Basketball: Do the Knicks have the Marbury Solution?

by Hayden Alfano

The National Basketball Association (NBA) season is three weeks old, and New York Knicks point guard Stephon "Starbury" Marbury has played the same number of minutes that you or I have.

Of course, the Knicks aren’t scheduled to pay either of us almost $22 million this year.

Marbury’s healthy. He wants to play. He’s a good fit for new coach Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo style. There’s no disciplinary reason he’s not playing. D’Antoni has had nothing but positive things to say about Marbury. And yet not only has Marbury not gotten off the bench yet this year, he hasn’t even put on a uniform for the last nine of the Knicks’ ten games this year. (NBA rules allow for teams to carry 15-man rosters, but only 12 players may be “active” each night. Marbury has been inactive for all but the season opener).

It’s obvious that the Knicks want the Starchild gone. By not playing him, they’re hoping that he gets frustrated and agrees to a buyout of his contract for less than the $21, 937,500 he’s owed this year. Marbury, for his part, has stated that he won’t take anything less than the full amount.

Let’s be clear about something: Marbury is definitely overpaid. Only Boston’s Kevin Garnett makes more money among NBA players than Marbury, and Detroit’s Allen Iverson’s salary is identical to Marbury’s. Garnett and Iverson are a different class of player. Garnett’s arrival in Boston last year lead to a Celtics championship, and Detroit recently traded for Iverson with something similar in mind. Marbury, on the other hand, is a selfish point guard whose teams have underperformed wherever he’s played.

Marbury’s contract effectively makes him untradeable, as well. Even if the Knicks could find another team willing to pay Marbury’s contract, NBA trade guidelines would require the Knicks to take back almost as much salary, and no team really has the dead weight to make that happen.

For whatever reason — jealousy, racism, team loyalty — players in these situations always seem to take the brunt of public opinion. And it’s admittedly difficult to portray Marbury as a sympathetic figure. He does, after all, get paid enormous sums of money to play — or not play, it turns out — a game. Playing in the NBA is the dream of many young boys, but only a precious few realize it. Isn’t it the “right thing” for Marbury to realize he’s not worth what he’s paid, accept his buyout, and move on with his career while letting the Knicks get on with their season?

However, it’s not much easier to paint the Knicks in a good light. The NBA has a salary cap, but it’s a “soft” cap; teams are allowed to exceed it as long as they are willing to pay a one-to-one “luxury tax” if they exceed it by a certain amount. The Knicks, as one of the big-market “haves” of the league, have taken advantage of this structure, with the highest payroll in the league, more than $98 million this year, which means they’ll owe about $27 million in luxury tax.

They do this, of course, while passing some of that cost down to their fans. According to Team Marketing Report, the average cost of a ticket to a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden last year was $70.51, second-highest in the league. The team with the most expensive average ticket was the Los Angeles Lakers; Boston was the third-highest. The Lakers and Celtics met in the NBA Finals. The Knicks finished 23-59.

By not accepting less money in a buyout, Marbury’s making a business decision. He knows that if he doesn’t play this year, he’s going to earn less money as he tries to negotiate a new contract with a new team in the offseason. That’s his choice.

But the Knicks made a choice, too. They chose to try to construct the best team money could buy when they signed Marbury to his ridiculous contract. Why shouldn’t they have to live with it?

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