Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Starting Point Guard or Backup Shooting Guard?

Is Stephon Marbury better suited to be a 1 or a 2? Is he the best point guard on the Knicks roster? If he should be the shooting guard then should he be playing ahead of Crawford? Or should he be coming off the bench (with Crawford shifting to the point) to lead the up-tempo second unit? For a moment, let's put aside all of the questions about the relationship between the player and the coach or any questions of punitive actions on Isiah's part. The real issue surrounding Marbury's status is the uncertainty about what kind of basketball player he is at this point in his career. And, where does he fit on the team that the Knicks are sending out onto the court.

As a point guard, Marbury is still more talented than anyone else on the Knicks roster at this position. His minutes have reflected that whether he starts or not. Still, his game is not ideally suited for a post-oriented offense, which our personnel would seem to dictate. He needs the ball in his hands to be at his best. This is not a character flaw this is just the way he excels at the game. Most players in this league do not excel in all facets and all styles of play. They have obvious strengths and weaknesses and teams are constructed accordingly. Well, except for the Knicks. Marbury's strength has always been scoring, getting to the hoop and getting to the free throw line. He is still the best we have at getting the ball to the rim. When he lowers that shoulder he's going to get a shot off or he is going to get fouled. With the game on the line against the Clippers, on the night after he had skipped a game, the ball was still in Marbury's hands when it mattered most. He missed a potentially HUGE three-point shot but got to the rim for two to keep the game alive a bit later.

Meanwhile, Mardy Collins is the point guard on whom we have all pinned our hopes. Yet he has not shown much in the last few games. In fact, all we've got to go on are a string of strong games down the stretch of a lost season. Even coming off the bench, Marbury is playing far more minutes than Collins, who still does seem the most capable (of all of our guards) of playing a pass-first, feed-the-post game at the point. Ultimately, the team needs the sort of guard that we all want Mardy to be but needing and hoping cannot make it so. The best that Isiah can honestly say about Mardy this week is that he is not Marbury. Or Nate. Or Crawford. His mistakes won't be their mistakes.

That brings us to Nate Robinson, who is a lesser version of Marbury. He is more explosive but even less in control. And although he has made some noticeable strides from last season, his cannot be the count by which this team keeps time. He is best used as the spark plug off the pine. The fact that Mardy got the starting nod while Steph was missing in action shows that everyone is pretty sure about not starting Nate. This is fine by me.

And, then after we talk about all of the players listed as point guards we come to the player who handles the ball the most: Jamal Crawford. A versatile and skilled offensive player, Jamal is less of a defensive presence than Marbury. He is doormat, a turnstile and less imposing than a speed bump. Like Marbury he has his niche and struggles when asked to do more. He is a scorer. Not a shooter. A scorer. He makes off-balance runners in the lane. He has a cross-over dribble that rolls ankles. He is fearless and has no memory of missed shots. He has been clutch down the stretch of games and, at the very least, brave down the stretch of others. However, he has been hounded by traveling violations, can be a black-hole in a half-court set and is only able to assist Eddy Curry. He is not a starting-caliber point guard.

As a shooting guard, Marbury does not seem likely to play over Crawford, who is entrenched as a starter with Isiah and seems to have the faith of his teammates in the fourth quarter. Still, Crawford's shooting is erratic and often absent in the first halves of games. On a good team, he would be the instant-offense off the bench. He would be the gunslinger in the second unit that would revive a team during lackluster outings. On the Knicks he leads the team in minutes played (39.9) and his shortcomings are exposed too often. When his shot is not falling he has not figured out a way to get to the free-throw line consistently, even though he is the team’s best free-throw shooter. Each of the past few seasons he has gotten better at this but Marbury still can initiate contact near the rim better than most guards. This gives him something to fall back on even when his shots won’t fall.

I guess Fred Jones should figure in here somewhere as well, but between Steph, Mardy, Nate and Jamal we’ve got plenty of guards to fill 48 minutes. And, as a change of pace I’d love to see us go BIG sometimes and play Quentin Richardson in the 2 hole.

As a defender, Marbury is not often going to impress. His speed going at the hoop no longer translates to staying with his man. He can be beat off the dribble over the course of a game. He will get his hands in some passing lanes and notch a steal or two coming to double on another team's 4 or 5, but on the whole he is a sub par defensive player. However, he is on a team full of less than stellar defenders. Crawford might as well have the word "welcome" printed on his shirt where it says New York. In fact, the only players who put forth consistent effort on the defensive end are Lee, Balkman and Richardson. Therefore, it seems foolish to harp on Marbury's lack of defensive prowess. He was brought here to rack up points and assists. He never had a rep as a defensive player. If Isiah brought in Bruce Bowen and he couldn't defend then we should get on Bowen but this is different. He is who we thought he was. And who Phoenix thought he was. And who NJ thought he was. No one was mistaking Steph with Bruce. Bruce, what a funny name for a basketball player...

As easy as it is to pile on Marbury lets not forget that he is very, very good at playing basketball. He was once great at playing basketball. And, not too long ago. Yes, he is a complete nut-bar who may be crazier than Kurt Thomas and Travis Bickle's love-child. But he can still contribute. Is Marbury better than Oscar Robertson? No. Is he better than Magic Johnson? No. Is he better than Isiah Thomas? No. But he is one of the few folks who has ever been able to put up comparable numbers and he is currently a better point guard than Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford or Mardy Collins (and is arguably a more reliable shooting guard either Jamal, Nate or Fred Jones).

And, while he isn't going to single-handedly lead any team to a championship, how many players have ever really been able to do that on their own? Yes, It was foolish to build a team around him but that isn't really his fault. Is it? That was the fault of the architect: Isiah Thomas. Our team president is an incompetent jackass who brings absolutely nothing to the table while our wayward, sometimes starting point guard can at least offer tangible results.

I know which one I would rather keep.

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