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Friday, September 26, 2008

Marbury is No Mozart

"A young musician who longed to create beautiful music once asked Mozart how to become a great composer. 'It is first necessary to play an instrument well,' said Mozart. 'Of course, one must also learn the basic rules of composing and be familiar with the work of all the great composers of the past.' 'But you were only six when you began to write music!' interjected the young musician. Mozart replied: 'That's true, but I never thought to ask anyone as you're doing now.'" Story told by Grandmaster Pal Benko and reprinted in Compose Like Mozart.

A true genius can make the most difficult and intricate task seem ridiculously simple. Think of a healthy Tiger Woods. Think of Michael Jordan. Think of Prince producing, composing and writing albums while also playing multiple instruments and providing multiple vocals. Think of Bobby Fischer sweeping aside other Grandmasters as if they were children who had just learned how the pieces move. Think of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who committed to memory thousands upon thousands of words when he composed his books while in Soviet prison camps; most people can barely remember a grocery shopping list but he wrote and then memorized a stark and eloquent account of the brutality of the "Gulag Archipelago."

On the other hand, those who are not geniuses can make the easiest and most straightforward task seem impossibly difficult. Rather than single out "non-geniuses" by name, think of a football team that cannot get the proper 11 players on the field at the same time and then cannot get those 11 players to act in unison before and/or after the snap. Think of a basketball player who forgets the play between the time he leaves the huddle and the time that the ball is inbounded. Think of a golfer who cannot make a simple putt or who could win a tournament by making straightforward shots but instead inexplicably takes unnecessary risks and whose path around the course transforms from a victory lap to a bizarre safari. Think of a writer who cannot get simple facts straight, let alone use proper grammar or communicate in an engaging, lively manner.

Stephon Marbury is no Mozart of the hardwood. Marbury possesses certain obvious physical talents--speed, ballhandling skills, shooting ability, good strength for his size--but he neither instinctively makes the right play nor has he--paraphrasing Mozart from the above story--sufficiently familiarized himself with the work of the great composers (playmaking guards) of the past. Mozart never had to think in conventional terms about becoming a composer because he understood how to apply his talent in a way that synthesized and then expanded upon the work of previous great composers. Marbury has tried to take the same "shortcut" but without the benefit of being a basketball visionary genius. Magic Johnson passed the ball the way that Mozart composed music; like Mozart, Magic did not have to think about all of the intermediary steps in his development. A great chess player once said that his philosophy was to do things as they must be done and then see what happens--but this presupposes having the vision/talent/training necessary to see what must be done; it used to be said of Fischer that he could throw a piece in the air and it would land on the best square. For Magic, that meant seeing that his teammate would become open before even that teammate realized it and then delivering the ball through the hapless defense in such a manner that the teammate could not only catch the pass but also attempt a shot that he had a good chance of making based on his skill set.

The construction of Marbury's game is the very opposite of such genius; Magic passed the ball to make plays and to win games, while Marbury passes the ball to get assists and thus to use statistics to "prove" his value and obtain a bigger contract. One might object that ultimately there is no difference between Magic accumulating assists and Marbury accumulating assists but to think such a thing--let alone say it--betrays a complete lack of understanding of the sport (and of genius). Magic passed the ball not with the goal of getting an assist for himself but because the pass was the right play in that given situation. Marbury passes the ball if and only if, in his estimation, the recipient is likely to immediately shoot and score, thus padding Marbury's assist total. One problem with this is all of the passes Marbury does not throw because he does not think that they will boost his statistics. Another problem with this is all of the bad shots Marbury then takes in lieu of making good passes. A third problem with this is that Marbury in general is not interested in doing anything on the court that does not make him look good on the stat sheet--matters such as defense or any action when he does not have the ball other than figuring out how to get the ball back in his hands so that he can resume padding his stats.

During his NBA career, Marbury has played for Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix and New York. Almost without fail, when he leaves a team that team performs better and when he joins a team that team performs worse. In layman's terms, he's a loser. He may be a wonderful human being--I don't know, I've never met the man--but as a point guard, as a basketball floor general, he is a loser: his teams lose and, what's worse, rather than accept responsibility for those losses he consistently offers excuses while at the same time providing ridiculous self-evaluations of his play. When Terrell Owens proclaims, "Who can make a play? I can!" you may be amused by his bravado or merely annoyed by it but you cannot deny the obvious fact that a player who ranks second in receiving touchdowns in NFL history can--and does--make plays. However, when Stephon Marbury earnestly proclaims that he is the best point guard in the NBA all you can do is wonder if he is delusional and/or high.

This may sound overly simplistic, but in any walk of life you cannot win with losers; you can only win with winners (that is why I have quite confidently and repeatedly stated that no team with Gilbert Arenas as its starting point guard will ever advance past the second round the playoffs). I don't know what the Knicks plan to do with Marbury--and economic considerations may be impacting that decision at least as much as the front office's long term vision of how the team should play the game on the court--but they will not be a successful team until they remove him from the roster, either by trading him or by just waiving him outright.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM



At Friday, September 26, 2008 11:45:00 AM, Blogger Big E said...


As usual you make a very compelling case concerning Stephon Marbury's value (or lack thereof) as an NBA point guard. I must admit that initially I was a Stephon Marbury fan as I seem to gravitate to NYC guards.

However, Marbury has consistently demonstrated that he is more of a negative than positive in the NBA. At least Arenas hasn't had the same reeked as much havoc as has Marbury :)

At Friday, September 26, 2008 1:01:00 PM, Blogger Arif Lee said...

I agree entirely about Marbury since you have valid points (and I don't like the way he presents himself) but why Arenas? care to share :D great article btw

At Friday, September 26, 2008 4:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Everything with Arenas is about the show, i.e. about him; he's basically the NBA version of "Ocho Cinco." Arenas is no doubt a very talented player, an All-Star level player, but he is being touted--and touts himself--as an MVP level, franchise player and he most assuredly is neither of those things. The other problem now for Washington is that he is being paid like an MVP level player, which means that there is less salary cap room to bring in the kind of help that he would need to take Washington past the second round of the playoffs--and I'm not even getting into the very real possibility that physically he may never return to his old form; I'm talking strictly about the game that he has always played when he had no injury problems.

I've done several posts about Arenas in recent seasons and they are easy enough to find by searching this site with "Arenas" as the key word; one thing that stands out is that Arenas' absences have had very little negative effect on the Wizards' record. Washington's record is much more sensitive to whether or not Butler plays than whether or not Arenas plays. If Butler had not missed so many games last year, Washington would likely have had the best record of the "Arenas era"--without Arenas! Apparently, Wizards' fans love his quirkiness and people who call themselves stat gurus have convinced themselves that Arenas is productive or efficient or whatever the word of the day is but Arenas simply is not nearly as good as many people think that he is.

At Friday, September 26, 2008 8:34:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...


You are absolutely on point with your statements about Arenas. However, he is still a very gifted player (when healthy) who racks up big scoring performances, hits gamewinners from the parking lot, throws jerseys into the crowd, etc. In other words, he sells tickets and merchandise even though his game is more style than substance, much like Vince Carter. So you either overpay for his talent and popularity like Washington did, or you let him go for nothing and face the fan backlash. The best thing for Washington (from a basketball standpoint) would obviously be to trade him for a natural point guard or a quality frontcourt player and build around Butler and Jamison. Never gonna happen of course for a number of reasons, but the Arenas factor will make it really difficult for the Wizards to develop into a cohesive unit this season.

Regarding Marbury, if you ever wanted evidence to show how raw stats can be misleading about a player's value, that guy is Exhibit A. Look at his numbers and you wonder why his teams never accomplish anything until he leaves. Then you watch him play and it all becomes patently obvious.

At Saturday, September 27, 2008 1:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are quite correct that Washington's front office faced a choice between overpaying Arenas (based on what he is worth purely in terms of his talent/on court contributions) or offering him what he is worth and running the risk of facing fan backlash if another team decided to overpay in order to acquire his services.

At Sunday, September 28, 2008 4:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - Re stat gurus who have convinced themselves Arenas is efficient, well, he is an efficient, prolific scorer. But he is not a great rebounder or defender and he commits a lot of turnovers. Overall, I think most stat gurus would agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. He is a very good but not close to elite level player who is not worth a full max contract.

As for Marbury, the stats tell the story, just as they do for Magic. Marbury has been a marginally above average player for his NBA career. Magic's stats on the other hand indicate that in his prime (through 1991) he was one of the two best players of the last 30 years.

I don't know if there is a difference between an assist from Magic and an assist from Marbury I do know that Magic averaged nearly 4 more assists per 36, .7 of a steal, scored more, and had a huge edge in scoring efficiency (61% ts%) and rebounding.

The stats tell the same story about these players as you do, although much less eloquently...

Hopefully, we are entering an era where players like Marbury will understand that they can't fool people into thinking they are great players by scoring a lot at low efficiency and playing only for themselves.


At Wednesday, October 01, 2008 1:42:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

I dont even know why you wasted time on this clown. Hes a disgrace.


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