Allen Crabbe may not be a marquee player in Portland, but he has been a fairly consistent positive throughout his quiet tenure. His growing reliability as a two-way guard will put him in the conversation for increased rotational minutes in his third NBA season; a palatable development, as Crabbe is ostensibly the Trail Blazers’ only semblance of a 3-and-D player on the roster this year, outside of rookie Pat Connaughton. In a vacuum, all signs point toward an expanded role for Crabbe in 2015-16, but will there be room for him to make an impact?
Crabbe is far from the only wing deserving of the Trail Blazers’ attention, and even though he can play both the shooting guard and small forward position, he cannot be argued up to anything past the second option, at best, for either. Gerald Henderson and CJ McCollum have him edged at shooting guard, while Al-Farouq Aminu stands in front of him at small forward, and Moe Harkless contends for equal footing as the primary backup. An empirical look at the depth chart places Crabbe’s ceiling at a second/third string tweener.
Fortunately, the Trail Blazers are structured to combat lineup rigidity in the second unit, allowing for a multitude of circumstantial solutions to this bench burial problem.
As stated, Crabbe, like many young Trail Blazers, plays multiple positions. His versatility and that of others can only help when determining how to grant proper playing time to each of them within their given niche. For instance, the aforementioned McCollum can be moved up to point guard to make room for Crabbe at shooting guard, or the aforementioned Aminu can be moved down to power forward to make room for Crabbe at small forward. Such moves would, of course, create further displacement, but will be largely circumstantial. A more straight-up rotational approach will likely be the norm.
Still, Crabbe is uniquely fitted to accrue minutes in said circumstances that demand the second unit take one of two specific approaches.
Approach No. 1: Spacing the floor
The Trail Blazers actually have a healthy amount of 3-point shooters to help space the floor, but only some are anticipated to play regular minutes with the second unit, and none of them are natural small forwards – excluding Mike Miller, who may or may not be on the roster when the season starts. The rest of the small forward options are either abysmal from beyond the arc (Aminu, Harkless) or undersized (Crabbe, Henderson, Connaughton). Of that second lot, Crabbe is the most likely to fit in nicely off the bench because of his length and comparably meaningful experience. Henderson will probably spend more time at shooting guard, possibly as a starter.
Putting a shooter at small forward will help open up the middle for big men to go to work inside. This will be important for the Trail Blazers since their frontcourt is a bit of a logjam outside of Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard, the latter of which may end up playing with the starting unit. The Trail Blazers cannot have their spacing completely muddled by substitutions and expect to experience much offensive success. Sliding Crabbe down to small forward gives them the option of playing McCollum at shooting guard, or even bumping him up to the point and bringing Connaughton in at shooting guard for more range. Heck, if they wanted, they could utilize some serious small-ball tactics and rain threes from everywhere with a McCollum, Connaughton, Crabbe, Vonleh, Leonard lineup.
That is a bit extreme, but certainly within the realm of reason. Regardless, bringing Crabbe in at small forward off the bench creates room for more 3-point accompaniment in the backcourt, while allowing the Trail Blazers to establish both second unit wings as threats from deep. This could end up as Crabbe’s primary purpose this year.
Approach No. 2: Playing suffocating defense
For defensive purposes, Crabbe would be best used as a shooting guard unless opponents go small as well. The Trail Blazers can actually stack the second unit with several strong defenders by having Crabbe join the backcourt. Playing Crabbe at shooting guard allows them to keep the defensively gifted Aminu on the floor at small forward for stretches, or give much needed playing time to Harkless, who has a reputation for successfully disrupting passing lanes. With Ed Davis presumably roaming the paint at power forward, the second unit would ideally be able to prevent opponents from running up the score while the starters rest.
It should be noted, though, that until the season begins, we do not know for sure who the starters will be. We have a pretty good idea for the most part, but there is uncertainty regarding McCollum and Henderson. If, say, Henderson falls into the sixth man role at shooting guard, the Trail Blazers could still use Crabbe for defensive purposes at small forward, despite probable size disparity between him and his mark. His textbook defense served him well when he stood in for the injured Nicolas Batum last season, so who is to say that some facet of that success could not be continued?
If Terry Stotts wants to go really wild (again, circumstantially) he has the option to put Henderson, Crabbe, Aminu, and Davis on the floor all at once—abandoning a low post anchor for sheer speed and athleticism on defense. Now we are bordering on outlandish, but it really is interesting to see just how many ways Crabbe could fit because of his two-way talent.
That is Crabbe’s reward for being somewhat of a dual specialist. He can fit into the second unit's optimal offensive and defensive framework in multiple scenarios. The Trail Blazers will always need shooting and they will always need defense. Despite the relative obscurity of Crabbe’s overall intra-team standing, he happens to be one of the few players who excels at both. Because of this, he will have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully, and with some degree of regularity, even though he does not stand out as a premier talent.