Thursday, November 27, 2008

The $20 Million Burn

Stephon Marbury is getting paid twenty-two million dollars this season. To sit on the bench. In street clothes.

That’s twenty-two million dollars. To sit on the bench. In street clothes.

It just has to be repeated to be believed. Even in this day and age of crazy salaries and crazier players and owners, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could get paid so much for doing so little.

The team that’s paying Marbury is the New York Knicks, a franchise that has fallen so far into the abyss of bad, that even the Los Angeles Clippers have a better reputation in the basketball world right now.

Marbury came to New York under different management amid hope that he might find a home in his home town. But if there’s anything we’ve learned about the guy they call Starbury, it’s that he has never been interested in anything but his own damn self.

I mean here is a guy who couldn’t find a way to play with Kevin Garnett. That’s how badly he wanted to be The Man. Everywhere he goes, he only reinforces his rep as a Cancer, no more so than this week when he has not once but twice refused to suit up for the Knicks who are short-handed because of cap-clearing trades and injuries.

It's been argued by some that Marbury has a legitimate beef with his bosses, who decided they didn't want him anymore and would rather he just take a buy out (a percentage of the money he's owed) and go away. This has been an ongoing saga since the middle of last season and every day the $22 million dollar man sits on the end of bench in long pants, has been one more day of the drama. Marbury has sat there quietly and yet ... well his just being there speaks volumes. Say the Knicks deserve what they get. The current owner was the owner when they acquired Marbury -- not like his ridiculous NBA max salary was a big ol' secret neither.

Marbury seems intent on walking away on his terms. Even if it costs him whatever shred of a decent rep he's got left. Seems to me a guy like Marbury who has spent 12 years in the NBA, who has never been near a championship, or ever been considered much of a team player, who has only so much left for pro ball, ought to have embraced this as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.

It's not like it hasn't been done before. Think about it ... sports, politics, entertainment, they run on comebacks. It's our national pastime to embrace the bad guy/girl-turned-good story. As much as we seem to relish a good take down, it's the rise from the ashes we truly love. There is not a place in the world that roots harder and louder and with more passion for the underdog than this here U-nited States of America and the capital of comebacks is New York City. I mean pu-leaze, they wrote a damn song about it.

It's to Stephon Marbury's detriment that this is one lesson he has not yet learned.

Gotta be a difficult decision for any team to put a healthy guy on the pines. But GM Donnie Walsh and coach Mike D’Antoni, both in their first full seasons with the team, weren’t around when the Knicks traded for Marbury (getting him from D’Antoni’s Suns). He didn’t fit in then and never evolved from a look-to-score-first point guard with little appreciation for the limits of his abilities and no appreciable defensive abilities. As far as the new Knicks braintrust is concerned, he never really gave the Knicks any indication that he was figuring this out.

I had a chance to cover Marbury when he first came into the league. I knew his college coach from my days covering the ACC and he had always raved about his gifts, athletically and otherwise. But Marbury may be a classic example of a talent crowned way too early. He was such a star in his hometown of Brooklyn that he was called Starbury before he could shave. He grew up as Clyde Frazier might put it, trumping and thumping the expectations of the greats that had come before him. And he left college after just one season as the point guard for a good, but not even remotely great team, even though two of his teammates were future NBAers too.

Point guard is one of those positions in basketball that requires schooling. To be really good, it's not enough to just have the raw skills. Maybe you can't teach "feel" and reaction, but you can teach strategy and how to recognize defenses and understanding the subtlties of offense, knowing where your teammates are going before they do. LeBron James was annointed any number of ways before he even played one NBA game. That had wonderful instincts as a passer was not in question. But go back and watch his first year or two -- oh, he's wonderful to watch but more often than not, it's clear he has almost no idea what he's doing. He's just reacting. Fast forward to the present. The kid has totally upped his game. (Watch out, too. He's gonna get even better and it's going to be wicked fun to watch.)

Marbury has never really stayed in any situation long enough to learn how to be a true point guard. Plus, he bought into his own hype anyway and you would too if the world has been telling you how great you are since the day you dribbled a basketball. Sadly, he never realized that his talent was only going to take him this far and no farther.

Stephon Marbury is stuck. And he doesn't have a clue how he got here.

It's sad. He clearly loves to play basketball. He used to play it with such joy and his size and strength and speed -- he was the whole package. He’s done some good things for the community. As an interview, he was almost always forthright, helpful and polite. He seemed like he had a bright, active mind. But he doesn't appear to be thinking this through. How else do you explain a guy whose basketball life is dying an untimely death by his own hand and he doesn't even know it? You can’t even blame his agent – he doesn’t have one.

Maybe playing might not have saved him, but not playing hasn’t been the answer. If he shows he’s still got some game, he might have convinced a desperate GM to take a shot at him. Hell, Larry Brown hasn’t made a trade since he returned to coaching (his first coaching kid since a brutal and brief stint in New York coaching Marbury). The legendary roster flipper has got to be itching to make a deal, even for a guy he once rode like an evil step father.

But refusing to even suit up is just one more boldly dumb move by Marbury who seems unable to see how much the landscape has changed since he signed his NBA max deal. The Knicks have been overhauling their roster with an eye to a future that has never realistically involved Marbury. They have a slew of youngsters who need to play, players at the age where a well-respected coach like D’Antoni can mold to his system.

The goal of course is something much, much bigger – a reality Marbury seems blind to. The worst-kept secret in the sports world is that New York is gearing up for 2010 and what is expected to be best free-agent class, possibly in the history of the NBA. The way to get there is to stop what they were doing the past decade – acquiring relatively well-known quasi-stars with big, long-term salaries. The thinking was that these players were being dumped for financial reasons that had nothing to do with talent. To be sure, it was Isiah Thomas, as GM, and owner James Dolan -- perhaps the worst sports owner ever, a title for which you might be surprised has a lot of competition – who were the suckers, uh, I mean architects of this strategy.

Of course it failed. Miserably. All it got the Knicks was a roster of grossly overpaid, mismatched guys who they couldn’t give away. It’s now fallen on the new leadership, with Dolan thankfully remaining on the sidelines, to shed these contracts. The endgame is to get far enough under the cap to afford to make a legit run at James or Dwayne Wade or Chris Bosh or a combination of two of the above.

Last week, Walsh engineered two deals that put them well ahead of schedule. The guys they traded had salaries beyond 2010 and are still relatively young, but Marbury’s money comes off the books after this season. If it wasn’t for that huge salary, he might be a hot commodity – perhaps for a team that needs a point guard for a late-season run or as a rental to fill in for an injury. But so far, there’s been no takers. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to add him to my rec league team at this point.

And if Walsh can’t get a decent draft pick or a couple guys with low or expiring contracts, there’s no reason to trade him. In a perfect world, a buy out helps both parties. But Marbury would rather be petulant.

Marbury has had a difficult year, for sure but most of it was his fault. After feuding with Brown, he fought with Thomas, who knows a thing or two about volatile, talented point guards who like to shoot. He tried to take Marbury under his wing but in the end, it was his decision to remove him from the starting lineup that doomed Marbury’s season last year. Shortly after he returned to the lineup, his father died during a game. Marbury took some time off, but perhaps came back too early, the tragedy still unresolved for him, as it would be for anyone facing that. The rest of the year was one long lost weekend.

And when the Knicks brought in Walsh who in turn kicked Thomas to the curb -- to the delight of Knicks fans everywhere -- and brought in D'Antoni, the window of opportunity for Marbury was going to be small. I don't know how hard he tried to fit into D'Antoni's run-and-gun system. I don't know how he was in practice or if he made an effort to fit in, especially at the realization that other, younger players were going to play in front of him. I know he came into camp in great shape and he sort of said the right things to the press, but apparently Walsh and D'Antoni didn't get the impression that there star was going to be okay as one of the anonymous boys at the end of the bench.

So they asked him to take a buy out. Negotiations continued and no deal materialized. And then they told him that he wasn't going to play and the season began and the Knicks were not as bad as everyone thought they'd be. And then, well, then the LeBron James fire sale began in earnest -- a lot earlier than expected.

During the past week, the Knicks made two separate trades, dealing (among others) the team's two leading scorers this season. And one player they received in return, guard Cutino Mobley, has yet to play because of a problem discovered on his routine physical. Another guard is hurt and with Mobley not in uniform yet, the Knicks found themselves undermanned. Marbury was asked to suit up. He said no.

After he skipped Tuesday night’s game against the Pistons, teammate Quintin Richardson was quoted as saying he felt that Marbury wasn't even part of the team anymore.

“I don’t consider him my teammate. He hasn’t played with us all year,” Richardson told the New York Times. “He didn’t want to play with us. I don’t look at him as a teammate because teammates don’t do that.”

Times columnist William Rhoden wrote one of the few recent columns that doesn't make Marbury out to be the bad guy. His point is valid to a point -- I think he glosses over Marbury's role in this whole drama -- if he was a good teammate in the first place, there wouldn't be any need for this silly melodrama.

Whatever is motivating Marbury, he seems bent on sticking it to Knicks management. I would argue that most Knicks fans would like to do the same thing, too, but it’s doubtful many of us would do it at such a cost to our own reputations. As hard as it is to believe one team could make so many bad moves in such a short period of time, buying out Marbury doesn’t seem like one of them. If Walsh and D’Antoni don’t think he’s committed to the team, than what choice do they have?

Sports is a business. You look out for yourself. We’ve all heard athletes repeat those mantras. But doesn’t looking out for yourself include owning your mistakes and demonstrating that whatever your personal goals may be, you believe in the brotherhood of team?

If Marbury has proven consistent at anything over his career, it’s that he’s only out for himself. He had a chance to repair some of that damage. Whether he got bad advice or he’s just mad doesn’t matter. He’s not going to win this war.

That doesn’t mean he’s not going to get his. Oh, he’s gonna get paid. It might even happen this week, as the Knicks seem ready to give into his petulance and pay him his $22 million dollars. I’m sure he’s going to see it as a victory.

But at what cost to his own soul?

Update (November 28, 2008): The Knicks announced Sunday that they have suspended Marbury for one game for refusing to play. The suspension carries a one-game fine -- which is just under $200,000 for those counting at home. Meanwhile, Marbury was quoted in the New York papers as saying he doesn't "trust" D'Antoni and that the whole situation is the fault of Knicks' management. The NBA Players Association said they would appeal the "baseless" action. The plot thickens.

Marbury during better days.

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