious that--objectively speaking--the Cavs should still be considered the favorite to finish with the best record in the East. The Cavs are in pretty good shape on the injury front, with the notable exception of starting power forward Ben Wallace, who is expected to miss the rest of the regular season due to his broken leg. Wallace's absence has hurt the Cavs in the paint and significantly reduced their margin for error but the Cavs have a good sized margin for error considering that they lead the league in point differential. They have gone 5-1 without Wallace and, although some of their remaining games will probably be closer than they would have been with a healthy Wallace patrolling the paint, the Cavs will most likely be able to continue to hover around that .800 winning percentage.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have been depleted by injuries. Kevin Garnett has missed eight straight games due to injury and it is not certain when he will be able to return. Rajon Rondo is battling a sprained ankle that forced him to miss Sunday's loss to Orlando. Glen "Big Baby" Davis--who has played well in Garnett's absence--sprained his right ankle versus Orlando and did not return to the game. Reserve guard Tony Allen is expected to be out until the playoffs as he recovers from thumb surgery. The strange thing with the Celtics is that, even though Garnett played a pivotal role in transforming them into a championship team, they have been successful without him in the lineup; last year, the Celtics went 9-2 in games that Garnett missed and they are 8-3 sans the "Big Ticket" this season.

I would put an asterisk on that third loss, though, because that game--the aforementioned Orlando defeat--is the first game that Stephon Marbury started for the Celtics this year. The Celtics' 17-4 record in the first 21 games that Garnett missed over the past two seasons suggests that they can perform at a high level in his absence, at least for short stretches. However, even for the reigning champions it is asking a lot to try to keep winning after inserting Marbury into the starting lineup.

Marbury has only been with Boston for five games but don't expect him to be a Bob McAdoo or Mark Aguirre who puts the Celtics over the top; as I wrote right after Marbury joined the Celtics, Boston was an .800 team prior to his arrival but if that percentage dips to even .700 down the stretch it could cost the team a shot at the number one seed. Every team Marbury has joined has gotten worse and every team he has left has improved, so why would anyone expect that trend to reverse now? The Celtics are 3-2 since Marbury arrived (he came off of the bench in his first four games). He is averaging 2.8 ppg and 2.4 apg while shooting .333 from the field and committing 2.0 turnovers and 1.8 fouls per game. Marbury had a game-worst -14 plus/minus number in the Orlando game. During his sabbatical from the Knicks before the team bought out his contract, Marbury seems to have lost his shooting stroke and his ballhandling skills while at the same time becoming even worse defensively than he had been before (which is saying something). Plus/minus numbers can be "noisy" but the only thing that Marbury's numbers are shouting is, "Take this guy out of the game, Coach!" Doc Rivers admitted after the game that he went against his instincts by starting Marbury.

I've heard a lot of people say that the Celtics took no risk signing Marbury because if he is unproductive and/or starts trouble then they will simply cut him loose. I disagree that Boston took no risk--the risk is that the Celtics perform worse after signing him than they did before and that is exactly what has happened. The Celtics outrebounded the Magic and played them to a draw in terms of points in the paint--two areas where Garnett's absence would be most keenly felt--but with Marbury running the show they shot just .395 from the field and had only 10 assists. Marbury had zero assists in 21 minutes of action as the starting point guard!

Clearly, Marbury is not solely responsible for the Orlando loss or for Boston's record in his five games with the team but he has not been an effective player so far for the Celtics and there is no indication that he will be an effective player any time soon. The Celtics should be getting their rotation set in preparation for a deep playoff run, but instead they are in effect running a delayed training camp for a player who has never proven that he can contribute meaningfully to a team that makes a deep playoff run.

The talking heads can go nuts over Friday's game but I think that the Cavs unofficially clinched the best record in the East as soon as the ink dried on Marbury's Boston contract.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:48 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Monday, March 09, 2009 11:55:00 AM, Blogger SamiA said...

Great read. I think the worst that could happen is kind of like the Cassell situation last year. The Celtics worked him into the rotation and it took the offense out of their rhythm. Of course, they did recover

 
At Monday, March 09, 2009 1:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David:

Excellent post. Marbury once used be the only player in NBA history with career averages of 20 points and 8 assists (besides Oscar Robertson). Putting Marbury in the same sentence as Big O is a disgrace, the biggest disgrace of them all.

-Tomislav

 
At Monday, March 09, 2009 2:15:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I'm with you David. I seriously doubt Marbury will be a major help for the Celtics. Here's a guy who is used to playing 35-40 minutes every night (this season being the obvious exception) and has had carte blanche with the ball in his hands throughout his NBA career. To suddenly become a backup playing 15-20 minutes a night would be a tough adjustment for anyone, let alone a guy with Marbury's me-first style of play and attitude. Even if he wants to fit into his new role (as I'm sure he does), I don't think he can do so effectively, especially after missing the first 4 months of the season.

A backup PG generally needs to be able to run the offense efficiently and avoid mistakes, while a starter may have the luxury of taking more risks and shooting himself into a rhythm if he starts off cold. Can Marbury go from being a volume scorer who dominates the ball to being an efficient, mistake-free player? We'll find out in the next couple of months but I know where I'd put my money...

 
At Monday, March 09, 2009 5:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

SamiA:

A big difference between Cassell and Marbury is that Cassell had previous experience being a reserve player on a championship team (though his role in Houston was obviously much bigger than his role in Boston). Cassell scored 10 points in limited minutes in each of Boston's first two playoff wins over Atlanta and he had 13 points in 15 minutes in Boston's game five win after Atlanta won games three and four at home. Cassell scored 13 points (third highest on the team) in Boston's 76-72 game one win over Cleveland. His overall playoff stats were not great but he had an impact on several Boston playoff wins. He also was a good locker room presence for the team.

 
At Monday, March 09, 2009 5:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tomislav:

The Big O had 10 20 ppg/8 apg seasons--the most of all-time.

Marbury is second in NBA history with six such seasons.

I often cite this as a perfect example of the limitations of relying solely on numbers to compare/evaluate players.

 
At Monday, March 09, 2009 6:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Marbury's offensive struggles with Boston are easy to track statistically but if I were a Celtics fan I'd be at least as concerned about the fact that he is a sieve defensively. The Celtics are a defensive oriented team and Marbury does not fit in at all in that regard.

Perhaps if he were super efficient offensively that would compensate for his defensive shortcomings but Marbury has never been an efficient offensive player and now he is struggling just to shake off rust, so getting efficient offensive play from him is just a dream for the foreseeable future.

 

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