On the heels of his offensive hiccup in 2011-12 with the Portland Trail Blazers—his worst scoring output since 2002-03—Jamal Crawford was still very sure of his abilities the day he signed a four-year, $25 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers in July 2012. In fact, he made a promise to the team.
"I was like, 'Don't worry, you guys won't regret this. I'm getting better. Trust me,'" the 14-year veteran recalled to Bleacher Report recently. "I just knew; I understood I'm still learning the game."
Crawford has backed up his guarantee by improving his scoring from 16.5 points per game in 2012-13, when he finished second in Sixth Man Award voting, to 18.6 this season as arguably the favorite to hoist the trophy again as the NBA's best sub with the 50-22 Clippers. While he has 23 starts to fill in for injuries—Crawford didn't have any starts last season—he'll be eligible for the honor because he'll have finished with more games coming off the bench.
While Crawford’s Sixth Man Award candidacy might have been hurt somewhat by a calf strain that saw him miss eight games in March, he has the chance to make some history this season. If he’s handed the award, he would become the oldest player to receive it and the first to do so on two separate teams.
"That would be an unreal feeling, honestly," said Crawford, who scored 31 points in 35 minutes Wednesday night, shooting 7-of-15 from three-point range. "To be very candid with you, you can't win a postseason award if your team is not having success. So if you're winning and winning at a high level and playing a key role in that situation, everybody gets a chance to share (the award). It's your teammates. It's your coaching staff helping you out every single night. It's your training staff helping you out every single night."
Crawford was a first-time winner with the Atlanta Hawks in 2009-10—the first season he proactively wanted to become the sixth man. Even though he had averaged around 20 points per game in his two previous seasons, in New York and Golden State, he didn't want to interfere with the Hawks' scoring nucleus and wanted to erase what he felt like was the biggest knock on him: not being a winner.
"I told coach (Mike) Woodson, 'No matter what, I'll come off the bench and I'll do whatever you want me to, because I just want to win,'" he said. "That changed everything for me because I understand the importance of the sixth man. You need balance, and I feel like a lot of guys are starting to really carve out a niche for (the sixth man role), and they're taking pride coming off the bench."
Only Getting Better with Age
This season, it's not just that Crawford is the Clippers' second top scorer after Blake Griffin (24.3 points per game). It's that he's doing it at 34 years old while playing the most minutes (30.4) since 2009-10. He also has a career high in usage percentage (.272), which is the estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he's on the court.
"It's weird because in your 14th year, age 34, you're not supposed to get better," Crawford said. "Some guys aren't even in the league anymore. Some guys are definitely at the end of somebody's bench or going down. But with me, I still want to get better. I know I'm getting better and I'm a better all-around player."
Crawford has also never been better as a closer. He’s tied for second in the league with James Harden (both after Kevin Durant) in fourth-quarter points per game (a career-high 6.8). At All-Star Weekend, Durant (7.6) had high praise for Crawford.
“When you have a team that’s trying to win a championship, just two guys can’t do it," he said. "Jamal is one of those guys that has done a great job for the Clippers. I love Jamal; he’s like a big brother to me. I’m excited; I’m glad he’s playing well.”
Crawford still has the same boyish look he had when he first entered the league in 2000. He credited the Clippers' training staff and the team’s state-of-the-art center that opened in 2008, which includes underwater treadmills and a cryogenic therapy chamber, for doing an "excellent job" of keeping him fit and mostly healthy.
He also noted that annual star-studded summer pickup games at the team's practice facility—featuring Durant, Harden, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and many more All-NBAers—have been "unbelievable" basketball workouts to prepare him for the past two seasons. Off the court, he said the joy of getting married this summer to his longtime girlfriend, Tori, is keeping him young and spirited.
When asked if coach Doc Rivers had influenced him, Crawford said there was a collective effect on the team, as he reflected on the first meeting the players had with him last fall.
"Everybody was on the edge of their seats," Crawford said. "We couldn't wait to practice the next day, just because we were fans of him. He's basically been to the mountaintop and conquered it, and that's where we aspire to be."
Crawford said while Rivers "always wants us to play faster," most of the time he's "harping defense," stressing after lopsided wins that those high-scoring games aren't going to cut it in the playoffs.
Commenting on his experiences under the defensive-minded Rivers, Crawford admitted it’s been a new challenge.
"Honestly, this is the first time in my career where if I get scored on or if I make a defensive mistake, I'm like, 'Dang,'" he said. "I watch film with our staff all the time. I've never been like that. My mentality back then was like 'OK, I got scored on. I'll get it back on the other end.' Now I take pride in it. I think my defense is night and day to where it's been my whole career."
Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who is one of only three two-time Sixth Man Award winners—the other two are Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf—has also noticed that Crawford has become a more well-rounded player.
"Earlier in his career, you'd say, 'He's going to either win it or lose it for the team he plays for because he was going to lose it if he kept shooting,'" McHale said. "But he's really developed and matured, and he comes in and he makes a positive contribution. For sixth men to be effective, you've got to change the whole style of the game, the whole tenor of the game when you get in, and he definitely does—and, most of the time, for the better."
The Creative Genius of Crawford
Crawford vividly remembers the first time he shook someone with his trademark double behind-the-back fake-out move, and it was so disruptive on his defender that even the Clippers guard at the time went completely off-balance.
"I was 16 and I was at Doug Christie's Pro-Am (tournament) playing against a guy in the All-Star Game," he said. "I was playing against a guy that locked me up a couple weeks before, like I had zero points, he strong-armed me, I couldn't do anything. I was like, 'Man, what am I going to do? All-Star Game situation.' And I did the move and I fell into the wall—I had to hold myself up—and he went the total opposite way. It was crazy and the crowd went crazy. I went back to my mom and I was like, 'What did I do?' I was able to just put it in my game."
Crawford, who's one of the most creative ball-handlers in the league, memorably orchestrated a similar behind-the-back sequence against Deron Williams in 2007 and then Kirk Hinrich later that season. Crawford shared the reason for the special move, which he executes equally in isolation and pick-and-roll sets (according to Synergy Sports, he's "excellent" in both play types).
"I think for a long time, especially after (Allen) Iverson, a lot of people didn't cross over in different ways," he said. "Everybody was crossing over in the front, but nobody was crossing over behind their back. I tried to do something different.”
Crawford, who said his dribbling is a "mixture" of Iverson, Nick Van Exel, Tim Hardaway and Isiah Thomas, discussed the effectiveness of his other favorite move: the hesitation. He even senses a "freeze frame" moment when he does it, where he feels like everything stops for a second and then he's able to get ahead of his man.
"It's great because you have three options just off the hesitation alone," he said. "If I have the ball in my left hand, let's say, I can hesitate and keep going left, I can hesitate and cross over right, I can hesitate and pull up for a jump shot. So that's three moves off of one thing. If you flip it and do it right hand, now you have six moves. Sometimes you just want to keep basic and have the foundation."
What's key and also unique about Crawford's dribbling skills is his running-with-the-ball stance. He's more upright and balanced, which enables him to keep his defenders guessing, and by keeping the ball high he’s able to make a dart pass from his chest on the move—he sometimes plays point guard—or pull up quickly for a jump shot.
He also sets up to shoot above his head, with a 6'10" wingspan, the athleticism to hang midair and one of the highest-arcing releases in the league. That all makes his jumper basically impossible to block—not to mention, he’s 6’6” and has range all the way out to 30 feet. On Wednesday night, he broke his own Clippers franchise record for most three-pointers in a season (151; he had 149 in 2012-13).
"I don't have to squat down and get real low or come down from the ground to get my shot up," he said. "It would probably get blocked if I took that long. For me, I'm always more upright so I have more choices. I can go past you, I can just pull it, I can make a pass and the defenders reach a lot because I'm dribbling so upright."
That kind of uncertainty makes him one of the most enjoyable players to watch, which prompts the team’s TV play-by-play voice Ralph Lawler to sometimes say, “It’s Crawford Time!” when he’s setting up to go one-on-one against his defender. That uncertainty also leads to players mistakenly fouling him on his three-point attempts. In fact, Crawford, who McHale called a "tough shot-maker," is the NBA's all-time leader in four-point plays (40).
“I told him when I got here he’s the king of the four-point play," Danny Granger said. "I’ve never seen a guy get fouled so many times on a three-point shot. (Before I arrived in Los Angeles) we’d go into a game and the coach would say, ‘Don’t foul him on his three-point shot,’ and every team does it. He has a very unique ability.”
NBA trainer Micah Lancaster—who specializes in ball-handling coaching and has worked with dozens of players, including Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving and Evan Turner—also noted that Crawford's creativity and style of bringing the ball above his waist off the bounce make him the "best float dribbler in the game."
"He's great at getting the ball to his pockets and his hips, and pausing. And so that's what I call floating the ball," Lancaster said. "And every time he floats, he has four dimensions that he can go to: he has the ability to pass, drive, shoot and change directions every time. Those four dimensions make him just an unbelievable threat with the dribble."
Lancaster believes more kids should be taught how to dribble like Crawford.
"When you study really good offensive players, regardless of their height, the dribble is at their hip more than it's at their knees," he said. "If the ball is at their knees, they rarely have the ability to pick up and shoot. They don't have the ability to really make a quick pass, and so they become a two-dimensional player."
Playground legend The Professor, whose real name is Grayson Boucher and is known for his flashy ball-handling skills, said Crawford is his favorite player because he's able to incorporate his freelancing methods into the structure of NBA games.
"I think he's able to have streetball flair because it's not distracting," Boucher said. "I think if somebody tried to bring streetball flair to a regular setting and his teammates or coaches don't like it, it's because it's extra and he's not doing it in the flow of the game. He can do at it at such a high level and can do it within the flow of the game."
So what move is Crawford working on next in practice? Nothing. That's because he doesn't.
"Never," he said. "I'm on my own and when I'm playing, I just make it up right there in the game."
Sixth Man Preparation and Professionalism
Crawford said he rarely studies matchups before games, and his reasoning is interesting. He prefers to make live reads while observing from the bench, usually for about the first six minutes of a game before Rivers calls his name.
"I look at how (the opponent) guards different things—what they do if we pick-and-roll at this angle and how to adjust, knowing how I can get my teammate a shot by running this set," he said. "So I get a chance to see how they play sets, how they react to certain things, will they double-team, where they're double-teaming from. And I'll tell CP (Chris Paul) or Blake. I'm more vocal than I've ever been. Then when I get in the game, I use that and try to have an impact."
When Crawford takes the floor, he already feels loose because he puts himself through a hard pregame warm-up, and on the bench he maintains his sweat with stretching and hot packs. While he prefers not to shoot right away when he gets in, Paul looks to get him going early on because, as the point guard puts it, “We know how much he means to our team."
“He's a scoring threat and somebody that defenders fear every night," Paul said. "I have to remember that he still needs a play to warm up, so as soon as he comes in the game, I try and call a play for him. He gets going for us and hits big shots in the fourth quarter. It is a luxury to have a guy like that.”
Especially when he's able to fill in for starters' injuries. Taking the place of the banged-up J.J. Redick in the starting lineup in February, he had two 30-plus point games, adding to two previous performances like that coming off the bench. That’s the first time that's happened since the 2008-09 season.
"I pride myself on being a professional," Crawford said. "I've had a different coach every year (he's had a total of 16 different ones throughout his career—tied for sixth-most in NBA history), and every coach has a different way of using me, whether it be starting, coming off the bench, playing the 1, playing the 2, whatever. With injuries or in a pinch, I can definitely slide in and play the starting role, and I have no problem with that."
Who should win the NBA's Sixth Man Award this season?
Even with Redick’s uncertain return—he’s missed the past two months with a bulging disc in his lower back—Darren Collison has been starting alongside Paul in the Clippers backcourt. Crawford will continue to anchor the second unit, with new sidekicks Granger and Glen Davis, and he believes the "sky's the limit" for his team.
With the opportunity to put himself in the history books this season, Crawford said he’s also primed to help his guys change the tune of the franchise in Los Angeles.
Move over, Lakers?
"It's now cool to be a Clipper fan," Crawford said. "Obviously it's Lakers town. I mean, they have all the championships and they've had all the great players in history, and you respect that. But that doesn't mean that we can't try to carve out our own history. But that's not just our goal. We want to be the best team in the NBA—not just the best team in L.A."