What just happened?
When you see the Golden State Warriors play in person, the first player you notice isn’t Stephen Curry. Curry, for all his majesty, is an unremarkable physical specimen to the naked eye, 6’2 and built like a paperclip.
The player who catches the eye most immediately is Curry’s running mate, Draymond Green.
Nicknamed ‘Dancing Bear’ in college, Green, at 6’7” and 104kg, charges down the court more like a water buffalo on ice skates. He’s breathtaking in transition, a slightly controlled version of LeBron James. He’s not the force of nature that James is, but he’s the force of something, barrelling to the rim with abandon to demonstrate his power, and lofting centimetre perfect alley oop passes to teammates to demonstrate his finesse. He’s Boris Diaw with a knife instead of a wand.
Green’s rise in the NBA has been meteoric. He entered the league as a second round draft pick who shot 32.7 per cent from the floor in his rookie year, comically bad for a big man.
He emerged as a capable role player in his second year and blossomed in the playoffs against the Clippers, starting for the injured Andrew Bogut.
Last season was Green’s real coming out party, throughout the year a candidate for the All-Star team, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player awards and an All-NBA team. He didn’t win any of those accolades, having to settle instead for the quiet honour of being the second best player on a team that won the NBA championship.
We got the first sustained dose of the Draymond Green experience last year. He’s the NBA’s Swiss army knife, the game’s most versatile player, perhaps the only player who can capably defend all five positions. He’s quick enough to stay in front of guards, lengthy enough to hassle shooters and stocky enough to stay solid in the post. Green’s defensive adaptability has informed Golden State’s dominant defensive identity, allowing them to switch everything and play small without sacrificing their defensive integrity.
Green’s defensive has always been lauded, but it’s on offence where he’s been a revelation. The man is a dynamo. He crashes the glass and runs the break, he’s a capable shooter and one of the game’s best big man passers, in the same elite category as Diaw, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol.
The NBA’s defining question for the past two seasons, and perhaps for many years to come, has been this: how do you stop a 1/5 pick and roll between Stephen Curry and Draymond Green? Nobody has been able to come up with an answer yet, and until they do, the NBA is effectively a contest for second place.
You can’t switch the pick and roll because Curry devours big men on switches. You can’t trap Curry off the pick because that leaves Green room to operate four on three with a wide open floor in front of him. Green is the most devastating big man in the league in that situation, able to cannonball to the rim if given a clear path. If a big sags over he’s a decisive passer, capable of lobbing alley oops or finding Andre Igoudala or Harrison Barnes in the corners for wide open threes.
Green made a shambles of those four on threes in the first three games of the finals last season and that allowed Cleveland to take a 2-1 lead. He was tentative with his drives, unwilling to shoot, and mistiming his passes. Call it nerves or whatever (let’s not forget, last year was just Green’s third season in the league), but Green overcame them and was dominant in the final three Warriors victories, fittingly putting up a triple-double in the closing game.
Champions are often born in the flames, and the fire of the finals seems to have taken Green to a new level. While Stephen Curry is on pace for one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, Green is having one of its most unique. He’s a player averaging 7.4 assists per game whose best position is center and who has the league MVP at point guard. This is unprecedented.
Green’s season averages of 14.8 points per game, 9.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks and 1.6 threes on 41.7 per cent from three are absurd. In four years he’s elevated himself from a cute second rounder and a league afterthought to one of the game’s ten best players. Basketball Reference currently has Green fourth in the MVP race, behind only Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard. By inference, that would place Draymond Green, 35th pick in the draft, ahead of LeBron James in the MVP race.
Curry is still the player who makes Golden State great. As versatile as Green is, Curry is still the team’s most unique player and the player who most allows them to play the way they do. Their identity is still ‘Steph.’ But while Curry makes the Warriors great, Green is the ingredient that elevates them to transcendent.
Curry is the band’s star, songwriter and vocalist – the team’s Thom Yorke – and Green is the guitarist, the Jonny Greenwood who brings it all together and makes the music so perfect. They’re both brilliant in their own right, but you need both of them to make Radiohead, and the rest of the league is still coming to terms with the resulting bends.