Phoenix Suns Media Day is just under two weeks away, which is a reminder as to the state of the team this time a season ago. My, have things changed, haven’t they?
Last year there was a sense of gloom and an uneasiness in the air as media interviewed players, coaches, and general manger James Jones. They were fielding numerous questions about two uncomfortable topics: the suspension of owner Robert Sarver and the Jae Crowder hold out situation. For a team that had won 64 games this season prior, it wasn’t a celebratory start to a season in which they were heavily favored to win a championship. It was awkward, it was uncomfortable, and it was difficult.
Jae Crowder, who came to Phoenix after the acquisition of Chris Paul in 2020, had played a vital role on a team that made an NBA Finals appearance and then won 64 regular season games. He was the enforcer, the ‘f*** s*** up’ guy, and although he wasn’t physically what you would expect from a power forward, he solidified that position for the team.
Prior to the start of the 2022-23 NBA season, however, Crowder began dropping cryptic tweets that insinuated that he would not be back. This was confirmed shortly thereafter.
“I’d say it’s a little unfortunate,” Devin Booker said of the Crowder situation. “Jae came in here a couple of years ago and we’ve done a lot of really good things here. We’ve shaped and shifted this culture but at the same time, I wish him the best moving forward. That’s a friend and a brother that I’ll have forever. And ultimately, it comes down to a business and the team and him have made a choice and we’re going to move forward and respect both sides.”
James Jones stated that, “This is a team thing for us, and this is just difficult situation we’ll navigate. But we’ll always do it with the utmost respect for our players. We’ll always do it with the utmost respect for those involved. And we’ll move forward and be better for it.”
Assumption was that Cameron Johnson was taking his starting spot, and Crowder wanted to start. Assumption was that Crowder wanted an opportunity to showcase his skill set so, when he became an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2023, the offers would roll in and he wouldn’t get one last large contract. Assumption.
We sat. We waited. And outside of some oddly timed information leaked via NBA insider Chris Haynes, that was the last we heard for the Bossman.
My @NBAonTNT in-game report on my conversation with Suns forward Jae Crowder, who is away from the team and waiting on a trade: ‘It’s definitely not true of the narrative being pushed about me starting or not.’ pic.twitter.com/QL41N3Njub— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) October 26, 2022
Our last memory of Crowder would be 2-of-9 shooting, including 1-of-6 from three-point range, in an epically tragic dismantling at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals.
Ultimately the Phoenix Suns would utilize him as a trade chip to acquire Kevin Durant. The Brooklyn Nets would then trade Crowder to the Milwaukee Bucks. We’d see Crowder again as he hit two game-changing fourth quarter three-pointers against Phoenix in a 104-101 win for Milwaukee in early February.
Time would tell us that assumption was wrong and that it was a fractured relationship with former coach Monty Williams that was at the seed of the disdain from Crowder. “Yeah, we had differences,” Crowder told Yahoo! Sports’ Jake Fischer. “They asked me to keep it in-house, I’ll keep it in-house. I’m now gone, same thing I’ve told everybody else: I’ve moved on from the situation.”
Crowder would confirm that it was, per Fischer, a “strained relationship with Williams was at the center of this breakup”. Assumption, right? We were all wrong. The man with the poetic catchphrases was at the center of the turmoil.
It was a brief topic of conversation this summer as to whether or not the Suns should pursue Crowder in free agency and bring him back to Phoenix. It was at this time that lines were drawn in the sand relative to how people feel about Crowder. Did he quit on his team? Was he a victim of circumstance? Was he being selfish? Should the Suns bring him back? Should we just move on from old players and not propose that we bring them back every time they hit free agency?
We are now a year removed and, as the years continue to separate us from the two seasons that Crowder spent in Phoenix, I once again can only assume. I assume that we will look back on the time in which Crowder spent in Phoenix with celebration of who he was and how he elevated the Suns organization.
Crowder was the first flashy free agent to come to Phoenix by choice in nearly a decade. Once the Suns completed the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, sending assets that included Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Ricky Rubio to OKC for Chris Paul, the fan base knew what it meant. Chris Paul had witnessed Devin Booker – the way he plays basketball, the way he approaches the game, and the way that he leads – and wanted to be a part of it. It meant the Suns were relevant once again.
Jae Crowder, who was coming off of an NBA Finals appearance with the Miami Heat, chose to come to Phoenix. At the time it was huge. At the time you didn’t have players like Bradley Beal trying to force their way out of their team and saying I only want to go to Phoenix. At the time Phoenix hadn’t made the playoffs in 11 years.
Crowder came and wanted to be a part of that change. And he was. He brought with him a level of physicality that a finesse team desperately needed. In his first season in Phoenix he averaged 10.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and shot 38.9% from deep.
But it wasn’t the stats with Crowder. It was the moments.
In the Game 6 of the Western Conference against the Los Angeles Lakers, Crowder was ejected. Earlier in the series, LeBron James had disrespected him by backing him down in a joking fashion. So in the final moments of the series, Crowder salsa danced in front of James. He was ejected, and sprinted off the court.
Jae Crowder got tossed for this salsa move in front of LeBron pic.twitter.com/Em1ol1YKJ6— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) June 4, 2021
A legend was born. We sold plenty Salsa Jae shirt’s over at the Suns JAM Session.
In the 2021 Western Conference Finals, up 1-0 in the series but down in the fourth quarter and missing All-Star Chris Paul (COVID), Crowder made a play that quite possibly swung the series. Everybody remembers the ‘Valley Oop’ and Deandre Ayton putting in a dunk at the buzzer that won Game 2. It was the perfect pass from Jae Crowder that led to that moment, and, if you watch all the angles, the level of difficulty on that pass was elite.
PG missed 2 free throws..— Redshirt Heisman (@TasteOfSport) June 23, 2021
AND THE VALLEY OOP WAS BORN ☀️
Ayton catches a game winning alley oop from Crowder, to put the Suns up 2-0 in the series #ValleyOop #WeAreTheValley #NBA pic.twitter.com/Y0DqvUOxOo
As we look back on the time that Crowder spent in Phoenix, we shouldn’t let the assumption-filled final chapter ruin our perception of what Crowder meant to this franchise. 20 years from now will be talking about that 2021 NBA Finals team. Members of that starting lineup will be introduced at center court of the Footprint Center – or whatever the hell it’ll be called then – as we remember the moments that led to such a special season.
Jae Crowder should be standing right there with them. Number 99, the BOSSMAN, had a massive impact on the Valley and this time here. That is how he should be remembered.