Jae Crowder has emerged this season as a two-way force for the Boston Celtics. His great play has been noticed across most NBA circles. His energy and hustle is obvious from an eye test standpoint. He's also a darling of fancy stats, sporting a top-20 Real Plus-Minus. Crowder has been a mainstay in Boston's starting lineup this season and has been on the court for two-thirds of the Celtics' minutes. Unfortunately, he is out for an extended period of time after suffering a high ankle sprain. So how are the Celtics going to fill the massive void left by his absence?
There isn't a clear answer for who is going to take his place in the starting five. Evan Turner can slide into the starting lineup, but his versatility is probably better suited for the bench units. Smart has been capable playing forward for stretches of the game and will start for the Celtics, but the Celtics would be pretty undersized starting with him at the three. Regardless of who starts, replacing Crowder's 32 minutes per game is an issue.
However, Brad Stevens was pretty open regarding how the Cs plan to assign those minutes. Instead of overworking the current starters, Stevens will look to the young guys. The plan for now seems to be that Young, Rozier, and Hunter will alternate based on matchups and performance.
Obviously this is a huge opportunity for them to step up. James Young has "been on ice" for two years, according to Evan Turner. The sample is very small, but he's hasn't performed well in his time in the NBA. His shooting has been rough, and defense is still an issue. Young can't even legally drink yet, so he's still got the potential to break out. We've seen some flashes from him, but it would be nice to see more than that during this stretch.
R.J. Hunter has shown his ridiculous shooting range this season, but has struggled with consistency. He's played the most minutes of the young group, so he might be first up to fill Crowder's role. Hunter adds some playmaking to the mix, but he's a bit of a liability with turnovers as well.
The wild card is Terry Rozier. He can add some speed to lineups for sure. Rozier isn't much of a shooter, but he can affect the game in different ways. He pulled down 7 boards against the Rockets the other night, and he can generate turnovers with his aggressive defense. He's the shortest of the bunch, but has a crazy wingspan to make up for it.
The other issue is replacing Crowder's small-ball minutes. Enter Jonas Jerebko. Although Jerebko could in theory take some of Crowder's small forward minutes too, Stevens has a different idea, stating
"He doesn't play hardly any three for us anymore...He may end up taking a lot of Jae's minutes that he played at the four."
This is a pretty simple solution. Crowder actually hasn't played a ton of minutes at the four this season, just 12% per Basketball-Reference.com. So it shouldn't be too hard for Jerebko to pick up the extra 3-4 minutes per game there. Boston sacrifices some defense, but keeps the floor spacing intact on offense.
Can the Celtics survive without Crowder?
Boston's offensive rating takes a nasty "only the 76ers are worse" dive without Crowder on the floor, but there's a silver lining within that. Crowder shares most of his minutes with Isaiah Thomas. When you look at the Celtics with Thomas on the floor, and without Crowder, they're posting a league-average offensive rating of 106.1 over 481 minutes, per nbawowy. So the impact on offense will be felt, but the Celtics should be okay in the short term. A few weeks of hot shooting from Young or Hunter could really go a long way in helping the offense stay afloat too.
The real concern is replacing Crowder's defense. That won't come easy, especially considering the forwards the Celtics have to face over the next few weeks. Paul George, Kevin Durant, and DeMar DeRozan pose an even greater threat now. Turner is a capable if unspectacular defender, so he'll be called upon quite a bit. Marcus Smart will certainly see some time against those players as well. Smart needs to be careful with foul trouble going against those guys though. Team defense will be vital during this stretch. It's going to a tough couple of weeks, but Brad Stevens might have some tricks up his sleeve for dealing with this issue. With the No. 3 seed hanging in the balance, he'll need to do whatever he can.