The central triumph of the Golden State Warriors, both strategically and stylistically, is that they smooth out basketball’s fluctuation. They take the part of the game that teams are supposed to access only in their best moments—the ball whirring atomically, possessions and quarters unfolding with an almost narrative logic—and make it routine. Their mood is always good, their shots always drop, and they almost always win.
When concerns of over-perfection arise, they even have an in-house answer. Draymond Green, in his tirade during halftime of a nationally televised game against Oklahoma City, reportedly shouted, “I am not a robot!” It was likely a complaint about some aspect of the Golden State system as it played out that afternoon, but it doubled as assurance to those who have some doubts about the flesh-and-blood makeup of the impeccable Warriors. Green often performs that function. On a team of variously slick divinities, Green is the humanizing element, the undersized and unconventional player whose foibles make his success all the more impressive.
Praise of Green sometimes tips toward the backhanded. The Warriors would be worse with anyone else in his place, sure, but he would also be worse on any other team. He is one of the most important players in the NBA right now, but that stature comes with the caveat that he could very well be peripheral in five years’ time. Admiration of his ability to function as the hub of Golden State’s offensive and defensive tactics inevitably gives to the question of whether he could do the same for a team less blessed with talent.
That question is irrelevant, at least for now, but that doesn’t make it uninteresting. While the Warriors keep rolling, Green registers in a more complex way than Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. His place on the Warriors is more serendipitous, his career trajectory less defined. He plays into one of basketball fandom’s oldest habits, that of trying to isolate a player’s value. And yet he is so good, and so distinctive, that it raises the question of why we bother with all that.
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Draymond Green is lucky. That might read as an insult, but I don’t mean it as one. It is just impossible to watch him without noting, from time to time, the immense good fortune of his ending up on this team, with these players. Anywhere but Oakland, even on another contender, Green would almost certainly have been miscast to some degree. The team in question wouldn’t really be at fault in this scenario; there are very few settings capable of making full use of the spectrum of his talents. In Cleveland or Oklahoma City or Charlotte or Detroit, he’d make for a handy but limited player, a piano hammer pressed into duty pounding nails.
In the here and now, Green acts as fulcrum of the most unstoppable play in sports. You know the one: Curry dribbles around a Green pick, and the defense, fearing a 25-footer, traps Curry, so he flips the ball to Green, who charges down the lane as one of four Warriors set against three remaining defenders. A shooter waits on each wing; Andrew Bogut, maybe, lurks beside the rim ready to stuff a lob. Green surveys the floor, all the while running like he’s getting ready to Kool-Aid Man his way through a brick wall. If someone steps in front of him, Green whisks the ball to whichever Warrior that defender left. If no one does, he stops for a short floater or tears all the way down the lane for an iron-armed jam.
It’s a reliable and reliably beautiful play—with both characteristics, I think, owing to its simplicity. A fourth-grader could diagram it. It also serves as a summary of everything that makes Green so useful. That everything includes Curry and the rest of Golden State’s maestros of the parabolic arc; no other team can stretch a defense to such a degree from such a variety of distances.
But it is made in equal measure of Green’s decision-making ability, his singular athletic profile—point guard meets local-circuit wrestler, with a generous pinch of Anthony Mason—and his near-total lack of preference between his options. Green plays with a combination of raw ego and selflessness. He knows he’s the man for the job, but he doesn’t care how he gets it done.
Always finding new ways to make it unpleasant for others. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The other thing about Draymond Green is that he doesn’t stop. That might read as a canned compliment, the kind of claim that starts off a diatribe about how one hard-working athlete stands apart from a general tendency toward the casual and the half-assed and so sourly on. This isn’t what I mean.
I mean only that, in the instant after you register Green’s great luck in landing on a squad seemingly dreamed up to maximize his skill set, your brain starts rattling a little bit from holding “Green” and “luck” in such close proximity. This is because no other player in basketball seems so self-possessed, so dismissive of the idea that anything outside of himself could possibly throw him off track.
Those bulletproof four-on-threes are how I think of Green in the abstract, but the specific play that comes to mind most often happened on Christmas Day of this season, when the Warriors hosted the Cavaliers. Late in the game, with the Warriors up five, LeBron James skirted Curry in transition and steamed toward the rim. Green moved into James’s path. Green jumped an instant before James, anticipating his move, and in midair ripped the ball from the hands of the four-time MVP. It was seismic in its straightforwardness. Everyone watching knew what sound to make.
An official whistled a foul, though, so James shot two free throws while Green argued. The fans at Oracle Arena grumbled, but I don’t think I have ever seen a questionable call seem so irrelevant. The play meant less as a data point in a game than as a statement of principle. Green does the right thing on the court, even if it is daunting and even if the effort goes unrewarded.
Earlier this month, the Warriors hosted the Hawks while Curry sat nursing an ankle injury. Green thrives in this sort of situation—trouble as fun, limitation as opportunity. He played more than 42 minutes that night, at power forward and backup point guard, and plainly reveled in the load. He added pick-and-roll ballhandling and half-court organizing to his usual repertoire, throwing audacious full-court outlet passes and darts to cutters open for a quarter of a second. He dribbled around high screens, embracing the opportunity to borrow Steph’s role, and he also shoved his way through weakside rotations. The Warriors won in overtime, the capping flourish coming when Green scooped up a loose ball as the shot clock wound down and drained an off-balance triple.
When you have no time for speculation on basketball matters. Photo by Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
It is easier to speculate than to admire. That’s why so much of the conversation surrounding this Warriors season has centered on what they might have accomplished in other eras, under different sets of rules. It’s also why we look at Green’s brilliant combination of intellect and grit and happenstance, and wonder what he might do in some of the NBA’s crummier environments. When there’s nothing to do but affirm the goodness of a situation, we think of alternatives. Otherwise we are just watching the same fireworks show over and over.
In Green’s case, those other situations may well bear out someday. He is the type of contingent superstar with the potential to diminish quickly—he and Joakim Noah share some tactical-emotive qualities—but he is also the sort to recognize that expectation, wag his chin at it, and spend the rest of his career racking up triple-doubles.
For now and the foreseeable future, Green remains the happy mystery, the player whose place on basketball’s best team is both essential and incongruous. The Warriors glide, and he rumbles. Curry smiles, Steve Kerr smirks, and Green talks glorious shit in a throaty baritone. The temptation is to scrutinize the odd fit. The trick is just to enjoy it while it lasts.