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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Will Stephon Marbury be a 21st Century Bob McAdoo or Mark Aguirre?

Stephon Marbury made his Boston debut on Friday night, scoring eight points on 4-6 field goal shooting while passing for two assists (and committing three turnovers) in 13 minutes as the Celtics beat Indiana, 104-99. Marbury has always been able to put up good individual numbers but throughout his career when he comes to a team that team gets worse and when he leaves a team that team gets better--so it should not be a surprise that in a five point win Marbury accumulated a -7 plus/minus number in his limited action. As I have noted many times, plus/minus numbers are noisy, so maybe it was not Marbury's fault that the Celtics lost ground while he was on the court but it will be interesting to monitor this over a larger sample size of games. Also, while a lot has been said about Marbury's talent, the 31 year old last played in the All-Star Game in 2003. Other All-Stars that season included Jamal Mashburn, Antoine Walker, Steve Francis and Gary Payton; obviously, they are not All-Star players now and it is far from certain that Marbury is anywhere close to being the player that he was in 2003.

There are some examples of star players with questionable reputations accepting lesser roles to play on championship teams. Bob McAdoo and Mark Aguirre helped the Lakers and Pistons respectively win championships in the 1980s but it is a big stretch to compare Marbury to either of those players. As a Buffalo Brave, McAdoo won the 1975 MVP and placed second in MVP voting in 1974 and 1976; he led the league in scoring three straight years, led the league in field goal percentage once and annually ranked among the league leaders in rebounding and blocked shots. He also put up big time numbers in the playoffs, including 37.4 ppg and 13.4 rpg in the 1975 postseason. Aguirre was one of the best scoring forwards in the NBA in the mid-1980s, ranking in the top ten in scoring five times; he led the Dallas Mavericks to the 1988 Western Conference Finals.

In short, McAdoo and Aguirre were truly franchise players, while Marbury has only been a franchise player in his own overactive imagination. McAdoo and Aguirre made important contributions to championship teams because they were elite level players whose skill sets fit in perfectly with what their new teams needed. Marbury is a shoot first point guard with an exaggerated belief in his own abilities and an aversion to playing the tough defense that has been Boston's trademark since acquiring Kevin Garnett. Also, the knocks against McAdoo and Aguirre turned out to be largely unfounded, while Marbury has a long and well documented record of poor on court performance (at least in terms of fitting into a team concept) combined with hefty doses of negative off court drama.

The other part of this situation that cannot be ignored or understated is just how difficult it is for a starting player to not only adjust to coming off of the bench but to be effective in that role (as the Detroit Pistons have recently discovered after benching Rip Hamilton in favor of Rodney Stuckey). Even if a player has the right attitude, this is still not an easy transition to make.

When I asked McAdoo how he made the adjustment to coming off of the bench and having a reduced role, he immediately replied, "Who said I adjusted? I didn’t adjust. I mean, I never complained or anything, but I never adjusted. It was very hard for me mentally to do that for four years--really, for five years, because even when I went to Philly, they wanted to do the same thing and bring me off of the bench. It was something that I had to accept because it is a team game; it’s not like tennis or golf. I didn’t complain, I just dealt with it. That’s the only thing I can say--I dealt with it. I didn’t adjust to it." McAdoo played for two L.A. Lakers championship teams (1982, 1985).

Aguirre expressed similar thoughts to me about his role with the Detroit Pistons, who won championships in 1989 and 1990: “That was the hardest thing that I ever did. It was extremely difficult to produce 14 points in like 24 minutes. So I got through it and nobody will know how difficult that was."

The 2000-01 Portland Trailblazers provide an excellent cautionary tale about just how delicate team chemistry can be. After pushing the eventual champion Lakers to seven games in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Blazers looked like they were going to post the best record in the NBA in 2001. In the second half of the season, they signed Detlef Schrempf to add depth to their frontcourt. Schrempf was a versatile, talented player but adding one more body to the mix had a trickle down effect on the minutes/shot attempts for other players. The Blazers went 8-12 down the stretch and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

The Boston Celtics are a proven championship team--in contrast to that Portland squad--so the analogy is not a perfect fit but there is no denying that it can be risky to add a new player into your rotation late in the season. The Celtics won close to 80% of their games this season prior to signing Marbury. If their winning percentage dips to 70% in the final weeks of the season then the Cleveland Cavaliers could end up with the top record in the Eastern Conference--and that type of winning percentage decline would not be the least bit surprising considering Marbury's track record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM



At Saturday, February 28, 2009 8:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stephon Marbury, NBA Champion...
the very thought of that possibility makes you want to throw up in your mouth! I honestly hope that this blows up in their faces.

A lot of the NBA's image and financial problems, not to mention those ridiculous non-basketball related trades, could be solved by doing away with agents and guaranteed contracts.


At Saturday, February 28, 2009 9:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I do my best to be objective but I have to admit that it is hard to root for Marbury emerging from this season with an NBA championship ring on top of the millions of dollars he received for not playing at all. I am working on a post about Bill Tosheff and the plight of the retired players; a fourth of Marbury's 2008 salary could easily take care of the retired players in question for the rest of their lives.

At Sunday, March 01, 2009 2:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great work as usual. Just wanted to ask what you think of Houston Rockets' winning streak recently without Tracy McGrady. I know that you have written extensively about how Tracy McGrady contributes more to their success than any other player in that team for the past 2 yrs, which can be backed up with statistics. So without Tracy McGrady, what do you attribute to the recent sucess of the Houston Rockets' success?

At Sunday, March 01, 2009 2:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Prior to this season, the Rockets performed like a championship contender (roughly a 55 win pace over 82 games) when T-Mac played and a lottery team when he did not--and this was true whether or not Yao played (half of their huge winning streak last season took place after Yao got hurt).

As you mentioned, this season things have been different and Houston actually has a better winning percentage when T-Mac does not play than when T-Mac plays. I have not looked at the strength of schedule from both subsets of games but even without that being a possible factor there are two explanations for what is different this season:

1) T-Mac was clearly playing hurt all year and his numbers/impact were well below normal. This was not the "real" T-Mac, as proven by the fact that he needs microfracture surgery. I think that he made a mistake similar to the one that Grant Hill made years ago, trying to "prove" his toughness by playing hurt.

2) In order to do better without T-Mac this year, the Rockets did not have to replace an All-NBA caliber performer (which is what T-Mac has been until this year); they only had to replace a 15 ppg scorer who was not shooting well and was not physically able to perform at a high level. The addition of Ron Artest is more than sufficient to offset what T-Mac was able to provide this season.


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