Jamal Crawford is back in town, which got me to thinking about the clip above. That was my very first game covering the Hawks as the AJC beat writer. It turned out it was a proper introduction to Crawford, who loved those big moments and wanted to deliver with crowd-pleasing flair. He always joked he had “street cred” among Hawks fans, and it was true.
In a way, Crawford might have been the best example of that what bugs stats folks about the Hawks: He could do things that confound the formulas. Viewed in the aggregate over the long term, Crawford’s numbers seem pedestrian. But if you spent too much time picking at his weaknesses, you could miss that he often delivered in big games and important moments like the one above.
Think back to Atlanta’s playoffs series victory against Orlando last season. The No. 1 story, as it should have been, was Larry Drew’s successful Twin Defense against Dwight Howard. Crawford’s performance during that series should have been a close second. The Hawks probably don’t win without Crawford delivering all those daggers.
This befuddled Stan Van Gundy, a noted early adopter of advanced stats. I kept asking him if Atlanta’s ability to make long 2s, the most inefficient shot in basketball, threw a wrench into his defensive philosophy. Van Gundy kept interrupting: “But it is an efficient shot for them.” He marveled at Crawfor’d ability to make contested J after contested J. Van Gundy never did figure out how to stop Atlanta’s perimeter-oriented attack, and Crawford was a key part of that. Didn’t the book on the Hawks say they wilted when things got tough? Crawford didn’t.
Crawford did it again during Atlanta’s memorable Game 1 victory at Chicago. Alas, he couldn’t keep it up once the Bulls started sending multiple defenders to crowd him. He did pretty much all he could do, which was to make quick decisions and keep the ball moving and hope others would to the same until Atlanta could get good shots. Joe Johnson didn’t do the same, and Atlanta’s offense bogged down in the face of Chicago’s withering waves of defenders.
You can talk about Crawford’s inefficient scoring but he was more efficient than Johnson last season. The same thing was true in 2009-10, when Crawford also produced points at a higher rate than Johnson. The dude put up numbers.
Of course, Crawford isn’t Johnson’s equal as a player, but he was effective (and fun) when Woody unleashed him as a designated scorer off the bench. Remember that Crawford’’s rep before he arrived in Atlanta was that of a scorer on bad teams who played no defense. With the Hawks Crawford proved that, when properly deployed, he could be a key piece on a good team.
Obviously Crawford’s defense has been subpar over his career. But I watched nearly every one of Atlanta’s defensive possessions during the Orlando series on Synergy and, I swear to you, the Hawks’ funky pick-and-roll defense would not have worked without Crawford doing his part. As the on-the-ball defender Crawford had to make up a lot of ground to get to Orlando’s shooters, and he did it with an engaged and focused effort. It was Crawford on the big stage doing more than his history suggested he could do.
No doubt Crawford soured on his experience with the Hawks last season. Management told him he was part of team’s “core” but then he was the only member of that group without a contract beyond last year. And then the Hawks basically told him they couldn’t afford him last summer. You can agree with Atlanta’s reasoning for not giving him a big contract (but also acknowledge how the team’s earlier cap mismanagement led to that situation) while also understanding why Crawford didn’t like it.
Eventually Crawford got with the program last season. That was true even after L.D. put Crawford in a play-making role that Crawford clearly wasn’t comfortable with–he went on to post his best assist rate since 2003-04 while keeping his turnover rate low. Crawford’s drop-off in production last season and the guards who flooded the free-agent market probably cost him a lot of money.
Now Crawford is off to a slow start with Portland but is there any doubt he’s going to try to put on a show tonight like old times?
“I am sure Jamal is going to want to come in here and light us up,” Drew said. “I do know that.”
There was a mixed reaction among fans when the team made no real effort to re-sign him before he bolted for Portland. It probably fell along that efficiency/electricity divide. But there is little doubt Crawford will receive a warm welcome tonight from Hawks fans. He won them over with his big shots, flashy style and engaging personality. You can still see the love Hawks fans have for Crawford on his Twitter account.
And the preseason lobbying of management to re-sign Crawford by Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford illustrated how his old teammates feel about Crawford.
“I wish him nothing but the best but at the same time I want to win [tonight],” Smith said. “It will be good to see him and interact with him but when it’s time to jump the ball he’s just another opponent.”
Look deeply into the stats and you can convince yourself that, over the long term, Crawford is just another shooting guard. But then you remember moments like my first game on the Hawks beat, and that Orlando series last season, and you realize that Crawford can confound the numbers and be much more than that.
(Leaving the previous blog open for voting through tomorrow.)
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat