Draymond Green had a breakout 2014-15 season for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. His contributions in several different areas were instrumental in the team’s 67-win regular season and 16-5 playoff run, and he also made a very strong case for Defensive Player of the Year, finishing a close second to Kawhi Leonard.
His stock around the league has skyrocketed, and now many fans and pundits alike view the multi-talented Green as a superstar in the league heading into the 2015-16 season.
Today’s Fastbreak colleague Andrew Bailey would rather have Green anchor a franchise for the 2015-16 season than Carmelo Anthony, Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver slotted him as the 16th-best player in the league and Grant Hughes (also a TFB colleague) had him all the way up at No. 13 in a piece for Bleacher Report. In our TFB Franchise Player Draft, Thomas Kenyon selected Draymond with the No. 20 overall pick.
With all due respect to those five fine basketball minds, I don’t think he’s quite that good.
If I were a coach, Green is a player I’d love to have on my team. I’d gladly welcome his defensive versatility and emotional leadership.
But if he’s forced to be my franchise guy, my clear-cut best player? No thanks. I could do much better, and I’ll tell you why.
First, we’ll start with the advantage of starting a franchise with Green: he’s a great defender who gives his all to stopping the opposition.
Green’s trademarks on that end of the floor are his versatility, instincts and effort. He’s just 6’7″ and 230 pounds, but that’s enough length and bulk to stick with power forwards and centers in the post. He won’t swat away many shots, but he’ll cut off post moves and force contested turnaround jumpers and difficult hook shots.
Draymond will rarely start a possession guarding a perimeter player, but the Warriors will gladly switch him on screens to guard quicker backcourt guys. His lateral quickness is surprisingly good and the energy he brings to these situations is something guards aren’t used to. Green clearly relishes the ability to situationally contain the league’s top outside scorers.
All in all, he has a strong argument as the best defender in the NBA, a claim his 2014-15 stats would affirm:
That said, there’s absolutely no guarantee Draymond’s efforts would make this hypothetical team he leads one of the best defensive units in the league. The Warriors’ No. 1 defense in 2014-15 wasn’t even close to a one-man effort.
Golden State’s Andrew Bogut was the best rim protector in the NBA last season not named Rudy Gobert. The top seven minute-getters on the Warriors last season (Stephen Curry, Green, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Bogut and Shaun Livingston) were all at least average on the defensive end, most of them much better than average.
The fact that Green’s six most important teammates all played good defense around him is a rare luxury, a luxury he’d assuredly not have playing in any other situation.
This is generally true historically — the best defenses in NBA history have depended on the abilities of several very good defenders, not just one or two.
The mid-2000s Detroit Pistons had Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, five above-average defenders who worked together to form an almost impossible unit to score on. The Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s were led by probably the best defender of all time in Bill Russell, but Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and later John Havlicek, among others, were known as some of the better stoppers in the league.
Just because Green is an excellent defensive anchor, that doesn’t mean he can single-handedly make a defense good. Or at least he’s never had anything close to an opportunity to prove it in Golden State.
As much as I love Green’s overall game, his offensive skills are often overstated because of who he plays with.
Curry and Thompson are the two best three-point shooters in the NBA (or two of the top three, if you want to throw Kyle Korver in between them). Both players, especially Curry, are threats to tickle the twine off the catch or off the dribble, which results in spacing galore for the other three players on the floor.
One staple of the Warriors’ offense last year was Green setting a high screen for Curry or Thompson, then moving to an open space on the perimeter, usually near the three-point line on either wing. Draymond is a very good screener, but Curry’s and Thompson’s shooting abilities were the biggest reason this play worked so well.
Below are several screenshots from the 2015 NBA Finals (Game 4 and Game 6 in particular), when Green screened Curry or Thompson and found himself with all sorts of room to work with:
This spacing allowed Green to receive a pass after screening with an open lane in front of him, often in a 4-on-3 situation because Curry or Thompson consumed the attention of Draymond’s man. From that point, Green could waltz down the lane and find an open shooter or cutter with a pass, rise up to finish at the rim himself or even just spot up for three, if his feet were set and he felt in rhythm.
This is Draymond’s offensive role in a nutshell, and it’s pretty simple.
He excels in space because he’s a smart passer, but he’s not a creator who can manufacture offense in 1-on-1 situations in the post or on the perimeter. The fact that he’s both undersized and not particularly athletic means finishing at the rim (when he doesn’t have a full head of steam dribbling toward it) is a chore. He’s a decent spot-up shooter who can occasionally make opposing big men pay for not stepping out to guard him, but he’s utterly useless pulling up off the dribble.
Those weaknesses I just mentioned are irrelevant in Golden State’s offense, because Draymond doesn’t need to have those skills as the third or fourth scoring option when the top two options already create so much for him.
The problem is: what happens when the shooting of Curry, Thompson and even Harrison Barnes aren’t on the floor to take the focus away from Draymond? Green doesn’t necessarily have to be your No. 1 offensive option if he’s your franchise player, but he’ll have to carry a much bigger role with the relative lack of talent on the rest of your roster. That’s not good.
Let’s compare Draymond to big men around him in Mahoney’s and Golliver’s list for comparison here:
Green is not only a low-volume scorer who rarely creates his own looks, but he’s not even particularly efficient despite the lack of attention the opposition pays him. The consensus on Green is that he spaces the floor for Golden State, but he made just 33.7 percent of his threes last season (below the league average of 35.0) and 56 percent of his attempts came when no defender was within six feet, which was significantly above the league average of 40 percent, per Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow.
From mid-range (16 feet to the three-point line), he made just 18 shots all season at a 34.0 percent clip. He also drained only 15-of-49 pull-up jumpers in the campaign (30.8 percent).
You can almost guarantee that Green’s accuracy in all those areas would decrease in an offense without two historically great shooters and another very good one drawing attention from him.
In summary, Green is a very good screener and passer who can use his basketball IQ to make the right play in space, but he won’t create looks for himself inside and doesn’t have the perimeter game to do so there, either. His offensive role is one that a lot of NBA players would succeed in.
If you give Draymond a bigger offensive role, not only will his efficiency plummet, but he’ll have less of his trademark energy to allocate to the defensive end.
The Implications of Ranking Him So High
Others may see them differently, but I view player rankings as a hypothetical draft in the event the NBA redistributes its talent for one season. Every player ranked before 30 represents someone who makes sense as a best player on his team, since there are 30 teams in the league.
If Draymond is your best player, yikes.
Let’s go with Mahoney’s and Golliver’s No. 16 ranking for him. Since a hypothetical team selected Draymond at No. 16, its next pick would be the 15th pick of the second round, or the 45th overall pick. The top guys available at that point are Khris Middleton, Kyle Korver, Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe and Zach Randolph (slots 45-49 in this particular ranking).
Who would you pick?
If you’re that GM, a sinking feeling of doom overtakes you. This team isn’t going to be good. If you pick Middleton or Korver, you’ll still be looking for your No. 1 offensive option with the No. 76 pick. If you pick Jefferson, Monroe or Randolph, you may be compromising your desired defensive identity by putting a poor rim protector next to Draymond. The offense would also suffer with poor guard play.
Your franchise player needs to be somewhat of an offensive anchor. People say that defense is half the game, and it certainly is when evaluating teams. But not when trying to determine franchise players.
James Harden, the Houston Rockets’ franchise player, may not be very good on defense, but his special offensive skills made everything come together for the Rockets last season. With Dwight Howard out most of the year, the rest of the starting lineup had very little individual offensive skill, but Harden made a killing in pick-and-roll and isolation sets, both as a scorer and playmaker. The heavy offensive load he took on enabled his teammates to focus on playing stingy defense, and Houston ended up as the eighth-most efficient defense last season.
Can you see the reverse working for Draymond? I can’t.
Even though Green is a defensive stud, it’s hard to picture one elite defensive player single-handedly making a defense good despite getting little help from teammates, simply because it’s never been done before. On offense, he’d need a lot of assistance from more skilled teammates to create a unit that even approaches good.
Green is a great all-around player who’s made the best of a very favorable situation. Props to Steve Kerr and Draymond for finding ways to use the 25-year-old’s offensive strengths and make his glaring offensive weaknesses irrelevant.
Because of his unique circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to rank Green, so I won’t attempt to do so. For all I know, he could develop in every area I’ve criticized him in and make me look silly for underestimating him. Plus, this discussion won’t even matter if Draymond stays in Golden State for the rest of his career as a complementary offensive option.
For now, though, I’m set on Green as a great player, but not a franchise one.