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Marcus Camby and the Clippers - A Retrospective

When Marcus Camby and the Portland Trailblazers reached an agreement on a contract extension last week, I'm sure there were some pangs of remorse around Clips Nation with the realization that the free agent Camby would not be returning to the Clippers.  Although Camby-returnp-to-LAC scenario had been bandied about by beat writers and the Clippers front office, and Camby was always gracious in answering questions, saying things like "You never know what's going to happen", the simple truth is that it was never a realistic possibility.  Nor would it have been realistic had Camby not been traded to the Blazers. 

Camby's deal in Portland is reportedly for 2 years and $20M.  Even allowing for a Paul-Allen-is-crazy-rich-and-possibly-just-plain-crazy factor (it's an astronomical and ultimately ridiculous sum for a 36 year old), the extension demonstrates just how valuable Camby was on the open market.  Remember, even if the Clippers had kept him until the end of this season, he would have been an unrestricted free agent.  There was obviously no way the Clippers were going to extend him given their designs on maximum cap space, and even in a scenario where they struck out on their first choice free agents and decided to re-sign their own players, it's unimaginable that the Clippers would have spent anywhere close to that kind of coin on a 14 year veteran (nor should they have).  The dream of signing LeBron and then convincing Marcus Camby to return to LA for the veteran's minimum was always that: a dream.

So congratulations to Marcus for earning one more pay day.  And good luck to him over the next few days as he tries to extend his season in an elimination game (or games) against the Suns.

All trades are interesting, but the trades that brought Camby to LA and sent him away are particularly so, especially in retrospect.  We don't know the ultimate resolution of course, but we're getting pretty close - and unfortunately, it hasn't worked out well for the Clippers.

From a statistical productivity standpoint, Marcus Camby was an absolute steal for the Clippers.  He continued to be among the league leaders in rebounding and blocked shots despite his advanced age, shot a good percentage (51% in 08-09), was the team's best high post passer, and was surprisingly durable despite his reputation and in contrast to his Clipper teammates (he played in 125 of 134 games during his LAC tenure).  He was arguably the best player on the Clippers over the past two seasons. 

And yet the team's results were terrible.  The Clippers were 40-94 during Marcus' time in LA.  Would they have been worse without him?  Seems like they would have - but how much worse could they have been?

Meanwhile, it was widely believed that Denver would drop out of the Western Conference playoff picture when they unceremoniously shipped Camby out of town in July 2008.  The message was clear - cost cutting was the order of the day and more important than winning games.  Instead, the Nuggets (aided by a trade for Chauncey Billups) tied the franchise record of 54 wins and advanced to the Western Conference Finals - an even more remarkable feat when you consider that the team hadn't won a playoff series in 14 years.

I'm not suggesting that Camby's absence made the Nuggets better or that his presence made the Clippers worse.  That would be far too simplistic and ulitmately incorrect, as there are obviously countless other factors that contributed to both situations.  Still, it's interesting, and in retrospect, it's hard to declare the Clippers winners in that trade.

It's worth noting that Camby has had very little playoff success in his career.  In 14 seasons in the league, he's been beyond the first round only twice - and hasn't been part of a team that won a playoff series in a decade.  Is that Camby's fault?  Of course not.  But it's also not NOT his fault.

Still, the Clippers didn't give up anything when they acquired Marcus, so no harm done, right?  Wrong.  The trade gave the Nuggets the right to trade second round picks with the Clippers in this year's draft.  Again, going back to the time of the trade, that seemed like a small price to pay, and possibly no price at all since everyone was so convinced that the Nuggets were on the decline (and hopeful that the Clippers were on the rise).  In reality, it is the difference between the 38th pick in the draft and the 54th pick in the draft.  That's a huge difference - the 38th pick is a borderline first rounder who you don't have to give a guaranteed contract to.  The 54th pick is a guy you could almost as easily sign as an undrafted free agent the week after the draft.  To give you an idea, picks 37 through 39 in last year's draft were DeJuan Blair, Jon Brockman and Jonas Jerebko; picks 53 through 55 were Nando De Colo, Robert Vaden and Patrick Mills.  The only consolation is that the 38th pick actually ended up with the Knicks, so at least a conference rival won't be improving with it.

The draft in June will close the door on the Clippers-Nuggets Camby trade.  Maybe the Clippers will get lucky picking 54.  But probably not.

So now flash forward to the Clippers-Blazers Camby deal.  It was my contention at the time that Camby was worth more (at least to some team) than what amounted to a swap of expiring contracts.  I'd submit now that I was absolutely correct, given that the Blazers just signed him for 2/$20M.  In Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw, the Clippers got a couple of rentals that fit existing team needs and as such had a chance to keep the team competitive over the final 30 games - and they proceeded to close the season 8-22. 

The fact that the deal included cash for the Clippers is particularly irksome, as it doesn't seem to benefit the fans in any way.  Did that cash windfall make the owner lower season ticket prices?  Did it even make him feel flush enough to handle the business of firing his former coach in a professional manner?  Entering this draft where the team has lost a decent second round pick, it sure would have been nice to get something tangibly basketball-related in the trade.  Turns out, the Blazers have the Bulls' second round pick, number 44 overall.  That would have provided a little consolation.  Oh well.

The organization has always emphasized Blake and Outlaw's Bird Rights as an incentive for making the trade.  Well, we'll see if they end up being worth anything, but I was dubious at the time, and I'm almost completely convinced at this point that those Bird Rights will not amount to anything in the final analysis.

It goes without saying that the rights to those players will have to be renounced in order to offer a large contract to a free agent.  Still, that may not happen so the Clippers might retain their rights to these guys.  Do the rights have significant value in that scenario?  Again, I'm not convinced.

The potential benefit is that the Bird Rights would allow the Clippers to sign players they couldn't otherwise have afforded, and would keep them over the cap which would allow them to retain a valuable asset in their mid-level exception.  But the Clippers have a LOT of room under the cap.  In order for the Bird rights to come into play, the Clippers would have to re-sign their own free agents to an amount in excess of $17M.  I don't know about you, but the idea of having some combination of Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw, Rasual Butler, Craig Smith, Drew Gooden and the rest of the motley crew making over $17M from the Clippers next season does not give me a happy, warm feeling as a Clippers fan.  More to the point, each and every one of those guys is free to negotiate with any team in the league - that any one of them will come to an agreement with the Clippers is far from certain.  That several of them will re-up, adding to contracts greater than $17M, is a virtual impossibility.

So the next argument is about sign-and-trades - maybe the Clippers can sign-and-trade some combination of those players for something they need.  This also seems like a long shot.  For one thing, the players don't have to participate in an S&T, and would need some incentive to do so.  Usually that incentive is more money, but given that neither Blake nor Outlaw figures to be worth more than the MLE, there are plenty of teams who can pay them without resorting to an S&T. 

In the end, the Clippers chapter of Marcus Camby's career ends up looking like so many other stories in Clipper history.  What looked promising in the beginning, ends up somewhere between tragedy and farce.