Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford has been the NBA version of a Swiss Army knife for head coach Doc Rivers this season, and it's just one of several reasons why he deserves strong consideration for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award.
One factor working against the 13-year veteran is the fact he's dealing with an injury that could sideline him down the stretch. As he battles back from a strained calf muscle, he continues to work his way back to full strength. It's hard to win end-of-season honors without being on the floor consistently, but Crawford's resume has him in the mix for consideration despite missing three games to this point.
Taj Gibson has been brilliant for the Chicago Bulls, as have Reggie Jackson of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Markieff Morris of the Phoenix Suns. Each of those players has built a strong case of his own, but Crawford has a legitimate claim.
There's plenty of evidence why.
Been There, Done That
The 33-year-old sharpshooter is approaching numbers that mirror the best of his career—the 2009-10 campaign that saw him earn the distinction as the NBA's top reserve for the first time with the Atlanta Hawks. In that scenario, he was the second-leading scorer on an offense which ranked No. 2 in points per 100 possessions.
That season has an interesting parallel to what a wiser and equally efficient Crawford is doing for the Clippers in 2013-14. What's more is that the Clips have similar offensive firepower as the Hawks did then.
The Clippers rank third in offensive rating (111.8 points per 100 possessions), and Crawford again ranks second on the team in scoring with 18.7 points per game through March 9. Los Angeles is playoff-bound and will need his dynamic skill set in order to secure a top-half seed in the Western Conference playoff picture and make a deep run into the playoffs.
A True "Combo Guard"
In a traditional sense, Crawford is labeled a combo guard because he can handle the point guard duties and score from all three levels as a shooting guard. But where he's shown true versatility this season is as a starter as opposed to coming off the bench, where he's put up solid numbers in terms of per-minute production.
In 23 games as a starter, he's averaged 20.3 points, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals per 36 minutes, compared to 23.6, 4.2 and 0.9 as a reserve. With extended injuries to fellow guards Chris Paul and JJ Redick, Crawford has had to fill in at both backcourt positions while doing so in different spots in the rotation. The fact that he's maintained high levels of production is a testament to his value to the team and versatility.
NBA players and professional athletes in general are creatures of habit who thrive on the comfort of a routine to generate peak performance. Crawford's been thrust in and out of the starting lineup based on circumstance, yet he's risen to the occasion by flirting with career-bests in several metrics.
Contributing to a Winning Effort
His win shares per 48 minutes, a Basketball-Reference.com statistic measuring the number of wins a player contributes to his team, is the second highest of his career at .127. The only year it was greater was in the aforementioned 2009-10 season when he posted a .143 mark.
The Clippers set a franchise record for wins last season with 56, and now the expectations are even greater. Fans in Los Angeles want more out of their squad, and Crawford has been a big reason they have a shot at eclipsing that number.
He'll never be mistaken for Paul with his ability to pass as a ball-dominant guard, but he does show some ability to feed his teammates on occasion:
He Went Toe-to-Toe with Kevin Durant
The Clippers notched arguably their most significant win of the regular season against the Oklahoma City Thunder in a hostile environment on the road. Crawford finished with a team-high 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting from the field starting in place of Redick and was 5-of-8 from the three-point line.
What was most impressive, however, is that he stood tall next to potential league MVP Kevin Durant, who finished with a game-high 42 points:
The last and most important aspect solidifying Crawford's case for Sixth Man of the Year is the fact that he passes the eye test.
He's stepped up when the stakes are high and is a go-to player in the clutch. He picks the Clippers up when they need a lift offensively, often filling the void left by leading scorers Paul and Blake Griffin.
Undertaking such a major role when games are on the line is telling of a reserve's true status. The Clippers trust Crawford for the good reason that he's the prototypical sixth man who makes a coach's job easier by being a primary scorer with the second unit. The Clippers' bench averages 30.1 points per game, and Crawford averages over half that on his own.
But it's not just scoring that sets him apart. As a veteran who's cool under pressure, he's a leader for his younger teammates who goes to work with little concern about his minutes or numbers.
It's just that those numbers are almost as good as they've ever been, and the last time they were, he received recognition for it.
Based on his body of work this season, it should be that time again.
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