Jae Crowder will have a meaningful role for this year's Cleveland Cavaliers. How will the Cavs utilize him? What are his strengths? Does the perception match reality? We have some answers.
Jae Crowder is Cleveland's newest darling. He went from being a secondary piece of the Kyrie trade to the focus when news of Isaiah Thomas’s (apparently) not-healed hip became part of the public subconscious (during editing, the Cavaliers revealed that Thomas is expected to be back by January 1). But how good is Crowder? He was the starting small forward for the No. 1 seed in the east last year, but it was far from being "his" team. He wasn’t the offensive focus and very rarely had plays drawn up for him. He wasn’t “the guy” in almost any situation. But he thrived. How?
As I’ve mentioned before, Crowder’s efficiency stats from last season are shockingly good. Per Synergy (where all points per possession or PPP stats will be coming from), Crowder was in the 95th percentile in the league last year. On possessions that ended with him having the ball, he scored 1.116 PPP. Among players with at least 275 possessions, Crowder was 15th best in the NBA behind hyper-efficient scorers like Kyle Korver, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant, and, interestingly enough, Isaiah Thomas.
The majority of his possessions came on spot-up attempts, which is nice for Cleveland. A full 93% of Crowder’s threes last year - he took 5.5 per game - were assisted, per Basketball-Reference. LeBron creates spot-up attempts for everyone around him, so his workload shouldn’t change much in that regard. While the drive-and-kick game might take a step back without Kyrie's driving ability, the Cavs are impeccable floor-spacers.
The Cavaliers, like many other teams, put a ton of value on the corner-three. While the Cavs had Korver, Smith, and Love attempting two corner-threes per game (Korver hit a staggering 63.4% of them from the left corner, furthering the point that LeBron passing to him at the end of Game 3 was the correct move), the Celtics had nobody average more than 1.5 from the two corners. Crowder managed just 1.3 corner-attempts per game, but he made over 45% of them. He should get more attempts in Cleveland. Imagine how often we might see this for the Cavs.
On the other hand, if the Cavs are serious about signing Dwyane Wade, which is heavily rumored, they may need to change their offensive strategy. Wade and Rose can’t shoot, meaning the Cavs could need a motion-heavy offense with a lot of cuts (lol at imagining Ty Lue implementing this). If that were to happen, Jae Crowder, on a relatively small amount of cuts, was one of the most efficient players in the NBA last year. In fact, among players who finished more than 20 possessions on a cut (he had 66), Crowder was second only to Aaron Gordon (he was 15th among players with at least 10 possessions).
Basically, there’s nothing he does poorly. That overall 95th percentile includes the fact that he’s a middle-of-the-pack transition player (I’m fine with this) and allows that he’s actually in the 96th overall in half-court offense. Aside from his 18 total isolation possessions, Crowder is average or well above average in every other type of possession: Cut, spot-up, pick-and-roll (both parts), put-backs, post-ups, screens, and transition. There’s virtually nothing he’s bad at. Factor in that he’s only 27 and this is a tremendous player for the Cavaliers. Bonus points because he’s used to not being a focal point for an offense.
Jae Crowder has had the reputation of being a top-tier defender for a couple of years now. While his Synergy stats from 2015-16 weren’t anything to write home about, he was in the 75th percentile overall this past season while guarding positions 2-4 on a regular basis. In the east, that meant LeBron, Melo, Beal/Porter, PG, Giannis, Jimmy Butler, and so on.
Here he is helping off Dwyane Wade (after switching off Jimmy Butler, then switching off Robin Lopez) to cover Butler before breaking back out to contest a three. It's not as energetic as we would see in the playoffs, but it's fundamentally sound, aware of the situation, and effective.
Now imagine that play but with LeBron or JR Smith on Butler to start. That's closer to what the Cavs will have. Over the past few years, the Cavs have had Smith, James, and Shumpert as defensive stoppers when they need to clamp down and Crowder is now in the mix. He'll most likely either replace Smith as the primary wing defender or slot between him and James.
Specifically, Crowder has been good at defending isolations and spot-ups, which speaks to the type of guys he’s been defending. He ranked in the 95th percentile vs. spot-ups and 82nd vs. isos. The downside to this is that he has some trouble defending a pick and roll ball-handler. He’s worlds better than Kyrie Irving, whose starting spot he might be taking (there’s talk of a LeBron at point guard starting lineup, meaning it’d be James, Smith, Crowder, Love, Thompson, which sounds outstanding), but Crowder only ranked in the 36th percentile last year.
Curiously, Crowder was notably worse when the pick came from his left side. If I have access to this information, so do his opponents. Opponents racked up a 1.17 PPP when screening his left side, managing to stick the screen a crazy 55% of the time (meaning he ran into the pick instead of getting over or under it). However, on the other side, he allowed 0.909 PPP and only got stuck about 40% of the time. That 0.909 isn’t great, but it’s serviceable. It’s also important to note that Crowder, historically, guards very talented ball-handlers and thus his ranking in this area might be skewed to reflect opponent talent. For example, Kawhi Leonard, who is by all accounts a future-robot designed to play perfect basketball, only ranked in the 62nd percentile in overall defense last year.
Add all this up, and you're looking at a strong wing-defender with minimal weaknesses offensively. He has also been near the best in the league in turnover percentage, so he doesn't make a lot of dumb errors. He is very possibly Diet Kawhi Leonard. And he only costs $7 million per year.
Someone buy me a Crowder jersey.