Nylon Calculus: Jae Crowder is the overlooked linchpin of the Kyrie Irving trade

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 23: Jae Crowder
CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 23: Jae Crowder /

Okay — potential trade.

On an otherwise mundane Tuesday, in the 10 minutes between me leaving working and getting home last week, the NBA broke (again). Danny Ainge finally followed through on the godfather offer (or close to it). He collected all his tickets and chips that he’d been saving up for years, walked over to the front of the line at Chuck E Cheese and told the attendant “I will take one Kyrie Irving please.”

Irving and Isaiah Thomas are actually reasonable facsimiles of each other in terms of their per-100 possessions production. The one major difference is Thomas’ Moreyball numbers are much better, as he bests Irving in both 3-point attempts and free throw attempts by a sizable margin. However, even if you consider Irving to be the better long-term asset (which he probably is), Thomas was one of the best possible replacements the Cavaliers could have asked for, in terms of fit and skill level. And that’s exactly why the Irving-IT swap is the least intriguing part of this trade in my view.

Read More: Examining how Kyrie Irving will be used in Boston

Gimme some of that All-Caps All Star Jae Crowder. Crowder, by most measures, was at worst a top-75 player in the NBA last season, and should be again this season, even accounting for a little bit of regression. Furthermore, he’s a genuine 3-and-D player in a league desperate for the archetype. So much of how this trade is viewed retroactively could hinge on how well the Celtics are able to account for the loss of Crowder, and how much value he adds to the Cavaliers.

First, the easy part:

We should still expect J.R. Smith to be a core part of the Cleveland rotation, but Crowder offers an impressive versatility upgrade to their primary lineup. The Cavaliers’ balance score jumped by an astounding 5 points, up to 62, with J.R. swapped out for Crowder. For reference, the Warriors’ Hamptons Five boasts a balance score of 64, which should serve to not only reinforce just how far last year’s Cavaliers were from being able to mount a real challenge but also how much closer Crowder gets them to that goal, provided he doesn’t experience any significant drop-off.

Crowder is an able scorer, an efficient shooter, good rebounder, gets to the free throw line and injects more defensive aptitude to a team that was starved for good defense last year — although he may not be as stellar on that end as his reputation could suggest. (Both Defensive Box Plus-Minus and Defensive RPM rate him closer to good or average rather than elite). Is he the Cavaliers’ Durant-stopper? Probably not. Is he a much-needed defensive upgrade? Undeniably.

Crowder also offers a little bit of switchability, critical to playing the death-by-a-thousand-passes-and-screens offense that is the Warriors.

Quick disclaimer that the data used to create DRAY was proprietary, and as such, publicly available DRAY scores for last season do not exist. More information on the metric can also be found here.

Nevertheless, defensive versatility is a translatable year to year skill, and Crowder rated as being pretty decent in terms of his defensive versatility in 2015-16, solidly in the tier right below the stars of the league (LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant, etc.) among small forwards. He was average or above average in defending every single type of offensive player, being especially effective against versatile wings (i.e. Gordon Hayward) and perimeter specialists (i.e. Kyle Korver). As he gets older, it’s reasonable to expect this ability to regress, but it is an important element to his defense.

Evaluating how Boston can replace Crowder is a bit trickier task. It relies heavily on projecting the performance of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, players with most of their NBA career still ahead of them. In Andrew Johnson’s view, Boston still isn’t projected to have a clear path to competing with Cleveland. While Brown showed flashes last year, he still doesn’t project as a plus player until he develops NBA-level basketball sense to match his athleticism. (In other words, he needs to do more than just ‘look like he belongs’). Tatum is one of the highest touted members of this year’s rookie class, and is the likely key to answering this question.

Next: Crowder is the role player the Cavaliers have been missing

If the Celtics down the line prove that they more than have the star power to make up for losing Crowder, this could be a solid long-term win for them, as Irving still was the best asset in the entire trade. If Crowder deteriorates more rapidly than expected, then the Cavaliers could find out the hard way that a diminutive point guard with a balky hip approaching 30 perhaps isn’t enough firepower to beat the Warriors. The range of outcomes for this trade that could swing on Crowder’s value makes this one of the most fascinating trades to go down since I’ve started following the NBA.

Basketball season can’t get here soon enough.