To merely mortal sports fans, the arrogance of a superior athlete is at once a pernicious and an enviable thing to behold. Yet even in comparison to other athletes, there is a breathtaking purity to the arrogance of point guard Stephon Marbury. No one should have been especially surprised last week when Marbury stepped on the hopes of the Minnesota Timberwolves' faithful by orchestrating a trade to the New Jersey Nets, whose home games are played less than an hour's drive from the Coney Island housing project where he was born and raised. A youthful legend in an arena where legends are paramount--the basketball playgrounds of New York City--Marbury was reared with praise and pressure, faith and hype. Before he had finished high school, the drama surrounding his athletic exploits was the subject of a best-selling book, Darcy Frey's The Last Shot. Later, director Spike Lee would use Marbury's early years as the template for his movie He Got Game.
The abiding, ultimately unrealized dream of each one of Marbury's three older brothers was to play professional ball. On the night he signed his first pro contract--after playing only a year in college for Georgia Tech--the 19-year-old rookie, speaking in a poised, factual tone of voice, told those gathered at a Minneapolis press conference that "point guards are sent from God." Skeptics who scoffed at such hyperbole were promptly silenced by two-plus years of his progressively divine play.
Marbury quickly anointed himself as the player who would take the crucial shot with the game on the line. Teammates who chafed at his primacy in the Wolves' offense--most notably Tom Gugliotta--had to fall in line or (in Gugliotta's case) leave town. But for the most part, Marbury wasn't unduly selfish. His always impressive assists-to-turnovers ratio got increasingly better even as his scoring average rose, validating the integrity of his decision making. Nor was he deaf to constructive criticism. "Steph is very coachable," Wolves coach and general manager Flip Saunders said before the 1999 season began. "Sometimes he'll take just a little while if he thinks his way is better, and if it isn't, he comes right around."
Any doubts about Marbury's commitment to self-improvement were demolished by his relentless off-season conditioning programs, which added more than 30 pounds to his six-foot-two frame without diminishing his quickness. "You've got to work hard to be the best," he was frequently heard to say. By the same token, it's easier to work hard if you're utterly convinced it will make you the best. There is no question that Marbury's development has been abetted by the presence of a simpatico coach in Saunders, and by the complementary superstar talents of his now-former teammate Kevin Garnett. In the bitter wake of his departure, much has been made of Marbury's statement that he couldn't accept Garnett's making more money and getting more honors and attention than he did. The way the Wolves brain trust is spinning the negotiations, Marbury preferred the prospect of starring on a losing team to playing second fiddle on a championship contender.
But arrogance, not jealousy, is the reason Marbury is gone. He sincerely believes he doesn't have to compromise between wins and geography, that he doesn't need the likes of Garnett in order to realize his lifelong dream of winning an NBA championship in his own back yard.
Maybe so. But during his New Jersey debut on Sunday, the underachieving Nets got thumped by Miami for their 17th loss in 20 games. It will be three or four years before we really know whether Stephon Marbury is as good as he thinks he is, or whether he has been sent by God to learn a hard lesson.
In working out a three-team deal that brought in Milwaukee point guard Terrell Brandon and a likely first-round lottery pick in the draft from New Jersey, Saunders and Wolves VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale again proved themselves nimble and shrewd administrators. At his best Brandon is an all-star who does everything well and is a better long-term fit for the Wolves' offensive and defensive schemes than the other quality point guards, Tim Hardaway and Sam Cassell, who were reportedly offered. But Brandon has been either hurt or unhappy much of the time since his final season in Cleveland three years ago, and he won't under any circumstances deliver the same catalytic impact Marbury consistently produced on offense. Plus, he's unsigned after this season.
Garnett is the logical candidate to fill the void left by Marbury's departure, and some would argue that losing Stephon and Googs presents KG with a golden opportunity to maximize his formidable talents. It certainly looked that way during the Wolves' March 9 nail-biter against Seattle: With both players knowing Marbury was leaving, Marbury eschewed his customary late-game heroics and watched Garnett rack up double-figure totals in points and rebounds in the fourth quarter alone--a stupendous, victorious performance that KG essentially repeated against Sacramento three nights later. Ever willing to deliver what is asked of him, Garnett has clearly seized the torch as the team's dominant offensive force.
But ultimately the tendency to lean on KG is a misguided strategy. Most obviously, it burns out Garnett during what is already a grueling schedule. But more than that, Garnett is most effective when he's moving the ball and playing within a complete team context. It bears noting that while his scoring average is the highest of his career, his shooting accuracy has never been lower. As he inevitably draws double and triple coverage, it's vital that other reliable offensive options become available.
KG's yeoman duty and the hubbub over Marbury's departure have obscured the lackluster play of shooting guard Anthony Peeler, who came into camp out of shape and has been inconsistent. And after a strong start, power forward Joe Smith has increasingly drifted away from the basket for his shots. Frequently outmuscled when he is underneath the basket, he has been a feast-or-famine performer. Add in the merely adequate minutes served by center Dean Garrett and the inexplicable ineffectiveness of backup Tom Hammonds, and suddenly KG is required to shore up the offense all over the court.
Losing Marbury has already dashed the championship hopes of this franchise for the foreseeable future. But a respectable showing in the playoffs is still possible if Brandon blossoms, Peeler and Smith relight themselves, and KG is allowed to be KG.
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