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Draymond Green Is the Ultimate Defensive Riddle

The Warriors’ Defensive Player of the Year front-runner flummoxed the methodical Jazz on Tuesday. So far, he’s the team’s MVP of the postseason.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

“It’s the best time of year,” Draymond Green said after the Warriors’ 106–94 victory over the Jazz in Game 1 of their second-round series, which might seem like an odd thing to say at the start of May from a player whose team is the overwhelming favorite to win the whole damn thing in June. But the playoffs are something of an extended Christmas for Draymond, whose attitude up at the podium after the win was reminiscent of a child unwrapping a holiday present. In reality, his effort Tuesday was more akin to a Best Buy employee opening shop on Black Friday. He was frenzied, seemingly defending three opponents at once; he was barking orders from the back line, acutely aware of where his teammates needed to be in any given Jazz set; he was in his element. The postseason is when Draymond’s singular impact on the game becomes inescapable.

“Every game matters,” Green followed. “Every single possession matters.” He was echoing something interim head coach Mike Brown had mentioned earlier in the presser, something that had been a season-long mantra for the team (and a particular point of emphasis against Utah): Win the possession battle. Unsurprisingly, they did. The Warriors committed seven turnovers all game (Draymond contributed zero) Tuesday, tying a franchise low in the postseason — almost all of their unforced errors were the direct result of Steph Curry trying to kill his boredom. Styles make fights, and while the Rockets-Spurs series has served as that maxim’s focal point this round due to the shared history of Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni, the clash of priorities that exists in the Jazz-Warriors matchup might be a better reflection of what playoff basketball means in 2017.

There were roughly 93 possessions in Tuesday’s game, almost identical to the pace of play in the unbearably tense Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals. On a macro level, the Jazz were able to do exactly what they wanted: They slowed the game to a crawl (the Warriors-Blazers series averaged 105 possessions per game) and forced the Warriors to execute. Golden State shot 24 percent from 3; Klay Thompson was goaded into questionable midrange jumpers with a hand in his face; Kevin Durant had his least efficient shooting game in three months. At the very least, the Jazz deserve credit for being able to impose their defensive game plan on any team in the league, in spite of their youth. But in turning the court into a barren, possessions-scarce desert against Golden State, Utah will continue to face an uphill battle of its own making on offense until the team solves the Warriors’ defensive riddle. For most of the series, the riddle will take the shape of Draymond’s many different forms — and if Tuesday night was any indication, he might already be in the heads of the Jazz.

Good individual defense involves effort, timing, and patience, but great individual defense leverages the strength of one’s mere presence as a deterrent from even attempting a play. In the play above, after Dante Exum rips the ball away from an exceedingly sloppy Curry, he stops in his tracks seeing Draymond as the last line of defense. You could almost see three of the five stages of grief manifest in Exum’s demeanor over the course of the play. Instead of taking it all the way to rim, he pulls back, trying to take full advantage of the two-on-one presenting itself, with Gordon Hayward filling the lane on the other side. But those extra beats of stagnation allow Green to assess the play and the court. In one fell swoop, Exum bounces a pass to Hayward, while Green turns and smacks the ball right back into Curry’s hands as Hayward is making his initial ascent.

“Your job as a defender is just to get a contest,” Green said postgame. “If you get a good contest, you did your job.” But if you excel at your job the way Draymond does, the play is usually won before a shot even goes up. In another sequence, George Hill had a wide-open 3-pointer from the top of the arc, but was so paranoid about Green’s looming presence behind him as a trailer that he waited for Green to pass him before initiating an extra-methodical Jazz offensive possession. Green forces teams to second-guess their instincts, and by the time you have a sense of your secondary attack, he’s already there, wiping it out of existence. Somehow, this felt like a valid question to ask:

Green’s series against Utah, especially opposite Rudy Gobert, will serve as both his closing statement for the Defensive Player of the Year award and also his case for being the Warriors’ MVP of the playoffs. Of course, DPOY voting is already in, and the result may or may not reflect what has been going on in the airtight echo chamber of the playoffs. If the postseason influenced awards voting, it would be hard to argue against Green being the odds-on favorite, especially after Gobert turned into a 7-foot-2 dog chasing his own tail trying to defend Curry from the 3-point line:

One memed sequence doesn’t retroactively destroy Gobert’s claim to the award, but it does highlight the fact that, in Gobert’s reluctance to defend in space, the Jazz have a weakness that they will have to figure out how to mitigate. And while Gobert is the best pure center remaining in the playoffs, his issues are not dissimilar to the plight of Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto, or LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio — lumbering big men who aren’t nearly as adaptive as they need to be to survive a fast-paced series. The Warriors have no such problem due to Green’s versatility.

The best individual defensive metric I’ve seen made available is the perimeter and interior defense rating (PDR/IDR) created by Stephen Shea, a mathematics professor at Saint Anselm College. It factors in basic box score numbers with the spatial tracking data that’s been made available in the past two years to create a score that puts a defender’s capabilities (relative to his position/role) in context. In the last update back in mid-March, Gobert ranked second out of 314 NBA players in IDR and 220th in PDR; Green ranked second in PDR and 27th in IDR. The only other starting NBA player who ranked in the top 30 in both metrics was Giannis Antetokounmpo (ninth in PDR, 18th in IDR), perhaps the only other player in the league who scrambles and switches onto as many different players on any one possession as Draymond does.

IDR and PDR are, at the very least, interesting attempts to quantify defensive versatility. Green can seem downright omnipresent due to the many different configurations he’s slotted in. He slots in as comfortably opposite Zaza Pachulia, David West, or JaVale McGee as he does as next to Kevin Durant or Andre Iguodala in downsized lineups. He spearheads Golden State’s “second unit,” which features both Green and Thompson at the start of the second and fourth quarters. The postseason is about trying to maintain every competitive advantage that a team can muster, and there is no player in the league this side of Rajon Rondo who derives a more perverse joy out of being two steps ahead of his opponent. Green is a walking playoff adjustment.