During the offseason leading up to the 2017-18 NBA season, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau knew the team needed a boost to their second unit. After trading away less-than-impressive rookie point guard Kris Dunn and high-flying, promising guard Zach LaVine, who played a lot with the bench even though he was a starter, Thibodeau was right.
That led him to go out and add to the bench by signing guard Jamal Crawford — someone Thibodeau has had his eye on for the bulk of the 18-year veteran’s career.
Along with the additions of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, the Crawford signing was an important one. Maybe not of equal importance, but still important. Adding someone like Crawford to the bench was and is a big step in improving a second unit that has ranked near the bottom of the league for the last few years.
Through 18 games thus far, Crawford is averaging 9.4 points, 2.1 assists, 1.1 rebounds and 0.8 steals in 17.2 minutes per game. Although his numbers may appear down compared to last season, that’s not necessarily the case. The Seattle native is shooting 41.5 percent from the field, 37.3 percent from 3 and 97.3 percent from the free throw line. Those are his highest percentages since the 2013-14 season, a year he won Sixth Man of the Year.
Looking at his numbers per 36 minutes, he’s tallying 19.7 points (most since 2014-15), 4.3 assists (most since 2011-12), 2.3 rebounds (most since 2015-16) and 1.6 steals (best of his career).
While inching closer to the quarter mark in the NBA season, the Crawford addition has been a valuable one for Minnesota. And, much like the entire bench up to this point, we’ve seen both good and not-so-good things from Crawford specifically. He has been one of the focal points among the Wolves bench so far, and the second unit has really gone how Crawford goes this season.
In seven losses this year, Crawford and the bench statistically haven’t been very good — the bulk of the issues have been shooting and defense. Generally, if you’re bad in those areas, you’re not going to hold onto too many leads, regardless of who’s on the floor.
Here’s a look at some stats from the entire second unit between wins and losses this season:
Stats courtesy of NBA.com
As you can see, shooting and defense are two huge factors in wins compared to losses this season for the bench (as is the case for the entire team).
How Crawford is performing in wins and losses this season is very similar to the table above:
|PPG||RPG||APG||FG%||3P%||TS%||Defensive rating||Net Rating|
Stats courtesy of NBA.com
There are many, many reasons why Minnesota has fallen in seven games thus far and will do so again in the future, starting with the often-discussed issue of defense.
What these stats try to show, even beyond the general eye test, is that Crawford is an important factor to this Wolves second unit. That has been the case so far this season and will continue to be if this team reaches the postseason.
The first thing that Crawford brings to the Wolves bench is a primary offensive threat that can do a little bit of everything. Outside of Nemanja Bjelica and (occasionally) Shabazz Muhammad last season, Minnesota didn’t have that constant threat.
Another nice thing about Crawford is his ability to dish the ball to the open man while leading the pick-and-roll, as well as his capability to turn it on offensively with his shot and take a game over. Of course, if he and the rest of his teammates aren’t seeing their shots fall, like we’ve seen more and more in losses this year, both of those aspects can be thrown out the window.
In the first example below, Crawford displays his ability to take over initiating the offense, running the pick-and-roll with Gorgui Dieng, breezing past Charlotte’s Jeremy Lamb and finding Dieng for an easy two.
The second video below is an example of Crawford’s ability to create his own shot and take over a game, something he’s done many times since entering the league in 2000.
The dual threat of his unselfishness, mixed with an awareness of how to take over a game makes him a tough player to defend.
What makes him different than what Minnesota had last season is his ability to take over as the primary ball handler if needed. Actually, compared to Tyus Jones, the Wolves’ current backup point guard, Crawford has had more success than Jones in initiating the offense.
Take a look:
|P&R frequency||P&R possessions||P&R PPG||Iso. frequency||Iso. possessions||Iso. PPG|
Stats courtesy of NBA.com
Although the two have the same pick-and-roll frequency in the time that they have the ball, Crawford has so far run more overall pick-and-roll sets per game and seems to be having even more success. As far as isolation plays, Jones and the rest of the bench are not going to catch up to Crawford in that category.
When Thibodeau and the Wolves looked for additions to the team this offseason, mainly the second unit, Crawford was deemed to be a nice fit. Early on in the season, that appears to be true.
And regardless if we see the good or the bad with the veteran guard, he has been and will be an important factor in how the second unit – and team – performs.