I am not convinced that Jae Crowder actually exists. Over the course of the season, I hear about every team's most marginal players at least once, every once in a while, from some outlet - Dorell Wright, Shelvin Mack, Chris Copeland, etc. but I don't think that I've ever, even once, seen a mention of Crowder from someone who isn't a Mavs beat writer.
I'm fairly convinced that Crowder is actually a malevolent spirit sent to haunt the Mavericks and their fan base and take up the team's cap and roster space as punishment for breaking up the championship team.
And yet, it's not particularly a surprise that no one mentions Crowder. He's a tantalizing subject for the Mavericks beat because he makes no sense, but as far as everyone else is concerned, he just doesn't do anything.
Our own Andy Tobolowsky pointed out recently that in the last four games he's played, Crowder has made a total of three shots, grabbed a total of nine rebounds, gotten one block, one steal, and two TOs. So, in that span, Crowder is averaging 2.5 points, 2.25 rebounds, .25 blocks, .25 steals, and .5 TOs. It's like he's invisible.
But, somehow, the Mavericks score at a rate of 108.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, 1.1 points better than they do on average. The Mavs defend, too, at an almost elite rate of 98.3 points allowed per 100 possessions when he's on the floor: a staggering 7.1 point improvement over the team average. He has the best net rating of any player on the team who has had a statistically significant amount of playing time (which then excludes Devin Harris from the conversation). Dallas score 9.9 points per 100 possessions more than their opponent while Jae is on the floor...and they allow 3.2 points more than they score with Jae on the bench, per NBA.com.
This begs the question that Mavs fans have been asking themselves, in some form or another, for the last two years: is Jae Crowder actually good?
It turns out that this is a hard question to answer because it's a matter of subjectivity masking itself as objectivity. More specifically, no one has actually done a particularly good job at defining what exactly makes a player "good."
In Crowder's case, if you've ever watched him play, you're probably inclined towards the negative. Watching him is one of the most incredibly frustrating things you can do in basketball. His shot selection would be perfect if he were an even a league average three point shooter, but he's not (30% since his first 6 games). Every time he shoots yet another spot-up three that he's bound to clang off the front of the rim, you want to rip your hair out; and he still refuses to be as good of a rebounder or cutter as his size should permit. For God's sake, he's shooting 17% from the right wing, and it's his favorite shot.
His defense looks absolutely elite against bench units, but when pitted against starting caliber talent, and especially elite talent, it only looks pretty good. He's probably the team's best defender not named Shawn Marion, but the margin actually isn't all that wide. He gets beat off the dribble a lot by quicker players and he's not big enough and doesn't have mature enough footwork to defend bigger players around the rim. He rotates well, and he's a good option, but he's not always capable of checking the player he rotates too. All that, and he's not much of a rebounder.
All and all, you can glean quite a few positives from his defense -- though not as many as you might want -- but otherwise, he's just an infuriating player who doesn't do much, and he doesn't do the few things that he tries to do, well.
Still, short of Dirk, no player has a more positive impact on the team statistically, per 82games.com. What gives?
There's a lot of theories about this: Crowder is usually a part of bench units that just happen to be significantly better than other team's bench units -- meaning that Crowder is riding the coattails of Devin Harris, Shane Larkin, Vince Carter, Brandan Wright, and Dirk when he plays against reserves. This seems reasonable, but other than Dirk, none of those players have such impressive on/off court splits as Crowder, so you have to question that a bit.
When asked about Crowder, Rick Carlisle has said that Crowder is just a "ball mover." This also makes some amount of sense. Units with players like Vince Carter and Brandan Wright and Dirk are, by definition, going to have more firepower than the units that Crowder is going to be used against. As long as Crowder just acts as a fulcrum for passes to go around to other players, the ball isn't sticking, and plays can go through that allows the more talented offensive players to just do their thing.
On the other hand, if Crowder is just a "ball mover," then defenses can (and do) just completely ignore Crowder and go about playing 4-on-5. As nice as it might be to have a player who keeps the ball moving well, I have to imagine that, in all practicality, it won't counter all the offensive trouble he brings up.
Finally, it's possible that Crowder is just actually that good of a defender when he's playing against reserves, and good defense creates transition offense. This is probably most realistic, but still, it's hard to believe that he's so good on defense that the team is suddenly elite on that end.
The answer to the question of "why does Crowder have such an impact" is probably a combination of the three, honestly. His defense is huge, but mostly because he's also playing along with players who are far above average on defense against bench units (Vince, Matrix, Dalembert/Wright). Moving the ball helps, but so does the fact he shoots enough threes that even if he's bad at them, not-super-smart-teams don't want to leave him.
But it's still hard to say whether or not we can consider Jae Crowder "good." I don't know how most people feel, but the thought of calling Crowder a good player actually gives me a minor heart attack. He can't do much of anything very well; he just fits the role that he needs to fill, and he's smart about it.
So, the question ends up being: is managing to successfully fit a role, even if you have no real skills, enough to be deemed "good?" At what point can't we say that filling a role well makes a player good? How many skills does a player need to have before they get that recognition?
It's not a question that I can answer, but I do at least find it interesting that Jae Crowder is Dallas' personal thought experiment on how good a bad player can be.