During Golden State’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 9, analyst Jeff Van Gundy made a bold prediction about Draymond Green on the broadcast: “I really think he's going to be a max player.”
Twitter did a double take over a valuation that few, if any, had offered publicly. Van Gundy had a solid case, though, even if it went against conventional wisdom: "How many guys defend, rebound, pass and make 3s? That combination, you just don't see."
While you just don’t see Green’s combination of skills, you also just don’t see guys averaging fewer than 12 points getting max restricted offers -- unless they’re 7 feet tall. If Van Gundy’s right, if this does indeed happen, it would have to mark a sea change in the business of basketball.
We’re talking about a second-round pick who’s shorter than 6-6 in socks, who doesn't jump high, create his own shot or dominate the ball. A rookie max deal for a scrappy “tweener” averaging the fourth-most points per game on his team? Basketball doesn’t work that way -- yet. This summer will be a good test of whether teams pay big for a guy who does all the “little things.”
Green might not boast gaudy traditional stats, but one stat in particular loudly agrees with Van Gundy's assertion. Real plus-minus, which measures a player by how his team does when he’s in the game, lists Green as the 10th-best player in the league. He’s first among wings, ahead of even LeBron James. Of course, Green isn't technically a wing this season; he’s starting at power forward. But that ambiguity of position reflects the value he brings. Against the Mavericks, he ably guarded Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis in the same game. It’s difficult to fit a player like this into a box.
Perhaps you assume his RPM is a fluke, some bizarre byproduct of an excellent Warriors run. That would make sense except Green was third among wings in real plus-minus last season, when he played much of the season among an anemic bench lineup. Green also produced a positive RPM as a rookie despite shooting a horrific 32.7 percent from the field.
“Draymond Green is the poster boy for the defensive superstar who is making contributions that are on par with offensive superstars that we easily recognize,” said Steve Ilardi, one of the architects of RPM.
Green’s ability to guard five positions has been praised, but the underpaid are often paid in compliments like “heart,” “grit” and “hustle.” The idea behind using a team success stat is to make Green’s production register in the way, “25 points per game” resonates. That kind of resonance might elevate an athlete’s status from “gritty” to “superstar.” When I asked if the Warriors should match a rookie max offer, Ilardi answered: “Yes.”
“His defense would probably be the same almost no matter what team he plays on, in part because he can defend so many positions," Jeremias Engelmann, the other half of the RPM team, said via email. "Further, I think he could play a very similar role as he's now playing for GSW for a number of other teams such as TOR, CHI, ATL, WAS, POR, OKC, LAC, (PHX), HOU, MEM, DAL, SAS. That's 12 teams for which I think his role wouldn't change much, and his value would thus not change much either.”
Unlike some other defensive specialists, Green plays enough offense to remain on the floor. His ability to capably hit open 3-pointers means he can play more minutes than Tony Allen or Andre Roberson. He also rebounds, passes, pushes the ball in transition and throws Kevin Love-style outlet passes. About the only thing Green can’t do on a basketball court is create his own shot. That’s minor in the grand scheme, but it's also the skill most associated with stardom. Tradition demands that we consider Green a “role player,” even if he’s excelling at all but one role.
Naturally, I asked Green what his take on the matter: “Do you know where you’re ranked in real plus-minus?”
Green has said before that his greatest defensive asset is his anticipation. He’s smart enough to see what an opponent wants to do in a given situation. It’s said that defense is all about “character,” and maybe it is. But defense also requires a good amount of foresight. It’s good to have heart, but don’t discount the value of psychic powers.
Draymond shredded my quiz tactics: “I mean, the way you making it sound, top 10?”
“You knew!” I said, half-accusingly.
“That's just the way you were making it sound,” Green insisted.
I’ve asked him before if he agreed that he’s a “top-four or -five power forward,” and he concurred. Green is the epitome of a team-first player, but unselfish play does not mean a dearth of confidence. He’s the guy who kept firing 3s through a rookie season where he shot 20.9 percent behind the arc. The man believes in himself and won’t get bashful over stats that speak well of his value.
On the stat: “I'm sure it's fair, obviously. I'm not going to go out on the court and say, ‘Oh, I need to get to No. 1, real plus-minus!’ Everything that happens out there will take care of itself. I'm not going to start worrying about it, but that's pretty cool.”
I asked if he thought new stats that reflected defense would catch on. Green assumes an inevitable shift: “I think it has to [catch on], because everything now is about winning. You can score 25 a night but if you're on a losing team nobody cares.”
I offered that new stats could help with his contract situation. He smiled. “Yeah. That’s pretty cool, too.”
For the Warriors, the issue of Green’s contract is bigger than just Green and bigger than just money. If you noticed a certain TMZ video, Green was at a football game in Seattle with Stephen Curry’s family, throwing grapes at Seahawks fans who’d gotten into a spat with Curry’s wife and mother. That incident doesn’t much matter, but it was illustrative of Green’s friendship with Golden State’s franchise face. Curry certainly wants Green around past this season. The Warriors might not want to pay Green a max offer, but keeping Curry happy, and keeping Curry in the Bay after 2017, are important considerations.
Luckily for the Warriors, Steph’s friend happens to be a very productive NBA player, a “role player” with star production. It’s hard to quantify just how much he does for Golden State, but the closer we get, the more green Draymond seems due.