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.