On July 8th, the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Jamal Crawford to a two-year, $8.9 million contract with a player option in the second year.
At age 37, Crawford is declining. However, his reputation as an effective off-the-bench scorer stands pat. He has won the Sixth Man of the Year award three times—most recently in 2016. Crawford can create his own shot, provide instant offense and solidify a bench unit.
Statistically, he is a 35% career three-point shooter (shooting 36% last season), 86% free-throw shooter and will stumble across a few assists per game. Critics note his defense. Crawford tends to play a step behind the offense and fell another notch this past season. Crawford is a niche player that is best as a bench’s go-to shot creator.
Considering his age, Thibodeau should cap his playing time at roughly 20-25 minutes per game. He can still significantly impact a game, but should not be relied upon as a pivotal member—the Clippers can attest to that. However, Crawford is the exact type of veteran scorer the Wolves’ bench has been missing.
On a bigger scale, the contract represents a win for small markets everywhere. The competing organizations included Washington and Los Angeles—two larger (and warmer) destinations—not to mention that Crawford has been in Los Angeles for the past five years. Attracting a player of Crawford’s mold has been historically difficult for teams like Minnesota. The contract manifests a changing culture among the league, in Minnesota, and the benefits of Tom Thibodeau’s reputation.
However, the terms of the deal are suspect. Reports suggest that Crawford signed with Minnesota after Cleveland refused to offer the full mid-level exception. Cleveland is likely both holding out for a bigger name (Carmelo Anthony?) and hoping for a contender discount. Realistically, Minnesota paying Crawford roughly $4.5 million isn’t egregious. Assuming he can resist father time for one more season, the dollar amount fits; the second year, specifically the player option, doesn’t fit. If Crawford regresses significantly, he avoids the veteran minimum for an extra year. If he performs well, he can leave for greener pastures, whether that’s a championship contender, better contract or a preferred city. Regardless, Minnesota paid a fair price but allowed for stipulations that could muddy its salary cap come next year’s free agency.
Crawford will immediately contribute to a bench that has consistently struggled. Minnesota’s bench finished dead last in points scored per game (22.8). While it was also the least used bench in the league, if you extrapolate the data over per/36 minutes the bench still finishes last in points per game.
These issues were highlighted by a lack of talent, combined with a dependency on youth. Jones, Dunn, and Muhammad are all 24 or under. Bjelica is 29, but only in his second season. Rush, the resident veteran, is 31 but struggled to receive consistent minutes until LaVine’s injury. After that, Thibodeau promoted him directly into the starting line-up. Altogether, the bench was inexperienced and did not perform well.
Crawford immediately brings veteran knowledge and wisdom. He has been a member of playoff contenders and has been involved in high-pressure situations. He understands the necessary standards to maintain a quality bench unit. Moreover, he will bring an edge of instant offense that the Minnesota bench has desperately needed. While the bench still lacks an extra dose of shooting and wing defense, it’s safe to assume that is up next on Thibodeau’s wish list.
With another guard secured, management still has gaps to plug. As mentioned, Minnesota needs wings and shooting but has essentially used its cap space. Barring a trade, the Wolves will rely on minimum salary players to finalize its roster.
Moreover, despite rumblings of a trade that would have involved Aldrich and Indiana’s CJ Miles, Indiana has recently moved Miles to Toronto instead. Reportedly, Indiana’s asking price of a first-round draft pick was too steep of a cost for Minnesota. However, keep an eye on the recently renounced Thabo Sefolosha (a once-elite wing stopper). Sefolosha could be cheap and could make an immediate impact as a backup wing defender.
Altogether, the Wolves roster is nearly complete. There are now eleven guaranteed contracts, but the last four spots are critical. The roster needs shooters and wings. How management balances the need for solidified veterans versus lesser-known rookies will be interesting. If Thibodeau can discover an asset in Summer League it would greatly ease his burden of finishing the roster. If he cannot, Minnesota will have to make intriguing decisions to finalize an already improved roster.