(Author’s edit: throughout this article, I incorrectly use the term “scalability.” In every use of “scalability, I mean “shiftability” which I discuss more thoroughly here.)
Shawn Marion needs little introduction to most NBA fans. As an integral part of the 7-seconds-or-less Suns in the mid-2000s, Marion was part of an archetype and team that paved the way for the modern NBA. Just a quick Google search will yield result after result about Marion being the perfect, modern small-ball 5, but in just 2005, moving him to the 4 was considered ridiculous. Marion was much more than just an inflection point; behind Stoudemire and Nash, he was lauded as a superstar role player. However, he didn’t find that characterization fair. “I just want to be acknowledged as much as everyone else,” he told Liz Robbins of the New York Times. He further stated that he would like to be considered for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year despite only receiving two total votes for MVP in his career and never making a single All-Defensive Team.
In this article, I plan on analyzing film, commentary, and statistics to determine how good Shawn Marion was in his prime. Was he a superstar role player or an MVP candidate? Did he deserve DPoY consideration, or was it fair that his defense was never awarded? Sit back, relax, and let’s enter the matrix together.
Shawn Marion on Defense
When I took a closer look at defense earlier this season, I found that off-ball disruption yielded some of the most impactful defensive plays. Players who could turn routine passes into 1-0 transition dunks both helped their team most on a per-100 basis while causing opposing players to think twice about the basics of the game. Marion was tremendous at these sorts of plays.
While the first play is mathematically more valuable, the second is more impressive to me. Dribble handoffs (DHOs) are basically impossible to disrupt because, well, you’re literally handing the ball to your teammate. Marion’s activity and reflexes aid him in causing this turnover.
Unlike traditional perimeter defenders, Marion also caused havoc inside the arc with quick doubles and help blocks. He never achieved the vaunted 2 steals and 2 blocks, but across 7 seasons and 465 games between 2003 and 2008, he averaged 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks. That’s ridiculous.
Not to just regurgitate my own comparisons, but like Ben Wallace, I found Marion’s defense to be cat-like. With defenders like Rudy Gobert, there’s a certain inevitability with his blocked shots. Driving players know that they’re going to be facing a true stifling tower, and sometimes players go for broke.
With Marion, it’s the opposite. As an offensive player, you never know when your routine pass, turnaround jumper, or DHO will be picked off by The Matrix. Also, please appreciate that the above plays are against the likes of Duncan, Ginobili, and Kobe.
Point of Attack Flexibility
Back in 2012, coach Rick Carlisle had an epiphany about Marion: what if he guarded point guards? While a revelation that 33-year-old Marion could still be used in that role, it wasn’t the first time he had been unleashed on opposing primary creators. D’Antoni used him in this way throughout the main 3-year playoff run from 2005-2007, but it stood out the most in 2007 when he guarded Spurs’ Tony Parker the majority of the series. Besides a couple of clear blow-bys (because even point guards couldn’t stay in front of Parker), Marion did an effective job of covering one of Nash’s weaknesses.
Marion wasn’t a flawless one-on-one defender though. He had tremendous lateral mobility, but he was sometimes lulled to sleep and beaten by methodical finishers. I want to emphasize that Marion’s point-of-attack defense was clearly a net positive, but I wouldn’t include him in the same breath as the best in that category such as Ben Simmons. In the following play, Marion checks Carter in a must-stop situation, and Carter pretty easily gallops in for a layup despite not having the most dangerous handle.
All of his positives – quickness, switchability, and awareness – are on full display in the following video, but it also ends with Parker burning him. Again, I’d walk away from this play focusing mostly on the potential of a player that can cover so many defensive holes.
If you forced me to answer the question, “Can Shawn Marion defend 1-5” without any nuance, I would say yes, but I’d also hope that people don’t fact check me too much. Confidently, I’d say that Marion is a strong 1-4 defender, but I found quite a few instances of post players making plays against him. This stood out the most when Marion was tasked with defending Duncan who effectively made mince meat of the shorter forward. (To be fair, Duncan did that to a lot of players).
I specifically chose those two plays because they highlight a key quality about Marion: he never stopped. Even though KG ultimately outmatches him and Kristic torches him with the spin, he puts up a good fight against Garnett, and he still blocked Kristic with his otherworldly reflexes. Again, I’d say he can defend 1-5 because you can certainly switch him onto a 5 every so often, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable posting him against a low-post threat for an entire game.
One More Defensive Play that I Couldn’t Fit Elsewhere
That has to be some of the most ground covered in a closeout in that amount of time, right?
A statistical Look at Shawn Marion’s Defense
As I stated before, Marion’s defense can be felt with his off-ball disruption. He wracked up some of the most stocks of his time. Along with that, he always flirted with the top of the league in defensive rebounds (whatever that’s worth to you) while standing only 6′ 7″.
I often look at how a team performs when a specific player misses time, but that only works when a player actually misses time. Between 2002-2007, Marion missed a grand total of 9 games while averaging 39.6 minutes per game across those 483 games. Marion was an iron man.
|D-PIPM rank||DBPM Rank|
Both metrics point to Marion’s defense improving in 2007, but they paint him as much different levels of a defender. Before giving my read on this, it’s important to understand one of the key differences between these two metrics. PIPM uses luck-adjusted plus/minus data with box score data while BPM only uses traditional statistics in the box score (along with team performance). Because Marion’s box score is so impressive in terms of many steals, blocks, and defensive rebounds, his DBPM reflects that. Since the Suns in that three-year stretch boasted a relative defensive rating of +1, -0.4, and -0.1 respectively, Marion’s overall defensive impact isn’t registered as being top tier. This outcome is exacerbated by Marion’s surprising on/off numbers from those seasons.
|Marion Defensive On/Off (negative is good)|
Defensive Conclusion on Shawn Marion
Shawn Marion is the ultimate defensive duct tape player. He’s tremendously versatile, holds up in most situations, but at the end of the day, he can’t completely Atlas the whole defense on his shoulders. This speaks to the middling D-PIPM numbers because it’s pointing to a player whose defensive responsibilities are too cumbersome. Phoenix was built to run-and-gun on offense while giving up a fair amount on defense. Stoudemire was a poor defensive 5, and while Nash’s defense wasn’t as bad as it’s remembered, it wasn’t good enough to move the needle in the positive direction. The most impactful defensive players protect the rim, and Marion’s role was to defend the best perimeter defender while running around and covering his teammates’ mistakes. On a team with better defensive talent, I have no doubt that his defensive impact would skyrocket.
Overall, Marion was a very strong point-of-attack defender who could legitimately guard 1-4 for long stretches while defending 5s in short stints. His off-ball activity made him a terror for offensive players to make routine plays, and his help-side defense offered some rim protection. However, I didn’t see much evidence of him being a legitimate rim protector. Although it’s tough to quantify defensive court-mapping, Draymond was clearly a couple tiers above him there, and Marion’s rim protection was nowhere near Draymond’s ability to step in the paint.
That is all to say that Marion probably deserved at least one spot on an All-Defensive team, but I never saw him as a true DPoY candidate. In today’s NBA, I think that his defense would be even more valuable (not to mention that he wouldn’t be competing with KG, Duncan, and Wallace for a spot) and more akin to Ben Simmons than Draymond Green. Because of this, he would certainly garner DPoY buzz now for his ability to be a true 1-5 defender unless he was going against the likes of Jokic, Embiid, or Valanciunas.
Shawn Marion on Offense
Constant Off-Ball Movement
To play next to Steve Nash, it’s necessary to be a threat without the ball. In the same way that you want the ball in LeBron’s hands, Nash was the quintessential NBA quarterback through whom all Phoenix offense ran. Marion fit that bill perfectly and even admitted (maybe a little enviously) that Phoenix didn’t run plays for him and that they “didn’t run plays for [him] in college, either.”
Even at his smaller size, Marion capitalized as a lob threat because of his ability to sky on a moment’s notice. He busted out his acrobatics equally in the pick-and-roll or just hanging around the basket.
Teams feared Marion getting a full head of steam, and he knew how to use that fear to his advantage. He often leaked out (or just outran) everyone in transition, and in the following play, you can see how Marion selectively turns on the burners to force Ginobili to help in the paint which opens Richardson up for a wide open triple.
Constant Off-Ball Movement: Offensive Rebounding
Regardless of where he was in the half-court, Marion loved to charge in to grab offensive rebounds and fought his way to grabbing the 6th most in 2006.
In the second play, I would love to chart Marion’s movement throughout the whole possession. Even though he only grabs two offensive rebounds, he is seemingly everywhere and ready to act as a release valve. I love how he starts off his offensive rebounding by batting the ball against the backboard because he knows he’ll beat everyone on the second jump.
Like Yoshi in Super Smash Bros, Marion is probably most known for his second jumping ability (not counting his jump shot form). His ability to land and leap again in the blink of an eye garnered him the nickname “The Matrix” because he simply moves faster than everyone else.
According to Aaron Nelson, the Suns’ athletic trainer at the time, “In the 13 years I’ve been in the N.B.A., I haven’t seen anybody in the league who has a quicker second jump than Shawn. He just has an uncanny ability to go up, come down and get back up while everyone else is still gathering themselves.” His explanation for Marion’s superhuman skill has to do with the tightness of Marion’s calf and how little he needs to dorsiflex (move his toe closer to his shin) his ankles before jumping.
Let’s Talk About the Jumper
There’s a certain sect of #NBATwitter that fancies themselves shot doctors. However, I don’t think you need a PhD in shot mechanics to know that this is, well, not how you shoot a ball.
Regardless, Marion’s jumper was more solid than the jokes might have you think. Between 2002-2006 (a 403 game sample), he averaged 3.4 3-point attempts per game while shooting 35.4% – a percentage that requires a defense’s attention. Remember, this was before the proliferation of 3-point attempts, so with that accuracy, it’s not ridiculous to assume that he would be shooting closer to 7 nowadays.
The above shot is indicative of the kinds of threes he took. Through his entire career, 97.3% of his 3-point makes were assisted meaning that he rarely self-generated these attempts. Even so, I found a few more instances of self-generating pull-up 2-point attempts especially in stretches without Stoudemire. Nash finding Marion on curl screens for a catch-and-shoot midrange opportunity occurred a few times as well.
I probably wouldn’t game plan an offense built on a steady diet of Marion jumpers, but it was a viable option for the Suns.
A Lack of Touch
You maybe saw this coming from a couple of the earlier offensive rebounding videos, but Marion’s lack of touch was alarming. He had a solid floater and finished well at the basket, yet if he didn’t dunk, the shot wasn’t a swish, or his shot didn’t bank straight in, it had no chance. Think about Chris Paul‘s midrange or Kyrie’s layups. Both are soft and lofty so that they caress the rim. Marion’s floaters were like jackhammers, slamming against the backboard and hoop.
The second clip is hilarious to me, and while it stands out for how laughable it is, it illustrates a key element to Marion’s offensive game: he didn’t have much of a bag. He rarely – if ever – used any dribble moves to methodically break down a defense. If he wasn’t able to line-drive straight to the basket, he either resorted to very basic kickout passes or wild floaters. Take the following video as a great transition to a discussion about his passing. Here, Marion burns his man with a twitchy first step, but instead of hitting Stoudemire for the rudimentary dump-off or lob, he settles for an inelegant floater.
Shawn Marion’s Passing
Although his lack of a dribbling bag hurt his offense, it equally diminished his ability to find, process, and make good passing reads. If you think of this in terms of feel, it makes sense because, as he admitted, he didn’t have plays drawn up for him in the NBA or in college. His reps came from creating off the tertiary action of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. I don’t necessarily think of Marion as a ball-hog in the inflated ego sense. Instead, he comes off as a “Plan A is the only way,” sort of offensive threat, and if any barriers stand in his way, he doesn’t have the reps to play through that scenario.
Because of all this, I found that his best passes came when he was at a standstill, surveying the court. If he let the play develop in front of him, he could make those reads.
He was also better passing out of the short roll rather than out of his own isolating creation. Again, I want to emphasis that he never (at least in my sampling) passed a teammate open. He merely read the situation and made the correct, basic pass.
I did, however, find one play that reminded me of Draymond Green in that he made a defensive play, took the ball himself, and threw a beautiful pass for a layup. This is the only pass of that kind that I found.
A Statistical Look at Shawn Marion’s Offense
Shawn Marion’s offensive statistics require quite a bit unpacking which I’ll do in the next section. He pretty consistently scored around 20 points per game while shooting a relatively positive true shooting percentage.
During his three year stretch from 2005-2007, you can see a clear spike in multiple offensive categories. Ben Taylor’s ScoreVal – a per 100 statistic that isolates a player’s impact solely from scoring – grades Marion at a solid +1.2, +1.6, and +1.3 in those three seasons respectively. His next highest season is 2003 where he reaches +.8, and after that, no other season surpasses +.4. For reference, Steph Curry led the 2021 season in this metric (of players who played over 60 games) with a +2.1.
O-PIPM, which encompasses all of a player’s offensive game, shows a similar trend with a significant spike through those three seasons. In no other season outside of those three does he crest +2 while 2007 measured as a +3.1 and 2005 exploded for a +4.4.
This trend continued in the playoffs where defenses become stingier. A player’s weaknesses are thrust under a microscope in the second season, so scoring and efficiency often drop for players. Here is each of Shawn Marion’s playoff outings charted by points per game and relative true shooting percentage.
Now comes the million dollar question: what was different about those three seasons? The answer is that those are the only three full seasons that Marion played with Steve Nash.
Before we discuss Nash’s impact more, let’s dive deeper into those three playoffs. I’ve often found that when two stars are on a team, they both usually score more when the other is on the bench. In some cases, their efficiency also increases. This is definitely not the case for Marion. Here is how his scoring, efficiency, and passing changed with and without Nash in the playoffs (a 46 game sample).
|05, 06, 07 Playoffs|
|Marion with Nash||17.2||56.9||1.34|
|Marion without Nash||16.5||50||1.28|
If you’re not convinced, here are those same statistics during the regular season (a 242 game sample).
|05, 06, 07 Regular Seasons|
|Marion with Nash||19.2||58.1||1.56|
|Marion without Nash||17.5||56.8||2.16|
No matter the situation, Marion’s scoring and efficiency both dropped while his already paltry assist numbers either dropped or marginally increased.
Offensive Conclusion on Shawn Marion
Offensively, Marion is a classic case study of portability vs. scalability. On one hand, he’s immensely portable meaning that he could fit into any offensive ecosystem without disrupting its game plan. On the other, he’s not at all scalable meaning that he couldn’t play in a higher offensive role that demands more from him. If he does, such as when Nash goes to the bench, he can’t improve or even maintain his scoring, efficiency, or creation for teammates.
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, its subtly beguiling with Marion because, at a glance, his scoring and efficiency profile seem to match a secondary creator’s. That is far from the truth, and a true struggle that hamstrung the Nash/Stoudemire/Marion Suns is that only Nash could create for teammates. Their proto-heliocentrism didn’t have enough juice when teams could strictly game plan for Nash’s quarterbacking.
Marion excelled in a couple of different areas, but that was the extent of his offensive skills.
Final Conclusion on Shawn Marion
Shawn Marion is a rare NBA player whose nickname is both cool and accurately descriptive. His movement fluidity and speed breaks your perception of how a human should move. Like an early 2K character, he could change direction and leap three feet in the air seemingly at will. Defensively, this helped Marion be one of the greatest duct tape defenders I’ve watched. He won’t anchor a defense on his own, but he can hold one together for stretches by covering any situation. With his only true weakness on defense being strength/size against post scorers, he could literally be deployed anywhere.
With that said, I don’t think that’s enough to vault him into the GOAT defenders conversation. Personally, I don’t know if he’s even a tier below that. When we nitpick at that level, the best defenders need the ability to single-handedly shut down the paint, and he can’t do that at the level of similarly built forwards like Kirilenko and Draymond. Instead, I see Scottie Pippen and Ben Simmons being more apt comparisons defensively. (not that those three have the same impact, but their defense can be employed in similar ways).
On offense, Marion’s portable package allows him to fit in literally any system. The Suns rarely drew plays for him, so he scored most of his points on the break, rolling, cutting, or on putbacks. When the Suns needed him to self-create, he made use of his all-time twitchiness to blow by most defenders in a straight-line attack. Because his jumper was adequate, defenders struggled picking the lesser of two weapons.
Unfortunately, Marion didn’t have a deep bag of offensive tricks to use against stingier defenses. This became noticeable in the playoffs when Nash wasn’t on the court. Furthermore, an assortment of metrics point to significantly diminished offensive impact when Nash wasn’t his teammate. Ideally, he would be a 4th option on offense, but he could fill the role of the 3rd option if the first two options can self and team create. (think of Marion in the Ayton role next to Paul and Booker).
Between his offensive and defensive skillsets, Marion’s portability lets him fit on literally any team. In an all-time draft, this can be immensely valuable when dealing with the best players. However, because of his weak scalability, I only recommend drafting him if you already have strong creators. With someone like Magic or LeBron, you could get away without a strong secondary creator. In pretty much any situation, Marion needs to have offensive juice next to him. For instance, he wouldn’t be a good Pippen facsimile next to Jordan. However, he’d be great next to Jordan and Gary Payton. With all that said, I wouldn’t dream of drafting Marion before the 3rd round. If he’s an ideal fit for your build, you could stretch in the 4th round, but I’d wait until the 5th.
Final Grades (A+ to F) For Shawn Marion
Cody Houdek is a writer and podcaster for Premium Hoops where he co-hosts Sense and Scalability. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articles, videos, and podcasts) here.
Check out Cody’s other historical player breakdowns.