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Jeff Green’s Ninth Life May Be His Best

Green has tantalized and tormented nearly a third of the NBA’s fan bases, but he may have finally found the perfect fit as a backup center for the small-ball Rockets

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jeff Green may finally be playing the best basketball of his career. This is the same Jeff Green who was drafted fifth in 2007. The same Jeff Green who turns 34 this week. The same Jeff Green who’s amazed and underwhelmed fans of every team he’s played for. But as the old saying goes, ninth time’s the charm. “People always say, ‘You’ve played on a lot of teams.’ I don’t really give a damn,” Green told me over the phone last week. “I’m still in the NBA. I’m still doing what I love.”

The Houston Rockets, Green’s ninth team in 12 seasons, put him in a role he’s never had before: backup center. In 11 games in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World, Green is excelling, with averages of 15.9 points and 2.3 assists while shooting 75 percent in the restricted area and 37.8 percent from 3. He’s played really good defense, too. With Russell Westbrook sidelined and Eric Gordon seemingly having forgotten how to shoot, Green has been the Rockets’ second-best player in their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Green’s first franchise. Houston leads 2-1 heading into Monday’s Game 4.

Green has been a good fit in Houston since he signed a 10-day contract in February. At 6-foot-8, he’s the tallest player in the rotation and the only big guy who can roll to the rim and make plays off the dribble. P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington, the other de facto 5s on Houston’s small-ball roster, are better served popping for 3s, not making plays for others. Green can do both. The Rockets usually ask Green to set on-ball screens for James Harden and either roll hard to the rim or pop for a 3:

Sometimes those plays will result in athletic dunks or layups like in the clips above; other times he’ll make kickout passes to 3-point shooters or find cutters.

Green isn’t just a miniature-sized replacement for Clint Capela, who was traded for Covington in February. He can also bring the ball up the floor and attack the basket:

Hook. Line. Sinker. You got me again, Jeff Green. There isn’t another player (or person) who’s better at winning back my heart after I totally gave up on them. Green would have one or two huge scoring nights that made you think he could play like that all the time. Or he’d be traded to a new team, and you’d begin to believe this was the time he’d turn his elite athleticism into consistently high results. But this time feels different. “Small ball has put me in that position to showcase that I can do this,” Green told me. “As far as screening, rolling, making a skip pass, it’s something I’ve always had since college. I’m just utilizing it in this type of offense with the system and the shooters we have, and that’s put the spotlight on it.”

Green’s got a point. It’s not like he hasn’t been a screener before—he did it at Georgetown and last season with the Wizards, when he scored an excellent 1.4 points per possession screening and rolling in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. He just didn’t do it often. The Rockets have him do it frequently, because their offense asks players to do only what they’re good at. Say what you want about the analytics-driven system crafted by general manager Daryl Morey and head coach Mike D’Antoni, but there’s no denying the environment has been good for role players. It simplifies their offensive responsibilities: Shoot a 3 or attack the basket for a layup, and if you can’t try a layup, pass it back to the perimeter. “We play loose, we play free,” Green told me. “The confidence that Coach D’Antoni has instilled in us is second to none.”

D’Antoni empowers his players to let it fly. He has also added some wrinkles to the offense in the bubble that has given them some much-needed variety. Houston occasionally uses smaller players as screeners, but Harden hasn’t set picks for anyone more often than he has for Green. By my count, Harden has screened for Green 24 times in their first three games against the Thunder. On those plays, Houston has shot 11-for-17, scoring 26 points. Those are big-time numbers.

When asked about the benefits of having Harden screen for Green, D’Antoni mentioned two things: “One, Jeff can bring it up and it gets James off the ball one time or two times or 10 times. It conserves his energy. And most big guys are not used to navigating picks, so it’s odd for the defense. We can exploit that a little bit. Overall, Jeff’s just another playmaker on the floor who can make 3s from the center position, so it opens up a world of possibilities.”

Green hasn’t become the consistent on-ball scorer that fans of the Sonics, Thunder, Celtics, and Grizzlies hoped for, but he still has skill off the dribble for a player his size. With the floor spaced and bigger defenders now guarding him, Green can drive into the same open paint as Harden, Westbrook, and everyone else on the team:

If Harden screens for Green and the defense switches, that means the Beard could have a major advantage against a slower opponent. But even if they don’t switch, Harden’s defender will usually need to pressure Green to prevent a drive, which provides Harden with more room. In the clips below, notice how much space Harden has upon receiving the ball, which allows him to get to the basket with ease.

Oklahoma City’s Luguentz Dort has defended Harden as well as a team could ask for, making Green’s ability to alleviate pressure off Harden pivotal—especially with Westbrook out every game so far. It’s poetic that Green’s breakout is coming against the first franchise he played for, alongside two of his former OKC teammates. But Green laughed when I asked whether he’s watched any film of his Thunder days with Harden and Westbrook as an attempt to pick up on what worked in the past. He says it’s more like they’re just riding a bike, picking up where things left off before Harden and Westbrook transformed into MVPs. “It all came organically,” Green said. At this point, Green is more focused on just winning and sustaining his career.

Green was memorably traded away from Oklahoma City for Kendrick Perkins in 2011, which is when his winding career path began. After his first season with the Celtics, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, which can be fatal if it tears, and underwent open heart surgery that caused him to miss a full year. “Nobody knows the strenuous toll it takes on a body to come back from that. I’m now almost nine years past heart surgery and still in the NBA. For me, that’s amazing. I use that as inspiration and motivation to stay on the floor,” Green said. “The scar on my chest is an everyday reminder of where I’ve been and what I’ve been through to get to where I’m at.”

Green signed with the Jazz last summer for the veteran’s minimum, but was cut on Christmas Eve. Getting waived by a team would scare any player, but Green believes his production with Houston has shown he can thrive in the modern game. “Basketball is what I love to do. Hopefully I can play as long as Vince Carter did,” Green said.

Maybe Green can play into his 40s like Carter. He will need good injury luck and more teams to begin playing traditional wings and forwards as centers, so more jobs similar to the one he has in Houston would be available. If he does play into his 40s, it’d be quite a turnaround for his career. I told Green how high my expectations were for him in 2011, when he was first traded to Boston, and that even Kevin Garnett said he could be “one of the best ever.” So I asked how he’s dealt with the high expectations others have had for him.

“When you come into the NBA, people always have an opinion about what you should be or how you should pan out. When their vision of you doesn’t pan out to be what they expected, they say you’re a bust or something’s wrong. That’s always been the case in my career,” Green said. “I haven’t been what people say I could be. But now being in the league for 12 years, about triple the average years is in the NBA, I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of establishing myself in this league. I just have to do my part to have that career continue. I’m not concerned about what people say, I just try to be the best version of what I am.”

Green’s career isn’t what many people had hoped for, but it’s still had plenty of moments. He’s gone from a core player of the young Thunder to a piece of the puzzle for the Rockets with practically every role in between. Green never got to make an NBA Finals run with Russ and Harden because the Thunder traded him for a veteran center; now he’s the veteran center added late in the season to try to help that same duo make it back to the Finals for the first time since 2012. “I work my butt off. I don’t go into anything half-assed. I try to do my best,” Green said. “Sometimes opportunities don’t go my way, sometimes they do. And I live with it.”