The trade request by the disgruntled Cavs’ superstar Kyrie Irving and the subsequent exchange of players between the Eastern Conference finalists definitely highlighted the action-packed offseason of 2017. The post-trade analyses were slightly biased towards the conclusion that Danny Ainge got fleeced by the Cavs, as they landed Isaiah Thomas, a player with similar offensive and defensive production to Kyrie, while also acquiring that precious Nets 2018 pick. The final piece of the package was Jae Crowder, an eternally underrated forward coming off of two stellar seasons, who was regarded as a perfect wing complement to LeBron James.
The Cavs’ would enter the 2017-2018 season handicapped by Isaiah’s hip issues, but the fans weren’t particularly worried; with Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade as the alternatives at the guard spots and James running the show, the Cavs were poised for another half-throttle cruise through the East. However, the start of their 2017-2018 campaign wasn’t even remotely aligned with the preseason expectations. In fact, the Cavs recorded the worst ten game start (4-6) since 2013, when they finished the season with a 33-49 record.
Naturally, when things take a wrong turn, some finger-pointing is bound to ensue. D-Wade needed just three games to realize he’s not starter material in the fast-paced league anymore, and deferred to J.R. Smith, who in turn became one of the worst starters in the NBA (averaged just four points in his first five starts on abysmal shooting splits). Going by the old saying that the fish stinks from the head down, many immediately started calling for coach Lue’s head, as there was no apparent systematicity in Cavs’ approach to the game – the few wins they managed to snatch were more a result of overreliance on LeBron James rather than Lue’s coaching prowess. Despite being a fresh face in the Cavs’ locker room, Jae Crowder wasn’t exempt from criticism either, as he perfectly blended in with the sub par presentation we’ve witnessed from the Cavs on a nightly basis.
A quick glance at Jae Crowder’s basic and advanced stats from this season provides a justification for that criticism. Crowder has never shot worse from the field in his five years in the league, and it’s especially worrying that he’s been shooting the three ball on a sub-30 percent clip. Furthermore, his PER is in single digits for the first time in his career, and both his BPM and DBPM are in the negatives. Given that he was supposed to be the three and D solution for the Cavs, the cause of concern is apparent in his case. Right now, his numbers suggest that he’s regressed to the Mavs version of Jae Crowder, when he was regarded as nothing more than a filler bench piece with solid defensive potential.
However, he’s never been a player whose individual stats precisely reflected his overall contribution to the team. It was rather the intangibles, especially on the defensive end, that made Crowder one of the most desirable non-star players in the league during his stint with the Celtics. His ability to guard and switch multiple positions, coupled with amazing defensive awareness and well-timed closeouts at the perimeter, earned him the status of a top-tier help defender. The Cavs improved their roster with a body in the mold of Draymond Green, and the number one benefactor was supposed to be James, as Crowder’s presence should have allowed him to take a backseat on defense.
Unfortunately for the Cavs, they haven’t yet been able to cash in on that indirect positive impact Crowder was known for bringing to the table. Thus far he’s been a net negative for them while on the court, both in terms of the plus/minus and defensive/offensive rating, and surprisingly, the opposing teams are more efficient when facing lineups he’s a part of. Any way you look at it, Crowder’s performance has been disconcerting, and the positive aspect of his on court presence remains untapped.
Jumping to conclusions on the basis of what we’ve seen so far from Crowder in Cavs jersey would, however, be unwise. First of all, the season is young, and the relatively small sample sizes may still be misleading. Second, it’s important to put the state in which Jae entered the season into some context. There were things bigger than basketball he had to deal through summer; the same day he got traded to the Cavs, which is a life-changing event in its own right, his mother lost her battle with cancer. The unfortunate event could easily, and understandably, be a part of the reason why Crowder hasn’t looked fully mentally and physically fit on the field at the start of the season.
Besides that, he had to make a transition from an environment where his role was clear cut to a system with more haphazard gameplanning. Getting demoted to the bench after just three games and then being promoted back to a starter, while being asked to fill the SF or PF spot depending on the situation, will clearly take a toll on a player that hasn’t even been given time to completely adapt to his new surroundings. As much as it might be frustrating to watch Crowder getting lost on defense or on box-outs and missing some good opportunities at the other end, the part of the blame definitely lies on Ty Lue’s incapability to properly use the pieces at his disposal.
Moving from a system supervised by Brad Stevens, who consistently enables role players to flourish and surpass their objective ability, to a team where coaching isn’t the driving force toward its success, surely poses a tough challenge for a system-dependent guy like Jae Crowder. This season, in which he has to prove that he’s able to adapt and contribute in any system, and not just the one tailored to his specific skillset, will define his career going forward. However, it’s hard to imagine a timeline in which the Cavs completely fail to utilize Crowder’s versatility and defensive potential that positively impacts the whole team, so expect him to get out of the slump given enough time and stability and become one of the integral parts of another installment of the Cavs’ quest for the title.