The sweat poured down Jae Crowder’s back, long sleeves draping his burly arms like whenever the 10-year NBA veteran steps onto hardwood. After another workout at Georgia State’s basketball facilities in downtown Atlanta, another session in secret, stowed away from the league’s regular season action, Crowder's trainer spun his cellphone around. “Look what just happened!”
Crowder squinted at the screen. It was the afternoon of Jan. 23, and the Washington Wizards had just traded forward Rui Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers. A pang of defeat hit the grizzled swingman. “He just went to L.A.?” Crowder was incredulous. Almost four months to the day of Phoenix opening training camp for this 2022-23 regular season, while the Suns and Crowder mutually agreed to part ways and search for a suitable trade, Phoenix had fallen short of a three-team deal that would have sent Crowder to Milwaukee and landed Hachimura with the Suns.
“That was true. That was true,” Crowder told Yahoo Sports. “I knew it was with him involved, and I knew that had meant ‘right,’ and we was always supposed to go ‘left.’ But Washington went right for some reason. I can’t question it.”
And so Crowder took to his own device. He logged into Twitter, typed out a post, then blasted a message with three emojis: A clock bookended by two hour glasses. If Crowder had his way, the sand would have been dripping to dire levels damn near approaching empty. The calculus was far from clandestine. Only two-plus weeks were separating Crowder from the trade deadline.
“Just showing the front office that I’m frustrated, hopefully this is the time now,” Crowder said. “I see articles, too, just like you guys do.”
His patience was dwindling. There was no room for reconciliation with Phoenix. In the offseason, sources told Yahoo Sports, head coach Monty Williams told the 32-year-old he’d be losing his starting spot in the Suns’ lineup to sharpshooter Cam Johnson, and that effectively ended the marriage between Crowder and the franchise. When asked for more context on why the partnership could not move forward, Crowder would only confirm that his strained relationship with Williams was at the center of this breakup.
“Yeah, we had differences,” he told Yahoo Sports. Pressed for greater detail, Crowder said: “They asked me to keep it in-house, I’ll keep it in-house. I’m now gone, same thing I’ve told everybody else: I’ve moved on from the situation. I wish them the best, I’m leaving that behind.”
He is now moving forward in Milwaukee, having finally landed with the Bucks on the afternoon of the deadline. He never set foot in New York post-trade prior to Tuesday night’s game at Brooklyn, but there was a brief stopover with Brooklyn after Phoenix traded Crowder to the Nets, along with Johnson and Mikal Bridges, as part of a blockbuster package with four unprotected first-round picks for Kevin Durant. Crowder awoke to the headline news, energized at the greater likelihood of landing with the Bucks. He knew the Nets weren’t his next team.
“Not a chance,” Crowder told Yahoo Sports. “Look how many guys over there you got looking like me. I ain’t got time for that.”
He went back to Georgia State’s practice court and learned of his ultimate trade to Milwaukee just like he did of the three-team trade that fell short: from his trainer’s phone following a workout. He let go a sigh of relief. While there was interest from Miami, where Crowder helped the Heat reach the 2020 NBA Finals, and Atlanta, Crowder’s hometown where he’d set up camp throughout his months of solitude, Milwaukee always seemed to approach Crowder with the greatest aplomb.
“They made a trip to come see me,” Crowder said. After securing permission from Phoenix, Milwaukee brass — from general manager Jon Horst to ownership — flew to Atlanta and visited with the swingman it coveted more than most. The Bucks had attempted various frameworks to deal for Crowder, offering Grayson Allen, sources told Yahoo Sports, and a series of contracts such as Serge Ibaka, George Hill and Jordan Nwora, plus second-round draft capital. Milwaukee had looked at other options like Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, sources said, but Detroit was demanding more than an unprotected first-round pick for its veteran wing. In the end, the deal to Brooklyn allowed Milwaukee to send out a total of five-second round picks, offloading Ibaka, Hill and Nwora’s salaries to Indiana, and nab Crowder without sacrificing Allen.
“I landed where I wanted to land at the end of the day,” Crowder said. “I think I gained just knowing myself as a player and my mental. I never wavered. Never wavered on the process. From a month, to two months … I stayed with the plan of what it was and what I wanted to accomplish. So I give kudos to my mental and me staying sane throughout the entire process, because I did want the process to end fairly sooner than when it did.”
He now finds himself on the opposite sideline of the 2021 Finals, when his Suns commanded a 2-0 series lead before the Bucks rallied for four straight games behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday to claim the league’s crown. He is no stranger to flipping allegiances. Crowder was traded to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the 2017 Kyrie Irving blockbuster deal with Boston, which rendered Crowder a teammate of the Hall of Famer he had just sparred against in the Eastern Conference finals. Instead of slamming his 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame against Antetokounmpo, Crowder is suddenly the two-time MVP’s sturdy enforcer.
“We joked about it. Giannis still gives me s*** about it,” Crowder said. “But it’s great. It’s great to be a part of it. [Phoenix] had a great team ourselves. Two great teams battling it out. It was all respect. I think that shows what I bring, to be able to battle it out with this team, at that high level, and then wanting me to come here, it gave me just a sense of confidence that a championship team wanted me.”
Georgia State had granted Crowder 24-hour access to its facilities, where he sometimes shared the floor with Georgia Tech product and former No. 3 overall pick Derrick Favors. He had keys to the gym like a hungry underclassman searching for more work, dodging around the Panthers’ routine program in the middle of their own NCAA season.
“It felt like a college vibe. But at the same time, I was still trying to get a rhythm, trying to get myself on a strict schedule where I got comfortable and I just stuck with it,” Crowder said.
It wasn’t until Crowder flew to Miami for the All-Star break until that half-season in purgatory fully dissolved. Milwaukee sent four coaches to South Beach to train Crowder and Bucks forward Bobby Portis, recovering from a sprained MCL. Crowder was struck by how many Milwaukee staffers surrendered their mid-year break to help incorporate their major acquisition.
“That showed me that these guys were embracing me," he said. "That showed me the camaraderie of the team."
He stretched a toothy grin after dressing at his stall in a tan sweatsuit inside the Barclays Center visitors’ locker room. He played just 15 minutes in the Bucks’ 118-104 victory, standing mostly with a towel slung over his shoulder and hollering for his new brethren, still gradually being incorporated into Milwaukee’s system.
“Jae’s exceeded our expectations,” said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. “Coming in, his conditioning, he looks good. He doesn’t look like he gets winded or tired. He wants more. He wants to play those last few minutes, get the reps in, get up and down. He’s in a good place physically and I think mentally, and we’re excited about how his body is and where he is.”