Above is Marcus Camby’s best statistical season – and the best year of his career as a shooter, no matter how advanced the metric, which seems strange for a big man at age 26 – but we all know the season that lands him on this list was the lockout-shortened ’98-’99 season, when Camby took over for the injured Patrick Ewing and absolutely destroyed Rik Smits and the Davis twins to lead the Knicks to the Finals. I remember looking at Camby’s Sports Illustrated cover, a photo of him mauling Avery Johnson to get to a loose ball, and wondering just how this gangly, mostly-uncoordinated bust whose shot looked like the launching of a medieval trebuchet had managed to pull this off.
The following decade would clue us in. Unfortunately he would leave New York in the summer of 2002 in the Antonio McDyess trade, but everywhere he’s been Camby has shown the kind of workmanship that’s so rare in an NBA big that it’s become a commodity more valuable even than natural basketball ability. His career arc, from jaw-dropping shot-blocker to more grounded rebounder and rim protector, has touched all the bases of interior defense, including a multiyear period in Denver where both skills crested to form perhaps the finest defensive big in the league. He is, in short, the kind of player we’ve wished we had ever since he left; his reception as a visiting player at the Garden certainly reflects that.
Camby played just four seasons with the Knicks – despite the annual warm welcome, it’s not quite enough to burn himself into most fans’ memories. But the Knicks franchise has been to just eight Finals; without Camby that number is seven, and we’d be looking at two decades without the promised land, instead of just passing our first.