I'll be the first to admit that I was slow to come around on Allen Crabbe. He didn't seem to offer much value to the Trail Blazers in his first two seasons - he'd gone from being a big fish in a smallish pond during his three years at Cal to being thrust into an NBA rotation, where he wasn't quite ready to be a real all-around player. Between 2013 and '15, Crabbe's primary role in Portland was to stand in the corner and shoot open 3-pointers when called upon, which wasn't even that often. He was the poor man's version of Anthony Morrow or Steve Novak, and those guys weren't even particularly rich.
I'm now beginning to recant my testimony on Crabbe. He was 21 when he first arrived in Portland, untested in the NBA and struggling to get minutes to prove himself because there were a slew of more experienced wing players - Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Steve Blake, Arron Afflalo, even Alonzo Gee - ahead of him in the rotation. Crabbe didn't overstep his boundaries because he didn't have the authority. One false move, and he could quickly find himself relegated to the end of the bench for weeks. So he played it safe, attempting a corner 3 every now and then and not doing much else. For a second-year player in a bit part off the bench, that was fine. He carried out a role that made sense for him.
It's interesting to see now, with all five of the above wing guys out of town and a few more minutes and touches opening up in Portland, how Crabbe's game has evolved.
Crabbe is a new player now in his third season. It's hard to say whether the chicken or the egg came first, but two things have happened - Crabbe has become a more confident player, and Terry Stotts has put more trust in him to be creative and make plays. Did the improved play earn Stotts' trust, or did Stotts' trust give Crabbe the juice to be a better player? No matter. Either way, Crabbe is more than just the guy spotting up in the corner now.
The above charts, courtesy of NBA.com's stats page, show the splits in the Blazers' per-game scoring numbers between November and December. You'll notice that from month to month, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum held just about perfectly steady as the team's two leading scorers - but in the first nine games of December, a major change has taken place. Crabbe has taken over the undisputed role of the Blazers' third-best scorer.
This is interesting. I don't know about you, but I didn't exactly predict this at the start of the season - while some improvement is to be expected from a third-year player who's slowly growing into his own skin, it still looked like Crabbe was mired in a mediocre position on Stotts' depth chart going into this year. There was no hard evidence that he projected to have a better season than Gerald Henderson, Maurice Harkless or any of the other young wings on Portland's 2015-16 roster. Crabbe had potential, sure, but so did everyone else.
In the last nine games, though, it's become clear that Crabbe is a cut above the others. I think a major reason for this is that in late November, while the Blazers were without Meyers Leonard and forced to try out some creative new lineups, Crabbe shined. Stotts was put in a difficult spot without Leonard - in Leonard, he had one truly versatile big man who could guard 7-footers and space the floor with shooting, and without that guy in the mix, he had to either play much bigger or much smaller. Often, he chose the latter, and when they used small lineups to finish games, the Blazers aggressively pushed the one major advantage that a small lineup gives you - extra shooting.
This play, while it technically took place after Leonard's return from last month's shoulder injury, is still a great example of how the Blazers have found success this season using Crabbe in smaller lineups. Mason Plumlee is the lone true big man on the floor for Portland on this possession, and the Blazers attempt to initiate the offense by running a two-man game with Plumlee in the high post and Lillard.
The problem is that because Plumlee's not a threat from the outside, it's easy for New Orleans' Omer Asik and Norris Cole to guard a Plumlee/Lillard pick-and-roll simply by forcing Lillard to the baseline, where they're in a great position to drop back and defend the rim if either he or Plumlee drives. This leads to Plumlee getting trapped in the paint - but luckily, he's got an escape valve. Because he's got Crabbe lurking out on the perimeter, he's just one quick pass away from an easy three points.
This play never could have happened with a bigger Portland lineup out there. Replace the extra wing, Crabbe, with an extra big like Ed Davis or Noah Vonleh, and there's no chance that Portland gets an open 3 here. More likely, the paint would just be even more clogged. Fortunately, the Blazers now have Crabbe to spot up for shots like this when necessary.
Adding Crabbe into the Blazers' offensive mix gives them one more shooter for opposing defenses to contain, and that can make all the difference. The presence of an extra weapon gives the Blazers an extra element of unpredictability they never had previously. Here's another example:
The play above shows Crabbe bailing a teammate out after a dumb mistake. Leonard creates an opportunity for the Blazers here by setting a beautiful pin-down screen on Cleveland's Matthew Dellavedova, which forces Richard Jefferson to switch onto Damian Lillard and Dellavedova to pick up Leonard. Leonard is 7-foot-1, with a wingspan that's closer to 7-foot-3; he's all alone in the post against a puny guard. He is supposed to put this ball up instantly. But instead he hesitates, squandering the scoring chance he'd worked so hard to create in the first place. When Jefferson comes with the double, he's forced to kick it out, and J.R. Smith has to rotate and cover Lillard.
Again, it's Crabbe to the rescue, as the Blazers make - ping ping! - two quick passes around the perimeter to find the open man that Smith abandoned. The Cavs' defense comes up one rotation short of getting a stop here.
And again: Replace Crabbe with Vonleh or Davis, and this play never happens. Time and time again, having an extra perimeter shooting threat has proven vital to the Blazers' offense.
But enough about the 3-point shooting already. Crabbe has been firing from long distance his whole career - that's nothing new. What is new, and really interesting, is the fact that he's shown an increasing willingness to create shots from other spots on the floor.
The mid-range jumper has been an interesting addition to Crabbe's game this season. While the above clip from last week's Knicks game might not look terribly innovative, as it results in a Crabbe shot from just a step or two inside the arc, I'd argue that it's actually a pretty big breakthrough.
Here's why: The Knicks try to take away Crabbe's offense on this possession by guarding the 3-point line, and it doesn't work. When Harkless inbounds the ball and pins Langston Galloway down in the corner, Galloway has two options if he wants to chase Crabbe around the screen - he can either go under the screen, thus staying in front of Crabbe and keeping him from driving, or he can go over, chasing Crabbe around the perimeter. Galloway chooses to go over. This means he's sticking to the 3-point line perfectly, like a train on a train track, not giving Crabbe an inch of open space. It's a smart move on Galloway's part, since the arc is Crabbe's sweet spot. Galloway is taking away his best game.
Last year in this situation, Crabbe probably would have just broken the play, pulled the ball out and rebooted the offense. This year, he aggressively steps into a contested mid-range shot - and manages to make it, too, even as a careening Galloway rams into his midsection and pummels him as he's putting the ball up. The Blazers end up with a nice three-point play, all because Crabbe had the confidence to pursue his own shot.
Crabbe's attempts from inside the arc aren't all just pull-up jumpers from 21 feet, either. He's also shown a willingness to go all the way to the rim when the opportunity presents itself:
This play starts out similarly to the last one, as Crabbe comes curling around a screen and his defender - in this case Phoenix's Devin Booker - loops over the screen near the 3-point arc. Again, Crabbe gets the ball and starts probing his way inside the arc - only this time, he's got open space! The Suns' Cory Jefferson has dropped way back in the paint, sagging off of the screening Ed Davis, and that leaves about an acre of room between Booker on the perimeter and Jefferson under the hoop. Crabbe comes into the lane and lofts a smooth, effortless floater up and in. Easy two points.
The numbers prove that Crabbe has benefited from mixing up his offensive diet this season. Last year, Crabbe took 55.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, according to basketball-reference shooting data - a pretty staggering number considering that the league average was less than half that, 26.8 percent. This year, Crabbe is down to 39 percent, and he's replaced those treys with mid-range jumpers (31.5 percent of his shots are now between 16 feet and the arc) and paint points (7.5 percent are between 3 and 10 feet). The result is a more unpredictable game that's a lot tougher for opposing teams to defend. It's more efficient, too - Crabbe's effective field goal percentage is up almost 5 points this year, to 55.9 percent. He's second on the Blazers in eFG%.
All of that said, there are still weaknesses in Crabbe's game. His court vision hasn't really improved, and he only assists 7.4 percent of his teammates' baskets while on the floor, 10th on the team. He snags only 5.0 percent of available rebounds, which ranks dead last among the 15 Blazers who have played this season. Defensively, he's doing OK in some matchups, as he's got the quickness to stick with other wing guys who play a style similar to his, but he struggles against wings who are bigger and more muscular. ESPN's real-plus minus statistic ranks him as the 78th best small forward in the NBA defensively (embarrassingly right behind No. 77 Kobe Bryant), and the Blazers this season are 3.8 points per 100 possessions better on D when he's off the floor.
But in the grand scheme of things, none of that matters as much as you think. It's Crabbe's ability as a scorer that will determine his fit with these Trail Blazers going forward. They already have Al-Farouq Aminu for his wing defense, and they're a more than competent rebounding team as long as they have Davis and Plumlee eating glass. The offense is where Crabbe has a real role to fill.
The Blazers have struggled late in games this season because when it's winning time, opposing defenses have been able to clamp down and take away the threats of Lillard and McCollum. In clutch situations, they've often had to settle for either a bad contested shot from Lillard or an attempt from a less skilled offensive player. Neither option has worked well for them. Throughout the last seven weeks, Stotts and the Blazers have been on a quest to find a third guy who can pose a serious threat offensively, because Lillard and McCollum alone haven't gotten it done.
Early in the season, there was hope that Aminu might be that guy, but his shooting has has cooled off a little bit in recent weeks, to the point where teams have begun having success by simply sagging off and daring him to shoot. Now? I'm wondering if it might be Crabbe. It makes sense, doesn't it? He came into this season as a young player with real upside. With only 1,400ish career minutes under his belt before this year, there was plenty of breakout potential still left with Crabbe. And so far this season, he's followed through on that - "breakout" might be a bit too strong a word, but he's made legitimate improvements early in his third NBA season, and he's still getting better week by week.
We knew coming into this season that nurturing young talent would be the name of the game. So far, it looks like Stotts and the Blazers have done an excellent job of that with Allen Crabbe, who's emerging as an impact player this winter. Now, if they could just do something about that ridiculous haircut of his, the Blazers might really be onto something here.
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