I think many of us have watched Marcus Camby this season, especially during these last four weeks, with a combination of awe and trepidation. Awe that a 34 year old player could play so well and work so hard, particularly for a team going nowhere. Trepidation in the assumption that Marcus was surely getting frustrated, being the only name player left in the lineup, taking the floor night after night at the cneter of a team of young players and journeymen that had essentially no chance of beating an NBA opponent. And yet there he was, grabbing every rebound, blocking shots, diving out of bounds - caring. Caring so very much.
And he certainly was getting frustrated. When the losing streak reached a dozen, he said it felt like 30. Bear in mind, he went to the NBA Finals with the Knicks. He averaged 46 wins per game with the Nuggets the last 5 seasons and went to the playoffs every one of those years. It couldn't be easy going from a 50 win team last season to a team with the third worst record in the NBA.
But if the losing was getting to him, he certainly didn't let it show in his play. Or perhaps he did - perhaps he used it as motivation to be even better. Because that's what he's been: better. Arguably better than he's ever been, and that's pretty amazing when you consider how good he's been in his career.
He was leading the league in rebounding before he got hurt, and is currently second, within a few tenths of Dwight Howard. Considering the lead that Howard once had in that race and the rate at which Camby has been rebounding since the beginning of December, it's possible that Camby could win his first NBA rebounding title this season - which would be remarkable at the age of 35 (his birthday is in March). But even if Howard, who is having a monster year on the glass himself, holds on to the lead in that category, you have to recognize Camby's amazing performance. He's been a premier rebounder in the NBA for over a decade. Even so, he's currently enjoyin his best ever season on the glass, averaging 13.8 rebounds per game. It's been his best rebounding season by any measure - per game, per minute, offensive boards, defensive boards, any way you slice it. If the Nuggets thought he would begin to decline in his mid-30s, they appear to have been sorely mistaken.
He's also scoring more and more efficiently than he has in years. His 12.3 point per game average is the third highest of his 13 year career and his 50.9% shooting is also his third best. Furthermore, he's never before combined the two numbers as effectively as he has this season - 12.3 is the most he's ever averaged while shooting over 50%. And of course he's still among the league leaders in blocked shots as well, currently second in the NBA.
Some might argue that the current situation on the Clippers is artificially elevating his statistics; that the team is so depleted he doesn't have much competition for rebounds or points. There's probably a tiny bit of truth to that as regards rebounding - certainly his career high 3.5 offensive rebounds per game are padded by all those Clipper misses, LA being the worst shooting team in the NBA. But he's also averaging a career high on the defensive end. As for scoring, it's hard to imagine how playing on a bad team is in any way beneficial to his shooting percentage. Bottom line - don't minimize what he's accomplishing. It's truly astounding.
Camby's professionalism, effort and performance make the prolonged absences of Chris Kaman, Zach Randolph and Baron Davis all the more frustrating for the citizens of Clips Nation. MDsr's veiled reference that perhaps some of those guys might not be completely motivated to hurry back into game action given the fact that the season is already lost would consititute a major insult to Camby's own dedication if there is any truth to the suggestion. Of course Camby himself is injured now, but I doubt anyone will accuse him of malingering - we saw his ankle and knee twist, and then we saw him limp back out of the locker room in hopes of getting back onto the floor against the Bucks - the coach and the trainer may have different ideas, but Marcus Camby will play as soon as they let him.
So back to that trepidation - is Camby frustrated with all the losing, with the injuries, with the perception that perhaps Kaman and Randolph and Davis aren't as motivated to push their twenty-something bodies the way he's pushing his? The trade rumors started the minute the Clippers traded for Zach Randolph and they continue to circulate. Is Marcus happily reading those rumors, hoping for a trade that will send him to a contender?
Apparently not. It's certainly possible that he secretly harbors a desire to get out of what is by any reasonable measure a difficult situation, but his public statements have all been incredibly encouraging. He told Ramona Shelburne on January 14th (when the losing streak was at 12) that he was 'in it for the long haul.' And in two separate high profile articles within the last week he's said all the right things. He told Mark Heisler of the LA Times:
I love the situation. My wife loves it out here. My kids are acclimated to the school system. The weather's great.
In a Sports Illustrated article by Paul Forrester, he was even more positive, talking not just about the weather and his family, but also about mentoring young players on the Clippers roster:
When you give a constant effort on the glass, guys appreciate you for that. They see how much effort you're putting in, how bad you want to fight and win. That can be contagious; it can jolt a little life into other players and into the fans. I love going out there and battling against these young studs they have in this league. And the enjoyment I take in seeing our young players develop pretty much makes my day.
In a similar situation, most players in their mid 30s would be lobbying for a trade (either publicly or privately), talking about how they've earned a chance to grab that elusive ring (remember, Marcus came close in New York, making it to the Finals in 1999). Not only is Marcus not demanding to be traded, or even asking to be traded: he's actually asking NOT to be traded:
I know a lot of teams have been calling, and it's always good to feel wanted. If I have my preference, I would like to stay here.
Wow. I did not see that coming.
Both Heisler and Forrester make the case that Camby should be getting All Star consideration for his season. And both admit that it's just not going to happen given the Clippers' record. Camby gets that as well. But it's worth noting that Dwight Howard is a leading candidate for MVP and will start at center in the East while leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots, while his only competition in either of those categories is Marcus Camby, who has essentially no chance of being chosen. Yao will start at center in the West and Shaq will make the team as well - the Suns' record and the fact that the game is in Phoenix dictate that Marcus has no chance against the Big Cactus. But he's putting up numbers that are All Star worthy, and that's more than can be said for any other player on the Clippers' roster right now.
Marcus has one more season left on his current contract. Given that his productivity has not decreased at all, and has in fact increased, at the age of 34, it's reasonable to assume that he can be a major contributor for the Clippers next season as well. So would the team re-sign him at the age of 36? It seem as if Marcus Camby has somewhat different priorities than the typical NBA player. When Denver traded him, he was saddened not by the fact that he was leaving a 50 win team, but at the impact on his relationships with his teammates and his place in the community. If his family is happy in Southern California, that will no doubt be a factor in his decision-making process in 2010. It's 18 months away, and many, many things can change between now and then. Barring a trade in the interim, the Clippers would still feature over $28M worth of bigs in Kaman and Randolph. But Camby would likely be ready for fewer minutes and a backup role at 36; I'd consider re-signing him strictly as a locker room presence and a mentor to DeAndre Jordan.
Of course, we haven't even seen Camby, Randolph and Kaman all healthy at the same time yet, so that's the first order of business. The truth is that Camby is the ultimate complementary player; he does all of the things that help teams (rebounding, blocking shots, defense, passing) while not really needing the one thing in shortest supply - the ball. He can fit with anyone, and has in fact been effective both with Kaman (for dozen games early in the season) and with Randolph (for a dozen in December). The immediate goal is to see what can happen with this team healthy, hopefully for more than just a dozen games. There are 42 games left this season, and 29 after the All Star Break. If the Clippers can put a healthy team on the floor at some point this season, it will go a long way in determining how good they can be next year, and where Marcus Camby fits.
Heisler is one of my favorite NBA writers, and I'll give him the last word on Camby's career as a Clipper so far:
There's a term for someone Camby's age, who competes at his level, no matter how bad things are, for no other reason than the referee just threw the ball up.