Marcus Camby has been a somewhat polarizing player in the sphere of NBA discussion since he was named the 2006-07 Defensive Player of the Year. Camby has built a career as a serviceable offensive player, but an elite rebounder and help defender. He’ll record his 2,000th block sometime before Thanksgiving. If he can stay healthy, he’s got a chance to finish his career as one of the NBA’s top 10 most prolific shot-blockers of all-time.
Camby’s block percentage has fallen off considerably this season — a career-low of 5.1% — but he’s still an effective presence around the basket, and I think even his milder detractors acknowledge that. The bone of contention is over how effectively Camby defends the ball screen/roll, and his most ardent supports would probably accept that this isn’t one of his strenghts.
Camby’s bifurcated defensive game raises an interesting question about the relative values of these skills. Is it possible that S/R defense represents less of a player’s overall defensive value than we thought? Camby’s advanced defensive stats would seem to suggest that’s true, at least in his case. Over the course of his career, Camby’s defensive rating has consistently fallen on the small side of 100. Though that number has jumped to 104 this season, Basketball Value’s adjusted plus/minus shows Camby to be among the league’s most valuable defenders this season. The player card over at 82games.com tells a similar story. Their data show that the Clippers give up 8.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Camby is on the court.
Individual defensive performance continues to be one of the most elusive things to evaluate in basketball. We have box score stats like blocks and steals, which tell a very thin story. Adjusted +/- gives us a broader context, but advocates of the metric acknowledge that a lot of noise surrounds the numbers. In most cases, we still use a basic smell test to tell us which players excel at the defensive end of the floor, and which guys get shredded. As evaluative measures go, anecdotal evidence isn’t satisfying at all. Unfortunately, it’s still the way most of us distinguish good defenders from lousy ones. Since there’s no stat for “blown defensive rotation,” we make mental notes when we see a player give up an open look because he didn’t read the play. We can look at a big/little screen/roll and see how effectively the center countered the play. If we watch a player execute these kinds of sets a few hundred times a year, we feel qualified to make a wholesale judgment on that player’s defensive value. The humble among us cushion that verdict with a degree of doubt because our insights are only impressions.
Marcus Camby is one of those guys who tests our faith in perception. Voters have traditionally seen him as a stalwart defender when it comes time to fill out their ballots for DPOY, but those who’ve watched him most closely over the years maintain that he’s more specialist than complete defender. The numbers tell us one thing, our eyes sometimes tell us another. Camby won’t be a candidate for DPOY this season for a variety of reasons, but as a former winner, he’ll likely be in the mix for All-Defensive Teams. Does he deserve it? The links above advance his case, but it’s also worth looking at his on-court performance with a naked eye. I don’t want to suggest that the first quarter of a meaningless game in the final week of the regular season is a representative sample of Camby’s performance, but…meaningless games are all we have. Consider this review of Camby’s first quarter Monday night as a narrow window into the current state of his defensive game:
Because Utah has a perimeter-oriented 5, and their system requires their bigs to do a lot of stuff off the ball, they’re a tricky team to defend. To start the game, Marcus Camby draws Carlos Boozer as his defensive assignment, while Chris Kaman floats out to the arc to deal with Mehmet Okur:
- [1st, 10:57] Not Camby’s finest moment. Deron Williams brings the ball across the time line. The Jazz frontcourt players waste little time initiating the action. Before the Clippers can get settled defensively, Matt Harpring sets a hard cross-screen [Does Harpring ever set screen that are anything but hard screens?] for Boozer on Camby. Boozer cuts under the screen on the baseline side. Camby gets caught in the scrum underneath by Harpring and Fred Jones [who's trying to chase Harpring, but just ends up rear-ending him]. Boozer is able to get open space to catch the entry pass from Williams. The PF turns around and shoots an easy, open 12-footer. Camby seems almost surprised by the early screen, and never does much to recover. As a result, Boozer has all kinds of time and space.
- [1st, 10:22] More early stuff down low. Plus c’est la même chose. From the deep left corner, Ronnie Brewer feeds Okur on the left block against Kaman. Utah has situated Boozer out of on the perimeter on the weak side, presumably to draw Camby out of the lane. Okur spins baseline, but Kaman pins him against the baseline — solid post defense from Kaman. Okur is forced to make a very dangerous kickout to Brewer, who is now out on the right wing. The rock goes back to Williams and the Jazz reset(s?..I give up) with :11 on the shot clock. From the top of the arc, Williams easily takes Baron Davis off the dribble, but Camby is monitoring the drive the whole way. He swoops in from the high post and swats Williams shot out of bounds [not the more desirable outcome on the block, but no complaints]. The possession results in a couple of Brewer FTs on a foul by Gordon.
- [1st, 9:26] Utah posts up Ronnie Brewer against Eric Gordon on the left block. Eric tries to stand his ground against the larger opponent, but Brewer gets in close — only he doesn’t account for Marcus Camby darting from the weak side and blocking his layup from behind. Vintage Camby. The scorers don’t record this as a block, but Camby clearly tips the shot — it doesn’t draw iron.
- [1st, 8:51] This is arguably the Clippers’ best defensive set of the night. Okur and Kaman battle for position on the right block, as the ball is passed around the perimeter from right to left: Williams-Boozer-Harpring. Williams cuts to the right wing, then dashes into the lane to free up Okur with a pin-down of Kaman. Okur pops out to receive the ball from Harpring at about 18 feet, but the Clippers do a stellar job rotating: Camby steps out to pick up Okur at 18 feet. As Boozer moves down to the block, Kaman quickly picks him up, and Davis does a good job recovering onto Williams. Boozer faces up on Kaman, steps back, but misses the 15-footer.
Camby makes the play work defensively. He’s not always inclined to chase guys out to the perimeter, but it’s the only way the Clippers don’t break down defensively on this set. Camby realizes it and does the work.
- [1st, 7:22] Though Camby isn’t really involved in the set, which results in a Harpring miss from long range, he saves a rebound while falling out of bounce by tipping the ball back into play.
- [1st, 5:31] A stationary Camby gets beat badly on the boards when he fails to block out Boozer off the Harpring miss from outside, on a ball that falls directly beneath the hoop. Boozer collects it and goes up for the easy put-back.
- [1st, 4:22] Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Millsap have checked in for Boozer and Harpring. Brian Skinner is in for Kaman. In semi-transition, Williams races the ball down the court. His driving layup isn’t good and Camby’s presence under the basket is a key factor.
- [1st, 4:07] The Clippers are back defensively in transition, but they seem discombobulated. Is anyone picking up Okur, who has spotted up on the left arc? Who’s got Kirilenko, diving to the basket? How about Millsap, who’s trailing the play? The answer to the first question is clearly “nobody,” and Okur drains the 3PA. On the play, Camby beelined to his favorite spot in the restricted area; meanwhile Okur is left wide open on the perimeter.
- [1st, 3:14] Camby’s man is Okur, whose workspace is high along the arc. Utah’s set is perfectly drawn and beautifully executed — and the play exploits Camby’s defensive tendencies. Utah works with the ball on the right side of the court. Okur sets up at the elbow — and so far Camby is accounting for him. But then, Williams curls around Okur, with Eric Gordon in pursuit. As Williams makes the turn, Millsap hits him with the pass. Camby’s instinct, of course, is to challenge Williams’ drive in the paint. All well and good, except Gordon is in no position to close out on Okur, who has drifted out to the arc unguarded. Williams makes an exquisite kickout in traffic to Okur. Nobody ever closes. Okur misses the attempts, but it’s a shot he just made, and one he’ll make again in about 30 seconds. It’s the outcome Utah wants.
- [1st, 2:44] Brisk early offense by Utah. Williams penetrates, dishes it off to Millsap on the right block. Camby, almost instinctively, is manning the paint. He never registers that Okur has spotted up fifteen feet away at the exact same spot on the left wing. The pass goes that way and Okur’s 3PA is good. The perimeter assignment is hurting Camby, and the Clippers.
- [1st, 1:12] Camby is much more attentive toward Okur on the weak side perimeter. Standing at the elbow, Camby extends his arm Okur’s way as if to say, “I got him.” The ball goes into Kirilenko on the right block and it’s just killing Camby that he can’t drop to help. But he does the right thing and maintains closing range of Okur. Jordan gets a piece of Kirilenko’s shot, but that leave Millsap free to swoop in for the follow.
This illustrates why Utah is so tough when they’re clicking. If Marcus Camby is underneath, does Millsap get that board? Probably not. But as much Marcus wants to be down there — and as much as the Clippers need him down there — Okur’s potency from the perimeter requires that Camby stay far enough outside to neutralize him as a help defender. That’s what good offensive basketball teams do — make their opponents choose between two bad options.
Though a small sample, we see the full breadth of Camby’s defensive strengths and weaknesses in this period. So long as he’s matched up against Boozer, Camby exploits help opportunities and patrols the basket. Almost every positive defensive outcome in those 14 possessions is a direct result of Camby’s presence and judgment. But once Camby is switched onto Okur, his attributes as a help defender are marginalized, and worse, his unwillingness to adjust to Utah’s offensive scheme hurts his team.
Observation is useful, but data are indispensable. It’s hard to look at the on/off court numbers and adjusted plus/minus figures and conclude that Camby isn’t still one of the best defensive players in the league — even if his bad habits are hard on the eyes.