clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New Suns could really use a Jae Crowder for this playoff run

Imagine a lineup with Kevin Durant and Jae Crowder alongside Booker, Ayton and Chris Paul

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, Jae Crowder was exactly the same guy you always knew — not a single eye-popping stat, but he made some couple of timely threes on offense and was solid on defense to help his team win the game. The only problem is that he was in a Bucks jersey.

When asked about Crowder before the game, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer put it simply that, even after just a couple of weeks on the team, Crowder gets to the right spot more often than some players who’ve been there for five years.

Crowder was a Suns starting forward for two seasons, helping the Suns make the NBA Finals one year and set a club record for regular season wins the next. None of Crowder’s numbers jumped off the page — he was 5th on the team in scoring in 2020-21 and 8th in 2021-22 — but he was credited on the Suns with being the exact guy Coach Bud described. Always in the right place at the right time to make winning plays.

A lot of factors play into this, but the Suns were by far the league’s best clutch team — 58-21 record over two seasons — with Crowder closing games alongside Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.

This year without Crowder, the Suns have been a lot more pedestrian in clutch time. Before the Bridges/Durant trade, they were just 11-13 in clutch games... though that was marred by long term injuries to Paul and Booker, their leading clutch players, and by relatively poor performance of Book and CP in the clutch time they have gotten.

This Suns team with Kevin Durant in the clutch would be a much different animal. They won the Sunday afternoon game against Dallas — their only clutch game of Durant’s 3-game tenure so far — with Durant making the big plays.

But it sure would be nice to have a Jae Crowder as that fifth man, wouldn’t it?

The Suns are trying to create a new Crowder.

For now, that’s Torrey Craig. He’s gone from 10th-man to setting a career high in starts as he delivers Crowder’s 9 points and 5 rebounds in a 20-something minutes role each night.

Next up is Josh Okogie, found on the same scrap heap Craig once came from. Still just 24 years old, Okogie is shorter than those guys (6’4”) but has a 7-foot wingspan and the same strong build to hold up defensively against bigger players. He’s got more athleticism than the two of them put together.

Crowder. Craig. Okogie.

It’s tiny font, but all these columns show just how close these guys are in production.

Okogie rebounds a little less but draws free throws a little more. Jae launched more threes per minute, though I expect Okogie will close that gap as he gains more confidence.

If you’re a believer in net rating on an individual level — very muddy because it depends so much on the guys around them — Okogie profiles the way Crowder did, with a high plus/minutes while on the floor.

Since 12/4, Okogie has the best net rating on the Suns with a +7 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor. On a raw scale, that’s the Suns outscoring opponents +2.7 points per game in his 22 of 48 minutes. Craig, in contrast, is close to the bottom with a -5.7 net rating (raw -3.6 in 26 min/gm). Still not quite sure what to make of that discrepancy. As a team, the Suns are right in the middle with a -0.5 net rating since 12/4, with an 18-23 record.

Crystal Ball

When Kevin Durant returns to the lineup, Okogie should remain as the 5th starter like Crowder used to be. He can guard on the opponent’s most talented offensive playmaker, taking pressure off Devin Booker and Chris Paul in that area, much the way Mikal Bridges used to. And then KD can take on the opponent’s most talented power wing, much the way Crowder used to.

In that scheme, especially come closing time, the Suns could be more dangerous than ever on both ends of the floor.

But what about this wrinkle... wouldn’t it be nice to be able to put Crowder out there in a lineup with Book/Okogie/Ayton/Durant...and give Chris Paul some much-needed rest on nights he’s shown he doesn’t have ‘it’?

I’m not one of those ‘I wish’ guys. Once the water passes under the bridge, so to speak, it’s gone.

It’s just that seeing Jae last night reminded me what a good role player he was for the Suns, and how they could really use him this season, especially after the Durant trade (assuming he could have been kept out of the deal, instead of being a last-second addition... though that then opens the door to whether the Suns would have won more games if Jae had been available all year and whether the Suns would have made the KD trade at all, and I’m a firm believer that a KD team is better than last year’s team when healthy... and no, there’s no way Jae would have returned to the Suns after a four-month holdout so don’t go down that rabbit hole either).

Happy Wednesday, Suns fans!

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bright Side of the Sun Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Phoenix Suns news from Bright Side of the Sun