The Dallas Mavericks are facing a timeless problem. The team has before them an aging, high-priced veteran who is in the midst of a statistical decline but has proven to be invaluable over the years. What do they do?
In some cases the choice isn't so hard. For instance the Mavericks should not think twice about re-signing Dirk Nowitzki, nor should the Lakers waffle over bringing Kobe back (which they didn't). But the decision regarding Shawn Marion is not as straightforward.
Marion has begun to show his age, plain and simple. His best years are behind him so the Mavs have to think about a replacement. And with Marion's $9.3 million, per Spotrac, coming off the books, Dallas would probably love to use that freed up cap space to take some swings at the new free-agent class.
So what is a team to do?
For this Dallas squad, the answer is easier than it may seem. All it takes is an assessment of the new free-agent class and a look at Dallas' defensive personnel to realize Marion should stay in Big D, though at a discount. He's simply too valuable, which is strange to say of a 35-year-old role player, though nonetheless true.
Marion is worth bringing back, no doubt about it. And it starts with defense.
Even in his mid-thirties, Marion is a plus defender. With his athleticism waning, Marion has made up for the physical decline by playing smartly. He is rarely out of position, doesn't bite on fakes and understands team concepts.
Take the clip above, for example. Marion sees a teammate get beat, helps to force a pass, recovers to bother the shot and then knowing the shot is well short, leaks out for an easy dunk. Few players in the league can do that.
But Marion is also a stellar one-on-one defender. His 6'7" frame allows him to guard everyone from Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, and there aren't too many guys in the league who can effectively do that either.
Want an example of his terrific one-on-one skills? How about his game-saving block on Kevin Durant in the 2011 Western Conference Finals. That's just about as lockdown as it gets.
And this kind of defensive ability is found nowhere else on the Mavericks roster.
The closest Mav to Marion defensively is Samuel Dalembert, but the big guy only plays inside and averages 20.3 minutes per game. Marion plays 31.7 minutes of perimeter and paint defense. So though Dalembert is a defensive guy, he's not in Marion's class.
As for perimeter defenders, Dallas has none outside of The Matrix.
Okay, they have perimeter defenders. But nobody who does it well. Devin Harris is decent, but Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis are just plain bad and Vince Carter certainly isn't on the roster to play D.
So if the Mavericks let Marion go, look forward to Durant averaging close to 40 points against Dallas next year. The team will have nobody who can slow down a star, much less stop one. Marion is a guy who can still do both of those things.
Now, it's obvious that if Dallas lets Marion go they won't replace him with nothing. The starting small forward probably won't be Jae Crowder.
Just a guess.
With Marion's salary coming off the books and a likely pay cut for Dirk, Dallas yet again has offseason cash to spend. And the sexy thing for the front office to do would be to bring in a big name to replace Marion. Some top-tier free agent who can fill Marion's shoes and then some.
Unfortunately, that guy probably isn't out there.
HoopsHype ranked the top 100 free agents for the upcoming summer, and the pickings are slim. The best unrestricted free agent available is a toss-up between Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson. Not exactly the A-listers Dallas fans crave.
That being said, Deng is interesting. He can score a bit, and he was definitely a plus defender from his days in Chicago. He might be a nice fit in Big D and definitely can be had given Dallas' cap space. So he's a name to stash away.
But after Deng, the small forward class is abysmal.
The next best guys at the position who will be unrestricted free agents are Paul Pierce, Danny Granger and Trevor Ariza. Safe to say that's a bit underwhelming.
Maybe shooting guards are a better bet? Not really. Again focusing on unrestricted free agents, after Stephenson the next best players are Ray Allen, Thabo Sefolosha and Jodie Meeks. None of those last three should make anyone too excited.
If Dallas wants to go the way of pursuing Deng or Stephenson, more power to them. Both players would be upgrades over Marion and both are younger guys who have plenty of good years ahead of them. It's hard to argue with that strategy.
But if that isn't the plan, Marion has to come back.
Sure, maybe Sefolosha or Ariza are younger. Maybe Granger and Meeks are better shooters. But it would simply make no sense to replace Marion, the heart of the Dallas defense, with a new commodity. His defense keeps this team afloat, and his offensive game obviously doesn't slow the team down too much considering they rank third in offensive efficiency this season.
Essentially if the Mavs miss on a big name guy, they won't find a free agent better than Marion. The Matrix knows the systems, understands how he fits on the roster and plays well for Dallas. The same can't be said for any new guy.
In the end, it comes down to the situation.
Marion's defense is incredibly valuable to this team, but if Dallas signs a bigger name guy then letting Marion go might be an unfortunate necessity. But if the team can't get hold of someone like Stephenson or Deng, The Matrix has to come back.
Between his defense and a lack of replacements, signing Marion to a discounted short-term deal would be a no-brainer. Not only is Marion the team tough guy, but he's also shooting 34.7 percent from deep, which is one of his best marks. There's nothing he does not do for this Maverick team.
But if he does go, Marion will get a fond farewell. He was essential in the 2011 title run, and he has played a huge role for this franchise since he came over in 2009. It would be sad to see him go.
The team would miss the flip shots, his quirky runners and stellar defense. Unfortunately, fans might not realize what they have until he's gone.
So enjoy Marion while he's still a Maverick. Depending on how this offseason shakes out, his time in Dallas might just be coming to a close.
All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are from Basketball-Reference.com.