February 15, 2019

The NBA is always filled with tremendous talents, but there are only a handful of unique players at any given time. For the most part, we’ve seen stars with similar games to the ones from previous eras. That’s what makes the few that break the mold so special to watch.

It’s hard to think of someone similar to Draymond Green, probably because he’s so clearly a product of this generation’s style of play. There have been teams that embraced the pace-and-space identity as far back as the Seven Seconds or Less Suns or even the Run DMC Warriors, but only now has it become a widespread phenomenon. Green is arguably one of the first players that has seen his value spike because of his ability to excel in this new environment.

After playing a big role in the Warriors’ championship season, Green’s importance for his team is not a secret anymore. His versatility on both ends has turned him from bit player into the second-most important piece on a historically great team. He can shoot, pass, and rebound, and he can defend every position on the floor. He has been everything Golden State has needed him to be and done so well.

Yet, he has been overshadowed by sharing a team with another unique player that is simply much more talented than he is. Stephen Curry completely changes how opponents play, so it’s not crazy to suggest Green’s strengths have been magnified by sharing the court with him.

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Draymond’s ability to make the right pass is rare for big, men but he’s had the benefit of playing in the space and favorable situations Curry creates for him. The poor rebounding on those killer small ball lineups can afford to suffer a bit because any unit with good spacing and Stephen Curry will destroy opponents when they match it. The relationship between the two is clearly symbiotic, but Curry has always been perceived to be the shark and Green the remora.

That’s why the games Curry has missed have been so illuminating about Green’s real impact and true talent. In the past three games, the Warriors’ forward managed to show that he’s not merely a system player or a product of his environment.

Green did a terrific job of facilitating on offense by doing what he always does — feast on four-on-three situations resulting from traps to ball handlers, push the pace to find teammates in good spots before the defense is set – and also by making plenty of passes to cutters in tight spaces, both from the top of the arc and the post. Whenever someone got open, they were getting the ball in a position to score.

The Warriors didn’t have enough perimeter players to go small, so Green barely got to play center. Marreese Speights and Andrew Bogut were almost always on the court with him, which made Golden State a more traditional squad. Green’s three-point shooting and his ability to guard both bigger power forwards and quicker wings were not a luxury, but a necessity. The Warriors became the team that wanted to stay big when their opponent went small.

Fortunately for them, Green’s versatility allowed them to do just that. He shot 46 percent on three-pointers, connecting on 5-of-9 attempts against the Nuggets. Equally important was the spacing he provided. Since he’s shooting a career-high 41 percent on three-pointers, opponents had to guard him in the perimeter instead of packing the paint. The Warriors tried to have Green outside the three-point line whenever they could to create room for others. This play, in which Draymond is clearly out of his range, for example, resulted in a backdoor cut and an assist for Green.

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On defense, Green was hidden on spot-up shooters against the Rockets and did a fabulous job of resisting the temptation to overhelp. He would take a few steps towards the paint, but was typically mindful of where his man was and closed out on time.

Against the Nuggets and Mavericks, he mostly guarded Dirk Nowtzki and Danilo Gallinari. Whenever he was involved in ball screens, he was extremely careful not to leave them open or switch, unless Andre Iguodala was in the play. He didn’t shut those guys down, but did manage to be disruptive without gambling, which is not an easy thing to do.

The result of his excellent play was a Western Conference Player of the Week nod that leaves no doubt about his ability to thrive without the reigning MVP.

Yet anyone looking for Draymond to break out and prove to be ready to be a first option or a traditional star was probably disappointed. He wasn’t aggressively looking to score, and still couldn’t create for himself consistently. He even struggled on the boards sometimes, his numbers notwithstanding. Despite the great performances, Green didn’t show off any news skills in Curry’s absence.

What he did instead was arguably simpler, but rarer: he became be best version of himself when the team needed him the most. While that won’t be enough for the small section of fans still skeptical about his bona fides as a star, it proved that as long Green is there to plug all the leaks at once, Golden State will remain competitive, no matter who else is out.

It’s clear by now that the Warriors are special. That’s no longer in dispute. What we are all trying to do now is figure out why. While Curry is certainly the biggest reason for their uniqueness, there’s another one-of-a-kind player on that roster that deserves plenty of credit as well. Without Green, the reigning champions wouldn’t be the team they are.

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