Marbury could form lasting relationship with Celtics

BOSTON – How do you say “no-brainer?”

Despite all his histrionics and problems of the past – team-wrecker and coach-killer are among the kinder things he’s been called – how can Stephon Marbury not make his shotgun marriage to the Celtics work?

They need him. He needs them. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that.

The Celtics were in need of backcourt help and it certainly doesn’t hurt to add a player of Marbury’s caliber, especially on a team with a strong locker room and one with a realistic chance of repeating as NBA champions. Even accounting for last year’s Brontosaurus egg in New York, Marbury still has averaged almost 20 points and eight assists a game over his career. Try finding many available players with those numbers.

If you’re Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ basketball boss, how do you not make this move? Ainge said there was across-the-board approval in the organization when he first broached the topic. The owners, coaches and VIPs (Very Important Players) all endorsed the move. Marbury returned the love; there really was no other serious contender. For all we know, the Celtics have been sending him game tapes and chocolates since November.

But, there’s the, um, history, with Marbury and a lot of it isn’t good. Ainge didn’t try to sugarcoat things when asked about Marbury’s past foibles. But he honestly doesn’t think they’re going to be an issue.

And, if they are, the Celtics will have no trouble showing Marbury the door, so the risk/reward level is off the charts. They’re adding an All-Star caliber player to their roster in plenty of time to be ready for the all-important playoffs. The cost was short money by NBA standards and no one of any importance on the team.

But as much as Boston needs Marbury, the reverse is just as true. And that is why he can’t afford to screw up. He’s going to be a basketball version of George Sanders and Alistair Cooke in the next few months. He has no other choice and he knows it. He blows this opportunity – with free agency on the horizon – and he’s looking at Belgium next season.

“People have their own opinions about me,” he said in his introductory press conference prior to making his Celtics’ debut with eight points and a pair of assists in 13 minutes of a 104-99 victory over the Indiana Pacers. “If you know me, it’s one thing. If you don’t know me, you’re speaking about me from what someone else tells you.”

Kevin Garnett knows Marbury from their two-plus years together with the Minnesota Timberwolves and he supported the move. Ainge came to know Marbury years ago when Marbury was with the Phoenix Suns and Ainge was living in the area and working for TNT. Ainge used to attend Suns practices and games and thinks that Marbury is not what people make him out to be.

“Some of the things in the past, he hasn’t handled well,” Ainge said. “But there’s a lot more good in him than most people realize.”

So, we’re going to see the Good Stephon in Boston, the one who seamlessly transitions to one of the league’s best defensive teams. We’re going to see him willingly accept a role as a reserve. We’re going to see him happily defer to his teammates, content not to have to be The Man for the first time in a while. We’re not going to see the player universally loathed by his teammates or the player who exasperated his coaches.

“I’m so happy to just be able to play basketball again, let alone what my role is,” he said. “Like I said, I’m excited about just playing, so whatever coach asks me to do, that’s what I’m willing to do.”

The Celtics fans embraced Marbury from the onset, which was to be expected. A loud cheer erupted when his face was shown on the overhead scoreboard during the national anthem. He received a standing ovation when he entered the game with 19.4 seconds left in the first period. (Knicks fans, feel free to cringe at any time.)

“I wanted to cry, I was so happy,” he said of the ovation. “I didn’t know how they would respond.”

There were more roars when he made a pretty pass to Leon Powe early in the second quarter. There was a similar eruption when he nailed his first shot attempt, a short baseline floater.

“It felt great, especially when the crowd went crazy,” he said.

He was on the floor for much of the fourth quarter, when the Celtics put some distance between themselves and the Pacers. All in all, it was an impressive debut, especially considering he hadn’t played in an NBA game in more than 13 months.

“He looked really good for his first time out there,” Paul Pierce said. “He’s only going to get better, we believe, as he continues to play and practice.”

In the weeks to come, look for Marbury to be more of an immediate contributor than either of the players the Celtics added midseason last year (Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown, neither of whom, while valuable, is as talented as Marbury.) One of the reasons is depth. The other is that Doc Rivers, the Celtics’ coach, wants to cut down on the minutes of Ray Allen and Pierce, something he feels he can do now that he has a player like Marbury at his disposal.

There are still months to go before an NBA champion is crowned and the Celtics were already one of the few teams in the discussion even before this move. There’s a legion of Marbury bashers in New York waiting for the Celtics to implode – the New York Post’s headline the day Marbury left was “He’s All Yours.”

Maybe we should take Marbury at his word this time around. When asked about his reputation and what impact it might have on the Celtics, he said, simply, “Watch. And wait and see.”

Fair enough. He’s in an ideal situation, a chance to win a title without the burden of being the go-to guy.

“The best part about this,” he said after the Pacers game, “is when I was sitting on the bench and I never felt like we were going to lose.”

He hasn’t had that feeling in a while. That’s why he simply can’t afford to mess this up. And that’s why the Celtics can’t, and won’t, allow him to.


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Updated Saturday, Feb 28, 2009