In the final game of last season, he scored 51 points -- a rather remarkable distinction just by itself. Today, it carries a degree of historical significance that is rather uncomfortable and maybe unfair for Jamal Crawford.
Only one player in NBA history scored more points in Game No. 82 and did not play the following season. In that instance, Kobe Bryant was OK with that as he retired after dropping 60 on the Utah Jazz to close out the 2015-16 season.
Meanwhile, Crawford is most definitely not retired, at least not willingly, as he waits to see if that last ballistic game was in fact the last he’ll ever play in the NBA.
Officially, he’s currently living in Seattle, where he was raised and always maintained a home throughout his career. But metaphorically he’s residing in a basketball Twilight Zone that annually collects veterans in their, well, twilight.
They’re not done playing -- at least in their minds -- and feel fresh enough to extend their careers by another year or two. Yet their fate is being controlled by a season that already began and 30 teams who don’t have an opening for a proven veteran. Unless, of course, there’s an injury or a sudden change in philosophy or, in the case of the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, a twinge of desperation.
A 4-8 start prompted the Blazers to reach a deal with one of Crawford’s fellow residents, Carmelo Anthony. He spent the summer and most of the fall waiting by the phone and wondering if his time had passed.
Crawford tweeted out support for ‘Melo and for Iman Shumpert (who signed with the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday). In a sense for these veterans, this is like the NBA Draft green room all over again -- you’re happy the room is emptying … but you don’t want to be the last one sitting at the table.
“I know I can play,” Crawford told NBA.com, “and I would think my reputation is still solid. It’s baffling to me.”
If you go strictly on how he finished with the Phoenix Suns last season, it’s bizarre that not only is Crawford not in the league, but that he’s not prominently in some team’s rotation.
Crawford played (as a reserve) in four of the Suns’ five April games last season, scoring 19, 28, 27 and 51 points while shooting at an extremely healthy clip. If this was a showcase for 2019-20, albeit at a small sample size, Crawford proved he had something left even after 19 seasons.
I know I can play, and I would think my reputation is still solid. It’s baffling to me.
But the July free agency period came and went without a text message. The season tipped off in October without Crawford on a roster for the first time since the 2000-01 season. Almost a full month later, the three-time Kia Sixth Man Award winner is still watching from home. It’s the first time since he began playing organized basketball as a kid that he isn’t wearing a uniform in November.
This isn’t restricted to Crawford as every year players with NBA experience must watch the basketball world spin without them. Anthony and Shumpert were just lifted off the pile and yet the list of players waiting by the phone, once again, is lengthy enough.
“A lot of teams take a wait and see approach, not only for me, but vets in general,” Crawford said.
The group includes, among others: Kenneth Faried, Devin Harris, J.R. Smith, Corey Brewer, Jodie Meeks, Joakim Noah, Jonathon Simmons and Dante Cunningham. Most already had their big contracts, so making money is no issue for them. That’s a good thing, too, because team salary-cap space is, for the most part, swallowed up at this point.
Of course, the obvious concerns held by teams with most of these players are age and declining skills. The NBA is an unforgiving league that doesn’t give tenure. If the decision to keep a young player or a veteran is a toss-up, some teams -- especially those needing bodies in their player development program -- will lean toward the young.
Crawford was caught in between last season as the Suns were yet again rebuilding while also needing solid-character veterans in the locker room. Tyson Chandler, Trevor Ariza and Crawford served those mentor roles until a sudden philosophical shift hit barely a month into the season. Ariza was traded to Washington, Chandler was bought out and the Suns went full-blast young with Crawford averaging 18.9 mpg (his lowest since 17.2 mpg in 2000-01).
“I guess everything changed,” he said.
The Suns used Crawford at point guard, not his natural two-guard position. As a result, he didn’t average double-digit scoring for the first time since his sophomore season. The silver lining is that he remained fresh and preserved his body for a possible 20th season.
And of course, he had the energy for that 51-point game.
In that April 9 game against Dallas, he shot 18-for-31 and 7-for-13 on 3-pointers in a 120-109 loss. The game carried no other significance except for it being the last one played by the great Dirk Nowitzki. Crawford’s output was almost forgotten in that sense. But because he’s not on an NBA roster right now, that 51-point performance could become the ultimate trivia answer.
It’s weird watching games and being apart from it but seeing teams that could use you in certain situations.
“I’m kind of an outlier because you don’t see anyone my age having games like that,” Crawford said. “And I did it off the bench. A year earlier, in my 18th year, I was still averaging double figures. I can bring a multitude of things. I’ll be ready for whatever team decides how I can fit into what they’re trying to do.”
At 39, NBA teams will express concerns about his defense, which is usually the first area that suffers when players age. But players at this stage are used in spot situations anyway, and mainly by contending teams looking for depth and experience. The problem for Crawford and others like him is the numbers game; only a few of these spots open every season.
“Physically, I feel better than I did last season,” he said. “I’m able to get my body together. My skill set is sharp. I feel that I’m good. My mindset is be patient and hopefully something good comes about it. I’ll be ready for the opportunity.”
Until then, Crawford and others must live a surreal experience for them, though not all of it is bad or uncomfortable. There are kids to take to school; Crawford has three and is also afforded the rare chance to watch their youth games, too.
“I’ve missed a lot of that,” he said. “And it’s cool because they enjoy that, too. I’m making up for that this time. I’m the Uber driver.”
Beyond that, he stays connected to the NBA but only from a distance.
“It’s weird watching games and being apart from it but seeing teams that could use you in certain situations,” he said. “You see where you could help different clubs in different ways.”
For Crawford, it’s the love of the game, not a need for anything beyond that, which drives him. He’s the ultimate gym rat who not only hosts a pro-am league in Seattle every summer, but he plays in it, too. There are also legendary stories of Crawford randomly showing up at local parks and gyms for pickup games, something you don’t normally see from players, especially those with nearly two decades of NBA tread.
The most famous Crawford cameo: Years ago, then with the Bulls and fresh off the team bus, he appeared at his favorite Seattle park and played pickup ball for three hours the day before a game with the Sonics. The next night, he scored 31 points.
“I love the game and stay in the gym anyway,” he said. “Whenever I retire, I’ll still be playing the game, whether that’s at an LA Fitness or somewhere else. At this point, the regular players around here are kind of used to seeing me, although sometimes I’ll go to a different gym and people are surprised,” he said. “Like, the other night, I went to new one and played from 10 o’clock to midnight. They did double takes.”
Were they surprised Crawford was actually at their gym, or that he’s not somewhere in the NBA instead? The man who scored 51 in his last NBA game laughed at that.
“Probably a little of both,” he said.
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