Steph Infection

Marbury's back like a bad rash, but that's the way Isiah wanted it

Denver Nugget Kenyon Martin tells the defining Stephon Marbury story. "The guys told me how, at the very first practice Steph had in New Jersey, he simply tore into Kerry Kittles for playing no defense," the former Net says. And just how wrong was that? Marbury has never been much of a defender himself; in fact, he was hardly on the same defensive level as the man he was abusing. It was Marbury's first practice with a new team, and the personable Kittles was beloved by his teammates.

"From then on, there was one guy on one side of the locker room, and everyone else on the other," Martin says. "And guess who the one guy was?"

Marbury would undoubtedly claim he's matured since. But just last week, he called for a "better defensive team effort" after a Knicks loss to Orlando during which he was absolutely schooled off the dribble by one of the lowest-rated starting point guards in the NBA, Jameer Nelson. (Imagine the eye-rolling in the locker room after that Marbury gem.) Then came the horrid endgame against hapless (not to mention Dwayne Wade–less) 0-5 Miami, when Marbury heaved a pass to no particular player and then put up a hopeless three that clanked off the backboard with an ugly thwack during a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it 0-8 finish.

Next came Marbury's inexcusable one-game disappearance after coach Isiah Thomas took him to task. Now he's back, but the team is in turmoil just 10 games into the season, and Thomas's own Knicks career is in jeopardy.

The great pity is that Marbury is a spectacular and rare basketball talent. Until last season, when his numbers dipped slightly, his career averages were above 20 points and eight assists a game, something that only Oscar Robertson—one of the consensus three greatest players in history—has ever managed to accomplish. In 2001, Marbury was considered talented enough to be traded for the great Jason Kidd.

Still, in 11 seasons, Marbury has only gotten his teams into four NBA playoffs, and never out of the first round. Every one of his previous three teams got better—once he left. That's a scathing indictment for a point guard who, as the "quarterback," has the ball in his hands, makes most of the decisions on the floor, and is primarily responsible for making his teammates better.

"Steph has that glare when one of his teammates makes a mistake," a Knicks source confesses. "Always had, always will. It doesn't make guys happy." Especially when the glarer can't cop to his own misdeeds.

What has always separated Marbury from the other premier quarterbacks is decision-making: when to pass, who to pass to, and when to shoot. That, plus playing solid defense, is the difference between championship-winning point guards and a talented underachiever.

"I never understood how a guy who puts up 20 and eight can be called an 'underachiever' or 'selfish,' " a West Coast NBA GM says. "Until I saw Stephon play day in and day out. Then I knew."

Still, Marbury has developed an extremely close—many Knicks say too close—relationship with Thomas, making the recent contretemps that much more shocking.

Marbury is the poster child for Thomas's plan to rebuild the crumbling franchise. Way over the salary cap, Thomas was prohibited from signing other teams' difference-making free-agent superstars. Instead, he scoured the league for other superb-but-flawed talents. Jamal Crawford was seen as wild and uncoachable in Chicago. Eddy Curry's heart problem had the Bulls begging him to retire. Quentin Richardson has an uninsurable bad back. Zach Randolph had off-court difficulties, some legal, in Portland.

That's the current starting lineup.

"What people refuse to understand is that being so far over the salary cap from the get-go, Isiah really didn't have a choice," says John Hammond, the Detroit Pistons' VP of basketball operations. "Under the circumstances, you could say he's done a very good job."

The only other choice available would have been to strip the franchise bare—much like the post–Kevin Garnett Minnesota Timberwolves have done this season—and start anew from the very bottom. "But the Knicks were so far over the cap it would have taken Isiah eight to 10 years to rebuild that way," said Hammond.

And in the NBA, nobody has eight to 10 years. Particularly not in New York.

Still, Thomas has elevated the talent level so that this year's Knicks are one of the better offensive teams in the league. The quick Renaldo Balkman, however, is the only Knick who plays serious defense—hence the team's inconsistency.

"The problem is, when you get players who are not natural defenders, even the best coach can only turn them into better defensive players," says ex–Knicks guard Mike Glenn. "But you can't make them great defensive players."

Marbury, never a great defensive player, tried to play better defense last year for Thomas. This season, he's regressed.

"I'm not going to settle for us being the same type of basketball team we were last year," says Thomas. "The first five, six games of what I saw last year, I want to put a stop to it early in the season."

Marbury will likely buckle down and start soon. Even at only 80 to 85 percent of his former outrageous athleticism—his body's been beaten down a bit—he is still capable of unearthly offensive outbursts at times. Plus, he has no backup: Thomas decided not to draft UConn's brilliant pure passer Marcus Williams (available, ironically, only because of extralegal off-court shenanigans) primarily in order not to tick off Marbury.

Williams is now learning under the brilliant winner Kidd in New Jersey, while the Knicks, for better or worse, remain Marbury's team: one talented enough at this point to score its way into the playoffs—if Marbury gets it together. With Mardy Collins at the point, there's no way, since Collins can't shoot a lick from the outside. "Good as that kid is on defense," says Hammond, "you can't afford to play four-on-five in the NBA these days."

Still, "the Knicks are one of 10 teams that could logically make it to the eight playoff spots in the East," Hammond adds. "If they stay healthy, they have enough scoring to do it." And with Miami, Washington, and Chicago so injury- and/or chemistry-wracked early, anything is possible.

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