After a preseason shootaround in Chicago last year, I asked Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle what was different about his team entering the 2010-11 season. My impression at the time was Dallas was fielding yet another version of the good, but not great, Mavericks and that they weren't going to get over the title hump unless they did something to shake up their core. After a summer in which stars like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer switched teams, the only new rotation player for Dallas was center Tyson Chandler, who hadn't even been a full-time starter the season before for the Bobcats.
"We want a seven-foot ass-kicker on the floor all the time." Carlisle said. He added that not only did he expect Chandler to combine with Brendan Haywood to lock down the lane, but he thought his new big man would be a key to a revved-up running game.
Dallas had finished just 12th in defensive efficiency the season before and though the oft-injured Chandler had been a top basket protector at times in his career, he didn't seem like a game-changer for the Mavericks. He certainly didn't strike anyone as a possible catalyst for Dallas' first championship. Ultimately, that's exactly what he turned out to be, and now the Mavericks have that coveted banner hanging from the rafters at American Airlines Center. In an era in which there is a certain amount of parity among the NBA's elite, small moves can have big consequences.
The Rockets aren't championship contenders, but in a similar vein, their trade deadline acquisition of center Marcus Camby has a chance to pay huge dividends as Houston vies to escape the quagmire of teams angling for Western Conference playoff berths. Camby has been a notable player for a long time, but he just turned 38 years old, which qualifies his acquisition as a small move.
After coming off the bench for his first six games as a Rocket, a rejuvenated Camby has seized the larger playing time chunk in the pivot from Samuel Dalembert, playing big minutes as a starter in Houston's last two contests. Much like Chandler and Haywood did for Dallas last season, Camby and Dalembert will work in tandem to solidify a Houston defense that was already improved under new coach Kevin McHale. The Rockets have moved up four rungs on the defensive efficiency ladder from their 18th-place finish last season. Look for them to jump up even further now that Camby is aboard.
According to basketballvalue.com, the Rockets have given up 101.8 points per 100 possessions with Dalembert on the floor this season. That's a figure that would rank fourth in the league if they had maintained it when Dalembert headed for the bench. They didn't. The Rockets have given up an additional 3.5 points in defensive rating when Dalembert sits, enough to slide them down into the middle-of-the-pack on the defensive end. Dalembert averages just 24 minutes per game this season and you really can't stretch him out much more than that without hurting the offense.
Enter Camby. In the eight games he's played, the Rockets have allowed 101.4 points per 100 possessions as a team. In his last two contests, he's grabbed 25 rebounds and blocked 10 shots. The Rockets have continued to struggle defensively when McHale has gone to small-ball lineups but, luckily, he hasn't elected to do that very often. With Camby around, small lineups may largely be a thing of the past for the Rockets, who have sometimes played Luis Scola in the middle in the wayward days since Yao Ming was first injured.
The new-found defensive prowess has allowed the Rockets to split Camby's eight games even though their starting backcourt hasn't played a single minute. Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry are not only Houston's top two scorers, but they are two of the most efficient offensive guards in the league. Lowry in particular has emerged as a top-flight point guard, so much so that Houston was reportedly unwilling to give him up during its push to acquire the Lakers' Pau Gasol. Lowry leads the Rockets in plus-minus and his team loses more than four points per 100 possessions when he's not on the court.
The improved defense is going to be paramount to Houston's playoff chances as it continues a brutal finishing schedule in showdown against the Derrick Rose-less Bulls on Monday. It's the first of a four-game trip that includes stops in L.A. against the Lakers, Sacramento and Portland. The Rockets also visit Denver, Dallas and Miami before the end of the season. Lowry probably won't be around much as he continues his battle with a nasty bacterial infection. He's still hoping to return before the playoffs.
Martin's potential return from a tear in his shoulder is somewhat of a mystery, though evidence suggests that the Rockets may actually be better off without him. Backup Courtney Lee has played well in his place and certainly offers a defensive upgrade. Here's the kicker: the Rockets have been basically the same team offensively this season whether or not Martin has been on the court. If Martin does return, McHale's best bet might be to use him as an instant-offense option off the bench. Unfortunately, Martin tends to get a little crusty when he doesn't get the minutes he feels he deserves. Even before he was injured, Martin's minutes were up and down more than they were at any point last season.
As Houston makes its playoff push, this is a chance for McHale to establish the type of identity his version of the Rockets are going to have going forward. Camby can be the catalyst for that, with his ass-kicking presence protecting the basket along with the similar skillset provided by Dalembert. Part of this new team identity will be McHale making the tough call to continue with Lee as his starting two-guard, no matter what Martin may think about it. But it was the Camby deal that crystallized the metamorphosis.
It's not going to be an easy road for the Rockets given the schedule and Lowry's absence, though reserve point guard Goran Dragic has played well. If Houston can squeeze into the postseason and re-integrate Lowry into the mix, they will be a dangerous team. How dangerous? Well, Houston probably isn't a threat to the powerful Thunder. But with a full-strength rotation, the Rockets could have the potential to pull off an early-round upset against the Lakers, Spurs or Clippers. If they do, it will be yet another example of a small move having big consequences.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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