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Draymond Green May Be the Key to the NBA Title Race

Green is expected to return after two months on the shelf. Whether he’ll return to form is the biggest question heading into this year’s playoffs.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

A mid-January matchup between the Warriors and Bucks was billed as an NBA Finals preview. But with Draymond Green sidelined just days before, the game was effectively over before the first commercial break. On the very first play, Giannis Antetokounmpo spun around Kevon Looney and drew a foul. A few possessions later, Giannis powered through Looney and sent him to the bench with a second foul. The points came even faster once Andre Iguodala checked in. There was a midrange jumper and then an open layup and an alley-oop.

The Bucks were up 39 at halftime and Giannis finished with a 30-point triple-double. The only answer the Warriors had for him was sitting on the bench in street clothes.

Draymond was originally supposed to be out for a few games. He strained his calf in warmups before playing the Cavs on January 9, ahead of Klay Thompson’s long-awaited return from a more-than-two-year absence. But the calf injury became a back injury that has kept him out for more than two months.

Golden State has fallen apart without him. The Warriors were tied for the best record in the NBA when Draymond got hurt but have barely been above .500 since. Their defense slipped from no. 1 to tied for seventh in the games played without Green, and Steph Curry went from the favorite to win his third MVP award to falling out of the conversation entirely. Steph’s value is obvious every time he pulls up for a jumper. The value of all the little things that Draymond does becomes clear only when he’s not around to do them.

Green is finally expected to return this week. There’s no way to know how good he will be when he does. A lingering back injury for a 32-year-old player is never a good sign. The good news for Golden State is that he has a few weeks to get ready before the playoffs. If it hadn’t been clear before, the last few months were proof that the Warriors won’t win a title if Draymond is not 100 percent.

After Kevin Durant left in the summer of 2019, it looked like his best days were behind him. He even admitted that he had trouble getting up for games when the stakes weren’t as high. There were a lot of factors stacked against him. He was an undersized big man on the wrong side of 30 who hadn’t shot well from 3 in years.

But before the injury, Green was in the midst of a bounceback season. His defense was as great as ever and he was having his best offensive season in a long time. The key was changing his approach. The easiest way to stop missing 3s is to stop taking them. Draymond is averaging only 1.2 3-point attempts this season, the fewest since his rookie season. He has focused on what he can still do well instead and is shooting a career-high 60.4 percent from 2-point range.

His newfound efficiency allowed Steve Kerr to tweak his rotation. He split up Draymond and Steph and started playing them more on their own. There’s a dramatic difference in the games in which both play between this season and last (numbers courtesy PBPstats):

Warriors Lineup Minutes Breakdowns

Personnel 2020-21 2021-22
Personnel 2020-21 2021-22
Draymond and Steph 62.4% 47.3%
Steph without Draymond 8.7% 24.6%
Draymond without Steph 3.1% 14.9%
No Draymond or Steph 25.9% 5.2%

The Warriors used to pair them as much as possible. The pick-and-roll between Steph and Draymond is one of the best in the business; Draymond’s ability to handle the ball and run the offense allowed Steph to warp defenses by moving and cutting all over the floor. The problem was that keeping them together meant there were large chunks of the game when both were on the bench. Golden State had struggled for a long time with how to stay afloat without Steph. Trusting Draymond with that responsibility was one of the keys to their resurgence.

Draymond began playing more with Jordan Poole, a third-year guard who was having a breakout season of his own. He has regressed in the last few months both because of Draymond’s absence and Klay’s return, which has eaten into his minutes and shots. Poole isn’t Steph, but in the minutes when Steph was out he could do a passable imitation and allow Draymond to handle the rest.

Green has always been an elite playmaker. He’s 10th in the NBA in assists per game (7.4) and fourth among those players in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4-to-1). Draymond is unique even among the best passers in the game. The ball never sticks in his hand. Per NBA Advanced Stats, he’s 10th in passes per game (60.6) despite touching the ball far less than any of the players ahead of him. He gives it up more than any of his peers:

The NBA’s Best Ball Movers

Player Touches Passes Passes Per Touch
Player Touches Passes Passes Per Touch
Draymond Green 71.4 60.6 0.85
Kyle Lowry 82.7 66.6 0.81
Tyrese Haliburton 80 62.3 0.78
Tyrese Maxey 83 65.2 0.78
Nikola Jokic 99.7 73.6 0.74

But Green’s not just aimlessly passing the ball. There’s a plan behind what he’s doing. This is what he told JJ Redick on The Old Man and the Three podcast: “It’s the power of the swing pass. Simply catching the ball and swinging it the other way. In your mind it might look like nothing comes out of that because you didn’t score immediately. But what it did is it made the defense change sides of the floor. Every defense in the NBA is good when you play one side of the floor. It’s once you start switching sides of the floor that you can really dissect the defense and pick them apart.”

The numbers back it up. Draymond makes the kinds of passes that lead to open shots even if he isn’t the one getting the assist. The Warriors go from getting assists on 72.4 percent of their baskets when Draymond is on the floor (the best mark of any player in their rotation) to 65 percent when he’s off (the worst). No non-Warrior who has logged at least 400 minutes this season is above 70 percent.

In addition to all of his offensive responsibility, Draymond directs traffic on the other end of the floor, protects the rim, and guards the best frontcourt player every night.

He doesn’t have as much defensive help as he used to. There’s no Durant or Andrew Bogut to shoulder some of the burden. Looney is a smart player who knows how to execute their scheme, but he’s still limited physically. His job is to absorb the punishment that comes with the position and keep Draymond fresh for the playoffs. The Warriors are at their best when Draymond has four smaller defenders in front of him: They have a defensive rating of 95.1 in the 471 minutes he has played without Looney—more than 10 points lower than the best defense in the league.

Draymond is the ultimate help-side defender. He knows what the offense is going to do before it even does it. There’s no way to attack the Warriors at their weakest point, because he can be anywhere on the floor and turn it into a strong one. He complains a lot to the refs, but that’s not unusual for a great defender. What stands out is how often he’s right. There are many times when he didn’t foul and the ref assumes he did because he can’t see how anyone could make the play otherwise.

The Warriors are almost unbeatable when Draymond can roam around the court and cover for everyone else. You need someone who can force Draymond to guard him and then beat him one-on-one. He’s an elite safety whom the offense has to turn into a cornerback. The problem is that he’s pretty good at that, too.

Green is a walking supercomputer with strength, quickness, length, and toughness to spare. There’s a reason he already has one Defensive Player of the Year Award and could have won another this season if he had stayed healthy. His ability to shut down bigger players at 6-foot-6 changed the game. After Draymond and the Warriors won their first title in 2015, the rest of the league began building teams who could play small ball with them.

But things have changed since then. A new generation of 7-footers who are as much guard as big man has emerged. The NBA has once again become a league of giants. Kevin Durant. Joel Embiid. Nikola Jokic. Giannis. The latter three had just begun their careers in 2015. The bar for winning a title in 2022 is either having one of them or having someone who can slow them down.

Draymond created a stir last season when he said he was the greatest defender of all time. If anything, he was being humble; on top of being a historically great defender, he’s also an elite point guard. He might be one of the greatest players of all time.