Apologies To The Denver Nuggets
January 28th, 2009

I hated the Marcus Camby trade. I hated it. I think everyone did, even Clippers fans. But I really hated it.

I think about trades a lot. I should really have better things to do, but I don’t. So I spend a lot of time thinking about trades that have happened, moves that have been made, who would fit on which team, players that certain teams needed, who’ll sign where and for what, etc. But at not point did I think, “a current DPOY candidate and former winner, on an extremely fair value contract, is going to be moved for nothing more than a trade exception.” You just don’t consider these as possibilities, do you?

But it happened. And it annoyed me.

It annoyed me for one simple reason – the move was financially motivated, and I hate all purely financially-motivated moves. I wrote about as much here, and, in the interests of saving time, I’ll quote myself:

When teams make bad personal [sic] moves to save money, purely as collateral damage from their own previous stupid move, then the fans become the victims to the folly that is the NBA and its old boy’s network.

I hate any move that involves a team giving away an asset just to save money, with them deeming the financial saving as “necessary” due to their own cap mismanagement. That’s exactly what happened here – the Nuggets, perennial tax payers, were forced to start saving money by their ownership, and the best way for them to do this was to dump Camby’s salary for no return. The moved saved them $20 million this season, plus about the same next season, yet it saw an NBA team literally gifting away one of their best players at a position persistently devoid of much quality. Anyone’s outrage at that was justifiable.

However, there was an underlying justification to the move that I, like most people, didn’t acknowledge.

Marcus Camby is a very good player. Always was, still is. But the Nuggets had someone who would have been one of the best back-up centres in the game last season, were it not for an unfortunate bout of cancer – Nene. In Nene’s only three seasons of full health (or, in the case of the 2006/07 season, near to full health), he has proven to be a starting-calibre centre in this league, combining power and athleticism with good defensive skill, and some developing offence. He had averaged double figures whenever healthy, an acceptable if mediocre rebounding rate, and some good defence. You don’t get many back-up centres like that.

The Nuggets gave Nene a very big contract back in the summer of 2006, despite Nene playing only three minutes the previous season. They were denounced for this move; we knew that a healthy Nene was a good player, but a healthy Nene hadn’t produced enough to justify a contract that size. The Nuggets had therefore paid Nene based on their expectations of what he would go on to become, but they did so after a three-minute season and a severe knee injury. It was an unnecessary risk, but they took it anyway. Yet, like the Camby trade, it’s worked out.

Nene averages 15.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks on the season, averaging career-highs in field goal percentage (61%) and free throw percentage (73%). Points per shot fans (such as me, and perhaps only me) will be delighted to know that Nene is averaging 1.64 points per shot this year, which is the high echelon territory of a prime Shaquille O’Neal, or Yotam Halperin. He leads his team in plus/minus by a long way, and this is a team that features both Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony. (In fact, you can add Billups and Anthony’s plus/minus statistics together, and Nene’s is still higher.) Nene’s PER is a very healthy 21.6, good for second on the team, and his opponent PER is a decent 15.5. While Nene might not be exactly the most creative or skilled offensive player, relying largely on opportunity and rhythm to score his points, he is also one hell of a powerful finisher, with some touch and grace to go with it. He can also get out and run better than almost all of his peers at the centre position, creating easy offence just through trying hard. And you can never have too much of that.

Put simply, on both ends of the court, the artist formerly known as Maybyner Hilario can play.

This wasn’t sufficiently considered, though, by critics of the Marcus Camby trade. We knew Camby could play, but we forgot that Nene could, too. Kenyon Martin’s long-overdue return to full health has further helped to cope with Camby’s absence, and Chris Andersen’s hugely effective play off of the bench has Camby almost completely redundant. The financial aspects of the trade still stink, and the trade was still financially motivated (if it wasn’t, the Nuggets could have found a better value trade for Camby that involved at least one decent player coming back, or even a first rounder, but this didn’t happen because they wanted the absolute and complete salary dump), yet even the books are now balanced. The TPE created by the Camby trade facilitated the Allen Iverson trade with Detroit, allowing them to take back Antonio McDyess; his subsequent buyout, along with the Chucky Atkins/Johan Petro swap, sees the Nuggets finally under the luxury tax threshold. And because of those same moves, they’re an even better team now than when they were above it.

(Note: OK, yes, they could have done the McDyess trade without the TPE. But they didn’t. As a result, they were able to create a new TPE for $9.7 million – the difference between Iverson and Billups’s salaries – which expires next November. Financial flexibility such as that is extremely powerful. And they wouldn’t have had it otherwise.)

The last point before the small font bracketed bit is key. Denver were shamed and villified for the Camby deal, as it was seen as a triumph of ownership over fandom, of the big man over the little people, of corporations over the proletariat. But subsequent high-quality moves, both in free agency and via trade, have seen the Nuggets build a more conventional team than they had before, and a higher-calibre team than they had before, while also saving the money that they so needed to do. The Camby trade was a big part of this, as is Nene’s continued breakout. I did not see this coming.

And for this, I am sorry.

Posted by at 12:05 PM