Shawn Marion has options.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been a potential landing spot for a while now, but the Indiana Pacers are making a late run for the forward's services, hoping to mitigate some of the negative impact suffered when Paul George was lost for the year.
Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski first broke the news about the competition, reporting that Indiana was beginning to drop out of the running:
The Indiana Pacers wanted to pursue Marion as a short-term replacement for injured forward Paul George, and will likely soon be armed with a $5.3 million disabled player exception that would allow them to trump the Cavaliers' offer of the veteran minimum of $1.4 million per season.
The Pacers are applying for the exception in the wake of George's broken leg, sources said. Nevertheless, Indiana has started to move on from Marion, believing he's headed to the Cavaliers, and search elsewhere for a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
Well, not so fast.
According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the two interested parties met for a discussion about Marion's potential future in Indianapolis:
The Indiana Pacers have jumped into the race for Shawn Marion's signature -- competing with LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers -- by hosting Marion on a visit to Indianapolis, team president Larry Bird has confirmed.
Marion met with Bird on Monday, after Bird urged the free-agent defensive specialist and former All-Star to come to town to consider signing with Indiana in the wake of the devastating compound leg fracture suffered by Pacers star Paul George.
Given Indiana's late push, Marion would essentially be spurning Cleveland if he chooses to take his talents away from LeBron James and the rest of the new-look Cavaliers.
Doing so would be a mistake. Maybe not one of epic proportions, but a mistake nonetheless.
Need for Defense
In 2013-14, there was a rather large disparity between the defensive skills of the Pacers and Cavaliers.
Even after a late-season decline, Indiana finished the year as the best point-preventing bunch in the Association. At one point early on in the campaign, the Pacers appeared to be on pace to put up one of the most remarkable defensive seasons ever witnessed in the NBA. Though they weren't able to keep that torrid start up throughout the year, they were still the most suffocating bunch out there.
Meanwhile, the Cavs...were not.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Indiana paced the league with a 99.3 defensive rating, while Cleveland came in at No. 19, allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions. Of course, that was then, and only the future should matter when Marion is making his decision.
Well, Indiana is set to regress slightly after losing George to a horribly broken leg and being forced into giving Rodney Stuckey—a defensive liability, which has become a rarity in Frank Vogel's rotation—major minutes. Even with that regression and the Association as a whole figuring out how to draw Roy Hibbert away from the rim, the Pacers are still going to be an elite bunch on the less-glamorous end of the court.
Conversely, the Cavaliers will improve with LeBron James helping to call defensive signals while terrorizing the opposition with his versatility.
They just won't be anywhere near elite, not with a big-man rotation that features three massive liabilities as rim-protectors—Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson—as well as a point guard who often functions as a sieve, and a distinct lack of quality wing defenders outside of the four-time MVP.
In terms of identity and mentality, Marion goes hand in hand with the blue-collar Pacers. However, his skills would be marginalized on a roster that already features so many defensive talents and a system that enhances the skills of the less impressive point-stoppers.
On Cleveland, he'd be heavily relied upon, even though the roster has quite a few forwards already listed on the depth chart. There's such a need for his defensive skills that he couldn't be kept on the bench for long at any given point in the season, or else the Cavs would run the risk of becoming a one-dimensional team.
Marion is by no means an elite rim-protecting defender, even if he's been lining up at the 4 with increasing frequency as Father Time saps some of his vaunted athleticism.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he faced 3.6 shots per game at the rim and allowed 53.3 percent of those looks to fall. Among the 140 players who went up against at least 3.5 shots at the basket during the average contest, that percentage falls in the bottom third, but it's also distinctly better than the stats produced by the aforementioned big-man troika that hemorrhages points around the basket.
Because of this, there's a philosophical inquiry at the heart of Marion's free-agency decision, at least when it comes to his defensive skills and versatility on the less-glamorous end of the court.
Would he rather help out a team in dire need of quality defenders or blend in with a core of strong stoppers to work toward building the league's best defensive unit? There's no right answer, nor is there a wrong one.
However, the rest of the factors point toward the former as the more correct solution to his internal struggle.
Ability to Compete
Marion is 36 years old and coming off a season in which he averaged 10.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. If you could remove his rookie go-around with the Phoenix Suns from the equation, he's never scored fewer points on average.
The man known as The Matrix doesn't have too many years left in the tank, and it's important to maximize those that still remain. But how?
Well, there are two ways that he can do so.
He can join the Pacers and receive plenty of opportunities to put up big numbers, just as he did in his prime with Mike D'Antoni's "five seconds or less" Suns. Given the complete dearth of scoring options—outside of Stuckey—the Pacers would be left relying on his scoring far more than the offensively loaded Cavaliers would.
If he desires numbers, Indiana is clearly the better option, but maybe not by that much. After all, more than 2014-15 matters.
Marion has more than one year left in the tank, based on the contributions he made for Dallas throughout this past season. And when George returns to the lineup in 2015-16 (as well as any other prominent additions), the current free agent is in for a downtick in playing time.
At least he knows that Cleveland would present him with a multiyear opportunity, as LeBron's fondness for veterans off the bench has resulted in quite a bit of success.
That aside, what if he wants to win?
Though the Chicago Bulls should remain the favorites in the Eastern Conference, Cleveland is primed to compete for a title right away. Having LeBron on the roster tends to do that, and Cleveland boasting the services of Kyrie Irving and Love will only help.
Though a No. 1 seed would be a pleasant surprise, it's by no means out of the picture, and a deep playoff run certainly seems to be in the cards at this early stage of the proceedings.
Indiana, though, will be lucky to make the playoffs.
Without George and Lance Stephenson, there's no offense to speak of, and defense alone can't carry this squad to a playoff spot. Even if the Pacers do buck the odds and finish with something like the No. 8 seed, they'll just be easy pickings for an elite team in the postseason's opening round.
So if Marion wants to win, joining King James is the clear choice.
Figuring out which mattes more—winning or putting up numbers—is impossible, and it all depends on how the four-time All-Star views his current playoff resume. Is he satisfied, or does he want more?
During his 15-year NBA career, Marion has advanced to the conference finals only three times. The first such run came in 2005, when he and the Suns were defeated in five games by the Spurs. In 2006, Phoenix was knocked out in the Western Conference Finals once more, this time in six games at the hands of the Mavericks.
Marion's lone ring came when he was playing with the Mavs in 2011 as part of the Dallas team that took down the Miami Heat in the first year of the Big Three era.
Is that enough? Well, let's turn to Marion himself.
When he basically told the The Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko that he wouldn't be returning to Dallas, he also hinted at a desire for more championship runs:
It was memorable, baby. It's hard to say it wasn't fun. We had a great run and made the playoffs four of five years and won a championship. We set goals every year, and most years we reached them. And to win a championship, it was unbelievable. I wish we could have made a couple more runs at it, but it is what it is.
His current resume shouldn't be enough, especially since Marion spent the prime of his career putting up monster numbers, making All-Star teams and asserting himself as one of the most valuable commodities in fantasy basketball leagues. After you've gone No. 1 in enough fantasy drafts, there can't be too much concern about statistics at the tail end of a career.
"What I came away with was he's undecided with where he wants to play and what he wants to do," Larry Bird, the Indiana president basketball of operations, said at a news conference after his meeting with Marion, as relayed by Stein. "But he does want to play for a contender."
That's what pushes Cleveland firmly ahead of Indiana in this competition for Marion's services. There are plenty of reasons for him to join the Pacers, but it's hard to mistake that squad for a contender without George on the roster.
At this point, the reasons leading him to Northeast Ohio are just better.