DALLAS -- Before Shawn Marion decided to play Thursday night despite bruised ribs, he ranked his pain level at 9.5 on a scale to 10. He then went out and tallied 22 points and eight rebounds in a rout of the New York Knicks, and he followed it up Saturday with 25 points and 12 rebounds in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"The thing about this injury that is frustrating is sometimes, making certain moves or something, I feel it more than others," Marion said. "But it’s tolerable right now and that’s all that matters."
Had Marion decided that his ribs ached too much or were too tender to risk an errant elbow, the Mavs would be a in a major personnel jam. Peja Stojakovich will miss his fourth and fifth consecutive games on this back-to-back trip that ends at Golden State on Wednesday night. The only other small forward on the team is newly acquired Corey Brewer, who has averaged nine minutes over his first five games.
"At times it [Marion's value] is hard to measure because he’s got such an unusual way of playing," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "But he is so good and so effective and so important for us, and there’s been no greater evidence of it than the last two games."
Carlisle even play-called specifically for Marion against the Lakers, giving the 6-foot-7 forward rare isolation situations, mostly posting up against Kobe Bryant or Ron Artest and spinning to the rim.
So, what to do with Marion now? For the majority of the season Carlisle has opted to keep Marion and Jason Terry as more or less co-sixth men, typically substituting the two together. Sasha Pavlovic was signed off the street to two 10-day contracts and inserted into the starting lineup after four games to preserve the bench rotation.
As soon as Stojakovic was ready to play two weeks after being signed, he stepped into the starting lineup. When Caron Butler was healthy, Marion as a reserve made perfect sense as a veteran changeup at the position. Even during Pavlovic's stint, an argument could be made to keep Marion's energy coming off the bench even if it meant a weaker starting unit.
But now that Stojakovic is out and there remains no timetable for a return, should Marion simply be handed the starting job from here on out with 16 regular-season games left?
In 15 games as a starter, Marion is averaging 14.7 points on 57.2 percent shooting in 30.0 minutes. In 50 games as a reserve, he's averaged 11.1 points on 48.3 percent shooting and 6.9 rebounds in 27.1 minutes.
"Everything’s an option going forward," Carlisle said. "In the last 15, 16 games we’ll continue to evaluate everything. The key thing in my mind is that we keep working to get better every day, but we’re not going to get into a thing where we’re running guys’ minutes way up, whether they’re starting or coming off the bench. We’ve got a lot of depth. We want to use it and we want to continue to get better."
If Stojakovic is available for Friday's home game against the San Antonio Spurs or Sunday against the Warriors, perhaps it still makes sense to move Marion back to the bench. Stojakovic, though, has yet to show that he can be a consistent threat from 3-point range, where his real value lies, and he was mired in an awful slump. He was shooting 30.8 percent from beyond the arc before the stiff neck interrupted his Mavs tenure after just 13 games in what has been an injury rattled season with three teams.
As the playoffs draw nearer, Carlisle will also have to gauge the defensive ability of Marion over Stojakovic. In successive games, Marion helped to limit Carmelo Anthony and Bryant to 11-of-35 shooting combined. Against the Blazers, Marion will draw the improving and always dangerous Brandon Roy.
"Shawn has been playing unbelievable, really taking the challenge defensively, guarding the best player on their team, the 2 [shooting guard], 3 [small forward], no matter what position and he’s been great," Dirk Nowitzki said. "It seems like it fires him up on the offensive end, too. He wants to go back at that player and he’s been posting up floaters his whole career. He’s been looking great."
Nowitzki ended his comment, however, by saying it didn't matter to him who starts at small forward because it won't change his approach.
At this stage of the season, Carlisle must put his best players in the best position for the team to succeed. Right now that means starting Shawn Marion at small forward.