Fun fact: Draymond Green played 22 percent of his rookie minutes at shooting guard, according to pro-basketball reference. This is preposterous for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he is best known as a revolutionary center, yet by their estimates, the highest proportion of his minutes he’s ever spent as a five is only 21 percent. While these numbers aren’t exact, the suggestion that Green was misused so badly early on is hardly surprising in context.
Green is only 6-6. At the time, the notion of using a player of Kobe Bryant’s height at Shaquille O’Neal’s position was simply unheard of. Green was approximately wing-sized, so he languished as an underutilized wing for the first two years of his career in a league not yet creative enough to appreciate him.
While the league itself has advanced beyond that point, it seems as though those who watch it have not. The recent Draymond discourse began on a recent appearance on Showtime’s “All the Smoke,” in which Green correctly pointed out his role in revolutionizing the game of basketball for the three-time champion Golden State Warriors.
“I think I changed the game of basketball with the help of Steph Curry, and I think Steph Curry changed the game of basketball with the help of me,” Green said. “It was a match made in heaven, and then all of a sudden, f****** Klay Thompson comes into his own and becomes the top two shooters in the world, and us three f****** changed the game of basketball forever.”
The response has been dismissive. Social media pundits have gone after him by claiming that it was actually just Curry and Thompson that changed the game. Charles Barkley, who has feuded with Green for years, proceeded to fan the flames.
“He’s the worst member of the boy band who doesn’t realize he’s standing next to Justin Timberlake,” Barkley said. “When the girls are throwing panties at his head, he’s going to get hit by some drive-by panties, but they’re really throwing panties at Justin Timberlake.”
In a sense, Green has only himself to blame for his unappreciated place in NBA history. He famously recruited Kevin Durant onto his Warriors, sacrificing what little credit he was in line for in the name of winning. He was the only Golden State All-Star healthy enough to play for the majority of this season, making him the public face for his dynasty’s brief decay. Green may be more than happy to give himself recognition, but rarely has he effectively positioned himself to receive it from others.
But frankly, he shouldn’t need to. Green shouldn’t be lost in Curry’s shadow, nor should his utter lack of modesty subject him to this sort of public comeuppance. The truth is that his impact on the game has been just as profound as Curry’s, if not nearly as obvious.
The two work in tandem offensively. Their unique gifts feed off of one another to produce some of Golden State’s most devastating plays. For as valuable as Curry’s shooting is in itself, the gravity it creates has allowed Green to revolutionize the role of on-ball screener.
The pick-and-roll was designed as a two-man process. The ball-handler either slipped the ball to the roller for a layup, dunk or jumper, or that roll would be a decoy drawing help that frees up a shooter. But Curry’s shot draws double-teams so readily that Green has grown to function as a second point guard, slicing 4-on-3s with his elite passing.
Watching Green and Curry’s pick-and-roll forefathers, John Stockton and Karl Malone, face the same doubles looks as if they are playing a totally different sport. Utah’s standard response was Malone simply taking the mid-range jumper.
Green may not have been the first consistent short-roll playmaker, but he has undoubtedly become its best, weaponizing it to such a degree that it is arguably Golden State’s preferred read out of the pick-and-roll, an unheard-of development in NBA history. That passing serves him in every element of Golden State’s motion-heavy scheme. There is a legitimate argument to be made that he is Golden State’s best playmaker. He led the Warriors in assists in each of the past four full seasons, an honor Curry likely has no objection surrendering. While he holds the point guard title in name, Green does in practice, handling a significant amount of Golden State’s practical playmaking so that Curry can focus on his best intangible skill, moving off of the ball.
The arrangement works because of how complementary their skill sets are. Were Green not a point-guard-level passer, teams could double Curry on pick-and-rolls with impunity. Were Curry not a historically dominant shooter, the Warriors might feel the space Green’s lack of shooting ability deprives them of more often. Fill in another half-dozen or so staples from the Golden State playbook and you’ll get the same result. They need each other. There’s a reason Steve Kerr has handcuffed the two together in his substitution patterns for six seasons now.
That need is a one-way street, though. While Curry and Green mesh perfectly on offense, Green is a system unto himself defensively. Switching, or the act of two defenders trading assignments upon an offensive screen, was a niche concept reserved only for specific situations for most of NBA history. Many coaches and players even frowned upon it, considering it a form of surrender. Effective or not, it gave up preferred matchups in ways that traditional screen defenses did not, and practically speaking, barely any players could functionally guard any two players in a screen combination anyway. Enter Draymond:
Green defends all five positions so well that Golden State could functionally switch any screen because he would never surrender a bad matchup. As a result, Golden State rarely has to resort to the more aggressive tactics opponents try against it. There’s no need to allow a 4-on-3 when Draymond can handle any assignment one-on-one. Now teams league-wide expect their big men to do the same. Imitations pop up annually. Green made the rise of players like P.J. Tucker and Bam Adebayo possible.
Those players have since replaced a far less effective big man variant: the slow center. With the entire world watching, Green played Timofey Mozgov off of the floor in the 2015 Finals. Golden State’s “Death Lineup” did the same to dozens of big men around the league. Green could defend any of them, but they had no way of keeping up with his speed and passing on the other end of the floor. Save a few exceptions, Green has driven the traditional center into extinction. Bigs that can’t keep up hardly even exist anymore.
That is his ultimate contribution to the game of basketball. He entered an NBA determined to fit him into a preexisting archetype and was so unique that he has since forced the league to play at his speed. Small-ball existed before Green, but was only popularized on its current scale because he proved it could be done successfully at the highest level with minimal sacrifices in terms of the contributions centers typically make. Green didn’t invent switching either, but he did it so well that teams were forced to reexamine their long-held biases against a scheme they never bothered to take seriously.
Most of the stylistic changes the league has undergone in the past half-decade can be traced back directly to Green’s ascent in 2015. That’s a claim Curry can’t even fully make. Though he is unquestionably the NBA’s greatest 3-point shooter, the analytics revolution started pushing teams behind the arc well before he grew into a legend. The league’s total average 3-point attempts per game rose in each of the three seasons before Curry won his first MVP, and though that growth wasn’t always linear, it was happening in some fashion for decades before that. Curry was the logical endpoint of a trend that began without him. Green was the instigator of a trend that has grown well beyond him.
That may not make him Curry’s equal as a player, but it certainly does as a revolutionary. Modern basketball was shaped just as much by his rise as it was Curry’s. Only in Draymond’s league could a part-time rookie shooting guard grow into a generation’s defining center.