The Hoops Whisperer
In ways hushed and deafening, Carlos Delfino making his presence felt in Houston
HOUSTON - Few NBA players so perfectly embody the tried and true “actions speak louder than words” trope quite the way Carlos Delfino does.
It’s not so much that the 30-year-old Argentinean allows his play on the court to do the majority of his talking – though he most definitely does – but rather the fact that listening to Delfino speak can sometimes yield the same results a human would receive when attempting to hear a dog whistle. Delfino’s voice rarely rises above that of a whisper, forcing reporters to frequently pose as “close talkers” just to ensure they can properly capture the context of the quiet, steady stream of words that flow forth, dripping as they do with the unmistakable watermarks of his South American accent.
So of course Delfino’s actions speak louder than his words. He’d have to be a basketball mute for them not to.
Fortunately for Houston, the 8th year swingman has been anything but. There is a steadiness to his game befitting a player of his NBA and international experience, and it’s no coincidence that his presence on the court frequently seems to coincide with the Rockets rapidly entering a comfort zone of sorts, especially on the offensive end.
A gold- and bronze medal-winning Olympian, he is part of Argentina’s golden generation of men’s basketball and, like fellow countrymen such as Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili, Delfino possesses an innate gift for increasing the collective basketball IQ of his teammates the second he sets foot on the floor. He provides proper spacing with his shooting, makes the extra pass, and puts himself in sound position on the defensive end. He is the lone, true veteran on a team that is the league’s youngest, and the Rockets’ coaching staff couldn’t be more pleased with the impact he’s making in Houston.
“It’s just his experience, his gamesmanship, and he’s not afraid of big moments,” says Houston’s acting head coach Kelvin Sampson. “You think about what Argentina has done in the last 10 years and all the huge worldwide tournaments, whether it’s the world championships or the Olympics, he’s played in them all. That experience and those moments that he’s lived through and played in, to our team that makes him one of our most valuable players.”
At first blush that last bit sounds like a classic case of coach-speak hyperbole, but a quick glance at the numbers reveals that Sampson may not be exaggerating after all. Following Tuesday night’s win against the Lakers – a game in which Delfino’s play and production was positively integral to the Rockets’ rally from 17 down to win – Houston has now been a whopping 76 points better than the opposition when Delfino is on the court. Obviously context and sample size – Delfino has only played 10 games this season, after all – must be taken into account when assessing stats like plus-minus but, no mater how you slice it, that’s a sizable split that speaks to how much better the Rockets’ offense and defense have been when he is on the floor.
That number is made even more astounding when taking into account the fact Delfino is currently shooting below his career averages from both the field and beyond the arc. But this, too, speaks to the attributes that make him such a favorite of Sampson’s. Coaches speak all the time about the value of players who know how to contribute even on nights when their shots aren’t falling. And with his guile and understanding of the game, Delfino knows how to be that quintessential "glue guy," keeping the entire operation together with his versatility and cunning.
“I’m trying to do that and trying to help the team in any way,” he says. “I don’t care about points. I don’t care about numbers. I just care about whether the team wins.
“On the bench, I try to read the game. If we’re winning and something is working, we just need to come in and give a second punch and do the same thing. If not, we need to shake it up a little bit. There’s always a second solution. For a guy like me, I’ve been through so many situations that I’m able to weigh that.”
That thinking man’s approach to the game represents a huge reason why the Rockets brought Delfino to Houston this summer. It also comes as no surprise to Sampson, who had the opportunity to get to know the swingman well during their days together in Milwaukee where Sampson served as an assistant coach on Scott Skiles’ staff. Plenty of teams had interest in signing the free agent Argentinean while watching him play at a high level for his homeland during the London Olympics, so Sampson did his best to bolster the Rockets’ sales pitch by appealing to Delfino’s desire to be a key cog for whatever club he ended up joining.
“During the courting process,” recalls Sampson, “he called me a couple times from London to ask me about things and I said, ‘I’m sure there’s other teams that want you, but there’s nobody that needs you more than us because of the makeup of our roster. You’re not only going to have a role here, you’re going to be important to us winning games.’
“For all our young guys, and I’m not just talking about our rookies – I’m talking about Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris, Jeremy Lin, James Harden – they’re all young guys who have only been in the league about three years or less. Just to see the way Carlos goes about things: he’s comes in before practice and gets work done; after practice he has his routine. He doesn’t have highs or lows. He’s just a steadying influence for this team and that’s good for these guys to see.”
It’s important, too, since seeing Delfino is frequently a far easier exercise than hearing those whispered words of his. But as for his actions on the court – the sheer volume of his impact to date is making him virtually impossible to ignore.