The Phoenix Suns are an impressive 7-2 through the first few weeks of the season.
Had you told me they’d be in a position of being first in the Western Conference and tied for the third-best record in the league while being in the top three in offensive and defensive ratings, I’d have said that tracks for what I had in mind early.
Heading into a season after the exit they had last playoffs combined with the dramatics and uncertainties that the off-season presented, I’d be lying if I said that there was a warranted level of ambiguity around this team, though.
The only certainty was that they had a bonafide superstar and the league’s best two-guard in franchise face, Devin Booker.
Questions about Chris Paul’s age, Deandre Ayton’s contract situation as well as how he was jiving with management, the internal developments of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, and even questions about Monty Williams and his method of operation all rose to the surface in numerous instances through the “dog days” of the Summer.
Included in all of these storylines is the ambiguity of Jae Crowder‘s status with the team.
It was known that he’d be entering the final of a three-year, $29.1M contract. It was also understood that as a role player of the very rare type. Being on the other side of 30, there would be a certain level of comfort or ease that Crowder would be in search of, and understandably so.
His off-season, however, consisted of being involved in trade rumors. That’s not new to him, as he’s been a journeyman of sorts, for reasons of serving a need as a proverbial 3-and-D asset in multiple situations.
However, this time, there was more pressure, seeing that he’s proven, plus time was also of the essence for him to “strike while the iron’s hot” in terms of netting himself one final contract to secure his future for the short-term.
With the Suns looking to evolve, they inserted 2019 first-round pick, Cam Johnson, into the starting lineup. Crowder and his camp saw it best for them and the Suns to part ways and work toward finding a trade for the swiss army knife and defensive-minded veteran forward to take his talents elsewhere.
Lost in all of this and maybe even exacerbated more so with the team’s hot start, is just exactly who Jae Crowder is
Who is Jae Crowder, and what does he bring to the table?
The 32-year-old, 6’6 forward, at his core, is a quintessential role player. However, that’s extremely vague in Crowder’s instance, as he brings far more to the table than just three-point shooting and defense on or off-ball.
Zoom out and you’ll see that he brings an abundance of intangibles (leadership, toughness, and trust, among many other things) to any team he’s been with in 13 seasons.
Zoom back in and you’ll see the added value he instantly infuses almost instantly with his ingratiating.
The Celtics received Crowder in a trade with Dallas in 2014-15 and proceeded to go 31-28 down the stretch, flipping their fortunes and reaching the playoffs both that season and the two seasons following. Crowder was directly involved with that team’s change in identity as they transitioned fully from the “Big 3” era, and “Boss Man” infused the franchise with a ton of heart, grit, skill, and a business-like approach to a city that embraces his types.
After a brief stint in Cleveland via a trade to move Kyrie Irving to the Celtics, Crowder would be rerouted to Utah and play a key cog in reversing their fortunes in 2017-18, helping them stamp themselves as one of the best defensive teams and reach the playoffs. They’d upset the Oklahoma City Thunder in a first-round match-up, then lose to the Houston Rockets in that season and the next.
He’d be traded in the summer of 2019 in exchange for Mike Conley for a brief stint with Memphis. Then came the 2020 trade deadline, where, again, a winning team looked to add his skill and intangibles to the fold. This one would be a marriage of sorts as the Miami Heat would acquire him and proceed to ascend the Eastern Conference ranks and reach the NBA Finals in the Bubble.
After the Bubble, he’d hit free agency and the Phoenix Suns would ink him to the aforementioned deal he’s presently in the final year of. With the Suns, he’s been as key as any player added in this new rendition, and they’d reach the Finals in 2020-21 (back-to-back seasons for Jae) and lose in the second round in 2021-22.
Get the picture here? There’s a trend of added value and better play from teams upon acquiring him. Their defense instantly receives a boost in production, collective IQ, and he unlocks new levels of lineup and scheme versatility.
He is able to execute numerous schemes defensively, serving as a connector of elite levels.
For example, when big men play closer to or at the level of screens, there’s a backline rotation needed to compensate for (in tagging) the roller to either switch fully or allow for the roller’s man to recover.
Crowder is the guy with the stature to hold up momentarily guarding bigs, then x-out to players on the perimeter as the ball rotates, remaining on schedule with activity. Also, in switching schemes, you need a player that can execute a multitude of switching types (have switchability), with the requisite IQ, feel, and discipline to guard up a position or guard down. Crowder is that guy.
You also need a player in modern basketball that’s capable of “putting out fires” as offenses come up with clever ways to manipulate advantages. Crowder has the real-time recognition and feel to sniff actions out and stop things off of positioning alone (positioning is a skill!).
He provides secondary rim protection in moments with timing and quick hands and is more than capable of containing the ball off of closeout and recovery scenarios, as well as out in isolation or in the post.
He has a delicate balance of physicality that’s coupled with lateral mobility and quickness in his stature that enables him to be effective in guarding all types of players, on and off-ball.
As valuable as he is in effectiveness in unlocking versatility and viability on defense, he knows how to exist offensively as well.
I mentioned him being key to team defensive schemes and individually, he does the same on offense.
He’s not a self-creator in terms of isolation, but he’s more than capable of playing off of advantages created by players that can create an advantage. In scenarios where he has a defender recovering from helping to run him off the 3-point line, he has the cagey pump fake in the bag but can also take a dribble to the side and knock down a three sliding to the side or put the ball on the deck to drive or attack a closeout and add to the advantage to make plays for himself or others.
Even more, he has a very underrated floater that he gets off quickly inside of 14 feet. Last season, floater range shots made for a career-high 13% of his shots. On attempts from there, he shot 50% (ranking in the 85th percentile).
He also comes up with witty plays like here, seeing things before they happen and moving off-script to be the “spray” man out of a two-on-the-ball scenario, connecting, and playing the spray-to-roll here to keep the advantage given by the defense.
Crowder’s value will be hard to replace for the Phoenix Suns
All of this was thoroughly on display in his tenure as a Sun, and said value will be hard to replace.
It is why netting a viable return, whether with just one player or multiple players in exchange for his talents, is imperative.
His skills combined with his intangibles made him invaluable both to the Suns and every team mentioned in his stops across the league, and replacing that with players to fill that void must be meticulously executed by James Jones.
Crowder finished sixth (+3.6 in 2020-21) and fifth (+5.9 in 2021-22) for the Suns in +/- in his two seasons, and it speaks to just how much he unlocked and added to this rendition, one that’s been the best regular season team (115-39) over the last two seasons and was within two games of a championship.
All signs point to him not rejoining the team as of today, so, the Suns are in a position where they must tend to the opportunity presented in evolving the roster appropriately.
What’s known is that Crowder’s absence going unaddressed will inevitably show up in instances should it not be addressed relatively soon as the calendar turns, and that he will instantly add to wherever he ends up as a solution to the situation is found.
The starting lineup and team have fared well in his absence in the short-term, but as games grow more meaningful as well as the wear and tear of the 82-game marathon settles in, they’ll need pieces in place of him to take pressure off the likes of Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig, and Dario Saric.
Cam Johnson’s been very good, especially of late, in nailing a lot of the things Jae brought defensively (as mentioned above with time on task and rotations), as well as bringing that punch offensively that’s unique to him, but the fact still remains that the Suns need to bring clarity and finalization to the Crowder situation in the coming weeks.