Jae Crowder contributes many things to a basketball team, but I believe Nate Jones was referring primarily to his shooting during the playoffs, as not much else changed about his play (except possibly exposure, moving from Memphis to Miami).
As I write this, on 9/24, Jae Crowder is a very respectable 41/111 from the 3-point line in the playoffs; 36.9% is slightly higher than the average 3-point shooting percentage during the regular season, and I imagine that 3-point shooting percentages fall during the NBA playoffs due to scouting and increased defensive intensity (although I did not check average NBA playoff 3-point shooting percentages).
However, when Nate, who is one of the smartest individuals around the NBA, tweeted the above, Crowder was 35/84 or 41.7% from the 3-point line. In the 3 games since the tweet, Crowder has shot 6/27 (3/10, 2/10, 1/7) or 22.2% from the 3-point line.
Our perceptions are shaped by narratives, and these narratives often are shaped by snapshots. Currently, Crowder is shooting above the average 3-point percentage, and he started out the playoffs blazing hot, which created a narrative about his shooting. Earlier, Nate tweeted:
Imagine if the playoffs had ended before Crowder’s last 3 games.
If a General Manager is deciding whether to sign Crowder or determining the salary to offer, those are compelling numbers. Is 200 shots enough to suggest that he made some changes that elevated his shooting to a new level permanently? Is he simply improving his shot selection or getting better looks because of his teammates in Miami? Is this sustainable?
Now, imagine the narrative if Boston had swept the Heat, which was possible with their leads in every game. Isolate Crowder’s shooting in the 4 games against the Celtics, and he has shot 11/36 or 30.5%. When looking for a scapegoat after a sweep, some might point their fingers at his below-average 3-point shooting on a high volume of attempts, especially because he entered the series shooting 40% in the playoffs.
The offseason narrative certainly changes. Crowder is a career 34% 3-point shooter. The last images of Crowder would be a 3-game run of 20% 3-point shooting in a series loss. I imagine that GM would look at his shooting statistics more skeptically than if his playoff run ended 4 games earlier. Luckily for the Heat and Crowder’s back account, the Heat won 3 games and his season continues. He has more games that could create a new narrative. Did he have 3 bad games and then returned to his prior series averages as a 40% 3-point shooter or were these 3 games a regression to the mean, and the larger sample size is balancing a hot streak?
How does this change our perceptions of our players? Crowder has attempted 111 3-pointers in the playoffs; our highest volume 3-point shooter over the last 3 seasons was +/-178 3-pointers for a season. Two or three great or bad games affect shooting percentages greatly!
What if we looked at Crowder’s playoff run in reverse and he started with the last 3 games (22%), but then got hot and shot over 40% from the 3-point line over 11 games?
If that happened with a high-school or college team, would the player ever get to the hot streak? After the first 3 games (22%), would the coach bench him? Would the coach discourage him from shooting? Would he substitute for him when he misses? If these are the coach’s behaviors, would the player ever hit the hot streak? Would he regress to the mean (which in this case would be improving his shooting percentages from 22% to his career 34% through a hot streak)? Are 27 shots enough to determine whether or not a player is a shooter? Are 111 shots enough?
FWIW, Darryl Blackport found that it takes 750 3-point attempts for an NBA player’s shooting percentage to stabilize, which is more than most high-school or college players will attempt at that level in their careers.
EDIT: An update after the Heat defeated the Celtics. In the 2 games since I published this article, Crowder shot 0/6 and 1/5. He enters the NBA Finals shooting 34.4% (42/122) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, which is slightly better than his career 3-point shooting percentage (34%).
Final Edit: Crowder shot 13/39 during the NBA Finals for 33.33%, slightly below his career average and his playoff average entering the Finals. For the 2020 NBA Playoffs, he finished 55/161 or 34.2%, nearly identical to his career three-point shooting percentage.
Did Crowder improve with the Heat? He shot better than he had to that point in the season with the Grizzlies, but was it improvement or regression to the mean?
If the Heat lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where their seed said they should, Crowder likely would be able to demand more money in the offseason due to his hot shooting in the bubble to that point. One could argue that the Heat, a team known for its player development, and its shooting coach, one of the best in the business, improved Crowder’s shooting, and these changes led to better shooting that would continue into next season. Coaches might spend more time investigating the Heat staff to see the secrets that led to the improved shooting.
However, as the season concludes, that argument is tougher to make. Did Crowder forget the lessons that he learned initially and revert to form or is Crowder roughly a 34% three-point shooter? Should his next team expect the improved version of his shooting from the bubble games and the first two rounds of the playoffs? I would expect Crowder to make roughly 1 out of every 3 three-point field goal attempts once a large enough sample size is reached. However, we also see that Crowder is a high variance shooter: in 21 playoff games, he has 2 games where he shot between 31-35%; he had 4 games where he shot over 50%, and 5 games where he shot under 20%.
Crowder is one example, but how do coaches react when players have bad games? Do coaches tell a player to shoot less? Crowder’s fewest 3FGA in a game occurred in the game after he shot 57%. The game after his worst shooting night (0/6), he attempted 5 three-point field goals (1/5), which hardly suggests that he was told, explicitly or implicitly, not to shoot as much. However, coaches of younger players — and we might expect younger players to be high variance shooters like Crowder as opposed to incredibly consistent, regardless of shooting percentages — often explicitly tell players to shoot less or to attack the basket or to pass more when they have a bad game or when they are in the middle of a bad game.
Maybe a large part of the Heat’s skill development is breeding confidence by giving players this freedom. Maybe this freedom increased Crowder’s shooting percentages initially. Maybe the lesson is not anything that the Heat did to Crowder’s shooting, but what they did to his mind or his confidence. Maybe the same happens when youth, high-school, and college coaches empower their players in the same way rather than overreacting to small numbers and high variance shots.