Check out the list of real plus-minus leaders through the first two-plus months of the season and you’ll find the usual suspects up top. Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, and LeBron James make up the top five, surprising absolutely no one. A bit further down, you encounter Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler.
And then there, at No. 24—right ahead of Blake Griffin and Pau Gasol—sits Boston Celtics swingman Jae Crowder, who’s quickly emerging as one of the best bargains from this past free-agent class.
When Boston acquired Crowder from Dallas as part of the Rajon Rondo trade in December 2014, he appeared to be little more than a throw-in, as ESPN.com’s Chad Ford dubbed him at the time. Both ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton and CBS Sports’ Zach Harper trumpeted Brandan Wright as the headliner of the deal on the Celtics’ end, with Pelton writing, “A case could be made that actually the most valuable player in this deal.” Both Harper and Pelton praised Crowder’s defensive tenacity, but neither sang his praises as a future difference-maker for Boston.
Less than a month after the deal, Boston flipped Wright to Phoenix in exchange for a Minnesota future first-round pick (if the Wolves finish with a top-12 pick this May, they’ll instead convey their 2016 and 2017 second-rounders to Boston). The Celtics likewise turned around and sent Jameer Nelson, the final part of the Rondo trade, to Denver in exchange for Nate Robinson. Even after factoring in Rondo’s catastrophic stint with the Mavericks, Boston getting just Crowder, Robinson, and a potential first-rounder from Minnesota looked like a paltry haul for a four-time All-Star.
Though Robinson is currently out of the league and that T’Wolves first-rounder appears unlikely to convey, Boston still managed to find a diamond in the rough in the form of Crowder. After the third-year Marquette product averaged 9.5 points on 41.8 percent shooting, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.8 treys in 24.2 minutes a night during his 57-game stretch with Boston in 2014-15, the Celtics re-signed him to a five-year, $35 million deal in free agency this summer.
The signing didn’t attract much fanfare at the time—while grading the deal, Sports Illustrated‘s Rob Mahoney wrote, “There’s nothing groundbreaking about the arrangement nor transformative for the current Celtics, but on balance it makes for a fair investment.” Through the first two months of the 2015-16 campaign, however, Crowder is shattering any reasonable expectations, even those from the most optimistic of Celtics fans.
Through 36 games, Crowder ranks third on the team in points (14.0), rebounds (5.3) and three-pointers (1.7) per game while leading all Celtics in steals (1.8). He’s setting career-highs across the board, including his field-goal percentage (44.4), three-point shooting percentage (34.9) and free-throw percentage (81.9). Unsurprisingly, with that wide-ranging uptick in production, he’s also smashing his personal bests in a host of advanced metrics, from player efficiency rating (15.9) and win shares per 48 minutes (.160) to box plus/minus (3.5) and value over replacement player (1.6).
Among all regular rotation players, Crowder leads the Celtics in net rating, with the team outscoring its opposition by 5.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. When he’s on the bench, meanwhile, Boston’s opponents outscore it by 2.4 points per 100 possessions, which is by far the worst mark on the team. Based purely on net-rating splits, no player has a greater impact on the success of the 2015-16 Celtics than Crowder. It’s no coincidence that he’s been in the team’s seven most-used lineups.
Crowder’s importance to this year’s Celtics was on full display during their 103-94 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, where he finished with a team-high 25 points in 35 minutes, chipping in six rebounds, three steals, two treys, an assist and a block for good measure. Though he scored a handful of baskets on easy transition opportunities, he also showed some flashes of his rapidly improving offensive game.
In the first quarter, Crowder used a Jared Sullinger screen to shed Joe Johnson, then pulled up without hesitation from about 20 feet and drilled the shot:
He ran a similar play in the second quarter with Kelly Olynyk to get an open look from three-point range. In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, though, he proved fully capable of knocking down a catch-and-shoot three-pointer to help extend Boston’s lead back to eight:
Defensively, the Marquette product has been his typical smothering self. Opponents are shooting 2.1 percentage points worse than their season-long average when matched up against him, and he’s been particularly stifling from 15 feet or further. His foes are shooting just 33.3 percent from that range, a full 3.0 percentage points below their average. Seeing as those shots constitute 54.4 percent of the looks taken against him, his ability to stifle opponents on the perimeter is a major boon to the Celtics’ second-ranked defense.
It’s not as though Crowder is relying on a defensively stout frontcourt to cover his weaknesses, either. When matched up in isolation against him, opponents have converted just 11 of their 36 field-goal attempts (30.8 percent). He’s been even better against foes coming off screens, giving up just 10 baskets on 32 shots (31.3 percent). His points per possession mark on such plays (0.63) ranks in the 87th percentile across the league, putting him ahead of renowned defensive pests like Patrick Beverley, Victor Oladipo, and Jrue Holiday.
Against Brooklyn, Crowder played strong post defense against Johnson in the first quarter, ensuring he couldn’t get positioning down near the bucket. When the bigger-bodied Thaddeus Young switched places with Johnson, Crowder forced him into a difficult contested hook shot, which ended as you might expect:
Even when he’s not directly defending a ball-handler, he’s capable of stifling an opponent’s offensive attack. His smothering wing defense can prevent an opponent from getting in position to catch a pass, while he’s also proven willing to bang in the post against big men, forcing a foe to direct their attention elsewhere:
According to Vantage Sports, Crowder is tied for 18th across the league in TO Forced per Chance (.038), putting him ahead of Leonard (26th), George (32nd) and Butler (43rd) in that regard. He’s likewise ahead of both Leonard and Butler in Pressure Rate per 100 Chances (2.29), ranking 43rd league-wide in that metric. (George ranks 27th, with a 2.46 mark.) Crowder isn’t far behind that trio with his 1.41 Deflections per 100 Chances, as Butler (1.53), George (1.50) and Leonard (1.46) rank 23rd, 25th and 29th, respectively, compared to Crowder’s 34th.
The 25-year-old has struggled somewhat defensively against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, however, allowing opponents to convert 29 of their 66 shots (43.9 percent) against him. Limiting spot-up shooters hasn’t been a strong point for Crowder either, as they’ve knocked down 43 of their 113 looks (38.1) percent against him, placing him in the 43rd percentile league-wide on defending such shots.
That just goes to underscore that while Crowder is quickly emerging as one of the best value signings from this past free-agent period, he’s far from a finished product on either end of the court. Though it’s premature to compare him to the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler, he could feasibly follow in their career path, transforming from primarily a wing stopper to one of the league’s most promising young two-way players. (For what it’s worth, Butler shot just 30.9 percent on three-point attempts through his first three seasons; Crowder hit 31.6 percent of such looks heading into 2015-16.)
While Leonard, George and Butler are each signed to max contracts through 2018-19 (if not later), Boston has a reasonable facsimile in Crowder locked up on a $7 million annual average value through the 2019-20 campaign. So long as he continues to build upon his game, his contract will become one of the NBA’s biggest steals once the impending salary-cap explosion takes effect.