Posted Apr 12 2010 12:40PM
In his first game in his new role, the NBA's best sixth man felt like a 10th man. Jamal Crawford spent his 14 minutes on the floor running away from the ball. When he had it, he passed off. When the Hawks looked for him, he looked away. He took three shots, none particularly memorable.
And if you thought he was confused, the Hawks were completely baffled. Their new teammate, they later discovered, was afraid of ruining the chemistry of a team that had grown up together without him. Plus, it wasn't in his personality to be demanding. He wanted to fit in, and tried to do that by not standing out.
Joe Johnson wasn't having any of it.
"I told him we needed him to shoot," said Johnson. "That's why we got him. He was holding back. Jamal's a good guy and he didn't want to upset anyone."
That's all Crawford needed to hear. He adapted to the role and surroundings much easier after that game and quickly became among the most efficient in the league off the bench. It has been a good fit, for the Hawks, and for Crawford, who discovered how badly they needed each other.
"When we got him," said Rick Sund, the Hawks' general manager, "I went to his home in Seattle and really talked to him, explaining not only the benefits for the Hawks, but for him as well for being a sixth man. Sometimes, you don't know how a player will react in that situation. Not everyone has the ability to accept this role. That's what I wanted to find out about Jamal."
What Sund discovered that day was how badly Crawford wanted to be with a winning team. After all, he hadn't sniffed the playoffs in his nine-year career, which was spent with teams in transition. Crawford was willing to try anything, in exchange for a chance to play in late spring.
"We did as much homework with his personality and who he is as a player and person," said Sund. "Everyone I talked to gave me positive feedback. Isiah Thomas, who had him in New York, told me Jamal would be a pleasure to have around. He's just a real positive guy. When he doesn't play well, he's accountable. There was no downside with his personality. I knew it would work."
Sund did have a reason to worry. The nucleus of the Hawks had been a work in progress for the last three years, and suddenly, the Hawks were adding another scorer. How would Johnson, the first option, deal with that, especially in a contract year? What about Josh Smith, the most mercurial of Hawks? And Marvin Williams, the sensitive and underachieving forward whose minutes would be most affected by Crawford?
It was easy for all to accept because of Crawford's gracious personality, which was perfect for the locker room, and because Crawford delivered. His ball-handling and shooting (18 points a game, tops among sixth men) gave the Hawks another weapon, and he also brought the willingness to take the big shot, something the Hawks lacked in abundance last season.
"When people ask about Jamal," Sund said, "I always go back to the talk I had with him, how he said, `If that's what will help the Hawks, I'm all for it.' He has given us a boost, and there's also a tremendous confidence level he has, the coach has with him, and his teammates have with him. Everybody's comfortable."
Crawford isn't the runaway choice for best sixth man; several others carried weight with their teams and produced when called off the bench:
Jason Terry, Mavericks: Along with Manu Ginobili, he defined the sixth man role over the last half-decade. Terry 's numbers are down slightly from last year, when he won the award, but his value to the Mavericks remains unchanged. Terry brings better ballhandling and passing than Crawford but less scoring.
Manu Ginobili, Spurs: He was pressed into starter's duty this season but that shouldn't diminish the impact he had. The task for Ginobili was to stay healthy and play at a high level here at middle age. Mission accomplished. After the All-Star break, Ginobili had a string of big performances and elevated the Spurs in the wake of Tony Parker's injury. For his effort, he earned a 3-year contract extension.
Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers: Lots of energy, hustle and defense coming off the bench for the Cavs, who benefited from their frisky big man while Shaquille O'Neal missed time with injury and Zydrunas Ilgauskas was lost for a month during the post-trading deadline.
Lamar Odom, Lakers: After Kobe Bryant, no one has more responsibility than Odom. He gets 10 rebounds a night, creates mismatch headaches for other teams, handles the ball, shoots the occasional 3-pointer and provides defense. And he has the perfect ego/temperament for the role.
J.R. Smith, Nuggets: He averages 15 points in 27 minutes, among the highest ratios in the league. His shooting is streaky (41 percent) but doesn't turn shy after a handful of misses. Dogged by maturity issues in the past, Smith helped the Nuggets emerge as a tough team to defend and a nice compliment for Carmelo Anthony.
Carl Landry, Kings: One of the season's revelations, Landry became a threat on the glass and around the basket for both the Rockets and Kings and was the key to a big mid-season trade that sent Kevin Martin to Houston. The Kings probably gained some in the process, adding a younger player with tremendous upside. Landry averaged 17 points and 6 rebounds and is the right piece for a rebuilding franchise.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves: Like Ginobili, he started more games than most genuine sixth-men but, in a perfect world, that's his role for Minnesota. He's the Wolves' top rebounder and second-leading scorer, and if they ever get good, K-Love's value to the team will only increase. Very clever around the court, which offsets his lack of athleticism and strength.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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