Only a handful of NBA teams can claim that they signed bona fide contributors from this fall’s NBA Finals in free agency, and the Phoenix Suns are one.
That’s what general manager James Jones said stood out to him about Jae Crowder, who signed a three-year, $29.1 million contract in late November to join the Suns. In particular, it’s the fact that Crowder is a player who has always known his role and fulfilled his duties capably on winning teams for his decade-long career in the NBA.
James Jones calls Jae Crowder a "winner" from experience over nearly a decade of "high-level" basketball and compliments the way Crowder is able to sacrifice in the name of winning.— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) November 30, 2020
When it comes to defense and overall toughness, that’s exactly who Crowder has always been. Right away, he’ll give the Suns the best option they’ve had since P.J. Tucker to defend elite forwards on opposing teams.
Yet the Crowder we just saw play a significant role in Miami’s impressive postseason run was quieted down in the Finals. And the Heat version of Crowder is different yet still from the guy who began the season in Memphis.
As with many role players, Crowder is a product of his environment. What changed from the early rounds of the playoffs to the Finals is the way Miami’s offense was flowing. Prior to facing the Lakers for the title, the Heat were a machine, using off-ball action and multiple ball-handler lineups to break defenses down and generate open shots repeatedly. Crowder benefited greatly, particularly in Miami’s upset over Milwaukee, when he shot 43 percent from deep in the series.
Here’s a look at how wide-open and comfortable Crowder was in that series:
Crowder took 70 wide-open threes in the 2020 playoffs and made 40 percent of them. That’s sort of the whole strategy right there. Get this guy a rhythm three with plenty of space around him and he’s money. Without that, he can turn into a pretty ordinary offensive player.
The Lakers made him one in the Finals. Los Angeles’ elite team defense and positional versatility made it so that Crowder was hardly getting open like he had become used to with the Heat. Crowder was just 13/39 from deep in the Finals.
Jumping back even further to when Crowder was with the Grizzlies, he shot just 30.3 percent from three overall on the season. But more to the point, Crowder took only seven more wide-open triples during the entire pre-All-Star break chunk of the season than he did during the entire postseason with Miami. Even when defenses were at their best, the Grizzlies just didn’t have the juice to generate open shots for Crowder the way Miami would.
The question becomes whether Chris Paul, Monty Williams and the Suns can do so. My gut instinct tells me yes. It won’t take much to create advantages for the Suns’ bevy of three-point shooters with Paul running the show, Devin Booker manipulating defenses off the ball, Deandre Ayton screening and rolling, and Williams drawing up quick-hitting sets in the half court.
The addition of Paul turned Dennis Schroder into a 39 percent three-point shooter, and by the playoffs, even young guys like Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley were knocking down shots consistently. Paul helped turn a bunch of castoffs and development projects into the 16th-best offense in the NBA.
With the infrastructure Phoenix has in place already, Paul could be the difference between the Suns’ 12th-ranked offense from 2019-20 and something knocking on the door of the top five in 2021. The good thing about Crowder’s part in all of that is he’s in the exact same type of role he was in with Miami. The job is straightforward: Stand there, make your defender guard you, and hit shots when you’re open.
Paul and the rest of the Suns’ offense should be able to create those openings, meaning the version of Crowder we see in the new Valley jersey should be efficient and consistent far more often than not.