When the 2016-17 NBA season begins this fall, Allen Crabbe's salary will be more than those of Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, and Paul George. Granted, there are some differences because of the shifting landscape of the new salary cap, so it's not a pure apples-to-apples comparison - but it helps frame how the fourth-year Blazers guard could be viewed from the outside.
How does Allen Crabbe live up to that kind of comparison, and live up to the commitment the Portland Trail Blazers just made to him?
At $18.5 million this season, Crabbe will command nearly 20 percent of the Blazers' salary cap. Even if you were looking at his deal under the old structure, Crabbe would be bringing in over $12 million per season. That's the same kind of money that Nikola Vucevic, Kyle Lowry, Marcin Gortat, Eric Gordon, Serge Ibaka, and Kemba Walker are bringing in.
One thing those players all have in common? They're starters, some All-Stars, or near-miss All-Stars, but all are players who have a defined and developed skill set that's counted on for 28+ minutes per night. That's who Crabbe, fair or not, will be compared to going forward. So let's take a look at where he is now, and attempt to project where he should or could be to live up to his deal.
Improving on Defense
It's not a state secret that the Trail Blazers were, um, shall we say, "shaky" in pick-and-roll defense. As a team only the Brooklyn Nets were worse on a points per possession basis. While Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were the main culprits for such an elevated level of points given up, Allen Crabbe wasn't too far behind in that aspect.
Along that same line Portland struggled on the handoff play mightily. Giving up an NBA-worst 1.02 PPP, they were far and away the worst in the league at covering this play. The next closest team, the Phoenix Suns, checked in at 0.94 PPP. As such, Trail Blazer opponents searched out this weakness and put the Blazers in this play more than any other team.
The biggest issues facing the Blazers all involve one singular element - screens. The pick-and-roll game, the handoff play, and off-ball screens have been arguably the largest defensive bugaboos facing the Portland Trail Blazers up to this point.
Here are just a few examples of Crabbe trailing and chasing, getting caught, or not fighting through the screen. These types of issues plagued Crabbe all season long. It appears opposing teams' scouting reports and gameplans revolved around putting the Blazers backcourt in countless on-ball and off-ball screens simply because Crabbe and company were unable to work around, through, over, and under them to a level that caused the opponent to change course.
The good news here is that this kind of thing can be fixed. Very few players come into the NBA with the ability to navigate through and play effective and efficient defense out of the gate, Kawhi Leonard notwithstanding.
Learning how to position yourself, understanding what teams are trying to do and how they're going to attack you and your team takes time. Ridiculously large amounts of time.
In talking to an NBA coach at Summer League this past month he described a situation where a recent first-round draft pick who was expected to contribute immediately on the defensive end struggled mightily out of the gate. It wasn't a lack of athleticism or skill that hindered him, it was understanding NBA offenses and game plans. In college teams have a number of days, maybe even a week at times, to prepare for how a team is going to play them. In the NBA you have a matter of hours.
Given time, experience, and proper coaching there's certainly reason to hope that Crabbe and his backcourt mates will grow and improve enough to at least serve as a passable defense in this area.
The shining light at the end of the tunnel is that Crabbe has already shown that he can be a better-than-average player defensively in a couple of ways. In the spot-up game you can find Crabbe sandwiched between Paul George and Luol Deng based on PPP. Crabbe's staggering, nearly 7-foot wingspan allows him to close out and affect opponents' shots unlike nearly anyone else at the shooting guard position.
Crabbe's length and wingspan have popped up from time to time in a way more familiar to NBA fans than the analytically charted stats that are so common in the league now, and that's steals. While Crabbe wasn't on the Chris Paul level of thievery, he did show he had the capacity and propensity to poke the ball free both in individual defense and jumping the passing lanes. Crabbe also displayed the ability to get out into transition and finish the play off.
For Crabbe to live up to his deal, the biggest and most glaring area for improvement is on the defensive end. Crabbe has shown flashes of being the guy who can legitimately fill the modern NBA role for a 3-and-D player.
While defense in the NBA is truly a team enterprise, having an individual who rises above the fold makes the team game that much easier to execute. As of now, Crabbe finds himself in the same regions of the defensive stats as luminaries like Nik Stauskas and James Harden. On the flip side he's also up there with some of the best in the league in other areas.
The big takeaway here is that Crabbe's defensive deficiencies all appear to be things that can be rectified with time. He has a penchant to switch off and lose his man, he gets swallowed up by screens, and at times he can get pushed around by bigger players. When those are your biggest worries defensively, it's a problem but one that is definitely solvable.
Adding to his Offensive Game
If Portland fans want to look to the gold standard of "role player adding to his game" you needn't look further than former Trail Blazers guard Wes Matthews. Year after year Matthews added to his game a new skill that made it harder and harder for defenses to peg him down.
Entering the league Matthews couldn't hit the 3-point shot with any consistency. Through hard work and time in the gym, Matthews became one of the most prolific distance shooters in team history. Teams then began to stay tight to him, knowing he couldn't create space off the dribble. Matthews responded in kind, developing an incredibly effective stepback jumper out of nowhere. Then came the post game. Next a hesitation dribble, and dribble drive. Finally, he improved his finishing ability driving to the rim. Most NBA players don't develop like this. However, it appears Crabbe is following in Matthews' footsteps.
Crabbe has spent the offseason working with his former high school teammate and friend Casey Trujeque, CEO of AON Athletics. While workout videos typically serve as glorified highlight reels (see Joel Embiid's post moves against a 6-foot defender last week on Youtube), it appears Crabbe is working on his ability to generate space and shots off the dribble. This follows the same kind of progression that fans saw from Matthews.
This makes sense because Crabbe has already shown that he can knock down the three from anywhere. He's also developed a bit of a reputation for being a marksman from midrange. Last year between 10 feet and the 3-point line Crabbe knocked down 47.5 percent of his shots. Adding the ability to pump, drive, and pull up from in between could be a boon for his offensive game and development.
If Crabbe is able to comfortably create off the bounce and/or create space to keep defenders off balance he'll easily be the third-most dynamic offensive player on the Blazers' roster while giving opposing teams fits.
While Crabbe may have a way to go on the defensive end, he really only needs to add a couple things to his game offensively to be a multidimensional threat. Coming off screens, Crabbe and McCollum's numbers are nearly identical, both posting a very positive 0.93 PPP. While Crabbe may struggle a bit defending off of screens, he's shown he's more than adept at coming off them himself.
If you take a look at the shot chart below, you can see that while Crabbe lights it up inside and all around the 3-point line, there are also areas just above and outside the elbows. That's typically Crabbe curling off a pin down, turning and shooting. This is nothing new. If you go back and watch his game tape at Cal, or just read his scouting report on DraftExpress.com, Crabbe's ability to knock down shots off screens and pull-up jumpers are basically in his DNA.
In that same breath, if Crabbe can improve upon his pre-draft scouting report, particularly "his lack of perimeter ball handling ability (which) limits him greatly," he could start to make a case for being paid so handsomely.
While Crabbe certainly excels on the move coming off screens, he's also deadly when he's standing still. Posting a ridiculous 1.19 PPP in the spot-up game Crabbe is truly elite. Only Kawhi Leonard and Chandler Parsons were more effective there.
Seriously, if you're picking this guy as the one you're going to leave open you may want to rework your scheme just a little bit.
Crabbe doesn't need to develop a pick and-roll-game that rivals those of McCollum and Lillard. Being able to run it as an option, to keep a defense honest is a plus - not a necessity. However, having a dribble move, counter, and the ability to create space is huge. If we're grading on the 3-and-D scale, Crabbe is well above most of his contemporaries on the offensive side of the floor.
He also excels at creating points off turnovers. Among bench players, Crabbe was No. 9 in the NBA in points generated off turnovers last year. Portland isn't a team that forces many miscues - they generated 6.9 steals per game last season, good enough for No. 24 in the league - so if Crabbe has shown he can take those turnovers and convert them into points efficiently, then they may be on to something.
When you look at the whole package, you can see the areas of most concern - but also the places for the most possible growth - are on the defensive end. Portland is already quite potent offensively. That allows Crabbe to continue developing his game defensively.
He doesn't have to worry about dropping 18 points a night. Should fans expect an uptick in offensive production? Probably, but nothing incredibly drastic. Where fans will probably hope for increased production and value is on the less glamourous defensive end of the floor. Crabbe has the makeup to be a plus defender.
Now, on his first real contract - remember he was a second-round pick who made good- it's time for Crabbe to really produce. The time is now for him to showcase his value and show that he's worth every penny the Blazers have invested in him. While it's a tough task to live up to such a number, it's certainly not impossible.