In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original NFL Every Play Counts at Fanhouse.com.
Less than a year after Shawn Marion arrived in Miami to great fanfare, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, the Heat will deal him again. So important to the Phoenix Suns during their run of three consecutive Pacific Division championships, Marion has been unable to find that same kind of rhythm in Miami. He has become a secondary option on offense for the Heat and is averaging 12.3 points per game, his lowest mark since his rookie season.
The critical question for teams interested in acquiring Marion, then, is why his offensive numbers have plunged this season. Is it a case of wear and tear catching up with Marion, who is just 30 but who ranked in the NBA's top 10 in minutes played five straight seasons? Is Marion unable to operate outside the player-friendly Mike D'Antoni system? Or is there something unique to the Heat's offense and Marion's role?
To try to answer that question, I watched tape of Miami's loss to the Houston Rockets last Saturday, paying close attention to Marion's role in the Heat offense. As usual, however, our inquiry starts with the long-term perspective offered by the numbers. Here are a handful of key indicators.
Year ORtg DRtg Win% WARP TS% Usg Reb% Stl% Blk%
0506 106.6 100.5 .696 18.9 .560 .223 16.1 2.1 2.9
0607 105.4 100.8 .650 14.5 .561 .195 14.8 2.3 2.8
PHX08 106.1 101.9 .638 7.9 .576 .209 13.6 2.7 2.7
MIA08 104.6 102.1 .586 2.1 .478 .177 16.3 2.6 2.0
0809 104.2 103.0 .541 3.4 .488 .168 14.7 2.0 2.3
Breaking down Marion's 2007-08 statistics into pre- and post-trade, it becomes evident that Marion's production sagged as soon as he got off the plane in Miami. At the defensive end, the evidence is mixed. Marion's Defensive Rating is up largely because of the Heat's team defense. He continues to pile up blocks, rebounds and steals, albeit not quite as prodigiously as in his prime. The offensive story is much easier to read from the numbers. Marion's role in the offense is smaller than it was in Phoenix, and he is shooting less efficiently.
To take a deeper look at Marion's shooting, I turned to NBA.com's Hot Spots feature. From the shot charts, it jumps out that the vast majority of Marion's shots come at the rim. This year, 237 of his 384 attempts have been taken within five feet or so. The other observation is that Marion is not finishing these shots as well as he did in Phoenix. Here is Marion's year-by-year performance on inside shots.
Over his last three seasons with the Suns, Marion never shot worse than 65.6 percent on inside shots. Immediately upon his joining the Heat, his accuracy fell to the mid-50s. Why? One easy explanation is that Marion isn't getting the same kind of open-court finishes he got as part of the fast break in Phoenix. The best way to look at that numerically is via 82games.com, which breaks down player shooting into four segments of the shot clock. Here, we can go all the way back to the 2002-03 season, which offers a comparison to Marion's performance pre-D'Antoni. I've separated the numbers--both frequency of shot attempts and effective field-goal percentage on them--into shots in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock (transition and the secondary break) and everything thereafter (half-court offense).
Year Att% eFG% Att% eFG%
0203 .42 .522 .58 .484
0304 .48 .544 .52 .412
0405 .53 .542 .47 .495
0506 .48 .622 .52 .501
0607 .51 .620 .49 .500
PHX07 .49 .612 .51 .545
MIA07 .42 .574 .58 .408
0809 .38 .608 .62 .400
This chart offers some interesting observations. Marion is converting early in the shot clock as well as he did in Phoenix; those attempts are simply coming less frequently. In addition to more of Marion's shots coming in the half-court offense, he's making them at a much less efficient clip. Marion is amazing in the open court, but he was plenty effective within the offense with the Suns, even before D'Antoni's arrival on the scene.
The difference now is easy to pinpoint--the three-pointer is no longer part of Marion's game. In 2002-03, playing under Frank Johnson and alongside Stephon Marbury, he made 141 three-pointers. That was the first of five straight seasons with 80 or more triples, which Marion was on pace to continue before last year's trade (and subsequent injury). This season? He has made seven threes in 35 games, hitting them at a 19.4 percent clip.
There's one more set of numbers worth considering--Marion's performance by position. I was reminded to check that breakdown, also available at 82games.com, by Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel noting in a recent feature that Marion has fit better in Miami at power forward. In the book :07 Seconds or Less, Jack McCallum recounts that D'Antoni and Marion went back and forth on where he should play. The coaching staff believed that Marion becomes a special player when using his quickness advantage at power forward, while he preferred to play small forward and guard players his own size. The data back up D'Antoni's contention, and dramatically so this season. (Note that I did not include 2004-05 because Marion played virtually exclusively power forward or 2005-06 because Marion was counted as a center in lineups alongside Boris Diaw.)
Year SF PF SF PF
0607 19.6 25.7 .528 .599
PHX07 18.9 25.5 .547 .590
0809 12.7 24.3 .413 .559
As a power forward, Marion has been an All-NBA performer. At small forward, he's been a borderline All-Star at best, and a complete non-entity this season.
With all of that in mind, I turned to the tape. I caught Marion on a strong night, as he scored 20 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Houston started out with 6'5" shooting guard Von Wafer defending Marion, because small forward Shane Battier was matched up with Dwyane Wade. The Heat called Marion's number several times in the early going to take advantage, allowing Marion to get off to a quick start.
Even on a good offensive night, it was easy to see why Marion's numbers are down. Rookie Heat coach Erik Spoelstra generally runs a relatively traditional offense with his wings on either side of the floor and the big men occupying the middle of the court. Combine that with Wade's dominant role in the offense--his usage rate of 36.4 percent leads the NBA and is in fact one of the highest in league history--and it is easy for Marion to get lost.
When Wade has the ball in his hands on one side of the court, either in isolation or as part of a two-man game, Marion is not a factor. Wade is certainly not a selfish player, but he tends to be better at creating for a screener or for big men than for spot-up shooters. Above and beyond that, in watching the Heat play it appears the coaching staff is responsible for the sharp drop in Marion's three-point attempts. Only once all game did he catch the ball in position to shoot the three. Given Marion's low three-point percentages, the decision is reasonable. Still, it makes him a much less dangerous offensive player.
During the second half, Miami put Wade in the middle of the court to run more high pick-and-rolls, giving Marion more of a chance to be a factor by cutting away from the ball. One duck-in cut resulted in a Wade-to-Marion lob and an alley-oop finish. This is more similar to how Marion played in Phoenix, since the Suns kept the ball in the hands of their series of All-Star point guards (Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury and Steve Nash) and did not run a lot of plays for their wings.
When Marion shifts to power forward, as he did during the second and fourth quarters, the way he is used changes dramatically. As a four, Marion tends to play off of Wade much more, either in pick-and-rolls or sets where he gets a screen from the other big man. These plays often ended up with Marion catching the ball in the middle of the floor with some momentum, enabling him to beat a bigger defender to the basket. Marion never ran a ton of pick-and-rolls in Phoenix, where Amaré Stoudemire and Diaw were the preferred roll men. It may be an under-utilized element of his game.
Defensively, if Marion has dropped off at all, I did not see it. He capably matched up with a variety of different players against the Rockets, from shooting guard Wafer to power forwards Carl Landry and Luis Scola. His quickness and explosive leaping ability appear almost entirely intact.
Based on what I saw, Marion could be a bargain for another team on the trade market--if the fit is right, which it is not in Miami. While (much to his own chagrin) Marion has never been the kind of player who has needed plays called for him to score, he does need to be more of a factor in the offense than is possible playing small forward next to Wade. Put Marion in a situation where he can get out more frequently in transition, spend more time playing at power forward and be an option on offense without the ball in his hands, and his scoring average and his value will shoot back near where they were when Marion was a perennial All-Star in Phoenix.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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