The Chinese Legend of 'Playoff Marbury'

It's amazing enough that Stephon Marbury has gone from NBA pariah to Chinese basketball icon. What's more impressive, at 38, is how Marbury keeps on winning.

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Mar 9 2015, 1:38pm

With nine seconds and change on the clock, the Beijing Ducks are in a whole world of trouble. They're down three, at home, to the Guangdong Tigers. A loss to the Tigers squares the series at two games apiece, and the fifth and final game would be in Guangdong province. Beijing's season is essentially on the line.

Min Lulei, the Ducks' veteran head coach, calls a timeout and everyone huddles around a clipboard. Cameras can't pick up what is being said but everyone knows where the ball is going. Stephon Marbury, at 38, still takes the big shots for Beijing. Moments later, the ball is inbounded from the right, Marbury cuts to the three-point line, turns, rises, and shoots the ball in the face of a onrushing defender. It's a stupidly difficult shot, and of course splashes through perfectly. The commentary crew is barely audible over the sound of the 18,000 fans in the sold-out arena going utterly apeshit. Welcome to the Chinese basketball phenomenon of Playoff Marbury.

Beijing would go on to win that game, 107-105, on a buzzer beating tip-in by big man Zhu Yanxi; Marbury, whose errant shot Yan stuffed home, finished with 38 points. That win moved Beijing on to their third CBA finals appearance in four years. Before Marbury arrived in 2011, the team had never made the championship series even once.

In a league used to being ruled by dynasties, this is understandably a big deal. The Bayi Rockets won seven of the first eight titles in CBA history, starting in 1995. Then the Guangdong Tigers won seven out of the following eight until 2011, when Marbury's Ducks arrived. Beijing have already won two titles and will begin their quest to make it three in four seasons when they begin their series against the Liaoning Leopards this week. One more Ducks championship and the CBA will have officially entered the Beijing era.

Marbury has played a big part in those title runs, but not by being the furious and ultra-assertive playground tyro of his early years. By the time he arrived in Beijing, he was 32 and a lacking a clear future after playing for two Chinese teams in as many seasons. And yet Marbury was still an ideal fit for the Ducks, who under Min were assembling a roster that needed a certain type of point guard. They had several young perimeter shooters and a mobile American center, Randolph Morris, but Marbury was the missing piece—an experienced ball handler who could run Min's pick-and-roll heavy playbook.

In the years since then, Marbury has thrived. He and Morris had already played together for two seasons with some bottomed-out New York Knicks clubs before both drifted into the CBA, and that familiarity paid dividends when the two were reunited in Beijing. The Ducks also appreciated the relationship, and have continually re-signed both Americans to exclusive, long-term deals, a rarity in a league in which most teams bring in new foreigners every year. As a result, the Marbury/Morris pick-and-roll remains the most formidable one-two punch in the CBA.

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But Min's vision went beyond finding an effective two-man game. The 51-year-old, who played 15 seasons for the Ducks before being appointed the team's head coach in 1997, understood the fundamental strengths of Chinese players. While their American counterparts may have better overall games and often have superior athleticism, Min knew that the emphasis on shooting in Chinese coaching could be utilized effectively. And so he began to acquire three-point specialists, using them to as outside scorers who can stretch the floor and open up space within which Marbury can do his pick-and-roll thing. As a result, it's not uncommon to see a scene like this when the Ducks are playing.

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Naturally, these aren't random chuckers Min found on the playgrounds of Beijing. The Ducks are one of the richest teams in the CBA, and can rely on funding from two of China's largest construction companies to help their free agency purchases. Currently three of the league's ten highest paid Chinese players are on the Ducks' roster; this includes Sun Yue, a Chinese player and ex-Laker whose $1.1 million dollar salary is more than what some Americans make in China. For a team as wealthy as Beijing, the money isn't important so long as the local players make the most of the open looks that Beijing's offense creates for them.

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Marbury is also not there for the ride. Beijing needs the American's passing but the Ducks' system also leaves room for Marbury to get as many buckets as he creates. With defenses justly worried about Morris rolling to the basket or Beijing's outside shooters lined up on the perimeter, a typical Marbury opportunity can come from one of three places.

Sometimes, it's coming around a screen and pulling up for the midrange shot.

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On other occasions, it's using his (still reasonably quick!) first step to drive to the rim. Perimeter defense in China is an afterthought at best, and even if Marbury doesn't convert at the hoop, Marbury's superstar status with the league means that he will often get sent to the free-throw line instead.

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Finally, if the defense sits off him, Marbury has license to pull up and nail the three-pointer.

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It's all very wash, rinse, repeat. Min trusts Marbury to stick to the plan, and while he is allowed to improvise if the defense does something unexpected, the mantra over the years has remained the same—pass the ball if the defense comes calling, take the shot if there's daylight.

Beijing's offense has helped Marbury as he has aged by streamlining how his shots are created, but another huge advantage is how little the 38-year-old actually has to play. The Game 4 overtime win for Marbury was only his 200th game in Chinese basketball, a number that includes three deep postseason runs in six seasons; that's perhaps two seasons for an NBA starter on a playoff team. Marbury only plays basketball for four months each year, and during each offseason, he has a personalized training schedule that helps him prepare for the short but intense CBA schedule. "If Chinese players, coaches, and executives would watch what Stephon Marbury is doing, Chinese players wouldn't all retire at the age of 30," a front office official from a rival CBA team told me. "People don't see the sacrifices and the investments he makes to keep himself focused [on winning]."

Min has also gradually scaled back Marbury's minutes with each new season to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Critically, the coach also seems to have little desire to push for a top seed, instead preferring to keep his team in shape for the more bruising postseason. Typically, this gamble has often worked out, and a rested Beijing have overturned the top seed in the playoffs during both of its previous title runs. The end result of all of this is that Marbury will now be vying for his third CBA winners medal in four years, while playing in a system that maximizes his remaining skillset. The spiky and multiply complicated personality that caused him trouble in the NBA is not gone—Marbury is still Marbury—but he is still a genuinely capable player, and intermittently something like the explosive offensive force he once was.

When news of Marbury's game against Guangdong reached stateside, there was some murmuring on Twitter around bringing back the old man to the NBA. Some of it was serious, most of it was playful, some tinged with oddly placed nostalgia. He's not coming back, for a number of obvious reasons. It's just striking that He Can't Do It Anymore doesn't appear to be one of those reasons.

"He has a long term deal and thinks of nothing but Beijing and China. The NBA is of no interest to Marbury anymore," the front office official told me. "Even though," the official added wolfishly, "he is better than a lot of NBA point guards right now."