It’s a professional courtesy: Always compliment opposing players. So when the Dallas Mavericks traveled to Boston to face the Celtics, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle heaped praise upon the three players Dallas traded for point guard Rajon Rondo: Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson and Jae Crowder.
“They’re all winners,” Carlisle said to The Boston Globe. “They’ve all been a part of winning, both in college and in the NBA. From a character standpoint and a skill and ability standpoint, they’re guys that any NBA team would want on their rosters. They’re all potential starters.”
Lofty praise for replaced point guard Nelson (7.3 points, .374 shooting percentage, 4.1 assists with Dallas), reserve center Wright (18.7 minutes, 1.6 blocks with Dallas) and lightly used forward Crowder (10.6 minutes, 3.6 points with Dallas).
Winners? They were 3-7 together as Celtics. Potential starters? Wright didn’t start a single game with Boston. Nelson started one before and eventually was inactive for his final five games as a Celtic. Crowder began starting only after Jeff Green’s eventual departure became just a matter of time.
Whether teams are interested in Crowder remains to be seen. Crowder probably isn’t home shopping after witnessing the traffic between the Celtics’ locker room and Boston’s Logan Airport. But he’s certainly making a case to stick around for the rest of the season, and maybe beyond.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge shouldn’t mind Crowder. Crowder is in the final year of a rookie contract that pays him $915,243, according to Basketball-Reference.com. That’s pennies in the NBA economy, but add it up with the other expiring deals and the Celtics could be around $30 million under the cap by the start of the 2015 off-season.
It’s possible some of that change could be spent to keep Crowder in green. Far from the superstar the Celtics is in search of, Crowder seems capable of filling critical voids a young team is desperately missing.
Statistically there isn’t a strength to Crowder’s game. He’s not a high-volume scorer, a three-point specialist, a great rebounder or a lockdown defender. What stands out is Crowder’s intangibles.
Crowder admits he’s not very talented by NBA standards, but his effort is through the roof. He plays with complete disregard for his body: He dives for loose balls, draws charges and battles bigger opponents on the glass. There isn’t a single thing that Crowder is great at, but goes all out all the time.
By giving maximum effort, Crowder is establishing himself as a leader by example on the team. Crowder can be a positive example for this young Celtics team that was let down by Rondo’s lack of effort defensively and Green, who seemingly checked out on the team once Rondo was traded (13 points per game after the Rondo trade, 19.6 before).
Not that Crowder won’t speak up when needed. Following a loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Crowder didn’t mince words as he called out his teammates.
“We can give more fight to that,” Crowder said. “We’ve fought each other in practice harder than what we did in the first half. So we were aware of it and we just tried to come out and give a better effort in the second half.”
The next game Crowder showed the team the effort he was talking about in a win over the Brooklyn Nets. Crowder scored just six points, but he grabbed five rebounds and had two steals in 15 minutes. Boston was a plus-10 with Crowder on the floor, tied with Kelly Olynyk for second on the team.
Boston has a veteran with the clout to call the team out in Gerald Wallace. His experience and style of play allowed Wallace speak his mind and for those words to carry weight. But with sparse minutes, Wallace rarely gets the chance to back his words up with action.
Crowder is Wallace reincarnated on the court, a thicker, eight years younger version of the 13-year vet. With equal willingness to earn battle scars, Crowder can assume the leadership role held by Wallace.
Authority is earned. Not many players can follow in “Crash” Wallace’s wake, but Crowder, a.k.a. “the Beast” already looks like Wallace’s heir, even just in his third year.
Crowder only has five months to establish himself. Boston can easily say, “thank you for your services,” after the season and move on. The Celtics need star players. That’s not Crowder. But a player with Crowder’s toughness and grit is always valuable to a team.
Boston hasn’t had a James Posey-like player since James Posey. His ability to defend, willingness to do the dirty work and chip in with scoring off the bench was a factor in the Celtics’ 2007-08 championship season. Without Posey the Celtics lost some of their edge.
Boston wants that chippiness back. Drafting point guard Marcus Smart was the first step to getting back to relentless Celtics basketball. If Smart lives up to his potential, the Celtics will have their first star.
Smart can’t be alone in establishing the new Celtics culture though. As Ainge continues to rebuild the team, he shouldn’t forget foundations for championship teams are built with reserves like Crowder.
Since his career-high 22-point performance against the New Orleans Pelicans, Crowder has averaged 2.8 points. He still starts, but Crowder is losing minutes to forward Tayshaun Prince, who came to Boston in the Green trade.
Based on the fates of Wright, Nelson and Austin Rivers, Prince might have a one-way trip to Logan Airport in his future. The hope is Crowder won’t make that trip at least through this season.
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