MINNEAPOLIS — At 37 years old and having never played in the NBA Finals, Jamal Crawford certainly could have gone ring chasing when he received a buyout from the Atlanta Hawks.
The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, who have met in the last three finals, were both interested in the veteran scorer. LeBron James was calling Crawford personally to recruit him to Cleveland.
So naturally, Crawford chose … the Minnesota Timberwolves?
The Wolves have missed the playoffs for 13 straight seasons. But after Minnesota added Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague this summer, Crawford decided to join Tom Thibodeau’s team in hopes of being an integral part of a team trying to break through as opposed to the latest hired gun on an established contender.
“I want to experience it with these guys and go through the wars and the struggles and just really embrace the journey with these guys,” Crawford said Wednesday. “To me, that can be even more gratifying than just going to a team that’s already made and ready to win a championship. Hopefully, we’ll get there, but we’ll all go through it together.”
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Crawford, who spent the last five seasons on a Western Conference contender with the Los Angeles Clippers. He started the summer under contract with the Clippers and working with coach Doc Rivers and several teammates to convince star forward Blake Griffin to stay in Los Angeles.
Griffin did decide to stay, but point guard Chris Paul chose to leave a group that had been together for years and couldn’t quite get over the hump. Paul’s decision to join James Harden in Houston forced Rivers to shuffle the decks, and Crawford was traded to Atlanta as part of a three-team deal that brought Danilo Gallinari to the Clippers.
With no interest in being a part of a rebuilding project with the Hawks, Crawford and agent Aaron Goodwin negotiated a buyout of his contract to make him a free agent. Once he hit the market, the Wolves moved quickly to lock him up on a two-year deal worth nearly $9 million.
The Wolves were in desperate need of some bench scoring, and Crawford has been one of the best in that department for years. He is a three-time Sixth Man of the Year. General manager Scott Layden, who worked in San Antonio prior to coming to Minnesota, compared Crawford’s willingness to come off the bench to Manu Ginobili.
“There’s a lot of character issues there with both guys and it’s the reason they’ve had success and the reason they’ve shared in victory, willing to sacrifice some of their game and their play to help the group,” Layden said. “It’s impressive. Very few people do that, or very few people embraced that.”
The size of the contract certainly helped the Wolves curry favor with Crawford, but they also offered him a chance for a featured role with some familiar faces. Wolves assistant GM Noah Croom used to work with Goodwin Sports Management and was integral in the recruitment and Crawford has long been friendly with owner Glen Taylor and respected Thibodeau’s hard-driving approach.
Over the past two years in Los Angeles, Crawford saw his minutes and shot attempts go down as the Clippers added more firepower to their bench.
In Minnesota, he is the only wing currently on the roster behind starters Butler and Andrew Wiggins. Thibodeau said Crawford can expect to average in the mid-20s in minutes per game, and there will be plenty of shots for him in a second unit that right now likely also includes Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica and Gorgui Dieng. Thibodeau also said he envisions playing an occasional small lineup with Teague, Crawford, Andrew Wiggins, Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns.
“I don’t know how you would defend that group,” Thibodeau said.
Crawford will still have to show is that the gradual decline in his production over the last three seasons — his 12.3 points per game last year was his lowest average since 2002-03 — was more a product of the role he had with the Clippers and not his body slowing down in season No. 17. He played in all 82 games and only missed three in 2015-16.
“I just try to stay ready so I don’t have to get ready,” Crawford said. “I just continue to go. I love the game. Before anything else, I loved basketball. Before I had a wife and kids or anything, it was just me and my basketball. I’ve always stayed true to that.”
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