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The importance of Jae Crowder

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Why one of the newest Cavs matters.

NBA: Preseason-Chicago Bulls at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not the disaster that it could have turned into when Kyrie Irving first requested a trade, but it’s going to take the Cavs a bit to figure out the guard position. Whatever head game nonsense they played by starting Wade and Rose together for the first few games aside, there’s a ton of other factors that will probably take months to smooth out — Isaiah Thomas’ timeline, Iman Shumpert’s continued attempts to be relevant, general health, chemistry, the possibility of some sort of trade… all outlining a certain amount of uncertainty.

On the other hand, the forward situation is coming together a bit more easily. They have an energetic rebounder and defender in Tristan Thompson, a stretch 4/5 hybrid that should score at all three levels this year in Love, someone eager to run in transition with the ball in his hands during second unit time in Jeff Green, plenty of upside with Cedi Osman, the greatest basketball player on the planet with LeBron and Jae Crowder, a versatile three-and-D who can switch multiple positions on defense, and shot 39.8 percent from three last year for the Celtics.

The 2012 second round draft pick, who was selected by the Cavs, before being almost instantly traded to the Mavericks, plays like a less-skilled, less-freakishly-strong, less of an angry-Midwestern-person version of a player that was taken one pick after him — Draymond Green. Of course, Green’s ability to create in both transition and in half-court scenarios, plus being one of the top three best defensive players in the league, makes him quite a bit better, but Crowder has a similar motor, toughness and size/skill ratio that was looked as a disadvantage when they were drafted, but, as the NBA landscape has changed, it’s worked to their favor.

When they both came into the league, they were more or less viewed as undersized tweeners — too short (at the time) to be a viable long-term option at power forward, and too slow to be a prototypical small forward. But, once players like them consistently started hitting from behind the arc, and proved they were strong enough to protect the paint — plus quick enough to guard the perimeter — they became problematic for opposing teams, instead of a puzzling burden for their own. And, because of that versatility, Crowder has a chance to be the most important non-star on the Cavs this year.

He’s not really dominant at any part of the game, and he’s certainly not a flashy player, but Crowder can do a little bit of everything, and he always seems to play with purpose — whether it’s hustling to close out on a shooter after a busted defensive rotation, or standing in the corner when LeBron has the ball in his hands, keeping the defense honest, or making them pay for not staying home. Since we’re on the topic of how Crowder does the little things, one of the most underrated things he brings to the Cavs is taking the tough defensive forward assignment, whether it’s a three or a four, to save LeBron’s energy and health. And his mix of speed, strength, intelligence and energy hold up pretty well in most situations.

Crowder is the opposite of Boogie Cousins. Don’t get me wrong, I love Boogie Cousins, and his talent sometimes seems limitless, but he has a long and exhausting history of giving up on plays. Crowder doesn’t. He’s actually willing and able to make multiple plays within a play. He’s always in motion, always trying to think one step ahead.

For example, there’s this possession from last year. Crowder’s guarding Jimmy Butler, who is bringing the ball up the court, and has the intention of instantly hitting the lane off a screen and getting to the basket. Robin Lopez sets the screen, which Crowder fights through, staying close enough to Bulter to force him into the help defense. Crowder’s physical when chasing Butler post-screen, without drawing the foul, and he takes away Butler’s athletic advantage on Amir Johnson by giving him little daylight to split the defenders and jet to the rim. Butler manages an awkward shot and misses. The ball doesn’t change sides though, as Bobby Portis sneaks the offensive rebound. Crowder closes out on Portis, follows the ball to Lopez, instantly realizes the ball is swinging to Dwyane Wade, steps back, anticipates a pick and roll, beats Wade to the spot of attack, forcing him to pass it back to Butler behind the three point line. This time Johnson is squared up to Butler. Knowing the speed difference, Crowder sags off Wade and slips into the post to play free safety. Butler makes his move off the dribble, and Crowder steps into double team him, forcing Butler to kick it back to Wade . Then, Crowder closes quickly enough to disrupt Wade’s three.

The whole thing is LeBron-esque, as he seems to be recalculating angles and odds in real time. It kind of encapsulates everything Crowder is about on the defense end, in around 15 seconds.

On offense, Crowder carries the same sort of grit, versatility and IQ. The defense that he played in the above video can translate from team to team in the modern, switch-heavy, increasingly-positionless NBA, but to gage his offensive impact on the Cavs, we have to see how his chemistry matches with the rest of the offense. Obviously, after a handful of games, the verdict can’t be delivered with absolute certainty. Small sample size statistics aren’t incredibly reliable, but, for what it’s worth, he’s averaging 8.2 points per game so far, and shooting a steady 38.9 percent from three, which, to be fair, is about what is expected, and is really solid.

But, beyond the numbers, the ease to which he adapted to the Cleveland offense so far has been impressive. We know he doesn’t need the ball constantly in his hands to benefit his team, but his understanding of how plays unfold, and his ability to be in the right position at the right time, have been promising. For a quick glimpse into the ways Crowder has — and can continue to — make a mark on the Cavs’ offense, let’s talk about three plays that happened during the third quarter of the Pacers game, within minutes of each other.

Usually, I like to pull a wide variety of plays from a player, with diversity in terms of lineups, opponents and scenarios, but when I went back and watched this game, it impressed me how many different things he did on the offensive end of the floor in so little time.

The first play is the only one actually designed for him. It’s a quick, tricky misdirection that attacks the defense before they’re set. Love and JR linger just under the top of the three-point line, forming what initially seems to be an innocuous cluster, but it actually serves as a wall of screens to get Crowder an open look. It’s a smart and clean play that generates instant offense.

The next play is Crowder hitting a corner three, after two broken dribble drives. His job on this play is to clearly be an escape hatch, and he spends the entire possession looking for the best position to provide spacing. When he realizes that Smith is going to put the ball on the floor, he knows that his already-cheating defender is going to leap forward to help, and slides into the corner, making himself wide open. If Crowder doesn’t find that space, the possession more than likely ends in a low-percentage two from Smith, but instead it’s a quality look.

The final play I pulled from the Pacers game results in another savvy awareness move. It’s another JR dribble drive (no wonder why he’s out of rhythm so far), where the ball ends up in the hands of Love in the corner. Love pump fakes — and the defender bites — so he closes to the rim. When the help comes, Crowder finds his defender stopping and staring, so he cuts to the basket, and Love finds him for a highlight-reel assist. Crowder isn’t known as a devastating finisher, but he’s capable of putting himself in positions for easy layups.

It’s hard to predict much this early into the season, but one thing we know is the Cavs will look different in April. It’s also hard to know what different means at this point, since there’s so many moving parts, but, despite all the chaos and storylines that will unravel within this team this season, Crowder, if he stays healthy, is virtually a lock to be a significant and reliable player. He’ll pick up the energy on a team that falls into the habit of becoming complacent. He’ll hit open jumpers. He’ll switch or fight through every screen. Everything he does on the floor will help the team on a nightly basis. And, if you want to upset the Warriors in June, he’s a good player to help topple a juggernaut.