The Clippers are on fire lately. They’ve won 14 games in a row, and they currently possess the best record in the NBA. After being regarded as a fringe contender at the beginning of the season, they’ve made it clear that they can hang with the likes of the Spurs and the Thunder, and should be taken very seriously in the postseason.
They were a pretty good team last year, but this season, they’ve shot into the stratosphere. So, what’s the reason for the sudden improvement? It lies almost entirely with their biggest free agent acquisition, veteran guard Jamal Crawford.
When the Clippers inked Crawford to a three year, $18 million dollar deal, many experts were stunned at the decision. Crawford was coming off a horrible year with the Blazers, and he wasn’t getting any younger. Surely the Clippers were simply throwing away $6 million a year on an inefficient ballhog who was only going to get worse with each passing season.
Instead, the exact opposite was true. Crawford regained his top form, and became one of the deadliest bench players in the league. Last season, the team struggled with depth. Sure, they had a great leader in Chris Paul, and an explosive big man in Blake Griffin, but beyond that, there were no truly scary players on the roster. Sure, DeAndre Jordan‘s athleticism is a big help, and Caron Butler is a very capable small forward, but neither of those players really incite too much fear in the eyes of opponents, and neither is much of a threat to take over a game.
As for the bench, the Clippers spent a lot of time last year trying to find that one explosive, instant-offense bench player. Mo Williams and Nick Young both did their best, but they couldn’t provide that service on a regular basis. Williams could put up 25 one night, and look like a 6th man of the year candidate, then brick every shot the next night. As for Young, he memorably got hot during the Clippers’ comeback win over the Grizzlies in Game 1 of their first round series, but other than that, he wasn’t too different from the guy he was in Washington; a woefully inefficient chucker whose occasional hot streaks aren’t worth his many crippling cold streaks.
Williams and Young both skipped town, for Utah and Philadelphia respectively, meaning the Clippers needed somebody to score off the bench. Crawford was hardly the most enticing prospect for that role. In his lone year with the Blazers, he had one of the worst seasons of his career, and along with Raymond Felton, was a big part of why the team fell from its previous playoff form. Still, it was only one year, and in the past Crawford had been one of the best 6th men of the game, being a key component of the 09-10, and 10-11 Hawks. In spite of his previous woes, there was reason to believe he could still be a very useful player.
He came through in a big way, and the Clippers investment became the best free agent signing of the offseason. Crawford brings a new dimension to what the Clippers are able to do. Last season, CP3 and Blake were depended on for too much. Sure, they could put up quick points and give fans a few alley-oops to drool at, but once they were off the court, there was no one the Clippers could really trust to produce points. Bringing Crawford into the fray has fixed that.
Many people chastise Crawford for how often he shoots, accusing him of playing too much “hero ball” when he doesn’t have the skill to back it up, but the fact is, Crawford’s relentless shooting is what makes him such a great player. He’s absolutely fearless; there’s no shot he doesn’t think he can make. Not only is he unafraid to take the last shot, he wants to take it every time. Now, maybe on a team like this, he’d be wise to defer to CP3 in that situation, but his lack of fear is essential. In the playoffs, you need guys who can make shots when it really matters. Crawford can definitely be one of those guys.
This is the best team Crawford has ever been on by far, and he’s likely reveling in the opportunity it presents him. When playoff time comes around, Crawford could become one of Bill Simmons’ “irrational confidence guys,” players whose belief in their abilities fuels them to succeed when their raw talent might not be enough. During his days on lowly Bulls and Knicks teams, Crawford never had a chance to come through on the big stage. Even those Hawks teams were never serious title contenders. This is Crawford’s opportunity to prove his worth to the NBA; to take a team to the next level, and then give them the strength and confidence they need to survive once they get there. I’m sure he’s more than happy to finally have the chance.
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