Shawn Marion, The Matrix and the evolution of the small forward position

Cinephiles and frat bros alike recognize the iconic standing of the film, The Matrix. One of the most extravagant, innovative sci-fi films ever made, the Wachowski’s masterpiece has influenced countless films since its release in 1999, pushing the genre forward and opening the door for other blockbuster-with-a-brain films like Inception and The Bourne Series.

Two months after the U.S. release of The Matrix, the Phoenix Suns selected a lengthy forward with the No. 9 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. His name? Shawn Marion. It did not take long for Marion’s extraterrestrial arms, legs, and speed to become the staple of his play; in the pre-season of his rookie year, Kenny “The Jet” Smith gave Marion the nickname “The Matrix,” which stuck instantly, and is now one of the NBA’s most widely recognized pseudonyms.

Marion, now in his 16th season, has been interpreting the shooting guard position in a whole new way for the wing-less Cleveland Cavaliers. He recorded his 10,000th career rebound on Friday, becoming the first player in NBA history with that many rebounds plus 15,000 points, 1,000 blocks and 500 triples made. As big a mouthful as it might be, the accomplishment goes a long way in trying to pinpoint the impact of Marion on the game of basketball — a player whose career numbers rank with some of the all-time greats, and who has invented roles on some of the most critically acclaimed basketball teams in recent memory.

You see, much like the film, the greatness of the NBA’s Matrix is a polarizing discussion. In a year where The Cider House Rules was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Matrix was locked out of the major categories, winning four Oscars for special effects and editing instead. Is The Matrix a better film than American Beauty? Probably not. But its absence from the grown up table is an example of the bias the Oscars typically carry toward a certain type of movie, and a blindness to others.

The Basketball Hall of Fame, flawed as it is, would be the equivalent of the Academy Awards for an NBA player. If a player changed the game of basketball with his performance, style and accomplishments, he gets in. Marion is in the twilight of one of the most unprecedented, unique careers in basketball history. The debate encapsulating his Hall of Fame candidacy has really nothing to do with his talents and everything to do with a misunderstanding of Marion’s greatness.

The NBA has changed a lot since Michael Jordan’s tenure with the Chicago Bulls, but arguably the most significant change to the game has been the exponential growth of the three-point shot — how offenses heavily incorporate three-pointers into their gameplan; how defenses must stretch out in order to limit open looks from the perimeter; and the ascending prominence of the corner three. The wing positions, sans Kobe Bryant, have transformed from positions measured in volume to positions measured in efficiency — traditional 2’s and 3’s seldom lead their teams in field goal attempts anymore, but are more often specialists used to distract the defense from the league’s supreme point guards and power forwards.

At the top of the league, players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have created a brand new form of dominance from a position aptly referred to as “point-forward” — they can start with or without the ball, near the hoop or behind the arc, and are given the latitude to make whatever play they see fit. In a sport where the team with the best player wins most of the time, if you don’t have one of these two players, you better have someone who can disrupt them, or you are toast.

What does this have to do with Marion? A four-time All-Star forward with the “Seven seconds or less” Suns, Marion was the critical piece of what Mike D’Antoni built in Phoenix. Nash was sensational en route to a pair of controversial MVP trophies, and Amar’e Stoudemire was ideal as their bucket-of-dunks center — but neither player was irreplaceable. Trade Nash for Tony Parker in the mid-2000s and it’s possible Phoenix doesn’t fall off at all; the Suns would have found another Stoudemire if they needed to. (My vote: Chris Bosh.)

But it was Marion that was essential to their playing style — ambiguously labeled “power forward” when a more accurate title would have been “gives us a shred of defense.” His skill set doubles as a synopsis of Phoenix’s gameplan — dynamite in transition, finishes everything around the basket, makes open threes, hits the glass, runs like a bat out of hell. For what it’s worth, Shawn Marion was the LaDainian Tomlinson of fantasy basketball during the mid-2000s, ranking highly in so many categories that you had to draft him No. 1 overall in spite of Kobe being in his prime.

Marion can guard point guards, wings and forwards, even now in his older years. That’s a rare trait to have even in this day and age of basketball. When your point guard is Nash and your center is Stoudemire, there is no price too high for Marion.

(It’s at this point I want to briefly rid us of the elephant in the room: Marion’s shooting form. It’s atrocious. Like, all-time ugliest mechanics I’ve ever seen. But he’s a career 33 percent shooter from deep; he never let his glitch in the system keep him off the floor. And Marion gets bonus points for adding the corner three to his arsenal, a shot that makes his “butter face” shooting technique slightly less ugly… right?)

Marion has moved around a lot in his career — he was traded to Miami for an old Shaq in 2008, sequestered to Toronto for the end of his most expensive season in 2009, and of course signed a four-year contract with Dallas before joining Cleveland last summer — and that most likely has tainted his legacy. The Cleveland signing, in particular, is a classic “veteran chasing a ring” contract; there was an expectation, fair or not, that Marion would end his career in Dallas last season.

If the Suns had won a championship under Mike D’Antoni, don’t we look at Shawn Marion a bit differently? He was the third-best player on those teams, a James Worthy-esque tenure, and next to Nash — who undoubtedly had the most riding on the championship season that alluded him — Marion would have gotten much more recognition for just how special he was on those teams.

With the Mavericks, Marion started all 21 playoff games in 2011, guarding the likes of Kobe, Durant, LeBron and Dwyane Wade en route to his first championship. That title run will be remembered for the ungodly shooting performance by Dirk Nowitzki, and deservedly so, but it should not go unappreciated how critical having defensive stalwarts Tyson Chandler and Marion in that lineup was to their success.

Chandler was let go that offseason, and the Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since. Funny enough, Chandler’s absence the past three seasons in Dallas has helped to secure his legacy as an invaluable part of that championship team. Marion, who played out the remaining years of his contract on lesser Dallas teams, might be held in a similar esteem if he too could play the “you don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone” card.

No matter what happens this year in Cleveland, and however many more seasons Marion plays in the league, his numbers tell a great deal of his story. Over his 16 seasons, he was twice named to third-team All-NBA and he played on an Olympic team (2004). He and David Robinson are the only two players in NBA history to finish a season top 5 in rebounding and steals, which Marion did twice. Only Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Dr. J and Marion have 17,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 1,500 steals and 1,000 blocks.

But you want to know what Marion’s greatest impact on the game of basketball has been? Much like The Matrix changed science-fiction films, Marion changed the way the small forward position could be played. In a league with bigger and faster point guards, and 6-foot-8 forwards bringing up the ball, Marion is the grandfather of the 3-and-D role player. When Dallas played the Clippers, they could throw Marion on Chris Paul; when Dallas traveled to Miami, Marion would check LeBron or Wade; and when Dallas played Oklahoma City, Marion was the guy to line up against Durant.

Look around the league: how many good basketball teams have a player like this? Most of them. Golden State has assembled practically an entire roster full of arm-and-legs defensive types with jump shots. Portland starts a pair of wings who defend multiple positions and shoot. Toronto has tall wings that protect their franchise point guard. Atlanta starts DeMarre Carroll to do the dirty work on both ends so that Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver don’t have to.

Meanwhile, the Clippers and Thunder have received hefty criticism for their reluctance to add a player who can play the wing on both ends — Matt Barnes routinely shoots himself out of favor in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City has as a revolving door of wings who are minuses on one end or the other.

The San Antonio Spurs, usually the first in the league to do everything, sneakily owe a lot to Shawn Marion. The same month Marion’s 3-and-D art helped Dallas defeat Miami in the NBA Finals, San Antonio dealt their beloved backup point guard, George Hill, to Indiana for the rights to draft Kawhi Leonard. Three years later, Leonard transcended the 3-and-D role they drafted him for by outplaying LeBron and winning NBA Finals MVP.

Does San Antonio still make the Leonard/Hill trade if Marion doesn’t expose a great basketball truth — that as long as LeBron James and Kevin Durant are in the league, you need someone who can guard them? Probably. But so much of what Leonard is doing in San Antonio can be traced back to what Marion did for Dallas in 2011, and what he did for less successful teams in Phoenix years earlier.

“The Matrix” was an impeccable choice of nickname for Marion — kudos to Kenny Smith — not just because of his supernatural combination of speed and limbs, or his ability to be make plays anywhere on the court. But Marion now has this Morpheusian quality to him, as the man who discovered basketball’s Neo — “the one” who stopped LeBron and killed Miami’s Big Three. If that isn’t worth being voted into the Hall of Fame, then what is?

About Joe Mags

The next Sherlock Holmes just as soon as someone points me to my train and asks how I'm feeling. I highly recommend following me @thatjoemags, and you can read my work on Tumblr ( I am the Senior NBA Writer at Crossover Chronicles. I'm also a contributor for The Comeback, Awful Announcing and USA Today Sports Weekly.