From watching the Cavaliers play against Jae Crowder and the Boston Celtics the past few years, we can say this with certainty: Jae Crowder is not a star. He’s not proficient at creating his own shot. Like most forwards in the league he’s proven unable to effectively guard LeBron James. His record against the Cavs the last three years is 5-13.
However, just as Tristan Thompson has proven capable of taking over games with his offensive rebounding or J.R. Smith with his three-point shooting, Crowder is likewise capable of being a ‘star’ in his role. Like Smith and Thompson, his strengths will be amplified by playing alongside LeBron James and Kevin Love, as well as continuing to play with Isaiah Thomas.
We saw this at work last season. The duo of Thomas and Crowder had a better net rating than Thomas paired with any other starter:
Thomas and Crowder: +5.3
Thomas and Al Horford: +4.8
Thomas and Marcus Smart: +2.9
Thomas and Avery Bradley: +1.4
He simply has a knack for finding his way into a team’s best lineups. How does he manage this despite rarely being the best offensive or defensive player on the floor?
Let’s start with his offensive game. Over the last three years, Crowder’s usage rate has hovered in the 17 to 18.5 percent range. That’s about the same ballpark as Deron Williams or Channing Frye in their time with the Cavs. With Williams and Frye it’s easy to see how they get that much usage - Williams is a point guard so the ball is usually in his hands to start the possession. Frye is a premier three-point shooter that’s nearly seven feet tall, so it’s easy for him to launch assisted triples near the top of the arc.
Crowder is different. Unlike Williams, he works almost exclusively off-ball, averaging just 0.79 dribbles per touch last year. But he’s not like Frye, either, a statue at the top of the arc launching 3-pointer after three-pointer. Crowder is excellent at moving without the ball. Of 116 players that scored more than one point per game on cuts Crowder was the second-most efficient at 1.67 PPP. Crowder took 54.7 percent of his FGA from beyond the arc (which he converted at 39.8 percent), but he also had the same number of free throw attempts per 100 possessions as Tristan Thompson. Of the 30 players that took at least half their shots beyond the arc and played at least 1,600 minutes Crowder had the third best free throw rate. Kyle Lowry was first, but the player that was second is a very interesting comparison for Crowder. With a nearly identical 3PAr and FTr, it was Richard Jefferson.
Jefferson was an integral part of the Cavaliers winning the championship in 2016. He played a role similar to Shane Battier in Miami, or Robert Horry on several different NBA champions. It’s a role that’s proven valuable time and again. While Crowder was never the high-usage player the Jefferson was early in his career with the Nets, he’s very similar to the player Jefferson became later on after he joined the Spurs. The difference, of course, is that Crowder is in his prime at 27 years old. He’s a young, athletic version of that prototype.
Defensively, Crowder has the tools and athleticism to handle a wide variety of situations. He’s 6’6” tall with a 6’9” wingspan. He’s fast enough to keep up with wings on the perimeter and strong enough to hold his own against bigs in the paint. Over the last two years, his DRPM was +1.74, a very good number for a high-MPG wing. For context, in those two years the only other small forwards to play a full season, average 30+ MPG and maintain a DRPM better than +1.5 in either season were LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Robert Covington. Not bad company to be in. Nylon Calculus had a very interesting article that included a section on his defensive versatility:
Defensive versatility is a translatable year to year skill, and Crowder rated as being pretty decent in terms of his defensive versatility in 2015-16, solidly in the tier right below the stars of the league (LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant, etc.) among small forwards. He was average or above average in defending every single type of offensive player, being especially effective against versatile wings (i.e. Gordon Hayward) and perimeter specialists (i.e. Kyle Korver).
This defensive versatility will be very important to the Cavs’ championship aspirations. The Golden State Warriors are capable of attacking a defense in a multitude of ways. Contrary to popular opinion, Kevin Love is a good defensive player. He is, however, not versatile on that end. The Warriors have consistently attacked his weaknesses the last two years. While no defense is perfect, having a core group of versatile two-way players like LeBron, Crowder and J.R. Smith will go a long way to covering over any defensive holes opponents may try to exploit in a playoff series.
Crowder may not be an elite player in any single facet of the game. He is, however, above average to good in nearly every facet, allowing him to have a positive impact on the court regardless of what lineup he’s in or what role he’s being asked to play. Just pair him with an offensive creator (or two, or three) and the results will consistently prove to be very good.