CRAWFORD’S RUN AT A SECOND SIXTH MAN AWARD STARTED YEARS AGO
When Jamal Crawford was approached by then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson about coming off the bench, he was unsure how to react.
Crawford had started every game the past two seasons in New York and Golden State. He was 30 years old and a 20-point per game scorer. But Woodson had an idea that Crawford, known for his silky jump shot and ability to break down the world’s best defenders off the dribble, could become one of the league’s best sixth men.
“Their (Atlanta’s) starting five were intact, and they were like, ‘You’re going to come off the bench,’” Crawford said. “I was like, ‘Man, at this point, I don’t care what I have to do. I’ll bring you guys towels; like whatever.’ And that’s how the Sixth Man started. I went there, it was the first time I came off the bench.”
Every team, especially those expected to be contenders, needs sacrifice. And five years ago, in Atlanta, Crawford learned what sacrificing for his team could mean.
“I had bought into doing it,” Crawford said. “But it was just weird the first time I actually came off the bench in the game. I was like, ‘This is weird. The crowd probably thinks I’m weak. This doesn’t feel good.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m coming in late. It just didn’t feel good.’
“The first game, I took two shots; I remember we played Indiana. And then, [Woodson] and Joe Johnson pulled me aside and were like, ‘No, no, no. You’re going to be who you are. You’re just coming in later.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay’ and I got it from that point on.”
From that point on Crawford has become a sixth-man luminary. He won Sixth Man of the Year in Atlanta that first season and was the runner up in 2012-13. Perhaps the culmination of Crawford’s move to the bench, though, came Thursday afternoon when he was presented with the Sixth Man of the Year trophy for a second time in front of his teammates, friends, family and a contingent of media.
It was the first time a Clippers player has won the award. And first time a player has won it with two separate teams. Crawford, now 34, is the oldest player to win it.
“Growing up my goal wasn’t to be a sixth man,” Crawford said. “I always wanted to be a starter or one of the best players on my team. And then I went to Atlanta and realized the importance of it.”
And he’s become more important as the years have worn on. In 2013-14, Crawford, who averaged a league-high 18.6 points per game off the bench, has claimed he was in the midst of his best season. It was not as though he shot better or scored more. He’d done both before. This time, Crawford was doing things he had never been asked to do.
“He has to be a guy that can be a utility guy, too,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “And I think that’s where Jamal, in my opinion, changed for us. He did more than just come in and score. That’s important. That’s what he does. He’s a lethal scorer and we wanted him to continue to do that and he did that. But he adds more value when he does other things and I think that’s what makes him so good.”
The idea that Crawford could be more than a scorer and on-the-ball playmaker started in training camp, when he had another preseason conversation with his head coach. This time Crawford knew he would be the Clippers’ sixth man, a role he thrived in a year earlier. What he was not sure about was how his role would change with Rivers taking over for Vinny Del Negro.
In 2012-13, when Crawford finished second to J.R. Smith for Sixth Man of the Year, he was given free reign of the second unit. They were the premier bench in the league and the offense solely revolved around Crawford’s ability to put the ball in the basket.
In Rivers’ mind, Crawford should do more. He asked Crawford to compete on defense, saying he’d never be Tony Allen, but instilling confidence in him that he had the tools to be successful. He wanted Crawford spotting up more as shooter, something that Crawford worked on all summer. And he wanted Crawford to play a hybrid role of point guard and shooting guard, essentially giving teams a variation of looks alongside speedy guard Darren Collison.
It all worked. He defended. He became more of a catch-and-shoot player, setting the franchise record for 3-pointers made in a single season with 161. And when Chris Paul went down with a separated shoulder in January, Crawford became the playmaking/scoring threat that Rivers hoped.
“I don’t think he’s just a scorer anymore,” Rivers said. “I think his career has helped him be a sixth man. The fact that he started out as a point guard and now, ironically, and whatever years later we’re using him as a point and a 2 and he’s good at both. I think the early part of his career helped him with that.”
In the early part of his career, Crawford never would have imagined becoming a star off the bench. He was a high school legend at Rainier Beach in Seattle, arguably one of the greatest prep players in the state of Washington. He was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2000 Draft after what amounted to a half-a-cup of coffee at the University of Michigan.
Rivers said Crawford’s acceptance of his role is the kind of thing that makes good teams great.
“Everybody wants to be a starter,” Rivers said. “I guess they like hearing their name announced. I’ve never really gotten that whole thing, but I guess it’s really cool. You have to make choice when somebody tells you they want you to be a sixth man. Either you’re going to do it or you’re going to fight it. If you fight it, it’s not going to work.”
And it worked for Crawford, who said weeks ago that even being mentioned for an award is more of a team accomplishment than something for an individual.
“It can’t happen without winning,” Crawford said. “You have to win to talk about any postseason award. With that, it’s a team award in a way because you can’t do it by yourself. Yeah, I score points, but DeAndre [Jordan] is rolling hard, so I’m able to get open shots. Chris [Paul] is finding me in the right position. Blake [Griffin’s] demanding double-teams, kicking out so all of us are touching the ball. So, any postseason awards; Defensive Player, Coach of the Year, any of those things, you can’t have without winning.”
That resonated on Thursday when Crawford, who appeared to get choked up a couple of times, spoke about the sacrifices those around him made to help him win the award. Without the aid of notes, he thanked his teammates and coaches by name. He mentioned staff members in various departments within the organization and named how they have assisted him.
“I want to recognize everybody because they all play a part,” Crawford said in his nearly six-minute speech.
In November 2009 when he was officially a sixth man for the first time, Crawford may not have known how to react. But he’s grown into the role since and brought everyone along with him.