Illumination

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 20, 2010 under Commentary | 13 Comments to Read

To lock away a firefly in a mason jar is to isolate it from its meaning. In the open air, the lightning bug dances and illuminates, moving in sync with its counterparts, never interfering with the greater power of the collective. But lock it up behind glass, and what was once an aesthetic marvel is nothing more than a dung beetle with a Christmas light shoved up its ass. The magic was wiped away with the mystery, and though we technically have a closer understanding of the factors at work, we wind up losing the ever-important context.

Context doesn’t merely set a backdrop, but also fills in the blanks. It helps to make holistic sense of the countless interactions between different entities. Removing that context takes the firefly out of the firefly, or in a way that’s a bit more relevant to us, takes the Shawn Marion out of Shawn Marion.

Defense is the end of the court most dependent on context, and that makes Shawn Marion’s role as a defensive specialist a bit tough to quantify. Picking out one man in a five-man job again loses sight of the bigger picture, the meaning of which is terribly important but hardly specific enough to account for. A defensive player is so dependent on his surroundings — help side rotations, constant communication, double-teams, zone coverage — that a sub-par one-on-one defender can look competent in the right system, and a stellar one-on-one defender can look horrible in the wrong one.

If you’re watching the games, you should at least have a slight idea of the defensive impact that Shawn Marion makes on the court. He’s consistently matched-up with the opponent’s most notable perimeter threat, and works to deny, cover, and rebound. But telling someone that a player is a good defender isn’t quite the same as showing them…which is a roundabout way of saying that after preaching that you can’t isolate a defensive player in order to study his talents, I’m going to try to do just that. Hopefully though, in a way that’s a bit more naturalistic than bottling him up.

Stylistically, Shawn Marion is a bit closer to the Ron Artest school than the Shane Battier one. He’s still fairly cerebral on that end of the court, but his moves are dictated by defensive instinct rather than a word-for-word memorization of the scouting report. Beyond that, it’s simply a matter of putting Shawn’s long arms, quick feet, and strong base in a position to deter his opponent. Even at 30, Shawn is a fine athlete, and while he lacks the pure explosion that made him such an engaging player early in his career, he still succeeds by utilizing his physical gifts. They’re the reason he can guard shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards alike, and the reason why he’s comfortable in the post or on the perimeter.

During a Mavs game, take a minute to just watch Marion’s D. His effort is more or less complete every night, which is surely notable in an 82-game regular season. His technique, while not flawless, is clearly effective, as he pushes opponents into the help defense or into difficult scoring positions. After that, he simply uses his innate sense of timing, his athleticism, and his length to make every shot attempt an opponent takes the most difficult one possible. When guarding the caliber of players that Marion is typically guarding, the key is not to shut them down; you won’t shut down Kobe, or LeBron, or Carmelo. But if you make them really work for their buckets, they’re bound to get a bit frustrated and a bit worn out. The defensive specialist’s greatest weapon is attrition, with the hope being that if you put in the work and play frustrating defense throughout, even the enlightened scorers will eventually slip. Maybe they’ll lose focus and turn the ball over. Or maybe they’ll pull up for a 25-footer. Either way, the battle is one of physical and mental endurance, and as long as Shawn is making each sequence as difficult as possible for his man, he’s doing a terrific job.

But why just tell you that Shawn is an acceptable defender when I can show you? Defense is a holy grail of sorts for the statistical community in basketball, but that doesn’t mean that certain numbers aren’t helpful in determining a player’s worth on that end. Traditional counting stats — rebounds per game, steals per game, blocks per game — just aren’t all that useful and certainly aren’t very telling. The person who gets credited for a steal or a block isn’t always the person who halted the play with their defense, and thus we often toss a cookie to the wrong guy. But even more importantly, these stats ignore 100% of the team context, reducing everything to it’s most basic and in doing so, destroys the significance.

So rather than traditional stats, I’d encourage you to look in a few other places: at defensive rating, adjusted +/-, team lineups, and PER allowed.

Defensive rating is a measure rather simply based on how many points are allowed while a player is on the floor. It doesn’t isolate individual defense, but it tells us how well the Mavs as a whole are performing defensively with Marion in the mix. Marion comes in at 18th in the league, which is higher than Kobe Bryant, Josh Smith, and even Dwight Howard. The best way to determine if Marion is accomplishing his task on an individual level is to watch him, but since the goal of Marion playing good defense is to have the entire team playing good defense, defensive rating can be a pretty accurate way of determining Shawn’s defensive impact.

Adjusted +/- is another metric that we can find use for. Traditional +/- has far too many variables in its implementation and far too many restrictions in its application, both of which can be reduced by attempting to “adjust” for the quality of teammates and quality of opponents. It boils down every performance into an equal performance against a perfectly average, nebulous foe, as to best compare on-court value. Marion isn’t elite by measure of APM, but considering he registers in the top forty is a pretty notable accomplishment given the defensive skew of his game. All of his offensive numbers are down considerably from his heyday in Phoenix, and he’s admittedly not a huge offensive contributor. That makes the fact that Marion’s statistical neighbors are the likes of Ron Artest, Deron Williams, and Chris Bosh all the more impressive.

Five-man lineups are perhaps the best way to determine overall team success, or for the purposes of this conversation, team success predicated on the involvement of a specific player. It should come as no surprise that the Mavs’ three most effective lineups include Shawn Marion, and even less of a surprise that two of those lineups are high-quality defensive outfits (the third is merely mediocre). This type of success is about as contextualized as you can find, considering that the lineup’s value is determined purely by their holistic effectiveness.

And finally, PER allowed at small forward. The three is Marion’s natural position, and more often than not, opposing threes are Marion’s defensive match-up. As I’m sure many of you know, John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating is weighted in a way that makes 15.00 the league average, making the metric relative not only to other players, but also the mean performance. So if Shawn Marion were an average defender (or rather, if the Mavs were average in defending small forwards while Shawn Marion is slotted as the SF) working against an average offensive player, he would allow a PER of roughly 15. Needless to say, that’s not the case; for the season, Marion is allowing a SF PER of 11.3, which is roughly the same as forcing every small forward opponent to play as poorly on offense as Josh Howard (11.53 PER). Mavs fans should be intimately familiar with that level of ineptitude, and to force opponents into that type of inefficiency is certainly an accomplishment. (It’s also worth noting that opposing threes have posted an effective field goal percentage of .376 against Marion. That’s stellar.)

Yes, Marion’s numbers are down in almost all of the traditional categories. He’s no longer the efficient scorer that he used to be, he hasn’t been an otherworldly rebounder, and he’s somehow gone from an average three-point shooter to a nonexistent one. But Shawn’s value to the Mavs has always revolved around his defense, and though it’s a tad tricky to isolate his specific defensive output statistically without oversimplifying, he’s clearly making a notable impact on D. Just note the luminescent flurry of the Maverick defense in action, and trace Marion’s path through the ball denial, the stops, and everything in between.

  • pau

    Hey Rob,

    The quality of your articles are astounding. I’ve picked up that you’re a college student, but I’m curious as to what your major is currently.

    Keep up the good work man,

    MAVS ’10

    • http://www.thetwomangame.com Rob Mahoney

      Thanks, guys.

      I’m a double major in psychology and sociology, which probably explains why most of my posts end up going macro and micro.

      And more videos are on the way. I was having some trouble with the equipment while I was home for the holidays, but Moving Pictures should be back in business soon enough.

  • DOH

    What he said.
    Also, you made the Truehoop Network Top 10 twice, Rob. CG
    http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/12390/the-top-ten-of-the-truehoop-networks-first-year

    Ps. MOAR vids pls ;)

  • finzent

    Man, had I known earlier that this blog’s comment section basically worked like a genie in a bottle I’d have started wishing for stuff ages ago. Can I have an Xbox, too?

    Seriously, the guys above are right. This is really informative and well written, once again.

  • preet

    i laughed quite hard at the ‘marion holds opposing sf’s to josh howard’s level’

    nice stuff rob

  • http://autobomboentexas.blogspot.com mg4tx

    Defensive Player Of The Year and it’s not even close.

    Excelent work as always, Rob. Keep it up!

  • Ringsthething

    Goodness. Talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees. You do a good job of establishing Marion is a pretty good defender this year. However, you gloss over way too entirely how little of an offensive producer he has become. Which results in the biggest fly in the soup.

    What have the playoffs consistently shown Dallas needed beside Dirk Nowitzki that they didn’t have? A second player producing like a star to take some offensive pressure off Dirk against playoff defenses stacked against a one star team. Maybe some more scoring out of the center position. Maybe a SG that is “starter” level – meaning one that can play both good offense and defense against playoff level SG’s.

    While Marion might in his old age be doing a decent level about the third or fourth thing the Mavs needed to add to the team around Dirk, he doesn’t help, and actually hurts, on the top 2 or 3 things they needed. So, sing praises all you want about what a nice little defensive stopper he is, since he was the only real upgrade the Mav BT made last offseason in its playoff rotation, he is a failure.

    4oth scoring “SF” according to Sportsline. 2d lowest minutes of career, FGA, FG%, FTs, assists, steals AND POINTS. 3d lowest blocks of career. 11th worst FT% and ORB. Worst Defensive rebound numbrs of his career. Tied for worst total rebounds of his career.

    So, Rob, your article would be correct — if Dallas had needed as their number one offseason talent add a “nice defensive stopper.” They needed that alright, and adding Marion as that is OK – but, filling their third of fourth need to become a championship competing team is a FAILURE by Cuban. Now, that isn’t the players fault. But, pumping up Marion as being great for being a nice defensive stopper overlooks the real forest in Dallas Maverick team building. Marion as their top (and really only add to the likely playoff rotation) is simply a FAILURE.

    Regardless of what a nice little defensive player Marion has devolved to in his old age.

  • Ringsthething

    In short, what they needed to add was what Marion was in his prime. A player that brought pressure to the other team on both offense and defense.

    What they got was a player that adds enough pressure only on defense.

    And, since he’s all they added to last year’s known and obvious holes, fixing only the third or fourth most pressing need they had is simply a failure. Even if Marion is a nice little defensive stopper as you suggest.

    • http://www.thetwomangame.com Rob Mahoney

      @Ringsthething: You’re right in the fact that Shawn Marion is not a terrific offensive player. But he is a surprisingly decent one.

      Yes, obviously the Mavs would have been better off had they acquired Marion at a younger age. He was clearly more productive. But comparing Marion (present) to Marion (past) defeats the point. What you should be doing is comparing Shawn Marion and Antoine Wright, who was playing a lot of minutes at small forward last year in the absence of Josh Howard. If you honestly think that what the Mavs have been missing in the playoffs is a scorer (though last year, the more pressing need was defending Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, in my opinion), Marion is certainly superior to Wright:

      http://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/pcm_finder.cgi?request=1&sum=0&p1=mariosh01&y1=2010&p2=wrighan01&y2=2009

      In particular, take note of FG% (.499 vs .415), PER (15.3 vs 8.6), TOV% (9.1 vs 10.3), ORB% (8.7 vs 2.3). And hey, if you want to look at straight up PPG, RPG, etc., that’s fine, too. Marion isn’t what he used to be offensively, but he’s a strong enough defender and isn’t a liability. He moves the ball, scores inside, and works for offensive rebounds. That last part is especially important because it means he’s creating additional possessions, some of which are converted for tips or easy buckets around the rim.

      Look, I know it’s easy to watch the games and think that Marion is a bit of an offensive burden. But it’s just not the case. If so, he wouldn’t be part of the Mavs’ most effective lineups (including two of the most productive offensive outfits) and his +/- wouldn’t be so strong. He’s not a huge offensive threat, but he’s enough of one to keep defenses honest. That’s what’s important.

      If you’re really looking for a scapegoat for the offense, I’d look elsewhere. Namely, JET and Howard. Marion’s just doing his job, which is exactly what he was brought here to do. He’s still scoring at a decent rate, and just as importantly, he’s scoring efficiently.

  • Ringsthething

    The offseason moves by Cuban and Donnie resulted in basically replacing Stackhouse for Marion and you say we should “grade” them based on Marion v. Wright? Really?

    We have seen how team GM’s have made moves that moved them past us in the playoffs. Boston added Kevn Garnett (we tried but failed to get him) and won a title. Kobe tells the brain trust in LA they need to upgrade the talent around him and the Lakers add a Gasol. Our opponent last year in the playoffs added a star level point guard in his prime, Billups, just after (relatively speaking) we added one past his prime and no longer in the star class that Dirk needed.

    So, I don’t disagree with the context you put Marion in, he’s more helpful than just his main stats show – however, when he is the best and biggest add we made last year, compared to the “context” of moves made by gms that are chasing and winning titles our GM being only able to upgrade Wright for Marion is – in context – a disastrous failure.

    You are right in your player v. player context. I think many might agree in the front office v. front office “context” Marion was too little, too late to keep up with the top gms in building a championship level team around star level players. Dirk Nowitzki, the Ma superstar just keeps on fulfilling his role. But Cuban and his gm by committee helper just aren’t giving him the ammo other gms are giving their’s.

    • http://www.thetwomangame.com Rob Mahoney

      @Ringsthething: I just don’t see how grading Cuban/Nelson in that context is in any way fair. The Celtics didn’t steal away Kevin Garnett; they traded Al Jefferson, arguably the best young low-post scorer in the league. The Lakers didn’t add Gasol through some masterfully concocted trade scheme; they were simply opportunistic with the assets they had, and were lucky enough to have the biggest, baddest expiring contract on the block when the Grizzlies were in the mood to sell.

      It would be tremendous if Cuban and Nelson could pull something like that off. But don’t penalize them for failing to do the impossible. Those aren’t trades you can force without the proper pieces or circumstances. The Mavs traded ONE marginal rotation player (Wright) for a top-notch defender that isn’t an offensive liability and is a natural rebounder. That’s nothing to spit on. And when you look at the talent differential in those trades you mentioned (Pau Gasol vs. Marc Gasol + Zach Randolph, who was acquired using the cap space gained in the trade AND Kevin Garnett vs. Al Jefferson, with the serviceable Ryan Gomes), is it really so clear that the Mavs are all that inferior? I’m not going to claim that trading for Marion had anywhere near the impact of acquiring Gasol or Garnett, but the Mavs gave up next to nothing and nabbed a defensive specialist with game. Seems pretty good to me.

      From where we’re standing, the Mavs don’t look like championship contenders. But a lot could happen between now and June, so before we start deeming trades and people as failures, shouldn’t we at least wait to see how the season shakes out?

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  • Ringsthething

    Do the “impossible”? Hardly. If we had a smart GM maybe he would have drafted that Jefferson guy Boston used to get KG instead of Devin Harris we used to get a past his prime star.

    That isn’t a fan demanding the “impossible” from Cuban’s brain trust. It is a fan expecting GM Cuban to keep up with the competition (other top gms) or break down and try hiring a gm that might. If Miami can get a Shaq, LA can get a Gasol, Denver can get a Billups, WHY is it that Cuban can’t add those kinds of guys around Dirk? NOTHING “impossible” about it all – unless you are a gm that is not as good at your job as the gms that are adding that kind of talent (and, like with KG with a lower draft pick that Cuban and Donnie had to get Harris/Jefferson to later leverage in to KG that WON A RING.)

    But, I agree with you, smart NBA watchers can look at what Cuban and Donnie put around Dirk this year and see fairly easily it isn’t any more of a championship level team than it was last year or the year before. The question is why would anyone who has watched GM Cuban fail every year since he let Nash and Nellie go to add a true star level player, a center that can help in the playoffs, a starter level SG think there is any legitimate reason to hope Cuban will start beating the top GM’s at getting those kind of top players and giving Dirk the ammo he needs for the playoffs?

    And, as far as Marion giving up next to nothing, many “experts” were claiming Stackhouse’s expiring contract was valuable enough, along with other tradeable contracts on the team, to get what was needed. Clearly Cuban thought he was getting a marion in his prime enough to be a star on both ends of the court. What he got was a defensive stopper. And that only solved about the third or fourth most pressing need the team had to fill this year. And, that constitutes more second level gming, just like years past.

    If you want to win a title, you have to make top level moves like Shaq, Gasol, KG, Billups, and Dallas hasn’t made that kind of championship level move since Nellie drafted Dirk. Like you said, marion isn’t as bad as his numbers look, but he is a long way from being the kind of championship level piece the gms winning titles manage to make every year to win rings.