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The Draymond Green Paradox

The heart and soul of the Warriors could also be their Achilles’ heel

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

We kick things off with Warriors Week, an in-depth look at one of the most interesting assemblages of basketball talent ever. We’ll have a different theme each week, as well as the usual league coverage. So check back often. Basketball never sleeps, and neither do we.

At some point during last year’s playoffs, the Golden State Warriors went from lovable to unbearable. The same group that played the game with such joy over the last few years started playing with anger, picking fights and starting shit with other teams. With Steph Curry hobbled by a knee injury and unable to summon his usual magic, Golden State became Draymond Green’s team, and they started to reflect his personality on the court. The defining image of their playoff run wasn’t Curry effortlessly draining pull-up 3s from 30-plus feet, but rather Draymond treating opponents’ groins like punching bags.

The kicks to Steven Adams’s crotch may not have been intentional, and LeBron James may have goaded Green into lashing out by stepping over him, but neither of those things means the NBA’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy is unfair. This takedown of Michael Beasley at the end of Golden State’s Game 3 loss to the Rockets in the first round speaks for itself. Green racked up enough flagrant foul points to be suspended for Game 5 of the Finals, and that’s when the Cavs began their improbable comeback from a 3–1 deficit.

The spotlight will be even brighter this season, so Green has to keep himself in check. He’s the emotional leader of the team, and he sets the tone in the locker room. Getting under his skin might be the key to beating the Warriors. What happened in the playoffs was just Draymond being Draymond. It was poetic in a way. The passion and drive that made him great were his undoing, and the engine that powered the Warriors wound up overheating. On a team that has nearly erased all of its question marks with Kevin Durant’s arrival, Green’s volatility remains one the team will have to keep in check.

As Warriors fans pointed out in the wake of the second incident with Adams, Draymond really likes kicking his legs out. We just didn’t notice until he finally connected on someone. But I thought the most telling part of the first infraction against Adams was the way he flexed and yelled at the Thunder center as he was lying on the floor. Most players in that spot would have apologized, especially if it was an accident.

Most players aren’t Draymond, though. They don’t spend the game guarding guys half a foot taller than them. That’s the reason he fell to the second round of the draft in the first place. Few thought the 6-foot-7 Green would be able to guard the best 4s in the NBA, much less play up a position and guard centers. This is partly down to his extraordinary 7-foot-1 wingspan and well-proportioned build. But it’s also because he’s an insanely competitive person willing to do whatever it takes to stop players who have made careers out of bullying guys his size.

Green has had a chip on his shoulder since the day he entered the league. Just ask him how many players were drafted ahead of him. He can name all 34. He thrives on being the underdog, and giving up size to a bigger opponent to gain an edge in speed. It’s the same dynamic with the Warriors’ Lineup of Death on a bigger scale.

They want to have the smaller and faster lineup, with the goal of running bigger and slower opponents off the floor. Every team that faced them in the 2014–15 playoffs — from the Grizzlies to the Cavs — tried to beat them with size, and every one of them failed.

In last season’s playoffs, teams started hitting the Warriors with speed. The Thunder downsized in the conference finals, playing Serge Ibaka at the 5 and Kevin Durant at the 4, while another injury to Kevin Love forced the Cavs to play smaller, with Tristan Thompson at the 5 and LeBron at the 4. Instead of going up against a bigger, slower defender who couldn’t stay in front of him, Green was going up against James and Durant. He went from averaging 22.2 points on 45.2 percent shooting against the Blazers to 11.3 points on 35.4 percent shooting against the Thunder. The bully got beat at his own game, and he didn’t know how to respond.

Draymond looked shell-shocked by the negative attention his antics generated. It was like the time he zoned out next to Festus Ezeli in a postgame press conference, except this was happening on the court. In Game 4 against Oklahoma City, when he narrowly escaped a suspension, Green had six points on 1-of-7 shooting. In Game 6 of the NBA Finals, his first game back from the suspension, he scored only eight points on 3-of-7 shooting. It was like he couldn’t make an impact if he wasn’t pushing the boundaries of physicality. The Warriors’ engine had stalled.

Something changed before Game 7 of the Finals. LeBron was still guarding Green, but it no longer mattered. Draymond played the game of his life: 32 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists. He scored more points than both Splash Brothers combined, and he did it while taking less than half as many shots. Gone were the rumbling-and-stumbling drives from the top of the key. He went 6-for-8 from 3, and drove the ball to the rim with precision and power, reading the defense, knowing exactly when to pass and when to shoot.

After the game, Draymond seemed almost at peace with everything: “As far as being suspended for Game 5, I learned a lot. I learned a lot as a man, as a teammate, as a basketball player. … I learned a lot that will help me for the rest of my life. This playoff run, for me, has been a bunch of highs and a few lows, and the lows have been tough. … It has been a pretty tough road. But through it all, I learned a lot that will help me for the rest of my career. You can’t win them all. Obviously we would love to be sitting here spraying champagne on each other, but it didn’t happen.”

It’s easy to forget how young most of the Warriors are. Green is 26, and he’s only now entering his prime. He just happened to skip the part where he had to overcome years of playoff failure. As soon as Steve Kerr inserted Green into the starting lineup, the Warriors started winning, and they’ve never stopped. He went from bench player to starter to All-Star to Olympian in less than 24 months, all while his team won a championship and broke the regular-season wins record in the following season. It would be hard for anyone to stay grounded in that scenario.

Now, the player who gave Green the most trouble in the playoffs — the one player in the league with whom he couldn’t match up — is now his teammate. The toughest test of Draymond’s career is behind him. He’s never going to be guarded by another 7-footer with Durant’s length and athleticism, because if another team has a player like that, he’s going to guard Durant. LeBron’s not going to guard Green if they meet again in the NBA Finals, and Green isn’t going to guard him. Durant’s presence makes Draymond’s life a lot easier, on both sides of the ball, and he’s going to allow Draymond to be the best version of himself as a player.

When he was asked whether his character was unfairly attacked during the playoffs, Draymond said he blamed himself for putting himself in a position to where the attacks could be made. Game 7 was proof he could play at a high level and still be under control. Green doesn’t have to be the Incredible Hulk on the floor. He can be Bruce Banner and still be great. Maybe that’s why he seemed at peace after Game 7. He learned a valuable lesson in defeat. And now he’s going to show the rest of the league exactly what he learned.