Paying a steep price

NEW YORK – As losers go, Stephon Marbury rates among the biggest in basketball history. Everyone kept waiting for him to change, but he never did. And never will. To find a presence as eroding as Marbury, one as self-absorbed and cynical and a better bet to suck the selflessness out of a locker room, is downright impossible.

"A walking rain cloud," an ex-teammate once described him to me.

This isn't much of a revelation in the league, but Isiah Thomas is finding out the hard way about the corrosive consequences of coaching Marbury. After a decade in the NBA, Marbury still refers to a mythical third person, a character of some sort, named "Starbury." For two years with the New York Knicks, when things aren't going his way, he keeps promising Starbury's return to the court.

Around New York, this isn't considered a promise as much it is a threat.

Suddenly, Thomas no longer is Marbury's front office savior but rather another coach wrongly imprisoning his greatness. Marbury responded to his reduced minutes by refusing to take a shot last Saturday night against the Chicago Bulls, something of a hunger strike by a fat man.

The Knicks have lost 10 of 15 games to start the season, Steve Francis' knees are shot, and Marbury is holding true to character. His is forever the disposition of the angry young man, a rebel with only one cause: his own. There was Marbury on the bench for the fourth quarter Saturday, framed with the classic pose of the failed franchise player – draping a towel over his head, refusing to cheer teammates and moping to the bitter buzzer.

Thomas swapped short-term maximum contracts for longer ones, stacking them higher and higher, a shell game that's left him with a dysfunctional backcourt of Starbury and Stevie Franchise.

These are two broken-down guards who ought to serve as cautionary tales for owners and executives contemplating the doling out of max deals. Delivered to the wrong players, they're crippling to franchises. With the wrong players, you're held hostage.

Here are the rules of awarding max-out contracts. Your $90 to $100 million man must do one of two things, if not preferably both.

Win championships.

Or sell tickets.

Tim Duncan wins titles. Vince Carter sells tickets. Kobe Bryant does both.

Now, you don't have to win a championship. You just have to be capable with the right coach and the right teammates. Jason Kidd is a championship-level player, but Kenyon Martin was a max-out bust before his knee ever blew up this month.

New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn never wanted to indulge Martin's max-contract desires in 2004, believing he never fit the profile. "[The max deal] was meant for the Shaqs, the Garnetts, the Kidds," Thorn said.

They belong to All-World players, not All-Stars.

As the Knicks have discovered in the locker room, when you give not only that money but also that clout to a bad act, you never stop paying the price. From his days with the Nets until now, Marbury has divided locker rooms and crushed chemistry. The max-out is the purest form of street cred on the court because that's how management and players keep score. In the wrong hands, it's pure destruction. For better or worse, it's the truest captaincy.

So now, Marbury is feigning confusion over Thomas' pass-first directives, the way he did under the deposed Larry Brown. Somehow, he doesn't understand his coach's orders unless it includes 20 shots a night for him.

Isiah deserves Starbury, deserves him to the end. To start holding him accountable – declaring as Thomas did Monday that there will be "consequences" for Marbury failing to follow his coach's orders – is far too late in the president's failed New York regime to find religion with him.

From the time he traded for Marbury's massive contract in January 2004, Thomas has enabled the guard's petulant act through coach after coach. Having gone to the bench, he has discovered the truth: There's no winning with the ball in Starbury's hands, with a franchise's fortunes flowing through him.

Thomas' coaching run with the Knicks promises to end the way it long has been destined to end: collapsing under the weight of his contracts, under the excesses of his own ego. The Knicks could've survived with Marbury's max contract, but Thomas paraded some of the worst modern max-out deals in NBA history through Madison Square Garden – Penny Hardaway and Antonio Davis, Steve Francis and Jalen Rose – and the Knicks never recovered.

Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars still hasn't awarded a max contract, but he won the 2004 NBA championship and made it to a Game 7 a year later. This year, he refused to overpay to keep Ben Wallace, a move that is looking shrewder and shrewder. Next summer, Dumars has suggested that Chauncey Billups, an NBA Finals MVP, is worthy of that ultimate Pistons investment. Billups probably will come in just south of a max-out, but the Pistons won't lose him.

Once, Pistons owner Bill Davidson had a chance to hire Thomas. Davidson decided to wait for Thomas' backcourt mate, Dumars, to retire and pass the franchise over to him. As construction of contenders goes, those old Detroit Bad Boys stand in complete contrast.

For now, Thomas is trying to take bows for the earnest complementary cast he has assembled through the draft, including David Lee, Nate Robinson and Renaldo Balkman. Only, they have no one to complement. Thomas ultimately is doomed for the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in his flawed core.

Still, it started with Starbury. Thomas will get what he deserves from his franchise player, his chosen one, and it's been a long time coming: A maxed-out hell of a winter punctuated with a one-way ticket out of the Garden.