The Boston Celtics currently have two All-Stars from a year ago on their roster – Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford. Thomas is one of the best point guards in the NBA following his breakout season in 2015/16, and Horford has been as consistent of a center as anyone since being drafted third overall in 2007. While most people would agree that Thomas is the most skilled player on the Celtics, Jae Crowder is arguably the most important on the team.
After being a bench player for the first two and a half seasons of his career, Crowder shined as a starter for the Celtics a season ago. He started all 73 games he played in and contributed 14.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. Crowder led the team in steals per game, ranking 14th in the league.
Despite Avery Bradley being named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, Crowder was just as important on defense. He consistently guarded some of the best wing players in the NBA and was able to force turnovers better than anyone else on the team. Plus, Crowder knocked down many clutch threes late in games.
During the fourth quarter last season, Crowder shot 44.4 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three. It was just a smidgen higher than the 44.3 percent he shot during the regular season, however he seemed to always knock down key threes late in games when the Celtics needed him to.
Sure, Boston would have liked Crowder to attempt more than 11.1 shots per game in 31.6 minutes – 12.7 per 36 minutes, sixth on the team. But Crowder still gave the Celtics quality production every night, even if he didn’t carry the team like Isaiah Thomas did with his 22.2 points per night.
Just like many players on the Celtics, Crowder’s importance goes beyond the stat sheet. The Celtics roster isn’t going to look a ton different from last season, but they did make some major moves. Al Horford adds stability and a star to their front court, however the loss of Evan Turner puts even more pressure on Jae Crowder.
Last season Turner played the fourth most minutes per game on the team, 28.0. He was a reliable ball-handler and while he could play the shooting guard position, he was mostly used at small forward to rest Crowder or allowing Boston to play small with Crowder at power forward.
In fact, 67 percent of Turner’s minutes came at small forward last season, compared to just 30 percent at shooting guard. For Crowder, he played 77 percent of his minutes at small forward and 23 percent as a small ball power forward. While the Celtics would love to adapt to the small ball era, especially since their high tempo offense would thrive in it, it may not be as reliable of an option this season.
With Turner now in Portland, the Celtics lost their sixth man and top wing option off the bench. Turner was far from an All-Star caliber player, however he was a player who could give Crowder extended rest without Brad Stevens needing to worry. The Celtics will be relying on rookie Jaylen Brown and long-time vet Gerald Green at the start of the 2016/17 campaign.
We saw the struggles Brown could encounter as a rookie during summer league. He shot just 30.7 percent from the field and a brutal 27.2 percent from deep. Turner wasn’t a great outside shooter, however he connected on 42.7 percent of shots from 10-to-15 feet away, making him a reliable mid-range scorer along with being a solid defender and passer.
Green, while a veteran, has been very inconsistent over his career. If he’s able to provide the Celtics with three-point shooting off the bench then he could end up being a very important part to the Celtics. That’s a big if , though, as we saw him struggle with the Miami Heat last season just two years removed from shooting 40 percent from three with the Phoenix Suns.
Either way, it’s highly unlikely that Brown or Green will be able to replicate the all-around production Turner gave Boston. The Celtics don’t want either to try to become Turner because that’s not how they play, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Boston lost arguably their best all-around player from a season ago. It impacts them on the stat sheet but an overlooked aspect of Turner’s departure is how much Stevens trusted him.
As previously mentioned, Stevens will have to trust either Brown or Green right away, especially considering how often he likes to turn to his bench. Crowder can play 35-plus minutes per night, but that’s not how Stevens likes to divide minutes. He may be forced into a bigger role early on if there’s a transition period, though.
Crowder’s role is expected to increase in 2016/17 anyways. He’s expected to take the next step in his development, as well, but that means he needs to be more aggressive with the Celtics. He can’t be only a catch-and-shoot target on offense, the Celtics need him to step up and be another reliable scoring option.
Thomas will continue to score around 20 points per game and Horford is a good, but not great, scoring big. Arguably the biggest concern heading into the season is that the Celtics don’t have another reliable scoring wing. With the distribution and mid-range game that Turner owned now in Portland, Crowder has even more weight on his shoulders.
We all know he’s a really good wing defender, but that’s a commodity on the Celtics. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown are all great perimeter defenders, although none project to be the wing scorer Boston needs. Bradley did score a career-high 15.2 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting in 2015/16, but he’s not expected to add much more than that in the future.
Crowder doesn’t need to be a 20 points per night scorer, but he has the potential to be a difference maker on offense. It all starts with his aggressiveness on the offensive end. Last season, only Tyler Zeller had a higher percentage of his two-point makes assisted on and Crowder enters as the most assisted wing player on threes, as well. Crowder was assisted on an incredibly high 75.6 percent of his two-point makes and 94.3 percent of his threes.
He has shown the ability to be effective at finishing at the rim, shooting 69.7 percent at the rim, but taking his defender off the dribble is the next step. He needs to integrate that into his offensive arsenal in order to take the next step in his development. Boston has kick-out options, but creating off the dribble has been a problem for them.
Crowder took huge strides in 2015/16 and is expected to take even bigger ones this upcoming season. None of it matters if he can’t stay healthy, though. As important and impressive as his 73 games played was for the Celtics’ success, he needs to be equally or more healthy this season. It’s evident that the depth behind Crowder is thin, and the Celtics are simply a better team with Crowder on the court.
The Celtics plus/minus per 100 possessions with him on the court last season was +4.7, compared to just +3.5 when he was on the bench. Plus, the Celtics went just 5-4 during the nine games he missed and got outscored by 20 points, including three double-digit losses. The Celtics also gave up 100-plus points six times and failed to score 100 points four times.
It’s evident that the Celtics are a much better team when Jae Crowder plays, and it was even more evident in the postseason. Sure, Avery Bradley missed the rest of the series after suffering an injury in Game One and Kelly Olynyk wasn’t 100 percent, but Crowder not being 100 percent hindered the Celtics on both ends.
Boston gave up 100.5 points per game and scored a measly 93.8 points per contest. Crowder was clearly not 100 percent and became a liability at times for Boston, but he still played 32.8 minutes per game through his injury and added 9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. It was tough to watch Crowder struggle and be ineffective for most of the series, but it also proved how valuable he really is to Boston.
Having any key player staying healthy will make a team better. The addition of Al Horford has a chance to be the biggest addition in the Eastern Conference this season, but their season relies on Jae Crowder.
As impressive of a season that Thomas had, the Celtics have the depth to replace him for a stretch of time if he got hurt. Of course the Celtics wouldn’t be as effective, but Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart are a lot more reliable than Jaylen Brown and Gerald Green heading into the season.
Jae Crowder will have even more responsibility this season, and will continue the talk about stardom if he excels. The Celtics may ride Isaiah Thomas’ back on offense but Boston won’t go anywhere with Crowder on the sidelines.
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