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Draymond Green Is A Star, But Only In The Right System

Coming into this season, it would have been hard to imagine a harder, faster fall from grace for the Golden State Warriors. Even after a surprising win Monday night over Portland, they have managed just two victories a couple weeks into the season, all while owning the worst defense, by far, in the league to this point.

That’s been the harsh reality for Golden State ever since Stephen Curry broke his left hand last week. The club responded by saying it will be at least three months until Curry is back in uniform, a timeline that all but dunked the Warriors’ playoff hopes in icy water.

We knew all along that this season could be somewhat challenging for Golden State, which lost Klay Thompson to a long-term injury and Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn Nets. Add in Curry’s injury and everything looks extra dire. But even when taking all that into account, the Warriors still have two other All-Stars on the roster who could, in theory, at least keep the team competitive, if not in the race for the postseason: Newcomer D’Angelo Russell and three-time All-Star Draymond Green. At least so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Which perhaps raises some questions about Green, in particular. He may be the most fascinating, hard-to-judge player in the sport — especially right now. A number of things make Green quite challenging to evaluate from a value standpoint. But there’s a strong case to be made that the 29-year-old’s integral fit within the Warriors’ highly unusual ecosystem is perhaps the biggest factor in his enigmatic, one-of-a-kind game. With that ecosystem in tatters at the moment, is Green’s value disproportionately diminished?

After a couple of All-NBA honors, a Defensive Player of the Year award and five straight trips to the NBA Finals, we’ve all heard Draymond discussed as an elite NBA player. Advanced metrics all but confirm that: Over the past six seasons,1 Green ranked 13th and 14th, respectively, among NBA players in RAPTOR — FiveThirtyEight’s new player-rating metric — and Wins Above Replacement.

For a league with just 30 teams, a player ranking in the low teens in value should theoretically not only make him a franchise player, but arguably have him in the conversation to be a superstar, if he isn’t already at that level. Yet in most peoples’ eyes, Green almost certainly falls short of both definitions, something that only figures to become more clear as this season pushes ahead, and the losses presumably pile up without Curry or Thompson in the lineup2 to stop the bleeding.

It’s well established that Green — a below-average 3-point shooter for his career, who has never averaged more than 14 points per game in a season — is not a big-time scorer. And likely no one expected him to become one this year. Instead, he’s won praise in the past for the other, more well-rounded elements of his game: His versatility and know-how as a top-flight defender; his rugged, sometimes agitating style of play; and his next-level vision as a passer. Surely that has influenced the extent to which Green is seen as a “super star” — his value comes in the less heralded parts of the game.

On some level, though, we’re also seeing the limits of just how useful Green’s skills are in a vacuum — without the ability to score in bunches — and on a team that doesn’t have other solid vets. (Of course it’s very early, with Green having played just five games and 144 minutes thus far. But in those limited minutes, Green has provided negative 0.3 wins above replacement, according to RAPTOR. That ranks just 388th in the league out of 410 players.)

With Green, a major part of the issue seems to be the fine print: That, yes, he is indeed one of the best players in the league, but that we’ve seen enough to know that his game is exponentially enhanced depending on who else is playing alongside him. (Another player some people made this argument about: Rockets’ lob specialist Clint Capela, who had a lengthy stalemate in free agency with the club before both sides seemed to realize just how much they maximized each other, and exactly how they would be weakened if they had parted ways.)

Yes, for instance, Green is a great passer, and has led the Warriors in assists per game each of the last four seasons. But while his vision is a clear plus, there’s also no denying that he’s likely been the biggest offensive beneficiary of Curry’s gravity over the years. For years, Green and Curry’s high screens gave Golden State countless 4-on-3 advantages when defenses chose to send two players at Steph to deny him a look at the basket. That left Draymond with a downhill opportunity, much like a halfback with holes to run through because of all the space his O-line left him. There were countless tic-tac-toe plays, where Curry would dump a simple pass to Green following a pick, where Green would dribble once before tossing an alley-oop to a teammate who’d darted toward the basket, where no defender was in place.

As such, many of Green’s assists stemmed from space and passes that Curry initiated. In fact, over those same four seasons, Curry actually led the NBA in hockey assists per game,3 according to Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. Both his shooting, and the team’s pace — which was generally far faster with Curry on the court than without him4 — gave Green cleaner passing scenarios than other players around the league.

Green deserves credit for being one of the most physical screeners in basketball, something you can’t necessarily diminish simply because the Warriors are shorthanded at the moment. Yet those screens — a fundamental bedrock of Golden State’s beautifully chaotic attack on offense — don’t carry the same weight when they’re freeing up looks for Jordan Poole and Glenn Robinson III as opposed to Durant and Thompson. And despite Green’s picks being solid, the Warriors’ offense under Steve Kerr generally utilized far fewer ball screens than other clubs, instead opting for screens away from the ball, which often confused defenses.

One might think that Draymond’s stalwart defense wouldn’t necessarily change all that much with the new cast of players, but in a way, that element of his game might actually be affected the most by the plethora of young players in Golden State’s lineup. Consider for a moment who the Warriors could roll out defensively on a given night in previous seasons: Durant. Thompson. Former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. Shaun Livingston.

The sheer amount of defensive length in those lineups made it difficult for opponents to pass the ball, let alone shoot it. Because of that, Golden State led the NBA in blocked shots the last three seasons — in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 — while finishing second in the league the two years before that. But so far, the Warriors rank dead-last in blocked shots per game. (And in five games, Draymond himself has none.) To open the campaign, we’ve seen a situation where Green can’t realistically cover at the rim for his young teammates, who are still learning the tricks and nuances of the trade.

There’s also one thing that statistics probably can’t enlighten us on just yet: Morale. We’ve all heard about the competitive fire that’s within Draymond Green, a player who earned his first technical foul in the pros after taunting and celebrating his first NBA bucket. No one else in the league is wired quite like him, which can be both a good, and sometimes bad, explosive sort of thing. He’s never been part of a losing team, so it’s unclear how this season might impact his psyche, particularly if he’s the Warriors’ only original star out there playing most nights.

For his part, coach Steve Kerr has already signaled that he’ll be somewhat conservative with how he uses Green, likely to salvage the forward’s body and spirit, in what may ultimately be a throwaway year for the Warriors. Both Kerr and the club have every reason to think that going into next season with a healthy Curry, Thompson, Russell5 and Green would put Golden State right back in the conversation for a title.

So on the one hand, it may seem strange to have such low expectations for these Warriors when they still have a top-15 player like Green on the roster. And yes: That may speak to the fact that he isn’t a superstar. But given what he excels at, it probably makes more sense to judge his value again once we see him in the environment we know he can thrive within. And in that way, he’s really no different than any elite NBA player: If Green looks worse on his own than another “star” would, who cares? Both still need other pieces and the right system to truly succeed.

Jay Boice and Neil Paine contributed research for this story.

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Footnotes

  1. Not including this year.

  2. Green is out of the lineup for the next few games, too, dealing with a torn ligament in his left index finger.

  3. Draymond isn’t too shabby in this regard, either, and ranks 19th in hockey assists over the past four seasons.

  4. For instance, this year’s Warriors are playing at a 110-possessions-per-48-minute pace with Curry, while playing at just a 100-possessions-per-48-minute pace without him.

  5. Or whoever they might end up swapping him and his contract for — and whoever they might get in the lottery, assuming this season continues the way it’s going.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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