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Jamal Crawford, Efficiency, and Trust

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An observer's strange relationship with Jamal Crawford's game.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Jamal Crawford is an inefficient shooter.  He is in his second consecutive season for the Clippers where he is shooting under 40% from the field and under 33% from beyond the arc--and those are low benchmarks to clear.  Jamal Crawford is also a chucker.  He takes a lot of contested, off-the-dribble mid-range shots, and he makes them at an impressively high rate, while still being inefficient.  Shooting 39% from 16-23 feet when every attempt is defended and off the bounce is far above average, but it's still only 39%, which means that regularly taking that shot early in the offense is less than ideal.

I wasn't a fan of Crawford's isolation style of play four seasons ago when the Clippers added him--even as he shot 44% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc in his opening season, I felt as though the bench unit's overall play was pulled down by the poor shot selection and lack of offensive engagement for the other players.  I also maintained the position that Crawford's overall efficiency was boosted by his minutes with the starting lineup getting good looks, and his numbers playing "Jamal-ball" with the second unit were actually much worse.  While those positions are fair, there are obvious, and valid, counter-arguments that help to paint the full picture of what he does and why he does it--for example, the Clippers have often fielded less-than-stellar lineups where a Crawford isolation wasn't really that bad of an outcome.  From another perspective, you're trading a handful of possessions to see if Jamal can get going, and when he does, he'll give you 30 points off of the bench and carry you to victory.  The consistent ability to create a semi-decent look, along with a decent chance of heating up and single-handedly taking over a game, are not attributes that are totally lost on me, but it seems to me that most of the time, most lineups should be able to work to get better shots than Crawford's mid-range pull-ups.

That said, don't we all fall into the Jamal-ball trap?  Don't you ever find yourself watching a game, thinking "we need Jamal to hit a few shots here to boost this lead while the starters rest"?  I do--and I've been a big critic of his for the last four years.  When it comes down to closing games offensively, who gets the call to play alongside the obvious core of Paul, Redick, Griffin, and Jordan?  It's often Crawford, no matter what kind of game he's had up to that point or what the defensive implications are.  Why?  Doc Rivers trusts him.  And, in an interesting twist for a player who is so statistically inefficient, so do I.

I polled the followers of @ClipsNationSBN, and the results were interesting but not all that surprising:

63% of respondents said they trusted Jamal Crawford most to take a game-deciding shot, beating out Paul Pierce at 22%, Wes Johnson at 13%, and Austin Rivers at 2%.  I opted not to include Jeff Green due to some inevitable recency bias in the poll results.  I'll put the same poll at the bottom of the article in hopes to get a larger sample here than I did on twitter.

What's interesting about these results is that Wes Johnson is statistically the most reliable three-point shooter of this bunch on the season, with Crawford and Pierce trailing him and shooting at a below-average clip.  There's been a lot of  frustration with Doc Rivers trusting the two veterans who don't contribute much defensively, and are statistically inefficient offensively, but apparently when faced with a decision like I forced people to ponder in the poll, they still chose to trust Crawford's abilities (and Pierce's "clutch" gene) over simple efficiency math.  I can't say that I'd disagree--Crawford would be my preferred option in this scenario by a mile, and I might even put Pierce ahead of Wesley Johnson too.  This is quite possibly stupid on my part--the numbers clearly indicate that Johnson is the better shooter of the three.  Perhaps Crawford can be granted an exception since he shoots more difficult shots than Johnson, but to give Pierce an edge when all he shoots are open, in-rhythm jumpers seems bizarre.

Such is the strange relationship between efficiency and trust--one seems right, and one feels right.  I'm still no fan of Crawford shooting contested pull-up jumpers on consecutive possessions without anyone else touching the ball, but it's hard for me to deny his crucial role on this team as a reliable scorer, no matter how inefficient the numbers say he is (Paul Pierce is a different story).  Jamal often says that basketball is all about rhythm, and perhaps he's on to the existence of something intangible in basketball that can't be broken down into pure numbers and analyzed objectively.  Most knowledgeable people in the modern analytics crowd offer advanced metrics as information that has value within context, and I tend to agree, but it's hard to differentiate between what areas of the game are measurable to different extents of accuracy, and it's clear that all "shooting" can't be lumped together into the same category.

Therein lies the strange relationship that Jamal Crawford has with efficiency and trust, and I would venture to say that most of Jamal's critics and advocates fall within those camps--criticizing his inefficient offensive play, and trusting his production.  I meet a lot of Clippers fans, and I've found that many people who are more casual fans (not less knowledgeable, just less obsessive) are bigger Jamal fans.  The people who don't look at efficiency numbers or even check the box score, but just watch the games--those are the people that have an immense appreciation and trust for Jamal's game.  The people who are more removed from the Clippers and only see his stats are on the other end of the spectrum, quickly casting him as a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer who shouldn't be getting the minutes and shots that he is.  Here I am: in the middle, as I consistently find myself on controversial issues, a fan of cutting down on Jamal's isolation possessions and reigning in his shot selection while appreciating how reliable his game feels.