Jae Crowder was with his mother in the hospital when Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge called to inform him he was headed to the Cleveland Cavaliers along with Isaiah Thomas, Ante Zizic and an unprotected first-round draft pick in exchange for Kyrie Irving.
“I just told her, ‘We’re going to Cleveland,'” Crowder said during a press conference on Thursday in which most questions were directed at Thomas and his hip injury. “And five minutes later she passed.”
Crowder’s mother, Helen Thompson, succumbed to cancer at the age of 51 on Aug. 22.
The trade took the NBA world by surprise, especially Thomas, who lost his sister Chyna on the eve of Boston’s playoff run this past season and who was just returning home with his wife from a one-year wedding anniversary vacation to Miami when Ainge broke him the news more than two weeks ago.
But of all the people most shocked by the trade, Crowder wasn’t one of them. That’s because, in a roundabout way, he may have been asking for it. We’ll let him explain from Thursday’s media session:
“I had a little concern because we had a lot of wing players stacked up. I was a little concerned, and I made it clear to the organization that I was concerned about it and I just wanted some more direction, you know? I think they gave it to me with the trade. They gave me what they wanted to do. They showed me what they wanted to do. I respected it.”
As difficult as that day was for Crowder — losing his mother moments before learning he’d been traded by the team that had given him the opportunity to start and earn a $35 million contract — the 6-foot-6 forward felt like, from a basketball standpoint, the move to Cleveland would be a blessing.
“That day was tough, but it was a good day for my basketball career, to move on to an organization like the Cleveland Cavaliers and to be able to put myself into position to play for it all,” he said on Thursday. “I couldn’t ask for nothing else. I was thankful to Boston for everything they’ve done for me and for trading me to a team like this. I was thankful for the opportunity. That day was pretty wild.”
Crowder’s minutes were sure to drop in Boston both in the short- and long-term. He likely lost his starting frontcourt position when the Celtics signed Hayward and traded for Marcus Morris, while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown headlined a handful of recent draft picks who were in line for minutes. Naturally, Crowder — with three years left on his deal — was concerned how he fit into Ainge’s plans.
Given those concerns, Ainge’s overwhelming trade package for Irving makes even more sense. The Celtics were unsure when Thomas could return from his hip injury, and they had less use for Crowder, who had already expressed displeasure about Boston’s interest in Hayward during the season. That’s another indication that the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick was the most vital asset Ainge dealt.
Thomas’ injury status in the final year of his deal and Crowder’s potential discontent with his role are now Cleveland’s issues. The Cavaliers offered no timetable for Thomas’ return beyond “the goal is to bring him back at some point this year,” and Crowder will likely come off the bench on a roster that starts LeBron James and Kevin Love in addition to featuring another handful of veteran swingmen.
Thomas and Crowder took pride in transforming the Celtics from a rebuilding unit to the top-seeded team in the East in their two-plus years in Boston. They even took credit for helping form the C’s new core of Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and Irving by recruiting the first two and being dealt for the third.
Regarding Horford, Hayward and Irving landing in Boston, Isaiah Thomas says, "We built that," as he nods at Jae Crowder.
— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) September 7, 2017
They insisted their underdog approach won’t change on a Cavs team that, as Crowder put it, “we marked on our calendar to beat on a nightly basis every time we were matched up against them, because we were fighting to own the East as well.” Questions remain, though, about whether what made them so valuable to Boston — willing a tanking team to the playoffs — translates to Cleveland.
Both will take a backseat to LeBron, but while the Cavaliers were mum on plans for a post-injury Thomas, the Cleveland brass insisted Crowder was a big part of their future, even calling him “an analytics marvel” who Cavs director of analytics Jon Nichols has had his eye on “for quite some time.”
“His on-court/off-court plus/minus is at a high level, and he contributes to winning at an extremely high level,” Cleveland general manager Koby Altman continued. “That’s why we value him to that extent. But he also brings a tough, gritty attitude defensively, pick up the best player. He’s going to bring that to this team, and he’s a core piece to this Cavaliers team moving forward.”
True enough, the Celtics were 8.5 points per 100 possessions better when Crowder was on the floor for them during their 53-win campaign in 2016-17. “You add a guy like Jae Crowder, who is a great defensive player,” added Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. “He can guard four positions, he’s a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and he brings a lot of toughness, an element that we need to add to this team.”
While Crowder suffered a handful of nagging injuries in Boston and his defense dipped from the level that nearly earned him an All-Defensive nod in 2015-16, all of Lue’s assertions are true. Crowder will also benefit from not having to face his toughest assignment four times a year plus the playoffs.
“What was it like trying to slow [LeBron] down? It’s very tough,” said Crowder. “Obviously, he’s the best player in the world. … It’s tough. You’ve got to do your homework, for sure, or you get embarrassed, and I learned that the hard way early in my career. From that point on, I took it very serious to match up with him, because he’s a hell of a player. He’s got my respect just by the way he approaches the game, and for me to play alongside him, it’ll be pretty scary for opponents. To play us two, with how dominant we are on the court and how forceful we play, it’ll be very exciting for us.”
In Crowder, the Cavaliers added a weapon they did not have the past few seasons — a guy who can take the frontcourt defensive load off LeBron, giving him a breather on one end. Cleveland turned its fortunes around against the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals when they inserted Richard Jefferson alongside LeBron, combatting Golden State’s athleticism and positional versatility, and Crowder is essentially a super-powered version of that 35-year-old Jefferson. That is Crowder’s ideal scenario.
The fear is that Crowder is less the 40 percent 3-point shooter he was last season and more the 32.4 percent one he was for his previous four campaigns, and his defense doesn’t return to its peak level.
One thing’s for sure: The chip that Crowder carried on his shoulder to Boston as a throw-in to the 2014 deal that sent Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks will be just as prominent on opening night, when he faces the guy who took his job on the team that traded him five minutes before his mother passed.
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