The Los Angeles Lakers entered the summer of 2019 with big dreams. After trading for Anthony Davis in June, the Lakers set their sights on Kawhi Leonard in free agency with the goal of putting together the biggest, baddest Big Three in recent memory. But after a lengthy pursuit, the bombshell news dropped in the early hours of July 6: Leonard was indeed headed to Los Angeles—not to join Davis and LeBron James with the Lakers, but to the Clippers; and he was bringing Paul George along with him.
The Lakers’ first in a quick succession of response signings was Leonard’s longtime teammate, Danny Green. If they couldn’t nab another star like Leonard, Green was the kind of player they wanted flanking the two stars they did have.
“He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s a perfect complement, really, to both of those guys,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel says. “You want 3-point shooters and guys that can pull their weight on the defensive end. Danny fits both of those. He’s also a super high-character player with leadership skills. So, really, everything about Danny Green attracted us to Danny Green.”
Playing alongside the best players in the league may seem like an easy task, but it can often be more challenging than it appears. It takes a willingness to fill a narrow role, and the humility not to try to extend too far beyond it. Luckily for the Lakers, Green had honed those qualities well before he signed up for two years, $30 million.
Green played college ball for four years at the University of North Carolina, where he had teammates like consensus All-American Ty Lawson, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Wayne Ellington, and Wooden and Naismith Award–winner Tyler Hansbrough. Lakers teammate Jared Dudley, who played against Green and the Tar Heels when he was at Boston College, believes Green’s experience as a hypercompetent collegiate role player helped him become the same in the NBA.
“I think that you have to be self-aware of yourself of what type of player you’re gonna be in the league,” says Dudley, who transitioned from college star to NBA role player. “Because there’s only two stars per team unless somehow the Warriors or Miami get three. So, most likely you’re a specialist.”
Green is the all-important archetypal player who, as Vogel noted, has a dual specialty: shooting and defense. He’s knocked down better than 40 percent of his career 3-point attempts, and though he can occasionally run hot and cold, he has still checked in above 37 percent in seven of his nine full NBA seasons. Green is also widely regarded as an elite perimeter defender, a reputation that is well earned: In the six seasons prior to this one, he ranked second, second, first, first, fourth, and second among shooting guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus.
A low-usage, high-efficiency shooter who can and will check any perimeter opponent and is almost never absent from the lineup (Green’s played 89 percent of all possible games since 2011) is exactly the kind of player most teams would love to have playing wingman to a superstar or three. Perhaps that’s why San Antonio held on to him for so long, and through so many on-court identities.
When Green arrived in San Antonio in 2010, the Spurs were still based largely around Tim Duncan’s brilliance, which meant running things through the post a lot of the time. As they reoriented around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, it meant shifting to a pick-and-roll-based system in which players had to make decisions as quickly as possible, oftentimes while on the move. Eventually the team reoriented again, first around Kawhi Leonard and then around Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge; those shifts brought a return to a more static style of offense, with more post-ups and isolations than ever before.
Green says it wasn’t all that difficult for him to shapeshift along with the team’s identity. Playing off a star teammate was second nature—the only thing that changed was which star he orbited.
“I guess it’s just being able to adapt and adjust to their game,” Green says, regarding his ability to fit in around star teammates with such disparate skill sets. “Defensively, if you do your job, you can make it easy on them. Offensively, figuring out where they like their spots, what they like to do. And then adapting and adjusting to it.”
That ability kept Green in San Antonio for eight-plus years, a tenure that cemented his status as the Spurs’ quintessential role player. From the beginning of Duncan’s career in 1997 through the moment the Spurs shipped Green to Toronto along with Leonard in 2018 (mostly as a way to make the salaries work), the only players who played more minutes for the Spurs than Green were Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Bruce Bowen, who was essentially the Danny Green of the first half of that star trio’s run.
When asked how Green stuck around for so long in San Antonio, 76ers coach Brett Brown, a longtime Gregg Popovich assistant, said it boiled down to three things: “He can shoot, he can guard, he’s good people.”
Those qualities have also helped Green adjust to new surroundings the past two years. Green’s presence was vital to Leonard’s on-the-fly integration in Toronto, and to the team not allowing speculation regarding Leonard’s future to affect its title pursuit.
“I think at first he was kind of like the translator,” says Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who can’t help but chuckle at such a thing being necessary. “He was a little bit of a buffer. We saw Danny first—in the summer, before training camp—so he kind of told us what to expect and what to look for. He gave us a heads-up on certain things. Obviously, Kawhi is not the most talkative person so there’s times when Danny would kind of tell you certain things of how it was gonna go.”
A team jelling around a newly acquired superstar to win it all is incredibly rare. The last team to do it before the Raptors was the Celtics, who acquired both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen the summer before their 2008 title victory. Now Green is on another team looking to microwave another title. The Lakers have less continuity than almost any other LeBron-led team ever has. Some might consider that a good thing, considering last season’s disappointing 37-45 finish, but it seemed like, at best, it would take some time for everything to click.
Instead, the Lakers have been one of the NBA’s best teams all season. They took over first place in the Western Conference on November 12 and have held that spot every single day since. Despite their success, they still face the pressures that follow both the Lakers and LeBron’s teams. As Dudley notes, “You hear Snoop Dogg going off if you miss—in a damn Christmas game, if you don’t make a couple 3s. That gets to you.”
For Green, though, the biggest challenge of playing with James (and Davis) isn’t the criticism, it’s what some might consider the biggest on-court benefit.
“I think the challenge is because it’s so easy,” he says. “You’re not used to having as many open looks or it being as easy as it is. And getting used to taking wide-open, uncontested looks. Those are usually the most pressured shots in basketball. You’re wide open.”
He’s had a lot of time to get used to it. According to Second Spectrum, the closest defender to Green at the time he released a catch-and-shoot 3 in the 2015-16 season with the Spurs was, on average, 7.09 feet away. He’s gotten progressively less room to shoot in every season since, but he’s also been outperforming his expected effective field goal percentage.
Danny Green ... in ... Spaaaaaace!
Having a sniper like Green flanking superstars does wonders for an offense; he’s played on a top-seven offense in seven of his nine full NBA seasons, and those offenses have been, on average, 2.3 points better per 100 possessions with Green on the floor than on the bench.
Green is equally capable of making things easier for stars on the other end of the floor. There are few players better at making their man work for everything they get than Green. He’s also versatile: If your star player is a forward like James or Leonard, Green has the requisite combination of length, size, and strength to handle the tougher wing defense assignment and give that star a bit of a breather. That same length and size, combined with his quick hands and feet, allow Green to bother opposing ball handlers up and down the floor, which comes in handy when your star is a point guard like Tony Parker or Kyle Lowry.
Green has become only more flexible with age. As he’s gotten more experienced and stronger, the league has become more inclined to switch every type of screen. Nowadays, you can find Green defending big wings and stretch 4s, as well as the occasional center. According to an analysis of Second Spectrum matchup data by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus, Green is one of only 12 players (minimum 1,500 defensive possessions) who has guarded point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards on at least 11 percent of his defensive possessions in each of the past three seasons.
Switching more often means communication with back-line defenders is more important for guards like Green than ever before. He had the good fortune of beginning his run playing alongside one of the best defensive big men in NBA history, which Green says actually made the adjustment to playing with other forwards and centers a bit more difficult than it otherwise might have been.
“Tim, he made it easy to play defense. I was spoiled. We didn’t have to say anything. We knew when to switch. We know how to make calls. We would just see Tim step up and I would go to his man or vice versa,” Green says. “I realized how tough it was playing with other bigs. Serge [Ibaka] was pretty good. Marc [Gasol] was great too. But it’s a different type of communication, different type of thing. Even with Dwight [Howard] and JaVale [McGee], it’s still different. [I’m] still learning them. But because they’re so athletic and protect the rim so easily, it makes it easier to do my job.”
Green feels he has jelled particularly well with Davis on defense because their skill sets are so complementary. “AD is high IQ and a good communicator,” he says. “I think me and him, in pick-and-roll situations, has been a very good scenario for us most of the time. Because he’s able to switch. I’m able to switch on the big and try to keep him off the glass.”
Green says that Davis is, in some ways, Duncanesque: “like a younger version, more athletic version of Tim.” Duncan was 34 in Green’s first stint with the Spurs (2010-11); now Green, 32, is the experienced hand helping to guide the 26-year-old Davis. Green may not be as athletic as he was in the Duncan years, but his deep knowledge of NBA offenses has made the pair a similarly potent defensive duo.
A second-round pick who was waived by his first NBA team after just one season, Green’s career now spans more than a decade. He’s been in the league long enough that former postseason rivals have become teammates. Green’s Spurs faced off with Ibaka’s Thunder and Gasol’s Grit and Grind Grizzlies in memorable playoff matchups before the trio all played together in Toronto. Later, his Spurs annihilated James and the Heat in the 2014 Finals, helping to spur LeBron’s return to Cleveland that summer.
But Green, now in his 11th season, is also the only active player to team up with James on the Cavaliers … the first time around. Having that established bond with the Lakers’ leader and best player has helped Green feel comfortable not just fitting his game alongside that of James, but stepping up to take on a leadership role alongside him, Davis, Dudley, and Rajon Rondo.
“I kind of just feel out what my time is to chime in,” he says. “And I think Bron respects that and knows that I know the game pretty well and put him in positions for him to be successful and make it easier for him. I try to make it as easy as possible for him and AD to just do what they do without over-stressing them.”
Six years after they last met on the sport’s biggest stage, with each player two uniforms removed from the one they wore in those battles, Green and James are united again—this time pursuing a title on the same side. They’ve both grown a lot since they last played together: James into the defining star of his generation, and Green into one of its defining role players.
“It’d be nice to have a nice little storybook ending of us being able to do something special together for once,” Green says. “It’s been unreal.”
Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.