A Dying Breed

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 24, 2012 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

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Jonathan Tjarks is the managing editor of SB Nation Dallas. He writes about basketball and all that it implies at RealGM and SB Nation. Follow Jonathan on Twitter at @JonathanTjarks.

With Dirk Nowitzki out for six weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery, Shawn Marion will be the only prominent player left from the 2011 NBA Finals when the Mavs play the Lakers on Opening Night. While he’s no longer the player he was in his prime, he’s still one of the most effective two-way talents in the game — not exactly an easy feat for a 34 year old entering his 14th season in the NBA.

Time has a funny way of sneaking up on basketball players. Seven of the 14 lottery picks from the 1999 draft are out of the NBA. Of the 58 players taken in both rounds, only 10 are still hanging around. In a sport watched by hundreds of millions and played competitively by hundreds of thousands of teenagers around the world, the competition for every one of the 450 roster spots in the NBA is fierce.

Marion’s unique dimensions (6’7, 230 with a “pterodactyl” wingspan) are the secret to his longevity. Playing good individual defense in basketball, a game revolving around throwing a ball through a cylinder raised 10-feet in the air, is fundamentally a matter of having longer arms, a stronger base and quicker feet than whoever you are guarding. A skilled offensive player can dribble around a slow defender, muscle through a weak one, or shoot over a short one.

In his prime, Marion wasn’t only among the longest players in the NBA — he was one of the fastest, too. The result was a defensive hybrid capable of terrorizing opposing players with an uncommon combination of speed and length. Even in his 30’s, when most perimeter stoppers are in their dotage, Marion has always been given the key defensive assignment in Dallas.

That defensive versatility has allowed his teams to get away with playing offensive specialists at multiple key positions. The “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns were known for Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash, but Marion was the one defending Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker in the playoffs. How many other players in NBA history could play elite defense on All-Stars as different as a 7’0 shooter and a 6’1 dribble penetrator?

But as valuable as a long wingspan is defensively, it can be just as big a hindrance on the other side of the floor. A great jump-shot is short, compact and capable of being repeated endlessly, almost an impossible task given the sheer length of Marion’s arms as they drape from his shoulders. A jumper is like an artillery piece: the more moving parts, the harder to aim.

Marion figured out an ingenious way to become a more accurate shooter, one that has to be seen to be believed. However, because he shoots from his chest, his attempts are fairly easy to defend, making it more useful in an uptempo setting where defenders aren’t as tight on their men.

The knock on Marion has long been that he can’t create his own shot, but as he’s gotten older and become more of a half-court player, he’s developed a few ways to leverage his length and skill to score. It isn’t conventional, but he can dribble or back his way into an awkward right-handed floater effective anywhere within 12-15 feet of the basket.

With Dirk out, expect to see a more steady diet of Marion isolations as Rick Carlisle looks to scrounge up offense. And if this team is going to stay afloat over the next six weeks, it’s going to be because Marion’s length and activity cover up the sins of his more offensive-minded teammates while his off-ball movement gives them space to score.

That would be a surprise to many NBA observers, who have long written off Marion as merely a product of the D’Antoni/Nash system in Phoenix. But a more thorough look through the numbers shows that to be anything but the case; in 2002-2003, two years before Nash’s arrival, Marion averaged 21 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.2 blocks on 45% shooting. Marion was an All-Star and a borderline All-NBA player long before Nash and D’Antoni put the Suns’ crop of athletes to their optimal use.

In reality, Nash was as much a creation of Marion as Marion was of Nash. Dallas had the top-rated offense in the NBA in Nash’s last three seasons with the Mavs. The difference? They finished in the bottom five of defensive rating in two of those three seasons. From 2004-2008, the Suns never finished below 17th in defensive rating, which doesn’t sound like much until you look at their rosters in those years. The year after Marion left, Phoenix’s defensive rating slipped to 26th.

The Mavs surrounded Nash with players like Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel and Dirk Nowitzki, scorers who needed the ball in their hands to be effective. As a result, when they played the Sacramento Kings in the playoffs, there was no one on hand to prevent Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson from running a lay-up line at the front of the rim. On the other end of the floor, Nash’s statistics weren’t nearly as impressive because he had to give up the ball so his teammates could score.

In Phoenix, Nash could be hidden away defensively on guys like Bruce Bowen because Marion was doing all the heavy lifting on Tony Parker. At the same time, Marion’s ability to put up 20+ points while hardly ever touching the ball allowed Nash to dominate the basketball and put up the type of eye-popping statistics necessary to win two MVP awards. Here’s another way to look at who was most valuable to those teams: Marion was a lot better on offense than Nash was on defense.

The proof is in the pudding: Marion has been a key cog on two of the most successful teams of the last decade. He’s made four All-Star games and two All-NBA teams. His career per-game statistics (16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists on 45% shooting) would be impressive for a guy who provides no value on the defensive end, much less one of the best defensive players of his generation. Skeptics will point to his zero All-Defensive team appearances, but if you think Kobe, who has made 12, is a better defensive player, you’re welcome to that opinion. According to Basketball Reference, Scottie Pippen is the most similar player to Shawn Marion in NBA history.

“Counting the rings” is one of the most tiresome bits of NBA analysis, but in the biggest games of his career, Marion showed exactly how valuable he could be. To win a championship in 2011, Dallas had to go through Kevin Durant and LeBron James, two of the best scorers of their generation. Durant’s career playoff FG% is 46.5; he shot 42.9% in the WCF and 37.5% in the last three games. Everyone knows about LeBron’s performance in the NBA Finals; we could give Marion credit for holding him to more than 10 points below his career playoff average or we could just call LeBron a bunch of names.

How many other players in the NBA could have locked down LeBron James while still scoring 14 points a game on 42% shooting against the Miami defense? Most elite perimeter stoppers (Tony Allen, Andre Iguodala, Thabo Sefolosha) aren’t big or physical enough to bother LeBron and any other forward who might be able to (Luc Richard Mbah A Moute) wouldn’t have had enough skill to be effective offensively in such a tight series. To defeat a prime LeBron in a seven-game series, teams are going to need a Shawn Marion of their own, but those players don’t come around very often.

Over the course of his career, Marion could defend four positions at an elite level while chipping in a double-double on a high shooting percentage. If that isn’t good enough to be a Hall of Fame player, than perhaps it’s time we change our definition of what a Hall of Fame player is. Or, you know, we could try to vote in Antawn Jamison because he’s scored more points and played at a more high-profile college.

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  • Matt Hulme

    Not nearly enough credit and praise is handed out to the jack-of-all-trades (and master of some) Shawn Marion. He nearly instantly endeared himself to me upon his Mavs signing, and has always willingly taken the toughest and most diverse defensive assignments, all without the praise or pomp that other elite (or not-so-elite) defenders receive.

    Too often lost in the 2011 title team conversation behind Dirk, Chandler, and Terry, I would (and could) make a strong argument that none of it would have been remotely possible without the Matrix. Great work as always, Rob.

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