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The other guy

PHOENIX -- In the first week of the season, after a game in Seattle, Shawn Marion approached me and said, "Can I talk to you a minute?"

We found an isolated spot in Key Arena and the Suns' forward got right to the point. "Why are you killing me in print all the time?" he said. "Do you have something personal against me?" His tone was level. He was never threatening. He looked me in the eye.

For a journalist, there is no way to win in that situation. It is impossible for a writer to recount every negative sentence he ever wrote about a player, or counter it by conjuring up positive comments that were written over the years. I'm just not that quick. But I know this much and I told him: "Whatever I wrote about you, Shawn, it was never personal." Because it wasn't.

I thought about that meeting Wednesday as Marion turned into The Man Who Was Not There at US Airways Arena. Well, he was there, early, before Suns general manager Steve Kerr and coach Mike D'Antoni deconstructed the blockbuster trade that brought Shaquille O'Neal to the Valley of the Suns, and sent Marion and backup guard Marcus Banks to the Heat.

But then the Matrix left without talking to the press, and he became a postscript to the Shaq story. Kerr and D'Antoni paid the requisite homage to Marion's eight and a half seasons in Phoenix, but by the time the arena scoreboard caught Shaq in a suite and he held up his hand and pointed to a championship ring and the crowd went nuts, a lot of people would've been unable to tell you Marion's jersey number (31).

There were times that, indeed, I had been tough on Marion. In a book about the Suns I wrote two years ago, I spent several pages on Marion's paranoia, his preternatural preoccupation with being overlooked, and his frustration at playing third banana to Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire. After that, when the subject of Marion came up, quotes from the book were often excerpted (they were on this Web site on Wednesday) and it looked like I was criticizing him anew.

I stand behind what I wrote about him. But it is tempered by the fact that, yes, he was the Suns' whipping boy. Some of Nash's defensive deficiencies were glossed over but never Marion's erratic ball handling or his sometimes shaky shot selection or his failure to deliver in the clutch. D'Antoni said it often when I was doing the book and he still says it: "I expect so much from Shawn that I'm tougher on him than anybody else."

Marion's otherworldly athleticism and occasional bursts of brilliance -- two seasons ago he had a two-week 30-point, 20-rebound stretch that prompted D'Antoni to say that "Shawn is playing the game about as well as anybody's ever played it" -- always promised so much more.

In the end, though, he was a major part of the Suns' dreary locker room that was getting drearier by the week, despite their outstanding record. Was he the whole problem? No. But if Marion has one weakness off the court, it's that he's not a leader. That's OK, but not if you are a max-contract player and one of the team captains. You can't have it both ways. With the dough and the acclaim comes responsibility.

However, amid all the optimism -- Shaq is a low-post presence who demands a double-team; Shaq can guard big people on an undersized team; Shaq is a born leader who will improve the locker room -- is this stark fact about Marion's departure: The Suns are sorely lacking a versatile perimeter defender. Marion guarded Tony Parker, he guarded Kobe Bryant, he guarded Dirk Nowitzki. D'Antoni is, well, defensive about the Suns' defense, noting that his team stands a respectable 11th in opposition field-goal percentage, an important stat. Well, OK. And a major reason they stand that high is Marion. The Suns still need to get another piece, and they better get one who plays perimeter defense.

Look, the Suns didn't do this deal to get rid of Marion -- that is way too strong. They did it to land Shaq. But the prospect of trading the Matrix was attractive both because of the locker-room issues and the fact that, since Marion has an opt-out clause, the Suns were faced with a potential summer of discontent. Better to unload him now. It gives the Suns a chance to start fresh --"The Big Aristotle will make it fun for us," Nash said on Wednesday night -- and it gives Marion a chance to start fresh in Miami.

I wish him well even if he doesn't believe that.