A soul-crushing , franchise-worst 17-game losing streak is enough to dim even the brightest spirits in the game. Losing 50 of the 61 games your team plays … it’s a deflating existence for any team. For the Phoenix Suns, this has summed up much of their season to date.
For a veteran like Jamal Crawford, in his 19th NBA season, he knows it could be enough to break the collective spirit of an entire group.
But Crawford also knows from experience what’s on the other side of the Suns’ current struggles. He’s been around long enough, seen tough situations evolve often enough to know that there is nothing permanent in the NBA.
There is always change coming, and you better be ready to adapt. You don’t last as long as Crawford has in the NBA without understanding the NBA ecosystem and how quickly things can change.
So, if the Suns are looking for some light at the end of this season’s tumultuous journey, they need only pull up a seat next to their veteran sharpshooter and listen.
Crawford shared some of his hard-earned wisdom with NBA.com's Sekou Smith as the Suns try to shake out of their funk tonight against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena:
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Sekou Smith: You’ve been in this league a long time, 19 years. You could be ring chasing at this stage of your career. What are you doing here with the Suns? And what keeps you focused, and your juices flowing, on a team that’s struggling the way the Suns are these days?
Jamal Crawford: Yeah, just the knowledge. Sometimes … and not just sometimes, it’s really gratifying to see something go from point A to point C, rather than just being there for the end result. Sometimes the journey is greater than the destination. And for me, obviously, on the youngest team I’ve been on in years, it’s a challenge in some regards because you want guys to get it right away. And that’s not always realistic. I know we want instant gratification in this league and in life. You see some guys get it, the light comes on, for some guys faster than others. And that’s okay, everybody develops at his own pace. So you have to be patient and just fight through the tougher times and remember that the sweat equity always pays off. It’s been a challenge, yes, but you have to make the best of every situation in this league if you are committed to being a true professional.
SS: You’ve been around this league for so long. You know how difficult it is to climb and how difficult it can be when you feel like you might be stuck in a tough situation. How does the vet keep the young guys locked in and focused without anything tangible (in terms of wins and losses) to cling to go?
JC: That’s a really good question, because as I said, we are definitely an instant-gratification society. But there are moments you have to build on. We had a streak, I think it was in December, yeah December, where we won four games in a row. And everything that we were saying, the vets at that time, was coming to fruition on the floor. So for that stretch of time it was like a lightbulb went off. ‘These guys aren’t just talking,’ was the feedback. You are preaching the right things and the wins are coming to. That’s when the magic happens. That was a big moment, but we didn’t sustain it.
SS: Exactly, it only worked for a few games,. So how do you convince them that the hard work really pays off when they haven’t really felt it?
JC: That’s the challenge. When you get the wins and all of it comes together, you’ve gotten through the hardest part. But when you get it going, the message hits home harder and that’s when you take off as a group. But it has to be rooted in something guys can really see and feel. It can’t just be words. We’ve got plenty of that stuff going on, the hype, all over the league. Make sure it’s real and then it’s something you can really believe in.
I know we want instant gratification in this league and in life. You see some guys get it, the light comes on, for some guys faster than others. And that’s okay, everybody develops at his own pace. So you have to be patient and just fight through the tougher times and remember that the sweat equity always pays off."
SS: Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton are clearly special talents. But how good can these guys be? You’ve played with and against the best the game has to offer for nearly 20 years. What’s the ceiling for these guys?
JC: Oh, these guys are stars. And they won’t get that credit until we win. That’s just the way the league is, always is and always will be. But you’re talking about a 22-(Booker) and a 20-year-old (Ayton) and Book is already averaging 25 [points] and seven [assists] and [Ayton] is a guaranteed double-double. Book is already getting traps every game, getting double-teamed. He’s already getting that kind of attention. But he’s not going to get that respect until we win. Then he’ll be an All-Star. Same with DeAndre. I’m telling you.
SS: So what’s the toughest part of the transition for those guys? You’ve been in this before, you’ve lived it, trying to climb the food chain in this league. What’s the toughest part of going from the young guy who can get numbers to a true impact player capable of changing outcomes and really leading a franchise?
JC: I think it’s how you impact others and how that translates to winning. I mean, a guy can get 20 points a game. But if you are not winning, who’s really paying attention? It’s like, ‘yeah, his game is nice. But I need to see him do it when it counts, when it really matters and something is on the line.’ That’s the flip side of when you see a guy who is just as good, but he’s averaging 16 or 17 points on a team that’s getting wins and respect. Everybody wants that, every guy who plays in this league is searching for that acknowledgement and ultimately that respect. Wining always cures all. And it’s about timing. You have to be ready for it.
SS: You speak of timing, and I think about the way you play, the way you’ve always played and cannot help but think you were a few years ahead of the time where you’d have been an even more effective player given the wide-open style of this era. You’ve played 19 years but it could have been crazy if that was 19 years in a different era, no?
JC: Oh my gosh, I’m telling you. Totally different, totally different. And I say that because when I came into the league I was a point guard, if you took six [3-pointers] in a game you were going to be sitting on the bench, I don’t care how good you were. I’m serious. Back then it was about going to your dominant scorer, Shaq or Tim Duncan, or your dominant wing scorer, a Kobe [Bryant], T-Mac [Tracy McGrady], Paul Pierce or Allen Iverson, those guys. A point guard’s job was to get them the ball. You weren’t coming down the floor and shooting 30-footers off the dribble. A coach would be on you, and you could get that shot anytime. Work it around and get the ball where it’s supposed to go. So yeah, the game has changed dramatically in my years in the league. I’m sure it’s fun for these [younger] guys, because it’s definitely fun for me now [laughing].
SS: Nineteen years, that’s crazy. You look younger now than you did as a rookie. You’ve got a full head of hair. You’re always in game shape, I’ve seen you in the middle of the summer and you look exactly the same. How many can you do? How long can you keep this up?
JC: Oh, I don’t put a limit on it. I can keep going and going. And I will, as long as someone feels like I can bring something to the table, I’ll be here. No limits.
But this particular role at this time has turned into me trying to help others grow their game, and not about my own personal whatever … and there is a beauty in that as well."
SS: So how do you keep all of these guys on this team in that right mind while they are going through these struggles? You’ve seen it, lived it, this kind of stuff can break a young team’s collective spirit before they get to where a team like the Sacramento Kings are, when things start to turn in the right direction.
JC: You remind them that they have to be mindful of the bigger picture. It’s like we’re building a house. And right now we’re on the foundation. And that’s hard work. But there is beauty in the struggles. If you are learning lessons, it’s not always just a loss you’re taking. There’s a lesson there, too. You have to be willing to accept that and not waver on your goals and your mission. I truly believe that.
SS: I feel like you are uniquely positioned to spread the message. You’ve played in so many different situations, big and small, winning and losing. There’s some wisdom in your journey -- that’s clearly not over -- that guys can learn from. You’ve stayed true to the same mission you had from the start. Why did the struggle never turn you or lead you to sour on this process?
JC: Yes, yes. It wasn’t my intention to keep my love of the game over everything. I love it so much. Basketball has given me everything. And even getting to this point. This might not be the ideal situation for anyone right now, but you know things can always get better.
SS: I should point out to you that you are playing the fewest amount of minutes [17.6 minutes per game] you’ve played since your rookie season [17.2 mpg], taking the fewest amount of shot attempts since then [6 field goal attempts per game], playing a position (point guard) you haven't really played since the early days of your career …
JC: I know where you are going with this, and listen, I’m in a great space … obviously I know I can still play at a high level, and can do much more then I am on the court. But this particular role at this time has turned into me trying to help others grow their game, and not about my own personal whatever … and there is a beauty in that as well.
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