Ever since Vinnie Johnson, aka “The Microwave”, purified the art of the electric scorer off the bench, there have been guys like Allen Crabbe, who in Portland made a habit of being equal parts small-lineup forward and straight backup to the combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Now, in Brooklyn, he’s got a new role; he’s started as many games this season (nine) as he did in any season in Portland (2014-15, when he started nine of the 51 games in which he appeared.)
This gives us an excellent test bed to answer a question that’s dogged Crabbe since he was clearly the third-best guard on Portland’s roster for his first four seasons in the league, namely…
Is Allen Crabbe an NBA-quality starter, or is his ceiling Jamal Crawford or Vinnie Johnson?
Now let’s start with a bit of history so we’ve got some numbers to compare him against. Specifically, let’s look at Crawford and Johnson in terms of shooting relative to the guys who started ahead of them.
Johnson, drafted seventh overall in 1979 by the defending champion Seattle SuperSonics, was traded to Detroit in the fall of 1981, and he enjoyed one season as the starter at shooting guard for the Pistons before spending two years as John Long‘s backup; the Pistons eventually drafted Joe Dumars in 1985, sealing Johnson’s fate on the bench.
Johnson ended up with 50.8 Win Shares (.100 per 48 minutes), a career 15.2 PER, positive Box Plus-Minus (0.5), and a 15.2 VORP. He averaged 12 points a game for his career in the playoffs, same as the regular season, and averaged 23,3 points per 100 possessions. They didn’t call him “The Microwave” for nothing; he did as advertised. Came off the bench, scored a bunch of points, then sat back down.
Crawford, meanwhile, was a starter on some truly terrible Bulls and Knicks teams in the Dark Ages, where he became synonymous with utterly atrocious shot selection. By the lockout year in 2012, he found himself in Portland, where despite leading the league in free throw percentage (92.7 percent!), he shot 38.4 percent from the field and had his worst year from long range, shooting 30.8 percent.
Crawford went to the Clippers, reinvented himself, and became the guy who jokingly said they should name the Sixth Man of the Year trophy after him when he won it for a second and third time while in Los Angeles.
For his career, which is still active in Minnesota, Crawford has 59.7 Win Shares (.079 per 48), a 15.3 PER, minus-0.8 BPM, 10.9 VORP, 15.2 points per game, and 26 points per 100 possessions.
So that’s what the standard is for Crabbe. Let’s see if he measures up.
The Counting Stats
Crabbe is a better shooter than either guy he’s up against, with a career slash line of .451/.409/.849, but his shooting is way down in Brooklyn as he’s expected to be the featured scorer with the MASH unit going on at guard for the Nets.
He’s shooting .408/.394/.853 this year, but he’s also shooting a lot more threes; his eFG%, a solid .532, suggests that his overall percentage is a function of taking nearly two-thirds of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Which, considering what modern basketball expects of wing players, is perfectly OK. Sink 40 percent of your threes, give or take, and nobody’s complaining about the lack of twos to artificially inflate the base percentage. Sure, his eFG% is down, but again, he’s starting.
And it shows in his role. Crabbe doesn’t have those years as a starter that Johnson or Crawford did to goose his career average, so he’s averaging only 8.2 points per game. But when you adjust for possessions, he’s way below either of those bench scorers, at only 18.5 per 100 possessions.
The Advanced Stats
Likewise, Crabbe isn’t nearly the efficient sixth man that Johnson or Crawford were. He’s sitting at .097 WS/48, an 11.5 PER, a minus-0.8 BPM, and 1.7 VORP.
Mind you, VORP is cumulative. Crabbe’s been in 242 NBA games and played 5,573 minutes; Johnson had 984 and 24,308, while Crawford is on 1,199 and 36,423.
So let’s make a back-of-the-envelope estimate on this and give Crabbe four times the VORP to compare him to Johnson and six times for Crawford; that gives him 6.8 and 10.2. So he’s way below Johnson and close to but still short of Crawford. And his PER is nowhere near the everlasting league average of 15; the two guys we’re trying to compare him against were both over 15.
This is especially noteworthy in Crawford’s case, where a lot of his woeful shooting was forged out of the simple fact that he played in the Dark Ages during his formative years (defined as between when Michael Jordan retired the second time in 1998 and when modern pace-and-space basketball was invented by Mike D’Antoni and the draft class of 2003 started to come into its own, around the 2005-06 season even though the style wouldn’t get its name until Erik Spoelstra coined the term several years later; D’Antoni called it “Seven Seconds Or Less”.)
The point here is that Crabbe comes up short of the guys he has to measure up to in order to allow him to stack up.
The Elephant In the Room
There’s also one other problem. Allen Crabbe makes $18.5 million. Crawford never got paid anything like that; even now, his deal is three years, $42 million, and it was kind of a lifetime achievement award.
The most Vinnie Johnson made in a year was $1.45 million, in 1991-92, a year where Magic Johnson made $2.5 million, Isiah Thomas made $2.96 million, and Michael Jordan made $3.25 million. So if we’re talking relative to max salary type of money, the Microwave made about $14 million in 2017 NBA dollars (roughly the gap between himself and Jordan scaled up to compare him to LeBron today.)
And again, if the market for Jamal Crawford is $14 million, and the market for Vinnie Johnson is about the same, we’ve got the bigger problem of Crabbe being overpaid for his production.
But this all has to connect back to the question we asked. Allen Crabbe is making starter money, playing a starter’s role, and he has starter expectations.
Yet statistically, the very role he slots into, the volume scorer off the bench, he’s not as good as the benchmarks set by those in the past who played the same role for less money relatively speaking.
But it’s close. Close enough that the overall trajectory of Crabbe’s career may yet measure up favorably to those two guys. After all, this is Crabbe’s fifth year in the league, and we’re comparing him to guys who have played a thousand games or more.
So is Allen Crabbe any good? Let’s call this one Plausible and watch with interest as his career takes shape.