You can cite the obvious numbers.
12.2—Points per game, his lowest average since his third year in the league.
32—Percent from three, his lowest percentage since that weirdly awful year in Portland, when they chased him out of his beloved Northwest and changed the name of the Rose Garden so he couldn’t find his way back.
36—The age at which he logs more than 26 minutes a game, in a league where most players of that age have slightly less taxing responsibilities.
0—The number of Clipper fans who were surprised when this happened last night. A night in which he went 1 for 12 from the field.
It is especially painful for me to write about the deterioration of the once magnificent Aaron Jamal Crawford. Even before he came to the Clippers, I was in love. For a certain generation of NBA fans (and apparently for Kevin Harlan’s libido), Jamal remains a throwback to a time when, yes, iso ball meant less passing and less efficiency and less generally rational basketball—but it also meant sick shit like this happened.
I’ve enjoyed a beachfront timeshare on Jamal island for years, because even as his play has slipped each of the past three seasons, I kept watching and patiently waited for those moments of vintage Jamal. The four point play off a rainbow three that defies both gravity and any sense of good shot selection. The double crossover on the rookie big who made the mistake of switching onto him and not giving Jamal his appropriate space. The running teardrop in the lane that emerges suddenly from his hip and deflates like a balloon over the rim and whatever frustrated center failed to swat it.
But this season, those moments are so few and far between, even I join in Staples’ collective groan as he grinds a possession to a halt way too early in the shot clock to overdribble and hoist a contested jumper. It’s not just that his game appears to be even more of an anachronism in a league so predicated on ball movement and long-range shooting. It’s that you used to think, “man, if Jamal could be Jamal again, we’d be REALLY good.” Now, you think, “man, if Jamal could just stop being Jamal, we’d be REALLY good.”
But the “obvious” numbers only tell so much. Let’s dig deeper and see just what’s happening with Mr. Crawford, how it’s affecting the team, whether it’s really Jamal’s fault, and what Doc can do about it.
(You should also listen to Lucas Hann break it down here]
To the analytics!
So just how bad is he? And how quickly has he slipped?
Pretty bad, and pretty quickly—at least by some metrics. Here’s Jamal’s Player Efficiency Rating since joining the Clippers. This season is a career low since his rookie year.
While it’s in some corners treated as weirdly sacrosanct, like any other contrived statistic that attempts to encapsulate player value, PER has its flaws. For Jamal specifically, it may not be the most appropriate metric because it incorporates some top-line defensive statistics (blocks, steals and rebounds). This is somewhat ironic because the general criticism of PER is that it underweights defensive performance. But in fairness to Jamal, he’s never been paid to play defense.
So does a purely offensive advanced metric show a similar trend? Unfortunately, yes.
Jamal’s awful year from three has a lot to do with his lowest true shooting percentage since his early years as a Baby Bull (his free throw attempts are also significantly down). One of the most frustrating parts of watching a Clipper game on League Pass is when you have the visiting’s team feed, it’s inevitable you’ll hear this.
Opposing Announcer X: “And Mbah a Moute rises for the corner three.”
Opposing Color Man Y: “We’ll live with that. Much rather him shooting than Redick or Crawford.”
Well, JJ I’ll agree with. But Luc is shooting 40 percent from three, and they’re pretty much all corner threes. Jamal is shooting less than 20 percent from the corner, which is astoundingly low.
Here’s what’s most worrying for the Clippers. You can explain part of Jamal’s poor shooting simply because he’s likely getting less open looks from deep than he has in the past. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both losing significant time to injuries, it would seem logical that Jamal is simply not getting as many uncontested shots. He’s never been a catch and shoot guy, and has never shied away from drilling jumpers in a defender’s eye. But surely an open look is better than a defended one.
The problem is that Jamal is shooting just 31% from deep on UNDEFENDED three’s this season, according to NBA.com’s stats page. That’s miserable. The likes of Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, and Tyler Johnson actually shoot it better when unguarded.
Weirdly, Jamal is actually shooting better when someone is closing out on him within 2-4 feet—37%. That’s an improvement, but it’s not Eric Gordon (41%).
It’s not even worth touching the defensive metrics. Jamal has always been unabashedly one-dimensional—I don’t know how you can slide from really bad at defense to really really bad at defense (maybe ask James Harden last year?).
It is worth noting that some of the advanced defensive stats don’t have Jamal far behind Austin, and Jamal at least has been with the team long enough to avoid screwing up a defensive scheme. But anyone who watches the games will tell you Austin is a far more talented individual and team defender.
In Jamal’s Defense
Jamal has not been the same since he fell awkwardly and banged his right knee in a game against the Pelicans on Dec 28. Like many injured Clipper players over the Doc era, we don’t really know how badly he’s hurt. In December, he shot 43% from the field and 33% from deep. After the injury in January, he’s down to 33% and 25%, respectively. And there’s no doubt Doc was taking a “all hands on deck” approach while Blake and Chris were out. So the truth may be that Jamal is not what he used to be, but not as terrible as he currently looks.
Jamal seems to be vaguely aware that he’s not the player he used to be. Despite playing without Chris or Blake for sustained periods, his usage rate is down slightly, and his assist numbers are up.
Jamal’s reputation as a fantastic teammate also shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. He has managed a bizarre combination of incredibly selfish gunner on the court and incredibly selfless teammate off of it. Literally every Clipper says Jamal is their favorite teammate. He is beloved around the league. I still don’t really get it.
A positive clubhouse vibe may be tough to quantify, but it’s nevertheless valuable for a team that has been the subject of “bad chemistry” speculation for years (even if that speculation has often been off-base). But how long can your teammates love you when you monopolize possessions and shoot 32% from deep?
So what should Doc do?
Doc’s options were relatively limited while both Blake and Chris were out. It really was all hands on deck, and Jamal was one of the few shot-creators he had available, even if Jamal wasn’t likely to make his shots.
But now that Chris is at least mostly healthy, Doc again has options. Here’s a three step plan he may want to consider.
- Cut His Minutes to 20 MPG or Less—And Let Ray-Ray and Austin Pick Up The Remainder: Among NBA players 36 years or older, only Pau Gasol plays as much as Jamal—26 minutes per game. Meanwhile Ray Felton, who has been very good for the Clippers and is four years younger than Crawford, is averaging a career-low 21 minutes per game (excluding an injury-riddled season in Dallas two seasons ago). It seems common sense to let Felton play more, especially as Crawford recovers from the bad knee. Felton can play an effective pick and roll with Mo Speights in the second unit, and is less turnover-prone than Crawford anyway. Cutting Crawford’s minutes could help him regain some of his older form. And if not, he’s not on the floor mucking the offense up in the meantime.
- In Crunch Time, Play Austin—Starting Now: He shoots the three better, he plays better defense, he’s more likely to grab a loose ball or a rebound, and it’s important to give him as much crunch time experience as possible heading into the postseason (although he’s performed well in the playoffs before). The one downside of not having Crawford out there in crunch time is free-throws—he’s a much better free throw shooter than Rivers (88% vs. 72%). But you can still likely sub in Crawford when needed for that purposes.
The interesting part of Austin supplanting Crawford is how defenses will respond. In terms of spacing, your analytics people will tell you to help off Crawford, and stay with Austin when possible. But NBA players may still perceive Jamal Crawford as an outside threat, and Austin Rivers as a bad shooter. This could work to the Clippers advantage if Rivers continue to shoot three’s at a good clip. But it could also complicate their spacing if he doesn’t.
3. Showcase Jamal near the deadline: How move-able is Jamal? At first blush, not very. He’s 36, and has two more years at $14 million on the deal he signed last summer.
But the last year of the deal is only $3 million guaranteed. And $14 million now in terms of cap space is not what $14 million was just two years ago. If his knee heals and he starts playing decently, Crawford could attract some suitors, especially among teams eager to pair a mature veteran like Crawford with perhaps a younger nucleus in need of veteran leadership. I have no idea what assets you could fetch for Crawford. But at this point, most assets would do.
As always, shout-out to Clipper Nation’s artist-in-residence Connor Carroll for the beautiful ‘shops. Connor, you are the J-Will elbow pass to my Raef Lafrentz.