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Jae Crowder brings much-needed experience, toughness to Suns

Referee Eric Lewis (42) looks on as Miami Heat's Jae Crowder (99) smiles after fouling the Boston Celtics on a shot attempt during the second half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Phoenix Suns knew what they were missing for a playoff push with Chris Paul and they added exactly that with the reported signing of Jae Crowder.

After the departure of Kelly Oubre Jr. in the Paul deal, the Suns’ wing/forward group was made up of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Those are two good players who do two specific skills very well.

They also combine for three years of NBA experience, and Crowder adds eight to the squad, along with 72 career playoff games.

Crowder is as tough as they come around the league. The Miami Heat were shorthanded to start the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, which often left the 6-foot-6 Crowder guarding Anthony Davis when Miami was in man defense. He accepted the challenge and battled as best as he could.

Crowder loves defending with his chest, and because he possesses a fundamental understanding of that, he can affect possessions using that plus his length. Some guys don’t love doing it because, well, it hurts when a large, strong athlete slams into your chest!

He doesn’t mind one bit. Check out the active hands here.

Remember the Milwaukee Bucks’ shocking postseason exit? A good chunk of that had to do with Crowder’s job defending back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, where, again, he will take a beating in order to get the job done.

Crowder gives Phoenix the physical, rugged wing defender they’ve been sorely missing since P.J. Tucker’s farewell. What Bridges, Johnson, Oubre, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren and so on all lacked, he’s got.

He’s also a smart team defender. Crowder’s not necessarily the most agile, and never really was earlier in his career, but he’ll bounce around the spots he needs to be in.

It’s all about multiple efforts, and Crowder makes them.

Crowder isn’t in the high-end tier of defenders, nor a level or two below, but he’s reliable and a key connector for how a great defensive team is formed. With Bridges qualifying for that aforementioned tier, Deandre Ayton having the potential to and Chris Paul’s outstanding pedigree, there’s enough there for Phoenix to be very good on that end.

Offensively is where, outside of Crowder’s intangibles and such, lies the biggest question mark.

Crowder is a career 34.0% three-point shooter and his percentages have been as inconsistent as his form throughout his career.

There is no bigger representation for that than how Crowder shot the ball this past season:

In 45 games for Memphis – 29.3% on 5.9 attempts per game

In 41 games (including playoffs) for Miami – 38.8% on 7.0 attempts per game

That included Crowder’s regular-season number of 44.5% for the Heat dropping to 34.2% in the postseason.

Bridges’ massive improvement last season, going from a reduced role because of shooting trouble to a dependable shooter, will have to hold for the Suns to properly space the floor. The good news is Johnson’s marksmanship is in waiting if that development percolates at all.

Crowder’s ball-handling is nothing to tout about, and while the assist numbers are low across his career, he’s a great ball mover where his veteran know-how shines through. He is the epitome of earning the label of a “0.5” player despite not being much of a playmaker.

Remember, Crowder’s offensive role is to be a catch-and-shoot guy and little more, so when he gets space, he’s gotta be ready to shoot.

But on a play like this when he’s got a look, he’s aware that elite three-point shooter Duncan Robinson is right next to him.

Ah, a poor closeout? Let me see what comes of a dribble or two. Oh, there’s Duncan again!

Imagine this type of ball rotation by Crowder when defenses engulf the paint for Ayton.

Big fella’s open?

In heavy ball movement systems, Crowder’s turnover percentage was excellent. Miami (8.3%), Utah (9.4%) and Boston (under 9.0% over three seasons) all got a player who took care of the ball. All those teams ranked in the top-half of passes per game, where Phoenix had an identical 292.4 passes per game as Miami this past season.

Crowder plays his role too. He attempted 86% of his shots at either the rim or three-point range for Utah in 2018-19, 88% for Memphis and 93% with the Heat. This isn’t some kid who has to be told to do this stuff. He gets it, and that’s why he makes so much sense for Phoenix.

The thing to understand about the Suns shifting firmly into win-now territory means there will be moves like this.

Is Crowder absolutely perfect for Phoenix? No. Is he as good as they could have done in this free agency window while filling a few needs in the process? Yes.

Assuming a third guard is coming, along with restricted free agents Jevon Carter and Dario Saric returning, this move undoubtedly makes the Suns one of the top six teams in the Western Conference.

It also gives them a core group no one wants to match up with in the playoffs. That was already the case with Paul and Booker forming a top-3 backcourt in the league but now it’s an even stronger argument.

Paul, Carter, Bridges, Crowder and Ayton bring the defensive edge, a defensive fivesome that can match almost any offensive dynamic and intensity the opposition chooses to present. Paul (floor general), Booker (scoring), Bridges (defense), Johnson (shooting) and Ayton (finishing) all have high-end skills while being much more than one-trick ponies. The lineup combinations will be enticing and versatile, what head coach Monty Williams has been craving.

The Suns will quickly become a popular sleeper pick in the West, a dramatic ascent from “maybe they’ll make the playoffs!”

On top of the signing being another nice piece of business out of general manager James Jones, the Suns’ playoff drought ending would earn him the title as one of the NBA’s best executives. He’s been that good in two years.

All statistics via NBA.comBasketball-Reference and Cleaning the Glass.


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