After emerging as a little-known second-round pick into a starter on a team that reached the NBA Finals, Jae Crowder believed he was a staple for the Phoenix Suns.
He was part of the club that lost in six games to the Bucks in the 2021 Finals and was prepared to play out the final year of his contract this season.
Yet, he had lost minutes last season to Cameron Johnson and there was a significant disagreement on a potential contract extension and his future with the team. So Crowder and the Suns agreed that he would not play this season until there was a trade.
A man who professes his love for basketball by watching games on four screens simultaneously was no longer able to play. The Suns weren’t going to waive or release him and they also couldn’t find a trade partner. When Johnson sustained a torn meniscus early in the season, the Suns chose not to bring Crowder back, either.
So Crowder sat, waited, and spent time with his 9-year-old daughter until a resolution was discovered. Crowder, a former Celtics small forward, was traded in the four-team Kevin Durant deal, with the Bucks giving up five second-round picks to the Pacers and Nets.
Crowder is back to his second home, Milwaukee, where he played college ball at Marquette in the same arena, the Bradley Center, where the Bucks played for decades before the current Fiserv Forum.
The issues with the Suns were present, but Crowder would not reveal why they mutually agreed to part ways. The hope for Milwaukee is that he can replace the toughness and grit of P.J. Tucker, who was a key cog on its title team.
“I just feel like it’s behind me now,” the 32-year-old Crowder said. “We had some stuff happen internally that they asked me to keep inside, so I am going to grant their wishes, obviously. I’ve been working with these guys for a trade partner for months now.
“Give or take, they said they were going to do exactly what they were going to do. I’m thankful for my time in Phoenix. I’m thankful for my teammates. I’m thankful for the organization embracing me the last two years. We had a great run and did some great things in Phoenix and turned that culture around.”
Crowder shot nearly 39 percent from the 3-point line in his first season with the Suns, but that number dropped to under 35 percent last season. Coach Monty Williams began opting for Johnson in key moments and it appeared a certainty he would replace Crowder in the starting lineup this season.
But Crowder said the dispute was more financial and contractual.
“It was a business decision from both sides and I can honestly say that,” he said. “It drew out longer than what I wanted and what they wanted, obviously. But it got done. I was totally letting Phoenix do whatever they felt best. They did ask me for a handful of teams that I preferred to go to and I was appreciative of that. I did not want to go to a team that was rebuilding at this point of my career. I think I’ve laid the foundation of being a winner in this league and I would like to keep doing that. Phoenix understood that.”
The Bucks and MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo are the Celtics’ No. 1 obstacle in returning to the NBA Finals, and Crowder is considered a plus defender and solid 3-point shooter. He developed those skills in his two-plus seasons in Boston before being part of the Isaiah Thomas trade to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving.
The Bucks will be his eighth team, as he has established himself as the type of glue player winning teams desire.
“It was a contending and winning team and I feel like I can add on to that,” Crowder said of the Bucks. “Having a role on a team and [my daughter] stays in Chicago, and I wanted to be closer to her in the Midwest. Be a better father. I was trying to be the best father I could with being a professional athlete on the West Coast.
“Basketball was No. 1, being part of winning culture, being a part of a good team. It checked the boxes of where I wanted to be next. It’s full circle for me in my life. Here we are 11 years later. Where it all started for myself. That played a major factor. This city is dear to my heart. It holds a special place.”
The frustration from being inactive was evident, Crowder said. He was tired of being at home waiting, tired of watching other teams and players play while he waited for another opportunity, hoping Suns management would find a suitable deal.
“It’s been hard mentally more than physically,” he said. “I cut off TV a few times, cursed at the TV because I know my job, I know what I’m supposed to be doing and that’s playing basketball. I’ve gotten mad at the TV and turned it off and sulked in my feelings a little bit. It was more of a mental grind than physical.
“My daughter did a great job of humbling me, allowing me to be a better father, letting me be accountable more since I’m not with the team, not traveling as much. It was a very humbling experience.”
Crowder said he was all about ball until his mother, Helen Thompson, died on the night of his 2017 trade to the Cavaliers. That changed him permanently.
“It affected me a lot because my mom was the rock in my family,” he said. “When she passed away, I immediately became the rock in my family. I took on a lot of burden, I took on a lot of good and bad stuff in my family, so I thought I was grown, but to the point where she left me, I had some growing up to do.
“That was another humbling experience for me, another slap in the face for me of not being where I want to be as a man. That was the positive sign I took from the passing of my mom.”
What’s ironic about Crowder’s arrival in Milwaukee is he faced the Bucks less than two years ago in that intense Finals matchup. The Suns won the first two games at home, looking as if they were in control of the series, before they lost four straight for Milwaukee’s first title in 50 years.
“I’ve had my fair share of battles with every guy in that locker room,” Crowder said. “They know exactly what I bring and I just have to bring that. The conversations I’ve had with the guys is just, ‘Be you.’ That’s one of the best conversations you can have with a new teammate. That’s a great gesture from the organization as a whole, just add on to what I said was a great team.”
Crowder played on the Miami bubble team that took out the top-seeded Bucks in the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat then stunned the Celtics before losing to the Lakers in the finals.
“The year before  I was in Miami and we put this team out,” Crowder said. “[In the 2021 Finals], I felt like Giannis as the head of the snake, he grew up mentally. Mentally, I think our goal was to try to break the guy, break the whole team, starting with him. I think we had some success with that in 2020. In 2021 when I saw him in the Finals, mentally he was stable.
“If you recall, we went up, 2-0, we were feeling good. We were a young team. I was trying to tell my team not to feel [that] good because like the great Kobe [Bryant] said, the job’s not done. I was trying to preach that to our guys because I knew [the Bucks] had been down before and fought back. This team clawed back. Mentally, they all grew up.”
Durant says Suns have pieces in place
Less than three days after the Nets traded Kyrie Irving to the Mavericks, Brooklyn decided to disintegrate its super team and trade Kevin Durant to the Suns. Durant, a member of the NBA’s Top 75 roster, will be playing for his fourth team. and he is considered the final piece to a championship puzzle for a franchise that is desperate for that ultimate crown.
Durant, 34, was welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd at Footprint Center for his first comments since the trade. He is still recovering from a right knee injury and is expected to return within two weeks. The Suns targeted Durant last summer when he requested a trade. He eventually rescinded his request, but Phoenix’s interest never waned.
New Suns owner Mat Ishbia jumped on the opportunity to nab Durant, sending Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges, and four first-round picks to the Nets. Durant is appreciative of his new opportunity.
“They’ve experienced a lot over the last couple of years,” he said. “You see this team when Monty [Williams] took over and when [general manager] James [Jones] came here. I see the culture started to change, the energy, the way they played on the floor was starting to change. The fans here showed love for good basketball. I knew this would be a great place to play. I’m looking forward to trying to add as much to the group as I can.”
The Suns will unleash a formidable starting lineup with Durant, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton, along with Torrey Craig and newly acquired Terrence Ross, who scored 16 points in his Phoenix debut. Durant said he just wants to blend in and he’s never been a ball-dominant player, making the integration into the Phoenix system smoother.
“I think I build my game around being efficient, taking good shots, making good plays on both ends of the floor,” he said. “I like to do the little things on offense. I look forward to playing with somebody like Book, who plays kind of similar to how I play.
“I’m more concerned about what we do every day as a team, the stuff you guys don’t see. I think that’s what brings championships and puts us in a position to win championships. I’m looking forward to being coached by Monty. I still feel like I’ve got to prove myself every day. I want to put good stuff in film every day. That’s the only thing I’m concerned with in my life.”
Durant said he believes the Suns are championship quality.
“We’ve got all the pieces,” he said. “We’ve got guys that have been there, that’s half the battle. It’s pressure because I’m one of the best players to ever play the game, so every time I step on the floor, people are going to expect me to do great things and the team I’m on to do great things.”
Although it was clear Durant wanted out of Brooklyn, he said he cherishes his four years there. The franchise signed him to a maximum deal despite him having to miss his entire first season while recovering from a torn Achilles’.
“It was a lot of ups and downs, but I love the grind and everybody in Brooklyn loves the grind, too,” he said. “I built a family over there, and they’re going to always be a part of my journey. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish as far as winning a championship, but I enjoyed the grind. And we tried our hardest every day, regardless of what was going on in the media, what was going on with our teammates, everybody in that gym, we grinded.
“I get emotional talking about it because that was a special four years of my career coming off the Achilles’; they helped me through a lot. It was terrible how some stuff went down but, at the end of the day, I love the grind.”
The Nets brought in Durant and Irving in the summer of 2019 in hopes of winning multiple championships. The best they could do was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2021. Injuries, drama, infighting, and bad luck contributed to the demise.
Durant did not blame Irving, however, for the failure.
“We just didn’t get on the court enough,” Durant said. “When you saw me, James [Harden], and Kyrie, it was amazing basketball for  games, though. You need more time on the floor. Those are Hall of Fame players I learned from every day. I was upset that we couldn’t finish. I thought we had some good momentum. I felt like every game we were building our chemistry, but I didn’t know what was going on with Kyrie and his situation with the organization.
“I didn’t really focus on that. It was a blow to our team. It took away our identity. He’s a Hall of Fame player. He’s a great, great player who could do everything on the floor and we relied on that and without him we didn’t have a clear identity.”
It’s been more than a week since Russell Westbrook was traded to the Jazz, but he remains inactive as he and the team negotiate a contract buyout. Despite his shortcomings as a player, Westbrook has a robust market because of his ability to distribute and score at the rim. The Bulls, in desperate need of a point guard and falling fast in the Eastern Conference, need a floor leader. The Heat don’t seem to have faith in aging Kyle Lowry and could use someone to push the ball up the floor. The most intriguing partner could be the Clippers, who traded both of their point guards (Reggie Jackson and John Wall) and now have a void at that position. Clippers forward Paul George, a former teammate in Oklahoma City, has been lobbying for the Clippers to sign Westbrook once he’s available. Teams need to sign players by March 1 in order to be eligible for a playoff roster . . . While NBA All-Star Weekend moves to Indianapolis next year, the league has yet to announce the location for the 2025 game. It won’t be Boston, which is expected to apply for the 2026 game, and it should be a mere formality once the NBA processes the application . . . Malden native Nerlens Noel is another player seeking a contract buyout as he has been away from the Pistons for personal reasons. The Pistons are stacked at center with the recent acquisition of former second overall pick James Wiseman from the Warriors. Noel, 28, could help a club as a reserve center and has never really had a chance to play in Detroit. The rapid development of 19-year-old rookie Jalen Duren has changed plans considerably for the Pistons. General manager Troy Weaver signed former No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley to a three-year, $37 million deal this past summer, unsure whether Duren would develop in the near future. Well, he did, and now the Pistons are stuck with the oft-injured Bagley, as well as Wiseman. The Warriors lost patience with Wiseman, whom they drafted over LaMelo Ball and projected as their big man of the future. But he missed a full year with a knee injury and was unable to be productive with the team’s veteran roster built to win now. Wiseman and Duren should make a formidable combination in Detroit.