Jamal Crawford’s NBA Legacy Stifled in Sixth Man Role


Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers have compiled a 48-and-20 record, good enough to currently sit third overall in the Western Conference. They’ve thrived despite numerous injuries and an assortment of starting lineups with guard Jamal Crawford consistently serving as a saving grace for the Pacific Division defending champions.

It’s been part of his character from day one, and although he might not be praised as “the guy” who carries a team on his back, Crawford is very familiar with the responsibility. Since the birth of his basketball career, from hooping for Rainer Beach High School in Seattle, to crossing over ankles for Michigan State and finally posting big numbers in the NBA he’s continuously hit big shots under bright lights. His professional journey from bench to starter and back again to the second unit has always been a seamless transition for Crawford, and out of 949 career games played he’s started 422 with superior ball handling skills and an immense scoring ability that calls for a second look at increased minutes for the veteran swingman.

Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers and traded on draft night to the Chicago Bulls, Jamal Crawford is on his sixth squad in 13 seasons with the Clippers, and although he’s more well-known as an annual sixth-man of the year candidate after winning the award in 2010, he owns more accolades which place him in elite company such as being 17th all-time in career three-pointers, one of three active NBA players with at least three games of 50-plus points (Kobe Bryant and LeBron James), third in fourth quarter scoring (behind Bryant and Kevin Durant), and the league leader in four-point plays (37). Such accomplishments argue that he should be moved back into a starting role permanently, and although it’s not feasible for the Clippers, his legacy deserves the opportunity down the line.

Currently averaging 19 points, two rebounds and three assists on the season, since Crawford’s minutes increased from 27 to 33 in December, his boost in scoring every month has been impressive. He averaged 17 points in December, 20 in January, 23 in February and has only played one game in March against the Houston Rockets, leaving early with three-points due to injury.  Jamal Crawford is most valuable to this Clippers team in his traditional sixth man role, providing a scoring punch from the bench that most NBA teams can’t replicate in their starting lineups. Once injured guard J.J. Redick makes his way back into the rotation, Crawford will relinquish the starting small-guard duties and rightfully so. As more of an isolation player, Crawford’s ability to beat any defender off the dribble allows defenses to take a break, as isolation plays tend to reduce offensive movement. For an offense thriving from Blake Griffin’s emergence as a dominant power forward, allowing the defense opportunities to take possessions off isn’t ideal. Similar to some of the more popular small guards, Crawford has posted a PIE (player impact estimate) of 11.2 percent, while averaging 30 minutes this season, compared to James Harden’s 15 percent in 38.4 minutes and Dwyane Wade’s 14.7 percent in 33.6 minutes. One could argue that with consistent starters minutes, his numbers could be good enough to be an all-star.

Another criticism of Crawford that’s keeping him out of the starting lineup is on the defensive end of the floor, most-notably his inability to be a competent weak side defender, in addition to at times lacking the effort to fight through screens. In all walks of life – experience brings advantage, and a 13-year NBA career also brings greater defensive awareness. In fact, there are very few “lock-down” defenders, but the main ingredient of any great defender in the NBA is the ability to play within a team concept. Rivers has praised Crawford and his 6’10 wingspan for the effort made on the defensive end, helping the Clippers defend the three-point line, one of their biggest weaknesses of the 2012-13 season.

As the player with the largest target on his back in a second-unit where he’s often given a green light to score and make plays; it would be interesting to see what Crawford can do at this stage of his career with starter minutes. He won’t likely be the primary offensive piece on any team contending for an NBA title as he lacks the size and physicality required to endure an 82 game stretch of double-teams, hard fouls and other methods used by the opposition to slow the league’s best wing men. Serving as a sixth man for the duration of his career, we may never know if Jamal’s capable of winning a scoring title or breaking more NBA records. There’s another level of greatness for Jamal Crawford that’s yet to be reached, and it’s within his grasp as a direct result of experience and talent. Perhaps that combination deserves to meet opportunity, as it would be a dishonor for one of the league’s most naturally gifted players to be forever known as one of the best “back ups”.