The Camby Trade Wasn’t Stupid; The Nuggets Will Be Better

[Note: Originally Posted 10-06-2008 at 07:03 AM by DenButsu]

The conventional wisdom among most NBA fans right now is that the Marcus Camby trade was a completely stupid move by the Nuggets front office. And here is the prevalent reason given for thinking so:

“Denver, one of the worst defensive teams in the league, gave away its best defensive player for nothing.”

It’s an easy conclusion to make from a superficial glance at the surface of the situation, but every time someone says it I can immediately tell that they don’t truly understand the true nature of the Camby trade.

Why? Because there are three main assumptions in that statement:

1. Camby was Denver’s best defensive player
2. Denver gave him away for nothing
3. Denver was one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year

And all three of those are just plain wrong.

Breaking them down:

1. Camby was Denver’s best shot blocker and rebounder, but not their best overall defender. That honor would go to Kenyon Martin and/or Eduardo Najera, with Camby coming in a fairly distant 3rd. If you watched the Nuggets-Lakers series, then you might ask, “How does Pau Gasol slice up an NBA frontcourt like cream cheese? And here’s the answer: “When it’s anchored by a softy like Marcus Camby who couldn’t intimidate a schoolgirl, and the only genuine on-the-ball post defender (K-Mart) is out on the perimeter guarding Kobe Bryant.” And that’s only one example, but anybody who watched a significant number of Nuggets games last season knows that, with a good degree of consistency, the Nuggets defense often improved when Camby was benched and Najera and K-Mart were holding the middle. Simply put, Camby did little else but block and rebound on the defensive end. And even in those areas, he is on a rapidly declining trajectory: And here’s the proof. He’s 34 years old and most definitely on the downward side of his career. So while his rebounding and shot blocking will obviously be missed, it’s not the tragic loss that everybody is making it out to be, since he’s on the fade and the space he vacates can be filled by a superior man-to-man defender.

2. While it’s true that the Clippers gave nothing for Camby – and in that sense it was a steal for them – it is certainly not true that the Nuggets gave him away for nothing. In fact, the Nuggets got two very important things in return for dumping Camby. Firstly, a $10 million trade exception that will most likely be used in June 2009 after AI’s contract expires and his $21 million salary comes off the books. If you look around the league at the real needs and wants of most teams, this gives the Nuggets better trade value than they could possibly have had by directly trading Camby himself. Why? Well, because of his age and declining performance, along with the financial reality of today’s NBA in which nearly every team is constantly looking for a way to cut payroll. The Nuggets were also criticized for trading their 2008 1st for a future 1st. But think about it. There were viable rumors, for example, about a Camby+1st for Hinrich trade, which most Bulls and Nuggets fans seemed to think was an all-around reasonable deal. Well, in the eyes of most GMs, a future 1st + a trade exception will look even better, and the Nuggets should definitely be able to get a quality player next summer. The other thing that Denver got was financial relief of an extraordinarily rare nature – they gave away a guaranteed $20 million in salary (actually saving $40 million due to the luxury tax), and took NONE back in return. They didn’t have to buy out his contract. They didn’t have to take a crap player with an expiring who would bloat up the payroll for a season and cost double due to the luxury tax. Just pure, clean savings. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that the Knicks attempted to do the same thing with Balkman, a deal which the Nuggets got the better end of by picking up a great, cheap role player, while the Knicks barely saved any money at all).

3. Denver was not the worst defensive team in the NBA last season, or anywhere close to it, really. And I’ll just let Hollingertake this one for me:

Every analysis of the Nuggets described them as a group of talented offensive players who lost because they didn’t play any defense. And everybody who wrote that was dead wrong.

(Please follow the link to read his take on why the Nuggets defense was better than perceived – it’s very solid, and very detailed).

So basically all of the main reasons everybody has for thinking the Camby trade was stupid are bogus. Now, in the short term, the Nuggets will probably struggle. Camby has been holding the middle forever, and his absence will throw things off kilter for a while, no doubt. But once the team gets its bearings I think it will be just as good defensively as last season, and in terms of properly building around Melo, J.R. and Nene, and in terms of the longer term financial situation, the Camby trade was a shrewd move by the Nuggets front office. And on the flip side of it, as we start the new season without him, I think we’ll be an overall better team.

That’s right, better. But wait, you say, shipping Camby out wasn’t the only offseason failure for the Nuggets this summer.

They also let the only other guy who played some D – Eduardo Najera – walk away and sign with the Nets. And they didn’t meet their glaring team needs by acquiring either a point guard* or a real center. In fact, all they got were a bunch of minimum contract scrubs. The only bright spot in their dismal offseason was re-signing J.R. Smith.

So you say, “And you actually think they’re going to improve this season?” Correctomundo. And here are the 6 reasons why I believe it’s true:

1. Nene is Camby’s replacement, and Nene is a better all-around player than Camby

Marcus Camby is one of the least understood players in the NBA, at once terrible and fantastic, very much an asset, and very much a liability. If you only look at his defense, the plus of blocks and rebounds would seem to cancel out the minus of not playing a lick of one-on-one, and balance the scales. But in reality, for the Nuggets, his near total lack of offense clearly tipped the scales to “liability” for the size of his contract. The only starting center in the NBA who has a complete and total lack of a post game in any form at all, Marcus’s only real asset was his ability to feed Melo in the post from the top of the key. Otherwise, the top of the key is where he’d perpetually linger, taking wince-inducingly akward long-distance jumpers that were all too often accompanied by the tune of equally wince-inducing clanks.

Nene, out for nearly the entire 2007-08 season, and this season’s replacement for Camby, is the one who can restore balance to The Force. As evidenced last year’s playoffs against the Spurs – and attested to by Tim Duncan – he is a legitimate and solid post defender. He has the size and strength to handle the league’s truly big bigs. He will be a much better compliment to K-Mart than Camby was, in that Kenyon will be freed up to man another big and/or double, along with Melo, opposing threats at the 3 and 4 while Nene mans the middle. Not only will Nene himself be a defensive upgrade to Camby (pulling down fewer boards but also allowing fewer points), K-Mart will be freed from Camby’s shadow to emerge as the great defender he really is. And I don’t think most of you will need much convincing that Nene is a much more potent offensive threat than Camby. Unlike Camby, he has a legitimate post up game, he can run pick-and-rolls with Melo, and he’s effective in playing off the ball. And he won’t loaf around at the top of the key.

2. The increased role of J.R. Smith

Smitty might just be the best kept secret in the NBA. Everywhere I look, he continues to be written off by the skeptics – if noticed at all. And while it’s not that he hasn’t given them any ammo to work with, few have been quick on the uptake that he has put his worst days as a player and (it seems) as a person behind him. Whether he has truly made a turnaround in his attitude and behavior is, of course, just a total guessing game at this point. But he’s given the Nuggets fans and organization reason to believe. Mark Warkentien, when announcing J.R.’s re-signing, sang his praises for the hard work he’s been putting in at the gym all summer long. He appears focused, and aimed in exactly the right direction. And in the disappointing collapse against the Lakers in the playoffs, J.R. clearly rose above the rest of his teammates as the player who exhibited the most heart (and frankly, the most effective basketball at times). I’ve already broken down his on-court improvement in a previous blog entry here, so I won’t rehash it. Suffice it to say that with the increased minutes and higher quality of play from J.R. that we fans are expecting to see, he will be a key contributor to Denver’s success.

3. The “return” of Chucky Atkins, and the DEcreased role of Anthony Carter*

Anthony Carter was arguably the worst, most unqualified starter in the NBA last season. Simply put, he has little business playing much at all, but for him to average 28 minutes in 67 starts was just absolutely outrageous. Atkins has made his rounds in the NBA, and over the years has earned the dubious reputation as a “sucky” “chucker” (ha ha – get it?) who plays no defense. So some will scoff at the idea he’s an upgrade to AC. The truth is that in Denver, the jury is still out. Injured for practically the entire season, and hobbled in the games he did play, we were deprived of the opportunity to see how he fit with the team. But importantly, he did show glimpses of having a much better court vision and distributive ability than Carter – and with guys like Allen Iverson and Melo around to do the heavy lifting, he doesn’t need to do too much more than that. Even so, he has a superior perimeter shot to AC, and thus can more effectively space the floor. The defensive liability can’t be ignored, but hopefully this will be minimized by increased minutes for Smith as well as the addition of Renaldo Balkman, who can provide a measure of perimeter defense.

4. The new “scramble squad” should compensate for the loss of Najera

Near the beginning of last season, the local TV announcers for the Denver Nuggets dubbed their high energy second unit the “scramble squad” for their tenacity, scrappiness, and defensive punch off the bench. While the loss of Eddie Najera could truly hurt the Nuggets (he has by far been their most under recognized player for the past few seasons, and an integral part of the team), the improvement of Linas Kleiza (who had a very impressive Olympic outing this summer), and the additions of Balkman and Chris “Birdman” Andersen should patch up most of the spaces in Denver’s game left behind by Najera’s departure (as well as Camby’s).

5. Melo will actually play some defense

Okay, take a minute to catch your breath. Done laughing? Okay, then. This is without a doubt the shakiest of my predictions, but it has its foundation in three factors that I believe are real: a) At the end of the postseason implosion, I think he truly reached the end of his rope, and understands that he needs to be the impetus for change in Denver; b) this attitudinal shift was evident in his demeanor, his approach, and his game when he played for Team USA in Beijing, as he graciously accepted a backup role and focused his game on defense, rebounding and, generally speaking, the “little things” he has often neglected in his play for the Nuggets; and c) the dramatic progression from epic failure in the playoffs to equally epic victory in the Olympics has driven home how great the payoff of hard work feels when it results in success, and this has reignited his desire to win. I think we will see a Carmelo Anthony who is now more than ever not only willing but hungry to do everything it takes to lead his team to success.

6. Starting with AI, this team is still overflowing with talent

This point really needs no explanation and, in my opinion isn’t really even debatable, but merits being pointed out just to illustrate that in many ways the Nuggets were already underachievers last season. By that measure they should improve just by playing on a level closer to how they look on paper. Ultimately, I have lost my faith in the potential for AI and Melo to go all the way on the same team together (although I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong), but dammit, they sure should still be able to get past the first round. I believe that Camby (and to a lesser extent, an Anthony Carter with way too many minutes) were severely detrimental to chemistry, and that we will see lineups and rotations this season that are much more conducive to effective team play, and to maximizing Melo’s strengths and minimizing his weaknesses. Nene is the pivotal figure in this transformation.

So there are my reasons why the Camby trade was good for the Denver Nuggets, and why they’ll be an improved team – one that will make the playoffs, and have more success there – in 2008-09. A caveat: all this is predicated on the roster staying healthy (a task Atkins has already failed to accomplish), but if it stays intact, they will be better.
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*We’re still waiting to see if the rumored Jamaal Tinsley trade goes through or not. This would ship Chucky Atkins and Steven Hunter to the Pacers for Tinsley, who in spite of his many problems would be a point guard upgrade for Denver, and that third reason would remain true.