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Bucks Get Their Guy, Reinforce At The Wing

Jae Crowder is in, bench players and picks are out. What now?

NBA: Finals-Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In case you hadn’t heard by now, the Milwaukee Bucks have done it. In exchange for sending out Jordan Nwora, Serge Ibaka, and George Hill, along with a total of five(!) second round picks, general manager Jon Horst has landed the player that the front office has been eyeing for quite some time now: Jae Crowder.

Crowder, 32, is a 6’6” combo wing who played college ball at Marquette University, and has 10 seasons of NBA experience. Most recently, Crowder was a key cog on the Phoenix Suns team that Milwaukee bested in the 2021 NBA Finals, followed by a disappointing finish last season after Phoenix won 64 games but lost to Dallas in the Conference Semifinals. Crowder is a willing shooter (11.3 FGA per 36 minutes, career 3PAr of 0.570) though not a terribly consistent one; he’s had seasons where his three-point percentage was as low as 29.3% and as high as 39.8%, and others that are anywhere in between.

Moreover, Crowder has no results from this season to speak of because he hasn’t played. During the offseason, Crowder was reportedly moved to the bench in favor of Cam Johnson at starting power forward, and Jae didn’t like that. In all likelihood, there was more happening beneath the surface on that particular iceberg, but in terms of public knowledge all we have to go off of is that Crowder and the Suns “mutually agreed” to his absence from training camp onward, and that arrangement was maintained until the Suns moved Crowder to Brooklyn, who quickly flipped him to the Bucks in a separate deal before Thursday’s deadline. Crowder is owed $10.2M for this season, and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Bucks, having acquired him in a trade, will maintain his Bird rights, which will help them either in an effort to re-sign him in free agency or agree to an extension beforehand, either of which seem like a better return for this trade than him leaving as a half-season rental.

Speaking of the deal, let’s briefly cover what the Bucks gave up. Serge Ibaka was already done in Milwaukee, and the team committed to trading him to another team. That box is checked, so farewell Serge, mafuzzy forever. Jordan Nwora is a fun young player but was a late re-signing during training camp, and he never established himself as a player in the Bucks’ rotation. Overall, these are negligible losses on the court.

But George stings a bit. Poor George Hill, who is a reliable bench point guard and one of head coach Mike Budenholzer’s favorite veterans, not to mention he came back after he was already traded away from the Bucks once in the past few years, got moved to Indiana. On the court, fans likely won’t miss Ibaka or Nwora...but George Hill’s absence creates a hole in the postseason backcourt rotation, not to mention it feels like he deserved better after the journey he’s taken in and out of Milwaukee in recent years. Still, the NBA is a business and his salary was the only piece that would have made this deal work under the CBA. Goodbye again, George, I wish it could have worked out this time around.

Also included in this deal are the picks, and there are indeed a bunch of picks outgoing. Thankfully, The Athletic’s Eric Nehm has us covered:

That’s a lot of picks, but what it isn’t is a first-round draft pick, or a rotation-level player on a mid-range salary (Grayson Allen), or a young prospect (MarJon Beauchamp). This isn’t Jon Horst’s first rodeo when it comes to accumulating second rounders and using them to satisfy a trading partner’s requests at the deadline; the trade for Nikola Mirotic included four seconds as well. Will Crowder’s tenure in Milwaukee mirror Mirotic’s? Jae is prone to cold shooting streaks himself (just like Mirotic) but his athleticism and defensive versatility should go much further in terms of lineup viability (unlike Mirotic!).

So will Jae Crowder be worth the price it took to acquire him? As we mentioned earlier, he hasn’t played yet this year, so we will have to wait and see. At least he’s healthy and not coming off a major injury! Over the nine months off that Crowder has had, it’s fair to assume that a certain amount of rust has built up, and the Bucks only have 27 games to get him up to speed. It’s also not immediately clear what his role will be in Milwaukee; while Crowder offers positional versatility, Coach Bud will need to determine how to best use the minutes he can offer. Will he start, or come off the bench? Will he play in big lineups or small lineups? How will he adjust to a team where so much more of the offensive initiation is done by wings (Khris, Giannis, and Ingles) rather than guards? These are tough questions to answer, and (presumably) we won’t see how things play out until after Milwaukee finishes up their current road trip.

All in all, my own biggest worry about the Crowder transaction isn’t the cost (which was not terribly high) or the fit (which makes sense on paper). Here’s what I wrote back in October, when these reports first started hitting social media:

Getting “a guy somewhat similar to PJ Tucker” is not the same as getting PJ Tucker; that’s not a formula, that’s chasing the dragon. The Bucks should hold off on making any changes until they can see their full team, which means that they ought to make no moves until the trade deadline unless circumstances wildly change.

Milwaukee absolutely followed the advice taken from the second sentence; this trade happened with hours before the deadline rather than months. The Bucks haven’t exactly been at full strength for much of this year, but enough has been seen from who is available to have an idea of what will be viable in the playoffs. That Milwaukee didn’t push every single chip to the middle of the table is a testament to their patience and willingness to give up what they thought was a fair offer, and not going overboard for the sake of shaking things up. But as I noted earlier today, how solid is “it worked last time!” as a model to follow when gearing up for the postseason? We don’t know, but we’re going to find out!

The good news is that, as a result of this trade, nobody else atop the Eastern Conference got significantly stronger (though Boston’s addition of Mike Muscala is a good move for them, as is Philly’s acquisition of Jalen McDaniels), and the Bucks aren’t finished yet. With two open roster spots and a track record of filling them midseason, Milwaukee has room to spare to add players who become available through contract buyouts between now and March 1. Usually, this happens with veterans who are moved to teams they don’t want to play for and/or the team is willing to cut them loose (in exchange for saving a bit of salary) to find a home elsewhere. This is almost assuredly the case with Russell Westbrook and the Jazz, but there are a number of other guards who might get bought out. John Wall, in Houston? Patrick Beverley, in Orlando? Reggie Jackson, in Charlotte? There’s a ton of names who might end up on the list of “surprise free agents” and Milwaukee can add two of them. These players may not factor into the playoff equation, but they can certainly help support the team as they manage their way through the rest of the regular season.

Anyway, back to the news of the day, which is Jae Crowder. The Bucks can use him as another capable wing defender, alongside Wes Matthews, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Pat Connaughton, and in a series against a team with a strong wing rotation, having options is far preferable to the alternative. The fact that Crowder is here and can take on that responsibility is, like with Wes, part of the point of acquiring his services; any time he spends defending the other team’s stars is time that Jrue, Khris, and Giannis don’t have to. That will, in theory, allow them to conserve some energy on defense and buoy the team’s offense when they inevitably need to carry Milwaukee through a cold stretch.

A major question will be whether Crowder’s shooting helps or hurts the Bucks during his minutes on the court; the defensive effort will assuredly be there, but his ability to space the floor will be a major needle-mover in May and June. And that’s what it’s all about, at the end of the day. Any acquisition made during the prime years of Giannis Antetokounmpo must be made with an eye on making the NBA Finals, and if you’re asking if Jae Crowder can help the Milwaukee Bucks get there?

The answer isn’t yet clear, but signs are pointing to “yes.”