I was talking with a buddy the other night about potential moves the Celtics could make to improve the roster. We were talking about which guys should comprise the core of the team moving forward, and who is expendable. I could make a case for trading just about anyone on the Celtics roster in the right move, except for two guys. One is Marcus Smart - and the other is Jae Crowder.
It seems incredible to talk about a throw-in in a deal as one of the core members of your team - but that's what has happened for Jae Crowder and the Celtics. Not only has Crowder done more on the floor than anyone could have expected, but he has also become the leader of this team. Isaiah Thomas is the star and the go-to scorer, but Crowder has made himself the heart and soul.
Crowder certainly isn't the most offensively talented Celtic, he's not the most athletic, and he doesn't have the prettiest jumper. But what Crowder does have is toughness. He is as physically strong as anyone in the league. His work ethic is infectious. He has incredibly quick hands and has every intangible you could think of. And he is a winner.
Just ask him. When Crowder was acquired last December from Dallas, he wanted to let everyone know he wasn't into the tanking narrative that surrounded the team. As transcribed by Masslive's Jay King: "I'm sorry. I apologize to Danny (Ainge) right now if that's what they're trying to do. But I'm a winner. He brought me here. I like to win games. I'm a basketball player. I don't know how to just lay down and lose."
Crowder brought an intensity and toughness to the Celtics that they didn't have before his arrival. He leads by example just by the sheer effort he expends every night on the floor, always leaving everything on the court. He never backs down from anyone and has given the Celtics a confidence and an identity - that this isn't a team opponents would look forward to seeing on the schedule. Last season, the Celtics built on that identity to go from a team that many thought would be crossing their fingers for ping pong balls to a team that earned the seventh seed in the playoffs, something which seemed inconceivable earlier in the year.
Now in his second year, Crowder has taken another step forward in terms of his leadership of the Celtics. He still leads by example through his style of play, but he has become more of a vocal leader this year as well. Crowder's new leadership qualities were never more evident than after Friday night's disappointing loss to Atlanta. From ESPNBoston's Chris Forsberg: "I don't think we're playing with the same type of swagger. [The Hawks] started building that swagger within themselves; you started hearing them yell and talk and be excited. We don't show any passion, any excitement any more. We have to get back to that."
When asked why that swagger is gone, he went on to say, "I don't know. We've got to figure that out. We don't know. Playing for one another is a big part of it. We've got to learn how to do that and get off all of ourselves, get our swagger back, get our excitement."
Now one clear reason why that swagger might be gone is the absence of Smart, someone who possesses many of the same intangibles Crowder does. Still, on many occasions the Celtics have played great basketball over the course of the past month, which makes it that much more frustrating when they have games like Friday night where they don't bring it for 48 minutes. This Celtics team is the epitome of the sum is greater than the parts, so they need to bring that passion and swagger every night.
Crowder realizes that, and is not afraid to challenge his teammates to bring it on a more consistent basis. A great sign of leadership is being comfortable to speak up in the media to hold teammates accountable. Crowder has earned the complete respect of everyone in that locker room - when he talks, his teammates respond. Crowder spoke out after a bad loss in Orlando on November 29th of this year as well, saying the Celtics lacked an identity as a unit, and he even called on coaches to give the players more defined rotations. The Celtics responded to Crowder by winning a big game in Miami the next night and rolling off a streak of five wins in seven games, with the two losses coming in close defeats to the Warriors and Spurs. When Crowder speaks, his teammates - and even coaches - listen.
Of course, talk only goes so far. But Crowder is certainly walking the walk as well, having a career year in the first year of a five-year deal that will only pay him $7 million per. Some "experts" were down on the deal when the Celtics signed him, but that deal already looks like a huge bargain. Crowder has taken another step offensively this year, shooting a career high 36.8% from three and almost 50% from the field, scoring almost 13 points a game. All of this to go along with playing terrific defense, spearheading one of the best defensive units in the league.
Jae Crowder went from a trade throw-in to the leader of the team in under a year. He has all the intangibles you could want in a team leader. He demands respect and accountability just from the hard-nosed and all-out manner in which he plays the game. He is brash in talking with the media and backs it up by playing harder than anyone else. And on top of all that, he is having a career year offensively .
With Crowder calling out his teammates for a lack of passion on Friday, there's no question the Celtics will respond. Based on how they answered Crowder's last challenge through the media, it wouldn't be a surprise at all if they give old friend Kevin Garnett a chance to see Gino dancing on the Jumbotron once more Monday night in the Garden.