In a championship run that seemed to defy conventional basketball wisdom, the Golden State Warriors were fortunate to have two transcendent players on the roster. Although many thought the team was too reliant on jumpers to accomplish anything special, the Warriors had the No. 1 ranked defense and No. 2 ranked offense amid a historically great 67-win season. In June, they brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Bay Area for the first time in 40 years. Their highly efficient offense was led by none other than the MVP, Stephen Curry, and their defense was anchored by the versatile Draymond Green, both of which displayed rare abilities throughout last season.
Draymond Green’s Defensive Versatility
On the surface, Green’s basic box score numbers of nearly 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game hardly merit the five-year, $82 million contract he just signed with the Warriors. But after digging deeper into the numbers, the former second-round draft pick’s irreplaceable effect on the Warriors’ defense becomes apparent.
Green was in the top five in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. Additionally, the defensive prodigy was ranked as the NBA’s eighth-most valuable player last season, according to ESPN’s real plus-minus. This all-encompassing stat measures net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions (while accounting for teammates and strength of opponent).
The bulk of Green’s value comes from his tenacious and adaptable defense. Before the emergence of analytics, front-office executives would undervalue players with his tenacity and indomitable spirit while the top scorers in the league would garner the highest paychecks. But with the help of real plus-minus and other advanced stats, Green’s intangibles and defense are converted into a meaningful number that can help quantify his true value on the court.
Green can man the middle like an adept rim protector and effectively switch onto smaller guards on the perimeter, sometimes on the same possession. LeBron James is touted for his ability to defend all five positions, but that doesn’t mean he does it particularly well. Opponents shot a considerably lower percentage than their averages from every area on the court whenever Green was guarding them, per NBA.com/Stats. Finding a player who can actually, effectively guard any position like Green is perhaps as rare as Sunday’s supermoon lunar eclipse.
Despite being an undersized power forward, Green can both dislodge opposing big men out of their comfort spots and completely deny the post-entry pass altogether due to his lower-body strength and bustling hands. Although Andrew Bogut had previously been the fulcrum of the Warriors’ defensive schemes, Golden State hardly missed a beat when the big man was sidelined thanks to Green. Bogut missed 15 games last season, and he played less than 24 minutes per contest when he was available. In 1,214 minutes with Bogut off the floor and Green on it, the Warriors allowed just 97.0 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would’ve still led the league, per NBA.com.
There’s no precedent for undersized power forwards who amass unexceptional stats being offered a max contract. Although Green agreed on a deal with the Warriors that pays an average of $1 million less than the max per season, he certainly could’ve struck a max deal had he pursued his market value. With his uncommon defensive abilities, perhaps Green has paved the way for future players with basic numbers to sign lucrative deals.
Stephen Curry’s Offensive Brilliance
It’s conceivable that an incredibly athletic player such as Russell Westbrook can impose his will on the NBA. It’s unusual, however, to see a player of Curry’s willowy stature command the attention of the defense and dominate basketball games the way he does. Curry’s unparalleled shooting ability and skill set strains the defense to an unprecedented degree.
Historically, defenses have gladly ceded off-the-bounce three-pointers, but that’s because ordinary human beings aren’t supposed to quickly and efficiently hit contested, pull-up shots from anywhere within 35 feet of the basket. Thus, this tweet from Kobe Bryant was inspired:
When the shots u take r the shots the defense wants u to take but r the shots ur comfortable taking #curryriddle
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) May 22, 2015
ESPN’s Ethan Strauss eloquently summed up the havoc Curry wreaked on his opponents last season:
On more than most nights, it broke those defenses. Maintaining such vigilance just isn’t realistic. Either you slip and let Curry loose, or your defense fractures from the pressure of keeping him contained. Teams tried everything this season. They double-teamed Curry 40 feet from the basket, pressured him full court, switched their big men onto him above the arc, and it wasn’t unusual to see him triple-teamed in transition. There was a raw, palpable fear to how these teams scrambled to evade Vine infamy.
Typically, aggressive brutes achieve the type of supremacy that the slender Curry has mastered via ingenuity and finesse. Strauss went on to compare Curry’s ability to demand double teams to the paradoxical Shaquille O’Neal, saying, “Shaq bashed defenses till they broke. Steph stretches defenses till they snap.”
While the greatest shooter of all time is adept at drawing double and triple teams, he leverages the extra attention he receives to generate easy scoring opportunities for his teammates with his elite ball-handling and facilitating ability.
Curry was named MVP last season for catapulting a mediocre Warriors team when he was on the bench to a historically great team when he was on the floor. Even when Curry was the only starter on the bench, the Warriors saw its offensive rating dip to league average. With his offensive brilliance, Curry would habitually finish off the opposition in the first three quarters, allowing himself and the rest of the starters to rest in the fourth; he played just 33 minutes per game in which the Warriors outscored their opponents by a total of 920 points.
In a recent commercial titled “Actions Speak Louder Than Words,” Curry read an unflattering scouting report about how his below-standard athleticism and explosiveness would cause him to struggle in the NBA. One NBA championship, MVP and a litany of broken three-point records later, Curry has established himself as a transcendent player despite lacking the physical ability that most athletes need to have a dominant impact. Perhaps it’s fitting that Curry, who strikes fear into the hearts of his defenders notwithstanding his innocuous stature, is nicknamed the Baby-Faced Assassin.
Draymond Green was a key cog to the Warriors’ stifling defense last season, and Curry was the maestro of their beautiful offense. Together, these two unorthodox players helped form one of the greatest teams of all time.