Following their loss to Warriors in the NBA Finals, it became clear what the Cavaliers are missing. The combination of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love gave them enough star power to compete with the Warriors on a nightly basis, but they were let down by not having enough players around them who could compete on both ends of the floor. Without those weapons, the Cavaliers simply didn’t have the firepower needed to keep up with the new-look Warriors in a seven-game series.
That’s why the free agent signings the Cavaliers made this offseason — Jeff Green, Jose Calderon and Derrick Rose — were so disheartening. Not only are Green and Rose in particular awkward fits next to James, Irving and Love on offense, none of them have the versatility needed to help slow down Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green on defense.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they may have saved themselves before it was too late. Although their deal with the Celtics centered around Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas hasn’t officially gone through yet, Jae Crowder is the type of role player they’ve desperately needed over the last three seasons. In addition to being on one of the NBA’s best contracts, Crowder has developed into an elite role player capable of having a Shane Battier-like impact on the Cavaliers. Assuming he is still included in the final trade, he is the ideal 3-and-D wing to pair with James.
Like Battier, Crowder’s biggest asset on offense is his ability to space the floor. He was one of the best shooters in the league last season, ranking in the 87.2 percentile with 1.16 points per spot-up possession. The only players to score as many spot-up points per game as him were Kawhi Leonard and DeMarcus Cousins during his 17 games with the Pelicans. Those plays represented 36.8 percent of Crowder’s offense in total, which put him in the same category as a number of role players on the Cavaliers such as Channing Frye, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
Crowder is a volume 3-point shooter as well. Over half of his shot attempts were 3-pointers last season and he made 39.8 percent of those opportunities.
More importantly, Crowder made 42.3 percent of his wide open 3-point attempts and 42.7 percent of his open 3-point attempts. He also converted 43 of his 93 attempts (46.2 percent) from both corners, which is notable considering the Cavaliers attempted the most corner 3-pointers in the NBA last season. Based on how easily James finds teammates in those situations — he set a league record last season for the amount of corner 3s he assisted on — Crowder should only see his open 3-point attempts from his sweet spots increase as a member of the Cavaliers.
Crowder doesn’t venture far away from his comfort zone either. A high number of his points last season were assisted and a whopping 86.3 percent of his offense came following either zero dribbles or one dribble. If a defender is overly aggressive on their closeout, Crowder is therefore a threat to put the ball on the floor for a straight-line drive to the basket, where he made 73.9 percent of his attempts. If he can’t get all the way to the basket, he’s a decent threat to pull-up having made 32.6 percent of his mid-range pull-ups and 37.5 percent of his 3-point pull-ups last season.
Crowder’s efficiency and volume as a 3-point shooter alone makes him a natural fit next to James. Taking him to the next level is his ability to match up with elite scorers on the other end of the floor.
The Cavaliers have already surrounded James with capable shooters at every position. It’s why they trailed only the Rockets in made 3-pointers last season and the Spurs in success rate. What they’ve been missing is someone who can space the floor at a high rate in a supporting role and then hold their own on defense. It became a problem in the 2017 NBA Finals when James had to carry the Cavaliers on offense and act as the primary defender on Durant.
Crowder’s advanced numbers don’t necessarily paint the picture of a lockdown defender, but he’s a versatile, smart and tough defender who has some of the fastest hands in the league. Plus, he won’t back down from guarding the best the NBA has to offer. It will certainly help the Cavaliers when they have to slow down the likes of Gordon Hayward, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, DeMar DeRozan and Giannis Antetokounmpo — as well as Durant, of course, in a possible Finals rematch.
The combination of Crowder’s versatility on offense and defense as a 6-foot-6, 235 pound forward means he can slide between multiple positions. (Crowder played 13.0 percent of his minutes at power forward last season, down from 22.0 percent the season prior). Simply surrounding him and James with three more shooters when they go small would give James all the room he needs to attack 1-on-1. However, Crowder can also pick-and-pop and score off of screens.
The former makes Crowder a scary pick-and-roll partner with James.
The latter gives the Cavaliers the potential of running plays like “45” with Thomas or James as the ball handler, Crowder as the popper and Tristan Thompson as the dive man. They can have the big man screen for Crowder rather than roll before he pops to the 3-point line, too, to create this sort of look:
Neither of those are complicated because they don’t need to be for Crowder to make his presence known. He’s a superstar in his role as someone who can be counted on to knock down 3-pointers when left open and get after it on defense. Even if he has reached his limit as an offensive player, what he does bring to the table is incredibly valuable in today’s NBA because his ability to play without the ball in his hands means he can fit in well with high usage players such as James and Thomas.
To put Crowder’s value into perspective, the Celtics went from outscoring opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court to being outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench last season. According to Ben Falk, that was the difference between a 60 win team and a 24 win team. Crowder has had a similar impact throughout his career both on the Mavericks and Celtics.
Don’t be surprised if that trend continues — to some degree, at least — now that he has has an opportunity to play with James, who will only make Crowder better.