Sticking up for Starbury

by Dax-Devlon Ross

the HNIC Report 

When exactly did it become cool to hate on Stephon Marbury? When he demanded a lucrative contract from Minnesota and triggered the end of the potential “Dynasty” he and KG could’ve established? When he destroyed Keith Van Horn’s confidence? When Jason Kidd took the Nets to the Finals a season after his departure? When Steve Nash turned the Suns around just one season after he led them to a start? When he claimed he was the best point-guard in the NBA? When he led the U.S. team to its first bronze medal in the Dream Team era? When he bullied Larry Brown out of town?

While it’s hard to pin-point precisely when the well-springs of Starbury love dried up, if you answered yes to any one of the above questions chances are you’ve been victimized by biased media spin that first frames the issue then offers the only tenable perspective. Stephon’s departure from Minnesota has always been cast as him being selfish; him wanting to be the Man; him being a fool for not wanting to play with Kevin Garnet. But let’s look at the facts, shall we. At the ages of 19 and 20, Marbury was averaging roughly 17 points and 8.5 assists per game. The T’Wolves were solid, but they were never going to be serious contenders with Tom Gugliota as their leading or even second leading scorer. The Lakers were just beginning their reign, the Kings were finding their rhythm, the Trailblazers were building one of the deepest teams the league has ever seen, San Antonio had the best power forward/center combination in the game and a gritty, crafty backcourt, and the Jazz were still, as always, hanging around. As much potential as Garnett and Marbury had, the two of them alone would’ve been no match for the fire power those other teams could throw at them on any given night. What people were seeing – what they wanted to see – was Malone and Stockton all over again— the next generation if you will. What people didn’t fully appreciate was that Utah is a unique NBA franchise that can hardly be duplicated anywhere else in large part because of the state’s ultra-conservative culture. Utah fans are more supportive and patient than any sports fans in the country and because of that the organization reflects a certain loyalty, wholesomeness and consistency that is unmatched anywhere in the NBA. So, on that front, Marbury wasn’t working with any guarantee of success.

As far as the money is concerned, people seem to forget that it was Kevin Garnet’s contract that created the climate for the 1998 NBA Lockout. When Garnet signed his unprecedented $126 million dollar deal league owners had conniptions. Rather than allow salaries to ruin their franchises, and, ultimately the league, they chose to close up shop. Marbury probably had more at stake than any other player in the league. Statistically speaking, the 20 year-old Marbury and the 21 year-old Garnett were about even. Garnet averaged 18.5 and 9.6 rebounds while Marbury averaged 17.7 and 8.6 assists. Given their alleged importance to the franchise’s future, Marbury had every right to expect he was next in line to be laced and every right to demand the team pay him market value or trade him to someone who could. He would’ve been a fool to listen management’s pleas for patience, an idiot to believe its homilies on building a contender, especially when you consider the franchise’s playoff record in the post-Marbury era: not pretty.

The Wolves were nevertheless successful in painting themselves as the victims of 1) a pre-lockout market that allowed Garnet to bully them into an insane deal that wiped out their bank accounts and 2) a selfish point guard who would rather get paid then win championships alongside an ideal big man. Their cause was buttressed by the team’s 50-32 record a season after Marbury’s departure; however, the record (which was only five wins better than Stephon’s second season when they went 45-37 with mediocre talent and as yet unripe KG) reflected the addition of Terrell Brandon, Wally Szczerbiak, Malik Sealy, Joe Smith, Bobby Jackson and Rasho Nesterovic. Even with 50 wins, though, the team exited in the first round of the 2000 playoffs.

Meanwhile, Marbury continued to excel even as his new team, the Nets, foundered through a miserable 16-34 lockout shortened season. In 31 games with a Nets squad that included players we now regard, if at all, as second raters – Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles, Kendall Gill and Jayson Williams – Marbury averaged 23 points and almost 9 assists. The 1999-2000 Nets didn’t fare much better, finishing 31-51. The second best player on that team was Keith Van Horn, a man no one will ever accuse of not being a bust. Despite posting strong numbers, Van Horn was not a power forward and was already beginning to show signs of sugary blood. Marbury was flanked on the wings by an aging, unspectacular small forward with a delusions of grandeur in Kendall Gill and a rickety shooting guard – twenty missed games – who couldn’t shoot very well in Kerry Kittles. Both averaged a quiet 13 points per game and a combined 6 rebounds and 6 assists per game. Inside, the Nets had a squadron of slow-footed heels: Jim McIlvaine, Jamie Feick, Evan Eschmeyer and Gheorghe Mueresan. Eschmeyer and Mueresan missed a total of 103 games while McIlvaine and Feick averaged a combined 8 points and 12 rebounds.

The Nets 2000-01 season was a disaster even before it officially began. Kittles missed the entire season with a knee injury. Van Horn missed the first 32 games of the season with a fractured tibia. Kenyon Martin, the team’s one dimensional first round draft choice, broke his leg with two months left in the season. In total, the Nets lost 345 games due to injury. First year coach Byron Scott was never able to develop any chemistry or consistency on the team and yet Marbury managed to make his first All-Star game, averaging 24 points and 7.5 assists. In gratitude for his yeoman efforts on a dismal team Marbury was traded to Phoenix.

But what of the charge that he destroyed Van Horn’s confidence, publically rebuking him, then, at times, seeming to freeze him out of the offense? Well, we adored that quality in Michael Jordan. We read it as ‘tough love’ when he challenged Scottie to step up after Pippen’s infamous “migraine” in game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons, and even suggested he was “soft.” Marbury, meanwhile, was labeled a bad teammate for picking on poor Van Horn, the # 2 draft pick behind Tim Duncan and the heir apparent to Bird before Dirk stole his thunder.

A year after Marbury’s departure from New Jersey, the Nets made it all the way to the Finals before being shellacked by the Lakers. Many would argue that the real NBA Finals had between L.A. and Sacramento and that the Nets team wouldn’t have made it out of the second round if they were in the West. Those criticisms notwithstanding, the Marbury-Kidd trade was billed as the far and away deciding factor behind the Nets turnaround. As a result Marbury’s reputation as a selfish, moody, curmudgeon began to congeal into a unmoveable mass of hate. The fact is, though, comparing Marbury’s time in New Jersey to Kidd’s is patently unfair. Not only was the East a woefully weaker conference in the Post Jordan era (remember the 76ers team that made it a year earlier), Kidd had more than a little help from his teammates. For the first time in four years the Nets were relatively injury free. Kittles played all 82 games after missing the previous season. Martin only missed a total of nine games. Van Horn missed only one game. Center Tod Maccolough averaged a respectable 9 points and 6 boards. And their top four players off the bench -Jason Collins, Aaron Williams, Richard Jefferson (the surprise rookie of the season) and Lucious Harris – missed a total of 13 games.

Meanwhile, Marbury inherited a team that had gone 51-31 the previous year. Again, expectations were high and Marbury held up his end of the bargain averaging his standard 20 and 8. In fact, he became the first Suns player since Kevin Johnson in 1996-1997 to average 20 points per game, and he raised his shooting percentage for the sixth straight season. But, again, he had very little to work with. In addition to enduring a mid-season coaching change – Scott Skiles was fired and Frank Johnson was promoted – Cliff Robinson, Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk (45% of the ‘00-01 offense) were sent packing. Penny Hardaway, who started the season leading the team in scoring seven out ten games and looked healthy for the first time in years, was benched in favor of rookie Joe Johnson. Of the veterans who remained, none made any legitimate impact. Gugliotta, who missed half the season, averaged 4.4 ppg; Dan Majerle averaged 4.6 ppg; Bo Outlaw averaged 4.4 ppg. Marbury’s big men were second year non-factors Jake Tsakalidis and Jake Voskuhl. The only consistent presence on the court other than Marbury was Shawn Marion, who averaged 19 and 9. In total, the Suns suited up twenty different players during the season and finished a subpar 36-46.

The Phoenix Suns’ 2002-03 Season Wrap-up had this to say about Marbury:

While “Starbury” posted solid numbers in his first season in Phoenix (20.4 points, 8.1 assists), the resurgent Nets were considered the clear-cut early victors in the deal, particularly after New Jersey advanced to the 2002 NBA Finals. One year later, though, few share that same assessment.

Through his play and his actions on and off the court (emphasis added), Marbury began to exhibit leadership skills on a team that was desperately searching for someone to step up after a lackluster 2001-02 campaign.

Marbury’s metamorphosis actually began before the ‘02-03 season kicked off. Bothered by bone spurs in the preseason, the Suns’ go-to player in the clutch decided to delay ankle surgery until after the season was completed. The surgery would have sidelined him for nearly two months and likely would have doomed the Suns’ chances of having a winning season.

Further proof of Marbury’s new-found leadership was evident when he spoke on behalf of the team to coach Johnson, suggesting that the Suns should rely less on the team’s new “motion” offense in favor of a more structured offense. Phoenix averaged 84.4 points per game over its first 15 games (8-7 record), but totaled 96.8 points over the next 16 games (11-5) as the Suns climbed up the standings, as high as fourth in the Western Conference at one point.

Marbury would have his second All-Star season average 22 and 8, make Third-Team All-NBA and leading the Suns back to the playoffs where they lost in six games to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Marbury finally had a big man in rookie Amare Stoudemire, a swing man in Shawn Marion, and a young scorer in Joe Johnson, and looked to be ready for a run. Of the player fans have come to associate with all that is wrong with basketball the Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo had this to say at the end of the ‘02-03 campaign, “If you look at the talent, there’s a great story in what Marbury accomplished this year in terms of not just his statistics, but in terms of his perception. What we’ve witnessed is the maturing of Stephon Marbury in my opinion. That’s a great credit to him.”

The very next season, after the Suns started slowly and Stoudemire suffered a severe ankle injury, Marbuy was traded again, this time to New York. The Suns finished 29-53 but had cleared enough salary space by unloading Marbury and Hardaway to go after a big name player. There was serious talk of Kobe coming to Phoenix, particularly after the rocky season in L.A. which saw him feuding with Karl Malone, Phil Jackson and Shaq, not to mention flying back and forth to Colorado to face rape charges. The deal never materialized, but the Suns picked up a new point guard – Steve Nash – who, like Jason Kidd, led the team Marbury left to a stellar season. Ultimately, Nash won the MVP of the league honors, but it could’ve just as well gone to Stoudemire who thoroughly dominated Tim Duncan in the Western Conference Finals.

Again, to use the Marbury exit/ Nash entrance to measure the failure of Marbury to produce is to engage in a disingenuous endeavor. Nash benefitted immeasurably from first year coach Mike D’Antoni’s wide-open style of play; from a pair of rapidly maturing superstars on his wings; from a budding superstar in Joe Johnson at his side; from a healthy Quentin Richardson, a three-point specialist in Walter McCarty and a grizzled, crafty hired-gun in Jim Jackson. Nash was amazing, still is amazing, but to judge Marbury as a failure for not leading the Suns deep into the playoffs is totally without merit considering the wholesale upgrades that were made to the team a year after he was traded.

Twenty-two players saw actions in a New York Knicks uniform in 2003-04. By the end of the 2004-05 season only three players that were on the team to open the ‘03-04 season were still on the team. During the abysmal ‘05-06 season Larry Brown used an NBA record 42 different starting lineups. In three years as a Knick Marbury has played for five coaches and alongside too many players to count. For the first year and a half he played exceptional basketball, carrying a battered, mediocre squad to the playoffs in ‘04. Following the Olympic debacle, for which he is no more responsible than his coach, Larry Brown, or any of the other players on the team, including Allen Iverson, he went on to average 22 and 8.5 in ‘04-05. His 668 assists were only second to the man who replaced him in Phoenix. The team was horrid. Allan Houston, whose bloated contract severely curtailed the Knicks capacity to attract marquee players rather than has beens and unprovens, missed 62 games. Jamal Crawford didn’t understand what it meant to pass the ball. Kurt Thomas was solid but undersized and unspectacular. Tim Thomas, who later complained the Marbury was a crappy teammate, couldn’t be counted on to deliver for more than two games at a time. Nazr Mohammed has never been worth the price of admission. The rest of the team was more than forgettable; they were lamentable.

Watching Stephon Marbury struggle through his single season with Larry Brown was like driving the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike for six straight months: tedious and unrelentingly frustrating. Brown tried to shove Marbury into the role of passing point guard on a team that lacked a consistent scorer other than Marbury. He preferred relying on rookie Channing Frye as a primary scoring option over Marbury, which in so many ways defied what had made him a successful coach at Kansas and Philadelphia in particular. In those settings he’d relied on a single dominant player and a cadre of bruisers, scrapers and enforcers to impose his will. With the Knicks and Marbury he tried to implement a Detroit styled offense without the personnel. Frye was not going to be Rasheed Wallace. Crawford is not Richard Hamilton. And Marbury is not Chauncey Billups— he’s more explosive, quicker and a better streak shooter. But Marbury, to his credit, tried. He sulked at times, yes, but so did Brown. He complained at times, certainly, but so did his coach. What one didn’t see in Brown that was evident in Marbury was a willingness to try something new. Not a new starting lineup; a new basketball philosophy.

Brown was once quoted as saying Allen Iverson is a special player but that Marbury was merely unique. Iverson will no doubt go down as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, but that is in large measure because of where he was drafted to play. Philadelphia passionately embraced Allen Iverson and indulged him through the years. No place ever stuck with Marbury long enough for him to become the player he is capable of being, which one has to believe is beneath the chip on his shoulder. He may be unproven as far as playoff wins are concerned, but no one can honestly blame that on him once the facts have been laid out. Just imagine if after taking your team to the playoffs at the age of 20 you get traded. Then imagine three years later after making the All-Star team and carrying a lowly Nets squad racked with injuries all year long, you get traded again. Then imagine making Third-Team All-NBA, leading your team to game six against the eventual World Champions and being touted by the franchise’s CEO as a leader, you get traded again. Forget that Marbury was sent back home. Forget that he was given the keys to the team by Isaiah. Forget all of the optimism that everyone displayed three years ago when he donned a Knick uniform. Think about how it must feel to have never, ever been on a team that had a real chance of winning when all you knew growing up was winning. Think about playing injured, taking physical and emotional abuse, and producing numbers only one other player in NBA history has produced (20/8: Oscar Roberston), and still being shipped off like an expendable role player time after time. Think about being booed by your hometown crowd because you’re trying to please everyone but yourself. Just think.

Stephon Marbury has always seen himself as a franchise-type player and has proven it with the numbers, and yet the basketball world continues to judge him on terms that simply don’t apply to other players. Granted he’s made a number of comments that have brought the criticism to his doorstep (saying he was the best point guard in the league was a mild one), but he’s never not backed it up on the court. Never. Even this season he’s averaged 21 points and 5.5 assists since the All-Star break. Despite experiencing career lows statistically, he’s still managed to reel of five 30+ point games and two 40 point games this season. Even more impressive and under-reported has been his development of his defensive game. Unlike many, many star players Marbury embraces the callenges of guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player despite being, as in the case of Lebron James, six inches shorter and forty pounds lighter.

The hate the swirls around Stephon Marbury’s head comes down to this: he’s a nigga. Marbury walks, talks and acts like the quintessential nigga. Iverson may symbolize hip-hop marketing, but Marbury is street-hop. From the company he keeps, to the menacing scowl on his face, to the brutish Tysonesque strut, the bald-head, to the black sneakers, to the unrestrained, artless way he expresses himself. He has no problem speaking his mind in his language and that makes people very uncomfortable. He really does believe he’s the best point guard and he defies anyone to prove him otherwise, and that also makes people uncomfortable. Critics sugar-coat their distaste for him in terms like ‘typical New York City baller’ or ‘selfish.’ They blame him for not being media-friendly when they’re clamoring for an interview. They print pictures of him with a towel over his head and call him a failure. They catch feelings when he yells at his teammates or doesn’t talk to them. But really what people are articulating are their problems, not his, which isn’t to say he doesn’t have his own. In a fair world him being a jerk should be irrelevant when you consider how many jerks there are Hall of Fame players. Charles Barkely charged stands, got into a brawls at bars, and denounced his role model status and yet he is universally loved. Isaiah Thomas, Marbury’s coach, was a snarky S.O.B. who orchestrated a mid-season trade that sent Adrian Dantley to Dallas for his buddy Mark Aguire so they could get a ring together. Which they did, twice. Shaquille O’Neal, for all of his skillful media manipulation, is a chief engineer in the desecration of Kobe Bryant’s image. Even Iverson has managed to finagle his way into the good graces of most basketball fans despite his many antics, which, when compared to Marbury’s make the latter seem like Tim Duncan. So, I ask again, when exactly did it become cool to hate on Stephon Marbury?