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What To Do With Mr. Defense

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Today Marcus Camby is in the crosshairs as we continue our look at the Nuggets offseason. There has been a popular notion over the past three years or so that the most indispensible Denver Nugget was Marcus Camby. During that time Camby has been among the league leaders in rebounding, led the league in blocks over each of the past three seasons and was named the Defensive Player of the Year for 2006-2007.

Marcus has come a long way over the previous five seasons. When he arrived in Denver he was viewed simply as a contract that would expire after the upcoming season. At the time he had never played more than 63 games in a season. He had played a career low 29 games the season before Denver traded for him and he then tied his career low of 29 games in his first season as a Nugget. Camby was undoubtedly a talented player, but his injury history made him a considerable risk to sign to a long term deal.

In one of his best moves as the Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe signed Marcus to a contract that not only paid him based on games played, but also to salaries that declined year after year instead of escalated to some astronomical amount by the end of the contract (as he did with Kenyon Martin).

Ever since Camby signed that deal he has played in 72, 66, 56, 70 and 79 games. He went from an average of 50 games played to an average of 68 games played. I really have no idea what happened. I do not know if it was the money that encouraged Marcus to play through nagging pain or if he has simply unlucky early in his career. No matter the reason, you could have made a ton of money by betting that Camby would play in 79 games at the age of 34. (That’s right Nugget fans. For all the moaning and complaining about injuries to Atkins and Nene the Nuggets top players were remarkably healthy. Marcus Camby played in 79 games last season and to top that AI played 82!)

Getting back to the task at hand, my point is Marcus has had quite a roller coaster ride. He came into the league vastly overrated as the number two pick in the loaded 1996 draft. He then earned the injury prone label and when he was traded to Denver proved to be vastly underrated. Now that he has established his ability to be healthy, rebound and block shots Camby is once again wildly overrated, particularly by Nugget fans.

I have addressed Camby’s many shortcomings several times, but let’s run down them again in case anyone may have forgotten one or two of them. To start with the obvious, he shoots far too many perimeter shots. Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the Nuggets realizes that, except of course for Marcus. Instead of cutting through the lane to give a double teamed Melo or AI a passing option, he hangs out at the top of the circle just waiting for a kick out pass. According to 82games.com 57% of the shots Camby took were jumpers and his effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for three pointers of which Camby actually made six last season) on those shots was a paltry 37.7%. In case you were not entirely sure, that is a horrible percentage.

Sticking with the offensive end, he has absolutely no back to the basket game. None. I do not know any other center in the league that never even attempts to post up. The most staggering example of his lack of ability to score on the block was when Golden State put Mickael Pietrus on him because they knew Camby would not be able to take advantage of it. What other player in the league when having a five inch height advantage over his defender would not just go directly to the post and demand the ball?

Defense is where Camby supposedly earns his keep and we already mentioned his uncanny ability to block shots as well as rebound. Don’t get me wrong, those things are nice, but they cannot make up for actually being able to play man to man defense. Marcus Camby is probably the only DPOY who was unable to defend half the players who play his position one on one.

Aside from his lacking man to man abilities (which is really an issue of bulk, or lack thereof) another major issue we all have had with Camby’s defense is his determination to not step up and challenge the ball handler on the pick and roll. Teams know that if they run a little pick and roll with Camby’s man they can get an open shot out of it whenever they want.

Despite his significant defensive shortcomings what is the most frightening thing of all to me was Camby really started to show his age during the second half of this season. I pointed out on several occasions that Camby’s production really tailed off as the season wore on and I think it is due to both how many minutes he played this season and age. Before the previous two seasons Camby had never played more than 4,177 minutes in back to back seasons. In 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 Camby played a combined 5,132 minutes. That is a lot of extra wear and tear for a player in his mid thirties.

The numbers bear this out. After averaging over 14 rebounds a game through February he only averaged 10.3 for the month of March. He did bump it up to 11.8 in April (albeit in only eight games), but that is still far below his average over the first four months of the season.

The argument in favor of Camby has always been that he is the anchor of the Nuggets defense. His presence allows his teammates to play the passing lanes because he is such an incredible shot blocker. While he is a gifted shot blocker and help defender there are two things wrong with that theory.

First of all, he lets a lot of shots go without being challenged. You see Marcus give up an uncontested layup as frequently as he blocks a shot. He gets a lot of credit for having such a low foul rate for a shot blocker. The reason for that is he only goes after shots he knows he will get thus the practice of allowing an open and unchallenged layup.

The second reason why Camby is not some mystical wall that anchors the Nuggets defense is he is not nearly the presence that someone like Dikembe Mutombo was, and sometimes still is. A truly great defender and shot blocker will alter many more shots than they block. Camby does not do that. The ability to alter shots is what transforms a shot blocker to a truly transcendent defender. It is one thing to prevent three or four shots a game getting to the rim. If you figure half of those shots would have gone in, he saved his team four points. It is entirely another to cause an additional eight or ten shots to miss their mark simply due to your presence and the threat you pose to the shooter. That can save your team an additional eight to ten points per game. Once a shot blocker reaches that level they also create a “no fly zone” that extends from the rim out into the lane where the other team knows they should avoid because they will accomplish nothing by getting into the lane. That is when a team can become a truly great defensive squad.

I think we can all agree that Marcus is nowhere near that level of defender.

The bottom line is defensively the Nuggets are only 1.1 points better per 100 possessions with Camby on the floor than with him on the padded folding chairs with a towel on his head. Even today at an age where he is receiving mailers form the AARP Dikembe Mutombo is worth 2.1 points per 100 possessions on defense to Houston.

I appreciate what Camby has done for the Nuggets, I really do. He was a big part of legitimizing them as a playoff participant. However, at the age of 34 and with all the old tricks that this dog refuses to unlearn it is time to part ways.

I pointed out in my discussion of Nene that because of Camby’s cap friendly contract Denver may be hesitant to deal him. His salary drops from $10 million last season to $8 million next season and then to $7.65 million for 2009-2010. Even so, by looking at Marcus’ career it really appears he is teetering on the edge of a cliff. The Nuggets need to get something for him while his stock is still relatively high.

The sell Marcus off while his stock is high movement began two years ago, but the Camby is the anchor of the Nuggets defense argument carried the debate. It came back again last year, but was shushed after he won the DPOY, even though it may have been the best time to trade him.

This year is probably the last chance the Nuggets have to trade him and still hope to get anything of value back while freeing themselves from a player who will only become a greater and greater liability.

Trading Camby should not be too difficult since he is only under contract, at below market value cost mind you, for two more seasons. Which teams may be interested in acquiring an aging center? It would be a team who is ready to win now, but does not have an established center or other hole in their front court.

Who fits the bill?

One team that comes to mind is Toronto. They are trying to dump T.J. Ford so they can make Jose Calderon their starting point guard next season. T.J. Ford will make $8 million next season. Guess who else will make exactly $8 million next season? That’s right, Marcus Camby. Ford would clearly be a perfect point guard to push the pace in Denver, but he has a frightening injury history and is a bit too much of a “me first” player as displayed by his refusal to come off the bench in Toronto. Add in the fact that a backcourt comprising of Allen Iverson and T.J. Ford would be abused like the guest of honor at a celebrity roast and that may not be the right deal for Denver.

However, would Toronto be willing to part with Andrea Bargnani? Bargnani regressed a little in his second season and Toronto may be willing to pawn him off on another team for a quality player rather than wait to find out if he will bounce back. A deal of Camby for Bargnani and a filler contract would give the Nuggets a nice young shooter in the front court and slash some salary at the same time.

Could Denver acquire the vastly underrated Josh Childress from Atlanta in a sign and trade for Marcus Camby? That would allow the Hawks to temporarily move Al Horford to his more natural power forward position. They also have to worry about paying Josh Smith so getting something in exchange for Childress might wet their appetite. Childress has good size and can play anywhere from point guard to small forward. If Denver hangs onto AI, he would be a perfect backcourt partner for defensive purposes and a backcourt of J.R. Smith and Childress would actually put the matchup onus on the Nuggets’ opponents for once. It would also make Kleiza expendable.

Might the Wizards part with Etan Thomas and young prospect Andray Blatche? I doubt the Nuggets would go for this, but I am a big Blatche fan as long as he stops getting shot, soliciting undercover cops for sex and speeding. He is just an amazing young talent. From the Wizards perspective Camby would make a nice center duo with Brendan Haywood.

The Knicks do not fit the “win now” profile, but they are looking to get rid of their long term contracts. Would the Knicks send the Nuggets the sixth pick in the draft in a trade of Camby and Chucky Atkins, whose contracts both expire before the 2010 offseason the Knicks have been targeting to be under the cap, if Denver would take Eddy Curry’s contract off their hands? There is no way the Nuggets would be below the cap before Curry’s contract expires anyway and they could acquire a nice player at six or package it with the 20th pick to trade up.

None of those trades would catapult the Nuggets into instant contender status, but they all would allow Denver to cash in on Camby before he goes in the tank and make the team better for the long run.

If Camby comes back next season it will not be the end of the world. Should the roof cave in and his production plummets next season, Denver can always deal his expiring contract in 2009-2010. However, if they can get any of the previously mentioned deals to go down, or an even better one, they would be crazy not to pull the trigger.

Thanks for the hard work Marcus, but the Nuggets have gone as far as they can with you in the paint (or on the perimeter if they have the ball).

(All salary info via Hoops Hype)