Stephon Marbury played his last NBA game in 2009. Just 32 years old and relegated to a bench role with the Boston, he played 13 minutes as the Celtics lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic by 19 points. That summer, with the Celtics only offering a one-year deal for the league minimum, he signed with the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association. In China he became a champion—three times —and achieved a level of nationwide stardom he had never been able to reach in the U.S.. After all, he never got a statue or a museum in America. But even now he doesn’t feel like his story is finished.
Marbury is 40 now, and, having parted ways with the Beijing Ducks, has signed with the rival Beijing Fly Dragons. He has said this CBA season would be his last, although that didn’t necessarily mean he’d leave China. The thought was that he would pursue a career in coaching—as one of only five American players to receive Chinese residency, he could even stay in the CBA. “China is the best,’’ he told us back in July. “Since I moved there my life has been amazing. The best time of my life. Not even close. I guess this was how it was all supposed to go down.’’ But now, according to Marbury’s own Twitter—and a longer post on his Instagram—he’s looking to write a different ending.
Since Marbury last played in the NBA eight years ago, every other player from his heralded 1996 Draft class has retired—Allen Iverson has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Kobe Bryant’s number is going to the Staples Center rafters in December, Steve Nash is a part-time coach in Golden State. Derrick Rose, who was a rookie when Marbury decamped to China, has experienced a full career arc since Steph’s been gone, going from max-contract MVP to league-minimum backup. LeBron left the Cavs for Miami, returned to Cleveland, and has played in seven straight NBA Finals since Marbury left. Heck, when Marbury played his last NBA game, Steph Curry and James Harden hadn't even been drafted yet. Marbury returning to the NBA now, after all this time, definitely seems insane. But dig a little deeper and—OK, it’s still insane.
when Marbury played his last NBA game, Steph Curry and James Harden hadn't even been drafted yet
That doesn’t mean it isn’t something we don’t want to see happen. An NBA coda to Marbury’s long, strange career would be the perfect capper, even if it’s just a cameo after the CBA Finals end in April—or, given that the Fly Dragons went 9-29 last season, after their regular season ends in late February. Marbury will be 41 by then, nearly twice as old as this year’s rookie class. He’s closer in age to LaVar Ball than Lonzo. Then again, so is Vince Carter, Marbury’s teammate in the 1995 McDonald’s All-America Game, who just signed a new deal with Sacramento this off-season.
If Marbury does make a return, he'll be an old player rejoining a new NBA, one almost entirely different from the one he left. Long-range shooters are at a premium now, the physical play that defined much of Marbury's early career nearly extinct. And youth is as valued as it ever was. The last point guard to play at 40-plus was John Stockton, who retired back in 2003.
It's also been a long time since Marbury excelled against NBA competition. Marbury’s final season as an All-Star caliber NBA player was in ‘04-’05, when he played all 82 games with the Knicks and posted a 21.9 PER—his highest since the 2000-’01 season, when he was an actual All-Star with the Nets. It all went downhill quickly after that. Marbury would have us believe—and his successful CBA career supports—that, more than anything, he was a victim of the Knicks’ perpetual dysfunction rather than his own declining skills. Well, there’s only one way to find out. Somebody sign this guy.