Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Draymond Green

Coming into the season, few expected the Golden State Warriors to be the runaway favorites for the NBA title, but that's the position they appear to be in as we put the All-Star break behind us. The Warriors have the best record and point differential in the league despite playing in one of the toughest conferences in recent memory. People are writing articles about Steph Curry being the face of the league and the guy to succeed LeBron and whether the Warriors can put together a dynasty over the next few years.

While there's no denying how well they have played over the first half of the season, I'm still in the camp that they have a lot to prove, mainly because they have very little playoff experience together. You don't often see a team go from winning one playoff series to winning four in a row in one jump. I'm not saying there's some intangible ubuntu stuff that goes in the playoffs and that the only way to win is to be there before. What I'm saying is that the post-season crucible tests your team in ways that the regular season cannot. The Thunder, the Clippers, the Spurs and the Grizzlies - we have a pretty good idea of what all these teams are about because they have played in a bunch of series against each other. 

Maybe the Warriors are the 2008 Celtics. Maybe they aren't. In and of itself, one great regular season doesn't mean anything. Just ask the 2007 Mavericks.

The difference between the playoffs and the regular season is the importance of match-ups. Over the course of an 82-game season, when you play 29 different teams spread out across the North American continent, individual match-ups tend to even out. Even if you have an edge on a guy, maybe you are playing on a back-to-back or your 4rth game in 5 nights or maybe you are going through a shooting slump or maybe someone else on your team is rolling so they are running all the offense through him for the moment. It all comes out in the wash. 

In the playoffs, everyone knows everyone and everything gets exposed. A team falls behind in a series and they are trying to find whatever edge, real or imaginary, they can find on the opponent. By the 3rd or 4rth time you play against a guy, you have a real good feel for his moves and for what he can and cannot do on both sides of the floor. On a team level, a good coach will re-arrange their entire line-up around exploiting a weakness on the other team. They are going to try unconventional things they would never do in the regular season, when it's more important to maintain consistent roles and avoid radically changing everyone's responsibilities on a nightly basis.

There are a lot of different questions you can ask about the Warriors - how will Steph's improved D hold up? If they face the Spurs, does he guard Manu or Parker? Do they have enough shooting on the perimeter outside of the Splash Bros? Can Bogut be a threat to score? What happens if teams go small against him and dare him to post up? Who takes Harry Barnes spot in the 4Q? - but the one that really fascinates me and the one I think will ultimately determine their season is this: Is Draymond Green big enough?

The stats would tell you it doesn't matter since Draymond is such a great defensive player and the Warriors have one of the best defenses in the NBA. That said, he is really short for his position and that's the type of thing that tends to matter more in the playoffs than in the regular season. 

Everyone wants to talk about PG's, but I've always felt that PF was the most important position in the modern NBA. That's the swing position that determines whether you are a 4-out or a 2-in team, so the guy at that spot determines your identity on both sides of the ball. You can see that this year with Golden State - the biggest change they made was switching out David Lee for Draymond. Now they are a super-fast team that can spread the floor, switch and trap pick-and-rolls and overwhelm teams with their length and athleticism. These are not things you can say about a team playing Lee major minutes at PF. 

Draymond made his rep in last year's playoffs, when the Warriors got back in the series by starting him in Game 4. Blake Griffin absolutely tore up Lee through the first 3 games and then Green helped bring him back to Earth, giving an undermanned team without Andrew Bogut the chance to pull off a major upset. Check Blake's game log from that series and notice when the massive drop in his stats occur.  

Draymond is a great defensive player in terms of his ability to hold up in the post, his quick hands and his tenacity, but he also follows the typical strategy that a lot of undersized guys have on D. When Draymond is on you, you are going to see a lot of cheap shots, physical play and macho posturing. The thing about that is you can hit Blake Griffin all you want and he's never going to hit you back. You can be the tough guy with Blake and try to get in his head. If you try that shit against Zach Randolph, he might murder you. Not metaphorically either. 

1) Grizzlies

We already know about the Grit N Grind Grizzlies, who already have series wins against the Spurs, Thunder and the Clippers on their playoff resume. They are going to slow the game down, ugly it up and pound the ball in the paint. In 2011, they overpowered a 60+ win Spurs team that started Dejuan Blair upfront. When you go up against Z-Bo and Marc Gasol in the playoffs, you better be ready for war.

You think it's all fun and games until Z-Bo has his hands around your neck and is trying to squeeze the life out of you on national TV. The camera ain't on you for 48 minutes. He's going to get you at some point. And when you are in the Grindhouse don't expect the refs to bail you out either. They are going to chalk it up to physical play and let you guys sort it out when neither of you has the ball. I'm not saying Draymond is going to back down. I'm just not sure it's going to matter. If a 6'5 guy is in the way of Z-Bo getting a championship, Z-Bo is licking his chops. He's going to take that little dude on the block then he's grabbing a 2x4 and beating him over the head with it. 

Who is drinking whose milkshake? That is the question.

2) Blazers

LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the toughest match-ups in the league because he is so tall and he's such a good shooter that he can practically score at will. People use that expression too much but that's the only way to describe what he did to the Rockets in the first two games of the first-round - 46 points in Game 1 and 43 points in Game 2. Terrence Jones, who is a lot taller and longer than Draymond Green, was much too short to bother LMA's release point. He needed a broomstick to block it essentially.

There are very, very few guys in the league with the ability to cover LMA. His problem is that he has run into them in each of his last two playoff series - Tyson Chandler in 2011 and Tiago Splitter in 2014. Interestingly enough, both those teams went on to win the NBA championship. The Blazers were actually the toughest challenge the Mavs had that season. The lowest point of their playoff run was coming back to Dallas 2-2 in the first round following Brandon Roy's heroics in Game 4. They just had a really tough time dealing with LMA and it forced them to do all sorts of wacky things to get past the Blazers. 

3) Spurs

The Spurs don't win a championship without Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw on their roster. That, along with the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, is what has allowed them to get back to the top of the NBA. 

You can see the importance of PF's in the way that they won the 2014 NBA Finals. They bust open the series in Game 3, when they moved Diaw into the starting line-up and went 4-out around Tim Duncan. I think that's the strategy they would try with the Warriors. Diaw is kind of like a bigger version of Draymond in that he can take bigger guys out on the perimeter and defend them on the block without giving up anything. The interesting thing about a match-up between those two is that Diaw could also theoretically take Draymond on the block. He can beat you in a lot of different ways - just ask LeBron James and Marc Gasol, two guys whom he has held his own against in 1-on-1 match-ups over the last nine months. I don't really care about Diaw's regular season stats because he's the next iteration of Robert Horry and Lamar Odom. I call those guys The Tax Men because they don't really get to work until April 15. 

What makes all three of those guys special is they were great two-way players who could outplay bigger stars at their position even though they weren't a featured player on offense. And maybe Draymond can be the next in those line of guys. He's just a lot shorter is all.

4) Thunder

When I look at a potential series between these teams, what jumps out at me is the Thunder moving Serge Ibaka to the 5 and KD to the 4, which puts the Warriors in a really tough spot since Bogut doesn't want to defend out to the three-point line. They may not ever use that as their starting line-up but you can bet they will go to it to close out games if they don't need to keep a 5 on the floor who can defend the post.

Does Draymond guard KD if he's at the 4? I'm not sure. They might move Draymond to the 3 and put a longer defender more used to guarding 25+ feet like Iguodala on KD. No matter how the Warriors match up with, the Thunder going small takes away a lot of their advantages in terms of being the faster and more athletic team. Golden State wants to run bigger teams off the floor. The $64,000 question is whether OKC can beat them at their own game.

I don't want to sound like a hater because I really like his game but I don't think Draymond can guard KD. I don't think anyone can really. There's a reason the Thunder have won 8x as many playoff series as this group of Warriors even though all of their core players are around the same age.

At the moment, these match-ups questions are unanswerable. The Warriors haven't played enough 7-game series against the top teams in the West for us to really know. The only thing we can do is speculate. For whatever its worth, here are the numbers that all those guys have put up against the Warriors this season:

In a lot of ways, the Warriors are a spiritual descendant of the 7 Seconds or Less Suns, with Steve Nash as the closest thing to Steph Curry. What made both those teams so incredible is they ignored a lot of the conventional wisdom when it comes to building a roster. You don't think the Thunder would rather start KD at the 4 and score 8 trillion points? They don't because they think it's important to have big men with the size of Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka in order to match-up with the big front-lines in the West.

What happened to the Suns? They never really had an answer for Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. 

This was a low-key Hakeem vs. Robinson moment.

Bogut could maybe guard Duncan but it's not like he could guard prime Dirk. The way the league has been going over the last generation, you need a guy who can match-up with guys like prime Dirk on your team. If the Warriors can win a title with a 6'5-6'6 guy at PF, it's going to challenge a lot of assumptions about how you can build an elite team ... they just have to do it first.

Here's the thing. Even if Draymond Green survives the gauntlet in the Western Conference, which might mean going toe-to-toe with KD, LMA and Z-Bo in consecutive rounds, he might have to go up against LeBron James playing as a small-ball 4 in the NBA Finals. If he can hold up against those guys, he's going to have earned every penny of the money he will make in the off-season.


  1. Terrence Jones has a 7'2 wingspan. It helps, but it still might not be enough.

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