OAKLAND – Watching the Warriors wax and wane through 39 games this season, several of their problems become starkly evident, perhaps none more than Draymond Green’s struggle to play at his usual elite standard.
Yes, there is a cogent argument for two-time MVP Stephen Curry to play more off the ball. Yes, the Warriors could benefit from consistently giving former MVP Kevin Durant more touches, keeping him involved and his head in the game. Yes, it is fair to want four-time All-Star Klay Thompson to be more selective with his shooting.
And questioning coach Steve Kerr’s substation patterns has become a parlor game.
If the Warriors were to fix all those issues Saturday night in Sacramento, they’d still be a Draymond short of reaching their potential.
Conversations in the wake of their devastating 135-134 loss to the Rockets raged deep through Thursday night and into Friday, folks debating solutions in person, over the phone, and on social media. The defending champs are 25-14, sirens are blaring through the streets and suddenly everybody with a tongue or a keyboard is an EMT specializing in emergency treatment of an NBA team.
The vast majority of the chatter fixates on what Curry or Durant or Thompson or Kerr should do for the Warriors to regain their “super team” status.
Yet, Green is the key. He can do more for the other four than perhaps any of them can do for each other.
When Green is on his game, he lubricates the offense and, moreover, is such a one-man pack of smart and instinctive dogs on defense that he inspires teammates and deflates opponents. His impact is so massive it’s reasonable to argue that he is as valuable as any member of a team that has two players with MVP awards.
“He sees the pictures of the game, in the moment, as well as anybody I’ve ever been around,” assistant coach Ron Adams says anytime he discusses Green.
“With his passion and intensity, he puts us on another level,” Kerr said during Green’s 11-game absence with a sprained toe.
While Green’s offense is a hot topic, with good reason, his defense is the bigger issue. When he's balling, the Warriors are not 15th in defensive rating.
Oh, Draymond’s D is not a nightly issue. There have been games when, because of his defense, he was the most impactful player on the floor. He was tremendous last week in the win at Portland, quite good three weeks ago in a win at Sacramento and extraordinary back on Nov. 2, when he was the technician of a defense that held Minnesota to 37.6-percent shooting in another Warriors victory.
But for every game when Draymond plays at Defensive Player of the Year level, there are a two or three that he’s just another guy trying to do his job.
“Players are more willing to challenge him now,” one Western Conference scout said last week. “He’s gonna shut some of ‘em down, but not like he used to.”
Green’s defensive rating this season is 102.4, eighth among forwards averaging at least 30 minutes per game. His defensive rating last season was 104.4, 14th among players averaging at least 30 minutes.
In 2016-17, when Green was DPOY, his 100.2 rating was No. 1 among all forwards averaging at least 30 minutes per game. It was, in fact, No. 1 among all players, at any position, averaging at least 30 minutes.
There is more to great defense than ratings, but ratings are perhaps the most reliable means of measurement. And right now, Green’s 102.4 is well behind the likes of Paul George (99.6) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (100.4).
What makes Draymond different from George and Antetotkounmpo is his ability to generate fluid offense for his teammates. His defense, because of how it triggers transition, is a major contributor to the team’s offense.
At 6-foot-7 Green faces so many physical challenges that some are speculating his body is wearing out from the hard labor against bigger men. There may be something to that, though he’ll never admit it. Injuries forced him to miss 12 games last season and 14 so far this season.
Now, there is the possibility that Green, despite his expressed desire to win another DPOY award, is saving his best for the postseason. He did it last season, when that 104.4 rating dropped to 100.0 in the playoffs, third among all frontcourt players.
Regular season or postseason, though, it’s hard to imagine the Warriors reeling off a fantastic run unless Green’s defense is a central component.