Careful what you ask for, Mr. Marion

A few weeks ago, I flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, for an EA Sports shoot. The company was filming five NBA players, including Paul Pierce and Shawn Marion, in motion capture suits for "NBA Live 08," so EA offered me a chance to join them and become the first nonplayer to wear the suit. (I'm writing about this at some point, just not today.) I ended up spending a few hours hanging out with the players and going through all the mo-cap sequences with them. It was a very fun day and I even successfully executed a three-step handshake/hug with Delonte West.

Anyway, I knew Pierce was a good guy, but the scuttlebutt on Marion had always been that he was moody and enigmatic, one of those "I never get enough respect" guys who acted happy one day and slighted the next. In Vancouver, we caught him on a good day -- Marion was laughing and joking the whole time. There was only one unhappy moment: Someone asked Marion one of those, "Hey, you must be excited for the Suns season, huh?" questions and Marion brushed it off. Clearly, he didn't want to talk about the Phoenix Suns. At all. Like a little black cloud went over him for three seconds.

At the time, I thought Marion was ticked because he had landed in a few trade rumors during the summer. Tuesday, the Arizona Republic reported that Marion hadn't shown up for camp and planned on being the last Sun to report, always a big screw-you to the rest of the team. (For instance, every guy on the Celtics has been playing together in Waltham, Mass., for the past three weeks.) Today, we learned that Marion wants to be traded for that reason, as well as the fact that the Suns refused to discuss an extension for his contract (which ends in 2009). None of this is too surprising for three reasons: Marion and Amare Stoudemire have famously clashed over the years, Jack McCallum's book "Seven Seconds Or Less" documented Marion's frustrations about being underappreciated, and there was a ridiculous moment from ESPN The Magazine's Marion feature last spring that I wrote about in my MVP column:

    18. Shawn Marion
    We're penalizing him 10 spots for an exchange in ESPN The Magazine's recent feature about Marion's being underappreciated. And just for the record, I agree. He's the second-most indispensable Sun besides Nash, as well as the best defensive player in the league. Anyway, here's what happened after Chris Palmer asked him if he'd rather be an MVP candidate and a 30-point scorer on a lesser team, or continue to do what he's doing on the second-best team in basketball.

    "Wow, that's interesting," he says thoughtfully, as if he's never entertained the prospect before. Marion pauses nearly 10 seconds to concentrate on the question. "I've never been asked that," he continues. "That would be an interesting situation to be in, to really show people what I can do. [Pause] But we'd be in the playoffs, right?"

    (You bonehead! You get to play with Steve Nash! You're in the absolute perfect situation! Why don't you call Joe Johnson and ask him how Atlanta worked out, you bozo? Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!! I read that passage and nearly flipped out like Brooke did on the "Real World" after Davis brought up her double chin. Unbelievable. Shawn Marion should be high-fiving himself every morning that Nash and Mike D'Antoni passed through his life. ... Instead, he's debating the pros and cons of carrying a mediocre team? I give up. This league seems hopeless sometimes.)

Six months later, Marion wants out. Not exactly a shock. Since this is the No Balls Association, normally when a key player on a contending team pushes for an offseason trade, the team doesn't panic (translation: doesn't have the balls to do anything) and waits for him to settle down and reconsider once he starts playing in camp with his old teammates. That might not happen this time because new Suns GM Steve Kerr played on five championship teams and values chemistry as much as anyone. (We discussed this factor extensively in my podcast with him two months ago.) Kerr knows how an unhappy Marion could single-handedly kill Phoenix's season; hell, he nearly watched this happen when he was playing with a bitter Scottie Pippen on the '98 Bulls, only MJ played out of his mind and refused to allow Pippen's sulking to derail the team. (Eventually, Scottie came around.) Kerr also knows that every healthy Steve Nash season is like playing with the house's money at this point -- you can't screw around when your best player is 33 and suffers from chronic back problems. So there's some real urgency here.

Here's the biggest issue for Kerr: Nobody they could acquire in a trade would be a better fit for the Suns than Shawn Marion. Again, he's the second-most indispensable player on that team -- he doesn't care about scoring, plays two positions, gives them rebounding and defense, fits perfectly with Nash and never misses a game. Only Andrei Kirilenko could match Marion's overall impact, and he's a complete mess (as witnessed by his bizarre trade demands last week). On paper, it would be insane to trade Marion just to fix some chemistry issues.

But there's a second red flag that doesn't get mentioned with Marion, who turns turns 30 this season: He carried an insane workload over the past three years, including 96 games and 3,750 minutes in 2004-05, 101 games and 4,100 minutes (yikes!) in 2005-06, and 91 games and 3,500 minutes in 2006-07. That's nearly four seasons in three, and if you don't think big minutes and a gigantic playoff workload can age a player overnight, check out the careers of Walt Frazier and Jo Jo White. Marion's scoring average dropped from 21.8 points in 2005-06 to 17.8 last season; his rebounds dropped from 11.8 to 9.8; and his playoff numbers dropped from 20.4/11.7 to 16.9/10.4. Could you blame those dips on Amare Stoudemire's coming back from knee surgery, or could you blame them on Marion's getting older and starting to slip because he relies on his speed and athleticism so much? Impossible to say. In Game 5 of the Spurs series with Amare suspended, Marion slapped up a 24/17. So maybe Amare did affect his numbers. We won't know for sure until he gets traded somewhere else.

I only know three things ...

1. Marion's agent must be the same guy who convinced David Caruso to leave "NYPD Blue." At some point on his next team, Shawn Marion is going to feel like an idiot for pushing to get traded AWAY from Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni. That's a mortal lock. Playing for the Suns makes Marion seem better than he actually is. Watch what happens if he gets traded.

2. Kirilenko is the only attainable player who represents close to full value for Marion (maybe 85-90 percent). Playing with Nash in a freewheeling style that takes advantage of his considerable skills, he's a mortal lock to turn his career around. Hell, anyone who watched the Warriors-Jazz series last spring knows that Kirilenko is trapped on the wrong team -- he's playing for the wrong coach in the wrong system, and any time the pace changes (like in that Warriors series), he becomes a different player. He's also three years younger than Marion and saves the Suns $3 million this season (money they could spend on a veteran buyout guy this winter). The only drawback other than the fact that he's coming off an atrocious (but explainable) season is Kirilenko's contract, which lasts until 2011 and carries a whopping $34 million price tag over the final two seasons. For a team that's terrified of the luxury tax like the Suns, those are some frightening numbers on paper.

3. Every other trade option could potentially kill Phoenix's title hopes. Perusing ESPN's Trade Machine, only seven teams could even pull off a realistic offer for Marion: Utah (for Kirilenko), Los Angeles Lakers (for Lamar Odom and a small contract to make the numbers work), Detroit (for Rasheed Wallace and a small contract), Washington (for Antawn Jamison and his expiring deal), Memphis (for Mike Miller, one more young guy and Stro Swift's expiring deal), Houston (for Shane Battier and expiring contracts) and New York (for a package of young players and expiring contracts highlighted by David Lee). You could rule out the last four destinations because Suns fans would freak if Marion was traded for 60-70 cents on the dollar, especially on the heels of the Kurt Thomas trade. I don't see Detroit's going over the luxury tax for a Sheed/Marion swap. The Odom deal would save money and solve chemistry issues, only another problem would be created because Odom has so much trouble staying on the floor -- he's missed 146 games in the past six seasons and played more than 64 games exactly twice.

Really, the only logical move for the Suns is Kirilenko. He solves their chemistry issues, replaces Marion's rebounding/shot-blocking/defense and gives them a ton of flexibility with lineups. (With the way AK47 protects the rim, Phoenix could even play him at center in a breakneck, "smallball deluxe" lineup that would have Don Nelson drooling in envy.) I'm in the minority here, but I think Kirilenko would make the All-Star team every February playing with Nash. For some reason, it reminds me of the "Basic Instinct" producers' finally casting Sharon Stone to be in an erotic thriller in 1991. She went 10 years without the right script, then it happened and she immediately became a mega-star. I feel the same way about Kirilenko. He's been trapped doing the wrong movies for the past five years.

Over everything else, I hope the Kirilenko-Marion swap happens for one reason: Steve Nash deserves to play in one NBA Finals before the end of his prime, but it won't happen with an unhappy Marion, just like Utah won't make the finals with an unhappy Kirilenko. Rarely does a straight-up deal make this much sense on paper, although Utah should throw in something extra to account for the slight upgrade (as well as the fact that Phoenix gets stuck with those last two years of Kirilenko's deal). I hope this trade happens in some form. For everyone's sake. Even for you, Shawn Marion, the guy who won't know how good he has it until it's too late.

(Of course, this is the NBA, so the trade probably won't happen. Alas.)