With Thomas-Irving trade in limbo, don't overlook Jae Crowder's importance to Cavs
The versatile forward could be the key to Cleveland improving next season
The Boston Celtics acquired Jae Crowder on Dec. 18, 2014, but his name wasn't in any of the headlines. The deal sent four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo and forward Dwight Powell to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, Crowder, draft picks and a trade extension. Crowder was seen as a throw-in, and the Mavericks were widely praised for giving up so little. The trade turned out to be one of the most important parts of one of the most impressive rebuilding projects in NBA history, with Crowder quickly becoming a fan favorite and eventually drawing difficult defensive assignments in the playoffs.
A couple of years after the Rondo experiment failed, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle admitted they should never have traded Crowder. Now, assuming that Boston and the Cleveland Cavaliers' blockbuster trade doesn't , Crowder is on the move again. Just like last time, he is not the biggest name involved, but there is no longer any excuse for overlooking or underrating him. If the Cavs are seriously considering letting this swap fall apart, they need to ask themselves a question: Is there any other way they can get someone like Crowder?
In the aftermath of the Cavaliers' loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, it was obvious that they needed to make changes. Their best defensive lineups needed more spacing; their best offensive lineups couldn't stop anybody. With the championship on the line, they couldn't use LeBron James as a free safety as much as they wanted to because they needed him to check Kevin Durant, and they had trouble figuring out a rotation that made sense against a team as athletic and versatile as Golden State. The obvious fix was to go after superstars Paul George and Jimmy Butler, two of the best defenders in the league who just happened to be on the trade block. Either one of them would solidify Cleveland's defense and diversify its offense, giving the team a new, more modern look.
For whatever reason, the Cavaliers couldn't finalize trades for either of them. Before Kyrie Irving's trade request was reported, it looked like they were going to have to go into next season with the exact same flaws as the season before, hoping for a trade before the deadline or an injury to the Warriors to give them a better chance. With Crowder, though, they have the next best thing to a two-way star like George or Butler. He is exactly the kind of role player they didn't have, and exactly the kind of role player they need in a potential series against Golden State.
With the Celtics, Crowder allowed coach Brad Stevens to play small because he is unafraid to bang bodies with bigger players. He defended multiple positions with intensity, stretched the floor and rarely demanded the ball. These are the characteristics of an ideal 3-and-D guy, but that description undersells his rebounding for his size and his ability to finish around the basket. Nobody thinks of him as a star player, but he was fifth among small forwards in real plus-minus in each of the last two seasons; only LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Paul George (2015-16) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2016-17) ranked higher than him.
Now more than ever, versatility is a talent. Before Isaiah Thomas turned into a superhero last season, there was a credible argument to be made that Crowder was Boston's best player. He didn't make his teammates better in the Steve Nash sense, but he made their lives easier by bringing all sorts of things to the table and taking nothing away. Until this Irving deal, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge had been reluctant to include Crowder in trade proposals because the five-year, $35 million deal he signed in 2015 turned out to be one of the biggest bargains in the league. It is sort of stunning that Cleveland was able to get him.
If you assume that a fourth straight Finals meeting between the Warriors and Cavaliers is inevitable, then perhaps no move made this offseason matters more than this Boston-Cleveland swap. If Thomas is healthy, his job will essentially be the same as Irving's over the last few years. The real difference-maker, then, is Crowder. Will his tough-as-nails attitude help the Cavs establish a defensive identity? Will he give James the luxury of not having to spend too much energy guarding Durant one-on-one? Will his presence alone be enough to balance the rotation? We won't know the answers until June, but these are the questions that will determine whether or not Cleveland can reach another level.
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