Withholding for a moment any value judgments about Allen Crabbe or the contract the Trail Blazers gave him this summer, I'll just start with this mostly neutral statement - it's pretty amazing how far Crabbe has come in such a short period of time.
A year ago, Crabbe was a 23-year-old kid with 783 career minutes of professional basketball to his name. The previous season, he had been the Blazers' 12th man. He'd played fewer minutes per game than Chris Kaman, Steve Blake or Tim Frazier. He was entering the final year of his rookie contract - only a three-year deal, since he'd been a second-round pick in the 2013 draft - and it was unclear whether he'd ever get a chance to prove himself and land another NBA deal. He was two years into the league and had scored 201 points - a good week for Stephen Curry - in his entire career. He was a year away from potentially being unemployed.
Again, no value judgments for the moment - those will come later, feel free to scroll down if you're feeling impatient - but that simple fact is pretty crazy to think about. Crabbe went from a borderline D-Leaguer to a very, very rich man in 12 months. Whether you think he deserves all that money or not, that he's now getting it is undeniably impressive. What a difference a year makes, am I right?
I think Crabbe's remarkable rise over the last year might be part of the reason for the backlash over his new four-year contract that's been bubbling over the last couple of months. To most outside observers, Crabbe is just a rotation guy - a rotation guy who's done a nice job shooting the 3 the last couple of years, and had a breakout season this past year as part of an overperforming Blazers team, but a mere rotation guy nonetheless. Most basketball fans, even fairly avid ones, have only really been aware of Crabbe for a year, if even that. It's hard to believe anyone could become a $75 million man that quickly.
Of course, here in Portland, we know a little better than that. We know that Crabbe has always had talent, but he spent most of his early years buried on the Blazers' depth chart beneath Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, CJ McCollum, Arron Afflalo and so on. It took a while for Terry Stotts to develop any level of trust in Crabbe, and even longer for him to find a defined role for the still-developing two/three tweener. Matter of fact, one could argue he still hasn't found it.
In other words, Crabbe's staggering market value didn't just come out of nowhere. We know that because we've watched him slowly develop, even when his numbers didn't. Last year wasn't actually a breakout after all, so much as a demonstration of skills that were already there.
That's not how most of the NBA world sees it, though, and as a result, there are sure to be questions about Crabbe's value dogging him as he begins next season with an $18.5 million paycheck. "Is he worth it?" will be on everyone's mind until Crabbe provides them a definitive answer. It might take a while for him to do so.
Moreover: That's not the only question surrounding Crabbe as we enter the 2016-17 NBA season. We're talking about a player who is still only 24 and has just one year of experience being an every-night guy. There's a lot about him we still don't know.
I believe these to be the five main questions we'll all be looking to answer about Allen Crabbe:
1. Is Crabbe really overpaid? And if so, how can he change that narrative?
It's hard to deny that the $18.5 million price tag on Crabbe for this upcoming season is eye-popping. That wheelbarrow of cash will make Crabbe the 31st highest paid player in the NBA this season - other guys in the 30-40 range include superstars like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler. All this for a guy with 17 career starts?
Of course, that's not really fair - you should really measure value in the NBA not in dollars, but in percentages of the salary cap. The cap for this season is right around $94 million, meaning Crabbe is making about 19.7 percent of the Blazers' allotment. Under last year's cap of $70 million, a similar-proportioned contract would have a dollar figure closer to $13.8 million - still a lot of money, but now we're talking about comps like Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay. Still biggish names, but flawed players, and you can easily forgive the Blazers for giving Crabbe "Rubio money."
Still, that's not all - we've only looked at next year's cap, and the money is expected to keep ballooning past 2017. According to USA Today, smart projections for the cap in the following three seasons after next year are around $102 million, $108 million and $109 million - meaning that while Crabbe averages $18.8 million a year, the cap averages $103.3 million, and Crabbe's an 18.2 percent guy. Now, he's getting "Brandon Knight money," and suddenly the deal doesn't sound so bad.
On top of all this, we still haven't touched upon the most important point - no one knows yet how good Crabbe can be. With so many of the free agents who commanded big money this summer, GMs were falling over themselves to pay not for future production, but for past performance. Guys like Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and the aforementioned Mr. Rondo were paid for their resumes, not their promising futures. With Crabbe, the fact that he's only scored 1,033 career NBA points is beside the point. What really matters is that he's 24 and still growing into himself. The Blazers are paying for his prime years. If he keeps developing into a star scorer, all that "overpaid" talk will sound silly within a year or two.
2. At this point in his career, what is Crabbe missing from his game?
We all know what Allen Crabbe can do. He's a good athlete who can run the floor and make plays, he's a decent defender against certain types of wing guys and of course, he shoots the 3. As a catch-and-shoot guy who feasts off of the open looks his opponents create, Crabbe is pretty stellar. His career clip of 38.5 percent from deep is nothing to sneeze at.
Having said that, there are three main flaws that Crabbe should still be looking to shore up:
- His playmaking. Crabbe has already proven his mettle as a shooter, but he'd be that much more lethal if he were a dual threat every possession to shoot or make a play via drive-and-kick. Last season, he assisted only 7.2 percent of his teammates' baskets while on the floor, an embarrassingly low figure that shows he's still got a ways to go in terms of court vision.
- His rebounding. Crabbe might be predominantly a wing player, but that's no excuse for lacking on the glass. Crabbe got only 5.6 percent of available rebounds on the floor last year; even other quasi-wing guys like Al-Farouq Aminu (11.5 percent) and Maurice Harkless (10.4) were far better. The best teams tend to be bolstered by having above-average rebounders for their position at every spot. Crabbe isn't that - at least not yet.
- His defense - in certain matchups, anyway. Crabbe is a wiry, quick wing guy who makes a living running around screens to get open. He thrives when guarding other wiry, quick wings like himself. Put him up against a stronger wing guy, though - like, say, a Kawhi type - and he's suddenly in a lot of trouble.
As for that last point, consider the following. This past season, Nylon Calculus created a way of charting a player's "3 and D" contributions by drawing a graph that shows each player's 3-point percentage on one axis and defensive box plus-minus on the other. Some players - like Leonard, Andre Iguodala and Jared Dudley - ranked really well in both categories, putting them in the top right. The Blazers were one of few teams in the league with no one positive in both categories. Crabbe was one of the closest, but the defense wasn't quite there.
This is important, in my opinion. To reach the next level, the Blazers need to have at least one "do-it-all" wing player who can help them thrive on both ends. Lacking that guy hurt them last year against the Clippers in the playoffs; they always had to sacrifice something on one end to get a little on the other. In the coming years, Crabbe might be their best opportunity to find everything in one compact package.
3. Is Crabbe really going to be a $75 million bench player? Is that even a thing?
Again, look how far we've come! A year ago, the question was whether the Blazers would find room for Crabbe in the rotation at all. Now, the problem is they're paying him just so gosh-darned much, it would be silly not to start him.
Here's the thing. I'm hopeful that in making their decisions this season about lineups and playing time, the Blazers are able to forget about the money. On one level, it would make perfect logical sense to do so. Any money you have or haven't spent on a player is a sunk cost once the season starts; it shouldn't be relevant. Then again, there's a culture in the NBA of big-contract guys getting more respect than their lower-paid counterparts. The Blazers might not be immune to that.
Terry Stotts is saying the right things. He told ESPN's Zach Lowe last month that "As a coach, you take the money out of it, we just want to grow," which I think is the right attitude to have about a team that still isn't fully formed. I think Crabbe should start for the Blazers next season if and only if his on-court performance merits it.
According to NBA.com lineup data, the Blazers last season outscored opponents by an impressive 7.5 points per 100 possessions when they trotted out a lineup of Damian Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Aminu and Mason Plumlee. That group was one of Portland's best offensively, as it benefited from the extra shooting, and the defense was solid with Aminu playing up a spot and guarding fours. I think if you're Terry Stotts, you have to strongly consider fielding a lineup like that for a lot of minutes next season. That group only played together last year for 131 minutes. Moving forward, look for more. Possibly even to start games.
This leads nicely into our next question.
4. What sorts of lineups will the Blazers run out there with Crabbe this season?
The way I see it, there are two different types of lineups with Crabbe in them - the "embarrassment of riches" type, in which the Blazers toss Crabbe out there alongside Lillard, McCollum and Meyers Leonard and just overpower teams with their shooting, and the more moderately shooting-filled lineups, where Crabbe is asked to shoulder a heavier offensive burden. Crabbe spent a lot of time last year next to Plumlee, Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson and so on, propping up their so-so offense by giving Portland an extra threat from deep.
I think as time goes on and Crabbe keeps improving, the Blazers will be able to use him with more and more so-so shooters because he'll be more and more prepared to step up and handle a heftier offensive workload. Crabbe will probably see a ton of time next season next to conventional big men like Plumlee, Davis and Festus Ezeli. He'll also probably be in wing combos with guys like Harkless and Evan Turner, where he's asked to shoot more and make up for what they lack. As dazzling as the Blazers' lineup can be with Crabbe and 3-4 other shooters around him, my hope is that Crabbe will improve so much next season that the Blazers won't even need those lineups. If Crabbe gets better at creating his own shot even when he's not wide open, it will free Stotts up to use him in other lineup combinations where he can tap into other strengths, like Ezeli's rim protection and Turner's playmaking.
In other words: If Crabbe keeps getting better offensively, the entire team will get way better as a result.
5. Ultimately, how will we look back on Crabbe's contract in four years?
This is the big question, right? Right now, there's a lot of concern about that $75 million and whether Crabbe is worth it. Between now and 2020, his job is to silence all the haters and earn that money.
It's really, really hard to sit here in September 2016 and predict whether he'll do it or not. There's just too much about the future that's uncertain. First off, there's the salary cap climate - $18 million-plus for a rotation wing guy seems like a lot now, but it's hard to project how teams' spending habits are going to change in the summers ahead, so our perspective on these types of contracts might change considerably. Beyond that, Crabbe's role is uncertain - are the Blazers paying all that money for a luxury bench guy, or a starter waiting in the wings?
The Blazers' future is also still very much up in the air, and the team's performance will absolutely paint how we view Crabbe moving forward. If Portland keeps improving and becomes a title contender, Crabbe will be seen as a crucial piece of the championship puzzle whether he starts or not - just look at how Golden State views Iguodala. If the Blazers struggle, Crabbe will be just a guy putting up numbers for a bad team on a fat contract. He's Ryan Anderson.
Finally - and this is the most important point of all - we simply don't know yet how good Allen Crabbe can be. Remember, Crabbe still hasn't played that much in the NBA. He's got 2,888 career minutes to his name; three players in the league played more than that last year alone. Crabbe is 24, three years into his time as a pro, and has only been a regular rotation player for a few months of that time. He's not a finished work; he's a near-blank canvas with a few splashes of paint on him. There's so much still left to do.
It will be a pleasure these next four years to see the Blazers do that developmental work. Is Allen Crabbe worth $75 million? I have no idea. I doubt you do, either. But I think we should all look forward to finding out.