It was the summer of 2009 when Jamal Crawford decided it was time for a change – even if that change involved sacrifice.
Nine years he’d been in the NBA, and while he had scored plenty of points and made a name for himself as a special scorer, there was one thing he hadn’t done – played in the postseason. Crawford wanted to check that box, regardless of the route he would have to take.
So that offseason, he signed with the Atlanta Hawks, not to be a starter, but to come off the bench.
“I was like ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to be part of a winning team,’ ” Crawford said, “and then it took on a life of its own.”
Nine years later, Crawford has become the preeminent sixth man of his era. He is the only player to have won three NBA Sixth Man of the Year awards. Last week against Detroit, Crawford became the second player in the past 30 years to score 10,000 career bench points. The only other player in that time to hit that milestone was Dell Curry – Steph’s dad – who finished with 11,147 points off the pine.
“It’s crazy when you think about it, to be honest,” Crawford said. “I remember when I was in Atlanta, (my coach) Mike Woodson, who was in the league for a while, said, ‘I got 10,000 points in this league, son,’ and I didn’t have it at the time, but to have 10,000 points just off the bench is a pretty cool thing.”
In total, Crawford has 18,158 career points – 10,018 off the bench, 8,140 as a starter. When he was going through free agency this summer, Crawford said a couple of teams actually wanted him to start again. “I was a little bit shocked by that,” he said. Not since he went to Atlanta has he started.
Thanks, but no thanks. Crawford liked the opportunity presented to him in Minnesota, even if it meant staying on the bench.
Crawford had a few sixth men he liked growing up. He admired guys like Kevin McHale, Detlef Schrempf and Ricky Pierce. “But even then, I didn’t see myself being a sixth man,” Crawford said. Now that label is what defines his career.
That first game coming off the bench in Atlanta didn’t go particularly well. He scored three points, but he scored 16 two nights later and rolled from there. Crawford played 31 minutes a game that first season in Atlanta, averaging 18 points for a team that won 53 games and, yes, made the playoffs.
“It’s hard, honestly, to come off the bench,” Crawford said. “I’m used to it now, but when you’re a starter, you can go 1 for 5 at first and kind of shoot yourself into a rhythm. (Off the bench), you might go 1 for 5 and not play for the rest of the second quarter, then halftime, the start of the third quarter, you look and that’s like an hour.
“So imagine you go into the Life Time (Fitness) gym, playing a game, losing, then having to sit for an hour and come back. You’re like ‘Oh, no.’ It’s a little tougher. It’s definitely tougher.”
And, Crawford said, every opponent in the league knows he’s coming in the game to provide instant offense, yet he still has to produce, which he has.
“The thing about him is that what you like about him, every role he’s had, he’s really starred in that role,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Whether he started and played 35 minutes, whether he’s come off the bench and played 25 or 20, whatever comes his way, he’s going to handle it. He’s a pro’s pro.”