He's the epitome of an emotional leader who doesn't hesitate to call out teammates not playing up to his standard. Crowder’s fire spilled onto social media after a 21-point performance against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night (in which he nailed a season-high five threes), when he felt disrespected by Celtics fans who cheered for Gordon Hayward during player introductions.
But the outburst doesn't change his up-and-down value to the Celtics.
First, the up: Last season, Crowder knocked down 33.6 percent of his threes, a career-high mark that hung below the league average. Opponents drifted off him and cramped Boston’s spacing, particularly at small forward in traditional lineups. This season, Crowder is up to 43.0 percent on 5.3 attempts per game, shooting splits only been met by 13 other players in NBA history.
There's more: Crowder is shooting 81 percent in the restricted area (third best among all players with at least 40 attempts). It’d appear his impact has never been more positive. Legitimate 3-and-D weapons who stand 6’6”, can shoot, finish at the basket and guard multiple positions do not grow on trees.
“He picks his spots well,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “He doesn’t force things, and he’s a really good shooter.”
Exactly half of Crowder’s shots are behind the three-point line, with a touch time of less than two seconds. That’s top-notch efficiency that would earn Crowder upwards of $100 million on the open market if he were a free agent this summer. His skills are easily transferrable and in high demand.
But outside the scintillating three-point shot, it’s hard to identify any one area of Crowder’s game that’s improved from last season.
He’s shooting a ton of outside shots, which is helpful. But there’s little off-the-bounce creativity and no growth as a playmaker. Defenses that run him off the arc know he’ll settle for a pull-up two instead of driving into the paint, forcing a help rotation and then kicking it out to the open man.
One explanation for the evolutionary hiccup is the significant change to Boston’s personnel, and how that’s affected their lineups this season. Al Horford and Jaylen Brown are in. Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger are out.
Adding a four-time All-Star to any frontcourt will have unknown ripple effects, even one as unselfish as Horford' It’s possible Crowder’s simply making the most of a slightly reduced role.
But the loss of Turner has made small lineups untenable on the defensive end. This means Crowder is playing less stretch four than expected, settling into lineups as a wing and not benefitting from the space those groups used to afford. Seven players on his own team are averaging more drives—1.0 per game, down from 2.2 last season)—but the Celtics haven’t drastically changed Crowder’s responsibilities within their attack.
“We’ve changed some things that we do for him,” Stevens said. “But for the most part a lot of the things are very similar to what we’ve done in the past.”
Another far more popular reason for Crowder’s plateau is the sprained ankle he suffered against the Chicago Bulls in early November. The Celtics went 3-5 with the NBA’s 18th-ranked net rating during the eight games he missed, a harsh stretch that included embarrassing blowout beatdowns handed out by the Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards, plus a one-point loss against the inept New Orleans Pelicans.
With his team struggling and already thin on the wing, Crowder was anxious to get back on the floor as quickly as possible, an understandable desire considering the club’s high expectations heading into the season.
The Celtics returned to form in his first three games back, and he hasn’t missed any time since, averaging 33.7 minutes in a brutal December. The 26-year-old says he watches more film this year—mostly who his primary assignment will be on any given night, and where he can expect shots to come against different defensive schemes.
But nagging health has prevented him from being as aggressive as he wants. With all the travel Boston had to endure in December, Crowder’s ankle would often blow up on team flights after games.
“Physically, I’m coming off the toughest month I’ve ever played in since I’ve been in the league, being on the road as much as we were,” Crowder told Bleacher Report. “I’m still doing my stuff to rehab [my ankle]. I’m the closest I’ll get to 100 percent; probably looking forward to the All-Star break just because of the ankle injury, need some rest.”
Only four of the Celtics’ 14 January games are on the road. That schedule will help, as will the aforementioned All-Star break, which gifts uninvited players with a full week of vacation in the middle of February. It’s necessary, because as good as Crowder’s three-point shot has been, the Celtics aren’t getting all they need from one of their most important pieces.
Crowder has one of the league's highest True Shooting percentages, but his shot distribution related to last year is a slight cause for concern. He’s trending further and further away from the paint and drawing fewer fouls, despite a similar number of touches, dribbles and seconds per touch from a year ago.
Last season, his average shot distance was 15.1 feet. Right now it’s nearly 19. His mid-range attempts are way up and his shots around the basket are way down. Furthermore, his three-point accuracy has waned at the end of games: He’s making 53.8 percent of his first-quarter threes but only 29.4 percent in the final frame.
“That’s probably due to the ankle injury. I probably came back not close to 100 percent, and that held me back a little bit. But I’m shooting the ball well, as of right now, and I just try to take it one game at a time,” Crowder told Bleacher Report.
“I have to get back to making more plays off the bounce, making the drive. I’ll get better with that as the season goes on.”
Crowder insists his health is improving, and that the ankle hasn’t impeded his lateral movement on the perimeter as much as the high ankle sprain he suffered last spring (a different, more serious injury that limited him to 27.8 percent shooting in the playoffs) did. But he’s still not at his peak—evident with a quick glance at the NBA’s tracking data.
Opponents who have no business taking him off the dribble are having a field day.
“I’ve got to pick it up a little bit,” he told Bleacher Report.
The team’s defensive issues don’t fall on Crowder’s shoulders alone, but he’s on the perimeter more and more as Boston reduces its small-ball lineups in favor of traditional, two-big units. It’s a role he can fill with ease, and there’s no reason for him not to improve as the season goes along.
On the other end, most of Crowder’s limitations are perfectly fine within Stevens’ offense. His assist rate is slightly up despite a minor dip in his usage percentage, but he’ll never handle the ball like Evan Turner did, efficiently create his own shot or make plays out of the pick-and-roll.
That’s okay, the Celtics are content with him spotting up on the perimeter or running off screens for a quality look. According to Synergy Sports, he’s one of the NBA's most efficient players in both those situations.
“Jae has been shooting the ball at an extremely high rate, and been knocking down shots for us,” Marcus Smart said. “We gotta make sure we can keep getting him shots.”
Advanced statistics (still) adore him, too. Crowder ranks ninth at his position in Real Plus-Minus (ahead of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) and 29th overall, with on/off splits that pit him as Boston’s most valuable player. The Celtics outscore opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possession when he plays and are outscored by a team-high 3.6 points per 100 possessions when he sits.
Even less than 100 percent, he really matters. Crowder’s presence—and the spacing/quick ball movement he facilitates—helps turn the Celtics into one of the more effective offenses in basketball. The all-galaxy outside shooting is a fantastic sign, but having him excel and grow in other areas will only help a team that’s struggled to find the type of consistency on either end they sorely need.
Boston Celtics Insider Notebook
Atrocious is a compliment
Before they took down the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, Stevens was asked to assess Boston's defense this season, and why it hasn't lived up to expectations.
"When we go small now, we’re really small, so we’ve had to adjust that. The first seven games of the year we were atrocious defensively—which would actually be a compliment to how we were—and then the last seven we haven’t guarded great. The middle 20 we were third in the league," he said.
"So we’ve got to be great. We’ve got to be great on that end if we want to improve. Hopefully we can be better at that as we head into this month and a half before the All-Star break, because we don’t have a chance to really compete at a high level if we don’t guard better."
Boston currently ranks 18th in defensive rating, mostly because they're one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, foul way too much and haven't been able to force turnovers as frequently as a year ago.
Some of their lineups have shown promise, but the main issue has been individual work on the perimeter. Boston is getting beat too frequently off the bounce, and, as a result, help rotations have been late. But those weaknesses are correctable, and there's good reason to be confident in guys like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart figuring things out, especially now that Stevens isn't asking them to punch up a weight class as often anymore.
Isaiah the Great
John Wall was named the NBA's Player of the Month in December, and that's okay. It shouldn't take anything away from the ridiculous hot streak Isaiah Thomas is on. The 5'9" stick of dynamite led the conference in scoring (30.3 points per game), and Boston went 9-3 during the 12 games he appeared in (the Celtics went 1-3 in four games Thomas missed with a groin injury).
A career-high 52-point effort against the Miami Heat was mesmerizing, but Thomas followed it up with a another career night when he dished out 15 assists against the Jazz. Moves like this one help illustrate just how ridiculous this man is right now.
"He’s hot right now," Jazz guard Shelvin Mack (aka the victim in the above seen play) said. "We have to do a better job of getting back and building a wall."
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are via Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise referenced, and recent as of Jan. 4.