Golden State of mind: Draymond Green's effect on morale leaves Warriors with a big decision
This week, a must-read profile piece by Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com looked at Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green and spoke of the Warriors (or, more specifically, head coach Steve Kerr’s) continuing futile attempts to shackle Green’s temperament. The strongest takeaway from the article is one comment, made by an (obviously) anonymous NBA executive, that boldly states that Green is “what will ultimately prevent [the Warriors] from having long-term success”.
Also this week, Jackie McMullen of CSNNE.com reported that she had heard that LaMarcus Aldridge, beginning only his second season with the San Antonio Spurs, might not finish the year with the team. This is not out of left field when you consider that last year, in only his first year with the team, Aldridge reportedly already wanted a trade, and in his entire career with the Portland Trail Blazers, Aldridge was known for being fragile, insecure and moody.
We have not even begun the season yet, and already there are worrying and frustrating off- court stories about two of the better players in the league.
Given its length, emphatic nature and relative importance (considering that the Warriors are the storyline of the season until proven otherwise), the Green issue is the biggest one here. This is a story that has clearly been running in conjunction with the last two Golden State title runs, not entirely running under the surface but sufficiently restrained so as to not have too much national and international attention. Yet with Strauss’s expose, it can no longer be ignored. Green is a problem off the court, and seemingly a growing one at that.
It has been well documented that Green has not exactly had the best offseason. Before being arrested for assault and accidentally showing the internet his genitalia, Green’s suspension for game five of the NBA Finals was the tipping point that saw the Warriors infamously blow a 3-1 series lead, the first such occurrence ever in NBA Finals history. Other factors caused the collapse, to be sure, but there is a strong causative link between Green’s game five suspension and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback. Green earned his suspension for an unnecessary flailing kick to an opponent, and not for the first time. His reputation as a loose cannon and dirty player on the court preceded this news.
(It won’t have helped here that in the first game after the Strauss article published, Green lashed out with a needless kick to Portland Trail Blazers guard Allen Crabbe, then followed it up with some words that required the refs to separate the two. In isolation, nothing there was particularly egregious. But then, that is the point – it is never in isolation. There is always something bubbling under.)
Draymond is good, very good, a top 20 player or so (or top five if you go strictly by plus-minus). He is not easily replaced. He is a player the Warriors absolutely will not want to replace. You cannot replace Draymond Green on this championship-calibre Warriors team with another one like him because there is not another one like him. Nor could you replace Rasheed Wallace on the championship-calibre Pistons team of the last decade, because there wasn’t another one like him either. Both were vital, irreplaceable cogs given the way that those teams were made up. And with their hot heads, versatile skill sets, floor spacing ability and elite, adaptable defence, there is a valid if imperfect comparison between the two.
However, the key part there is in noting that the value of those players stems in no small part from the way those teams are made up. Sheed was the final ingredient in a complicated Pistons Brew, just as Green’s unlikely ascent to stardom has become a defining point in the way the Warriors play. This does not, however, mean that they can play in only this way with him in the team (i.e. in only one style), nor that can only play this way if he is around (i.e. that the system collapses without him). The only irreplaceable Warrior is Steph Curry – Green, as good and unique as he is, is replaceable, and it need not be a replacement done only via a direct like-for- like replacement.
To that end, enter Kevin Durant. One of the best players of all time, the rare example of the current NBA forward better than Draymond Green, and yet, by virtue of his decision to join a 73 win team, something of a forgotten man. The Other Guy. A luxury.
Green makes the Warriors go, yes. The pick-and-roll between him and Curry and the ball movement and passing-at-every-position that his court vision catalyses form the basis for everything they do offensively and his omnipresence defensively is the true game-changer. But Durant is the game changer offensively. He moves the ball, he defends quite well, and he scores as well as anyone ever can.
A Durant/Curry pick-and-roll should be just as effective as the Green version. Durant does not need the strength or the toughness that Green has, when his guile, agility and skill should make him a better role man, and his shooting a much better pop man. And as for defence, the fact that Green does it all does not mean that only Green can do it.
Durant doesn’t have the bite and ‘edge’ that Green has, but he does have far more offensive talent, more than only the very greatest players ever have had. And in joining the 73-win team, what Durant has also shown is a willingness to sacrifice numbers and individual accolades. The core of Strauss’s profile of Green is that Green has not shown that. Be it sometimes under the guise of sacrifice, it is nevertheless to Draymond always all about Draymond. You shouldn’t have a chip on your shoulder when you are this good.
Most importantly, the “edge” Green offers and is proud of is perhaps not all that important. You don’t need to yell, kick and sulk to be seen to want to win, nor to rally team-mates. A Venn Diagram featuring the NBA’s greatest champions and the NBA’s most aggressive and/or fiery locker room presences will no doubt have a strong overlap between the two, but that overlap is not required. You don’t have to have a shouty guy who might get suspended at any given moment. It is often the by-product of greatness, but not a requirement for it.
If you believe, as the Warriors claim to, that the things that make up a truly great team are a team concept, a unified culture, a team-first philosophy, hard work, character and high spirits, then you cannot also simultaneously believe that Green’s edge is immeasurably important to the Warriors' future. It is stylistic, a piece of performance art, one man’s personal playing style, rather than a fundamental tenet of winning. You need to play hard and play unselfishly to win. You don’t need to get triple doubles and kick people. The latter is not the same as the former.
Hypothetically, and purely for the sake of argument, remove Green from the roster altogether with no incoming replacement. There remains a core of Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson, and a lineup of quality role players highlighted by Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia. That team can win a title by itself.
Add into that whatever is returned in a Draymond Green trade – and attitude concerns notwithstanding, it will be quite a lot – and the Warriors remain top of the pile. It won’t be easy to sustain both the offence and defence, both of which (the latter especially) are built upon Green’s presence. But with Curry and Durant not going anywhere, it also can’t be that hard. Green is an elite player, but the Warriors don’t need three elite players. They just need to keep the balance of what they have both on and off the court. Green offsetting the balance off the court threatens to undermine the balance he brings to the court. Players of lesser quality but better temperament won’t be taking anything off the table like he does.
Green clearly wants to be in Golden State, and he wants Durant to be there too. Were these things not true, Green would not have helped to recruit him. But to fully realise the potentially legendary team his addition has brought – and having just set the all-time wins record, they are already pretty legendary – relies upon a seismic shift from Green, making sacrifices for the team, cheering up a bit, dropping the Kevin Garnett impression and realising how good he has got it, rather than looking for reasons why it might be slightly bad. There is no sign that that is happening.
The Warriors' ownership publicly and loudly champion their own organisation as a bastion of culture and success, and Green goes against that. If they can’t tame the beast, then they need to rehome it. Selecting and developing Green brought with it a new style of play that moved the league forward, saw multiple new records set, and brought home nearly two championships. To that, they have added Kevin Durant. And adding Durant lessens the need for Green. The Warriors will surely love to find themselves another player who can defend small forwards through centers while also passing for six assists per game and shooting in the mid-30% range from three. But with Durant in tow, a quality 4/5 defender with capable offence will do. The specific style of play is more flexible when you have enough talent on board.
And it is perhaps with all the above in mind that we arrive at the reason for the return of the Lamarcus Aldridge rumours.
Both Aldridge the player and Aldridge the person are well established. Aldridge, the player, is a star, a reliable double-double, a versatile, decently efficient and consistent offensive presence who does enough defensively and on the glass to just about meet the ill-defined yet well- understood criteria for stardom. Whereas Aldridge the person thinks Aldridge the player is quite a bit better than that and does not approve of anyone who disagrees.
Aldridge chose to join the San Antonio Spurs at a time of serious transition for the perennial contender. Tim Duncan was about to (and now has) retired, Manu Ginobili is probably only a year or two away from the same, and Tony Parker won’t be far behind that. Kawhi Leonard is a top five player, yet the Spurs need someone (or several someones) to help him along the way. And Aldridge was meant to be that someone.
Except, it already seems that he isn’t going to be. In asking for a trade, Aldridge has already shown he does not entirely want to be there; in having him ask for a trade, the Spurs will already be on notice that they must seek value wherever it lies, and however quickly it becomes available.
Like Green, Aldridge is good. Very good. But like Green, he is not quite as good as he thinks he is. And like with Green, that is a problem. Throughout the era of the Big Three, the Spurs built their team on the same virtues as mentioned above: team concept, a unified culture, a team-first philosophy, hard work, character, no substantial discord and a team that likes each other. They managed it for a decade. Leonard slotted into this culture perfectly. But Aldridge hasn’t. And nor is there any evidence that he ever will. Like the Warriors, the Spurs won a title with a progressive style of play.
Like the Warriors, the Spurs won a title with a progressive style of play. Like the Warriors, it relies upon ball movement, floor spacing at every position, three-point shooting, bigs who can score without much in the way of post-ups, plenty of options in pick-and-roll action, and no defensive weak points. Unlike the Warriors, however, the Spurs are not at the top of their game.
The comparison is, of course, not perfect. When it comes to potentially moving Green, the Warriors would be creating a big hole, but they can largely cover it from within. They will be the league’s best offensive team with or without him, and would instead need to focus on reshaping the defence. The Spurs, however, haven’t that luxury. This is not with three elite players, nor is it a team on the up.
Leonard excepted, the team has little in the way of young assets or room for internal growth (for a change). Nor does Aldridge. He is 31, Parker is 34, Ginobili is 39, Danny Green is 29, David Lee is 33, and Patty Mills is 28. Even Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathan Simmons are both 27. This team is built for now, and whatever Aldridge can bring in the ‘now’, the even more recently acquired Pau Gasol (36) can mostly replicate.
Given their relative poverty – and it is, of course, a very relative poverty because every other team wishes they had Kawhi and the Spurs’ legacy – the Spurs cannot operate in any potential trade market with the “it’s OK, we’ve got Durant” safety net. The “we’ve got Gasol” safety net isn’t quite as strong. However, it is strong enough to give the team a semi-legitimate win-now focus while also being able to move Aldridge to redress their culture, gain the future assets they are somewhat short on and reappraise their playing style.
The Gasol/Aldridge pairing rather goes against the progression that the Spurs franchise has made in advancing basketball over the last two decades, but perhaps it was instead done with a post-Aldridge view in mind. Gasol is here as a competitively priced talent who can briefly replace Aldridge, not partner him.
Ignoring the very first part of the previous stanza, there is again a loose Durant/Green comparison to be made there. Would they be a good pairing? Yes, ideally. But given that both additions have been brought in to partner known malcontents, while also largely mirroring their impacts on the court, both signings will have been made with future trades in mind.
In both cases, then, we see quality players potentially up for sale when they needn’t be. While far from surplus to requirements, both teams have players they can manage without if needs be, and those needs will only be if the players involved cannot contain their contempt for whatever the heck it is they are mad at. Put simply, while the Spurs need talent, the Spurs don’t need Aldridge, and with Kevin Durant on board, the Warriors now don’t need Draymond Green. They both need the culture more.
Draw up the best on-court team you can imagine at your leisure. But without the great unquantifiables of culture, chemistry, teamwork and heart being given their proper consideration, it will never quite work.