Jae Crowder, one of NBA’s most underrated players, helping Celtics move on

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Jared Sullinger arrived early to the arena and bumped into Vander Blue.

Sullinger’s Ohio State and Blue’s Marquette teams, on opposite sides of the region, were opening the 2011 NCAA tournament in Cleveland.

As the two friends exchanged pleasantries, Blue’s teammate – Jae Crowder – intervened. He apparently didn’t want Blue making nice with a potential later-round foe. Crowder got upset, and as Sullinger put it, “We almost got into a little scuffle.”

“From there on, I knew I could always ride with Jae,” Sullinger said, “because he’s going to fight for you.”

Nearly four years later, Sullinger’s Celtics acquired Crowder in the Rajon Rondo trade.

“I was excited,” Sullinger said. “I knew we got somebody that just knows one way, one way how to play – and that’s play hard every night.”

Crowder has emerged as more than just a hustle player in Boston. His two-way excellence quietly puts him in a special class. He’s one of just nine players with a Real Plus-Minus of at least two on both ends of the floor:

Player Offensive RPM Defensive RPM
LeBron James 6.09 2.78
Kawhi Leonard 4.32 4.36
Draymond Green 3.59 5.09
Kyle Lowry 5.21 2.00
DeMarcus Cousins 2.64 3.51
Paul Millsap 3.59 2.26
Chris Bosh 2.84 2.45
Kevin Love 3.25 2.00
Jae Crowder 2.01 2.18

Those other eight are drawing serious All-Star consideration.

Even Crowder’s traditional stats suggest he warrants a higher profile.

Just four other players so young average as many points (14.5), rebounds (5.3) and assists (1.9) per game as Crowder: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Will Barton, Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins. Also consider Crowder’s 1.8 steals game, and just five other players meet the marks at all: Stephen Curry,

Paul George,Kawhi Leonard,Paul Millsap and Russell Westbrook.

Crowder just finds ways to help Boston win – though that wasn’t always the case.

The Celtics lost their first four games with Crowder and began his tenure 3-12. He could tell the team missed Rondo.

“It was weird,” Crowder said. “Practices was like kind of weird. Guys wasn’t really taking it serious. You could tell he was the leader. The team had no leadership at that time. And we were losing. There was just a lot of down people, a lot of frustration.”

Crowder was frustrated, too. Fed up, he asked Boston coach Brad Stevens, “Are we trying to lose?”

The Celtics appeared to be tanking. Crowder looked like little more than a throw-in in the Rondo deal, which netted a first-round pick and Brandan Wright (who was later flipped for another first-rounder). Boston also traded Jeff Green for yet another first-rounder.

The self-made Crowder had taken too hard a path to the NBA to passively accept losing.

He enrolled at South Georgia Tech out of high school, playing for a school he’d learn was unaccredited. “The coach lied to me to get me to sign there,” Crowder said. Once he realized that – on a tip from Bob Huggins – Crowder transferred to Howard College in Texas. Another transfer landed him at Marquette, where his NBA dream finally felt realistic. He was drafted in the second round in 2012 and immediately cracked the Mavericks’ rotation. But his playing time decreased each of his three seasons in Dallas.

So, while Crowder was excited to play more in Boston, he disliked the team’s direction.

Stevens – who admits he didn’t know much about Crowder at the time of the trade – assured him he’d never coach a team to lose. The coach was also becoming impressed by Crowder, from his workout habits to his surprising versatility.

The Celtics traded for Isaiah Thomas, who sparked a stagnant offense, and surged into the playoffs. Though Thomas’ scoring earns him attention and makes him Boston’s most likely All-Star, Crowder’s value on both sides of the floor is immense. So is his intensity.

“We feed off of him,” Sullinger said.

During the Celtics’ first-round series against the Cavaliers last spring, Crowder – who frequently guarded LeBron James – declared, “Nobody on their team is intimidating.” Cleveland swept the series, but Crowder proved his toughness in the process.

He also showed a skill set that could help Boston bridge eras.

Rondo was the last remaining player from the Celtics’ 2008 championship team. Crowder’s arrival quite literally signaled a changing of the guard.

In recent years, the Celtics have pushed to land a star. Until they get one, and once they do, Crowder is key.

It’s not just that he’s good offensively and defensively. It’s that he’s good inside and out offensively and defensively.

He shoots 65% at the rim and 35% on 3-pointers. The 6-foot-6 Crowder comfortably covers shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards – and switching him onto centers and point guards is hardly problematic.

That’s a versatility built for the playoffs, when opponents will hammer at any deficiency. Crowder can’t be exposed. He just need the 22-20 Celtics, who are eighth in the Eastern Conference, to reach the postseason.

So far, he’s doing his part.

I’m usually first in line to scoff at Draymond Green comparisons. Green’s combination skills is incredibly rare. Not every undersized forward can just be him.

But Crowder shares similarities. He’s strong and tenacious enough to defend bigger players in the post, even if his height lends itself to perimeter defense (where he also performs well). He shoots well enough to spread the floor. Crowder doesn’t pass nearly as well as Green, but he keeps the ball moving.

Looking for a poor man’s Green? It’s Crowder – and that’s a compliment I wouldn’t bestow on anyone else in the league.

Crowder also has the capability to complement a high-usage star should Boston ever nab one.

Crowder is excellent off the ball – cutting, working off screens, spotting up. It’d help if he shot better from the corners, but his defense, rebounding and hustle more than make up for that shortcoming.

Best of all for the Celtics, they have Crowder locked up to a five-year, $35 million contract he signed last offseason. That deal looked like a steal the moment it was signed, and it’ll look even better as the salary cap skyrockets.

Crowder said he received interest from “four other Eastern Conference teams and Boston and one West Coast team.” One team, he said, made a higher-paying offer than the Celtics. He also figures – correctly, I believe – he could’ve gotten even more lucrative offers simply by waiting.

But Crowder agreed to terms with Boston on the second day of free agency. He’s even talking already about signing an extension in three years, though unless the Celtics also renegotiate his deal – why would they? – the maximum possible extension would still leave him a huge bargain.

“I didn’t know if, the saying, the grass is greener on the other side at that time,” Crowder said. “So, I just wanted to stick with what I knew, and what I knew is trying to make Boston my home.”

The Celtics have to be thrilled he chose their green.

If you’re a Comcast subscriber in Boston, you can stream tonight’s Celtics-Raptors game here.

Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic make plays late to lift Blazers past Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jusuf Nurkic apologized to Damian Lillard as they strolled back to their locker room, upset he had missed two free throws with less the three seconds left, giving the Brooklyn Nets a chance to either tie or win it at the buzzer.

All Lillard could care about was Nurkic’s heads-up play a couple of seconds earlier that eventually served as the game-winner.

Lillard scored 34, Nurkic added 29 and 15 rebounds, including eight in the fourth quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from a six-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to edge the Nets 127-125 on Friday.

“After the game he was telling me, `Man, my bad I missed the free throws, I did this and I this that’,” Lillard recalled. “I stopped in the hallway, I said, `I don’t care about none of that, the most important thing is you made the biggest play of the game’.”

Portland trailed 121-115 with 2:20 left after former Trail Blazers’ guard Allen Crabbe floater. The Trail Blazers then scored the next eight points, capped by Shabbaz Nappier’s three-point play with 55 seconds left. Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie then evened it 123 with a putback layup after missing his own 15-foot pullup shot.

Lillard then freed himself off Dinwiddie’s tight defense as Nurkic set a pick at the 3-point arc, diving to the basket as the Portland point guard served him the ball. DeMarre Carroll then slid in to help on the coverage, blocking Nurkic right under the basket. Caris LeVert briefly had control of the ball before the Trail Blazers’ center snatched it away and put it through, drawing a foul and capping a three-point play with 27 seconds left to put his team ahead for good, 126-123.

“I learned never quit,” said Nurkic, who had eight rebounds and two of his four blocks in the final period. “There’s no lost possession. I see an opportunity to steal the ball and try to make a play. It (went) in.”

Despite Lillard’s words of encouragement, he was still beating himself for making 5 of 10 free throws.

“I know I am a way better free throw (shooter) than I am showing,” said Nurkic.

CJ McCollum chipped in 26 for the Trail Blazers, who found themselves down by 11 in the first quarter in a post-Thanksgiving noon tip.

The Trail Blazers’ defense held the Nets 0 for 5 from the field during their key fourth quarter 8-0 run, two days after a disappointing 20-point loss at Philadelphia.

“We made some good defensive stops in the last minute and a half and were able to convert in the other direction,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

Dinwiddie had 23 for the Nets, who have lost three straight games – the previous two to the defending champions, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers.

After cutting Portland’s lead to 126-125 with 15.7 seconds, he had a chance to put the Nets ahead but missed a 3-pointer with 4:8 seconds left.

“I felt like it was a good look,” Dinwiddie said. “It bounced around the rim a couple of times but didn’t go in.”

Brooklyn had six other players score in double-figures, including Rondae-Hollis Jefferson had 17. Sean Kilpatrick added 14 and Joe Harris scored 14.

 

Should Cavaliers be interested in DeAndre Jordan? At what price?

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In a season ravaged by injuries, the Clippers are stumbling and — especially if the stumbles continue — they will be left with a couple of hard questions. One is the future of Doc Rivers.

The other is the future DeAndre Jordan. He has a player option for next season and almost certainly becomes a free agent. While new Clipper president Lawrence Frank has said he wants Jordan to be a “Clipper for life,” other teams are calling Frank to see if Jordan is available. If the Clippers think they may not be able to re-sign him this summer, they have to consider their options. Including a trade.

Should the Cavaliers be one of those teams calling the Clippers? Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had this answer to that question.

DeAndre Jordan’s numbers are down this season. He’s averaging 10.4 points and shooting .664 from the field (he only shoots twos). Even his blocks — 1.2 per game — are down from the 1.7 he averaged a year ago. Also, Jordan, 29, has a $24.1 million player’s option in his contract for next season. So, he could essentially be a rental. That said, you’re right, he’d thrive playing alongside LeBron James and Isaiah ThomasTristan Thompson was great against the Warriors in the Finals two seasons ago, and struggled mightily last year. A league source believes this move, Jordan for Thompson, is one the Cavs would consider. How the Brooklyn pick figured in remains to be seen (Cleveland also has its own No. 1 pick), but if the Cavs felt Jordan was the only piece missing for them to take down the Warriors they’d have to consider this.

First, Jordan’s numbers are down this season because Austin Rivers is feeding him the ball off pick-and-rolls, not Chris Paul. That’s a huge talent drop off. Jordan and Paul played well off each other, a decrease in counting stats was to be expected.

Second, it’s fair to ask if Jordan actually puts the Cavaliers on the level of the Warriors? I don’t see it, and if the Cavaliers don’t think he puts them on that tier, they should be careful about what they offer.

Finally, Jordan would be a rental, although the Cavaliers might be able to re-sign him if the price was right and LeBron stays.

What I’ve heard around the league is that the Brooklyn pick is off the table right now, that Cleveland may be willing to move their own first rounder (likely in the mid-20s). The bottom line on the scenario above, Jordan is an upgrade on both ends of the court over Tristan Thompson, even when Thompson is healthy. If the Cavaliers are all-in for a title this season, they have to seriously consider it.

Would a  Thompson and Cavaliers pick get the deal done? Thompson has two-years, $36 million on his contract after this season, the Cavaliers might like to have the flexibility of Jordan’s expiring deal over TT (despite Thompson’s close ties to LeBron). However, would the Clippers take on that extra salary for just a late first rounder? Not likely. They will demand the Brooklyn pick at first. The question is will the Clippers come around to what the Cavaliers offer? Or will Cleveland decide that this season is more important than future protections and throw the Brooklyn pick in?

Other teams — Washington and Milwaukee are rumored among them — are calling the Clippers, too.

The first question is, will the Clippers want to trade DJ at all, or are they going to stand pat and try to re-sign him. The ball is in Lawrence Frank’s court right now.

 

Kyrie Irving: ‘I see you. I see everyone. More than just your physical presence, I see your energy. I feel it. I know it’

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Kyrie Irving has done good lately.

Not just during Celtics games. He gave his jersey and shoes to military members in the crowd, and he recently shared a Thanksgiving dinner with Boston families.

Irving also addressed the event.

Irving, via Nicole Yang of Boston.com:

“I see you,” he said. “I see everyone. More than just your physical presence, I see your energy. I feel it. I know it.”

“I think that the most important thing that I strive to live by is extremely by truth and by consistently giving others the truth, without any judgement, without constraints, without anything extra except the understanding that I see you,” he said. “I have family members who come from knowing energy, and it was passed along to me.”

I can’t get enough of all this stuff.

Report: Derrick Rose away from Cavaliers, evaluating his future in basketball

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When Derrick Rose went AWOL from the Knicks last season for what he called a family issue, rumors swirled that he was contemplating retirement. Rose denied it, but those whispers are reemerging.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Rose has been out with what seemed like a relative minor, for him at least, ankle injury. The 29-year-old could stick in the league for a while thanks to his reputation and ability to attack the rim to create shots for himself. But the guard is a shell of peak form after years of more serious injuries. This isn’t the career anyone expected for him when he was named the youngest MVP ever in 2011.

Before the season, Rose was talking about getting a raise on his next contract. He seemed happy to join a contender and have LeBron James in his corner.

But something is amiss. Hopefully, Rose can find contentment – whether that’s continuing his NBA career or walking away.