Almost 13 years ago, Marcus Camby was thrust into the starting lineup on an eighth seeded New York Knicks team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals. In the playoffs that year, he led his team in rebounds, blocks, PER, defensive rating, offensive rating, and win shares. As a 24-year-old, straw thin big man whose offensive game looked a lot like Tyson Chandler’s does now, he was arguably the most crucial player taking part in the most improbable of impossible title runs we’ve ever seen.
On March 30th, Sam Dalembert went down with the flu, forcing a wrinkled version of Camby into the starting lineup for a feisty Rockets squad. Since? At the risk of total hyperbole, he’s been a revelation. Here are the basic statistical averages in his last three games: 34 minutes, 52% shooting, 9.7 points, 12 rebounds (3.3 of them offensive), 2.3 steals, and 3.3 blocks. The other night in a comeback win against Chicago, Camby expanded his role from above average rim protector to someone who’s of actual use on offense, spacing the floor and forcing the Bulls’ tight defense to spread a bit further than they would’ve liked.
What Camby now lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in reputation and old man savvy. As a 38-year-old center going up against someone who’s likely at least 10 years his junior each night, he has to pick his spots. Four days ago in a game against the Pacers, Roy Hibbert faced Camby in the post 10 times. The Rockets didn’t send help on one of those defensive possessions, and Hibbert scored only three field goals. This performance was great news, but what’s more important about Camby’s play in the post is his inability to foul. He fights for position. He pushes back. He doesn’t fall for head fakes. He doesn’t foul. This is huge.
On the offensive end he’s always around the basket, showing amazing productivity on the offensive glass via tips and the occasional dunk. He’s shown he can step outside and knock down an open jumper (money for the Rockets drive and kick based offense), but almost a third of his points have come on making something out of nothing by cleaning up his teammate’s missed shots.
In a recent game against the Grizzlies, Dalembert and Camby played beside one another for 10 minutes. They scored seven points, blocked three shots, and posted such insanely good rates that it wouldn’t even make sense to write them down, as they came in such a microscopic sample size. Pairing them together was a smart move by Kevin McHale for two reasons. First of all, I know they’re in a playoff race where every win matters, but it’s better to test out some different lineup combinations now than in the playoffs, when some of the Western Conference’s best teams can throw huge size-based mismatches at you for quarter stretches at a time.
The Grizzlies have Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The Lakers have Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Spurs can go the other way with a lethal three guard combination that might require multiple rim protectors. The point here is that with Camby and Dalembert both playing at the same time, the Rockets may be able to turn what was at one point a MAJOR defensive liability into a quasi-dominant force.
The second reason this move was so smart touches a bit on ego, and how a team like Houston needs everybody who contributes to know and understand the role they play and where they fit. A week ago, Dalembert was the starting center. For the most part, he knew who he’d be playing with every night, how many minutes and in what situations he’d be on the court, and what his responsibilities were on both ends to best help Houston win basketball games. Now he’s on the bench, getting irregular minutes, lacking confidence, and looking clueless when he’s out there. Dalembert and McHale’s staff have about three weeks to figure out how he can excel in his new, limited job. With a roster that’s short on talent, the season is counting on it.
(Although he might be physically capable of carrying out the duty if it were an absolute necessity, if all of a sudden the Rockets decided to put Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup he’d be lost. The team would ask him to replicate Luis Scola’s numbers and he wouldn’t know how. The situation is reversed, but this is what Dalembert might be going through. It’s also something Chase Budinger did go through, and he’s still struggling.)
Five months ago the Rockets had NO answer at the center position. When Dalembert came aboard on somewhat of a desperation signing (on no planet is he worth $7 million per year) he was greeted as a relative hero. But hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. The Rockets needed a legitimate center and Dalembert needed to feel welcome in a new environment. Now, the situation has dramatically shifted.
This year the Rockets give up 1.017 PPP when Dalembert is on the court, which conveniently enough fits them between the Grizzlies and Lakers as one of the ten best defensive teams in the league. Camby has been great on both ends of the court in these last few games, but if the Rockets are unable to draw all they possibly can from Dalembert in these next couple of weeks, they can’t expect Camby to keep up the spectacular play by himself, especially in a grueling playoff series. What they need is for the two to work together in a two-headed monster type of capacity. Whether that be at the same time, or in a consistent replacement pattern. If they can somehow combine the two seven-footers for 48 minutes of defensive intensity, gone will be the days of Patterson or Scola at the five.
Over a decade later, Camby may once again be thrust into the starting lineup of an eighth seeded playoff team in a lockout shortened season. If he can coexist with Dalembert, it could be the difference between a first round exit, and the Rockets existing as the Western Conference’s true sleeper.