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Nobody knows what’s next for Draymond Green, not even Draymond Green

Trying to figure out Green’s value in the larger NBA landscape is as difficult as ever, even for his biggest supporters.

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Two days after the Golden State Warriors lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Draymond Green strode into Scotiabank Arena with the aplomb of a powerful dynasty at his back. Wrapped in a grey Warriors zip-up hoodie, at around 1:30 p.m. — 15 minutes after he was scheduled to speak — the three-time champion walked towards a makeshift podium that was propped up on the far right corner of the court. In front of a dozen TV cameras, microphones, and digital recorders, the NBA’s most complex catalyst sat down for an array of questions about basketball, life, and everywhere those two subjects intersect.

Heading into these playoffs, Green was the closest thing to a question mark the Warriors had. The 29-year-old’s seventh regular season ended with him averaging just 7.4 points per game, making only 28.5 percent of his threes, and sporting the same PER as Terry Rozier and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. His turnover rate ballooned to 26.8 despite his usage dropping to the lowest it’d ever been. For the first time since 2015-16, he didn’t make the NBA All-Star team, was denied All-NBA consideration, and, in increasingly damaging ways, allowed his emotional volatility to infect Golden State’s model work environment.

In November, the team suspended Green for a game after he indelicately addressed the taboo subject that is Kevin Durant’s free agency on the floor after a loss against the Los Angeles Clippers — a destabilizing event that could’ve turned the defending champ’s titanium-forged castle into a house of cards. In March, during a humiliating home loss against the 19-win Phoenix Suns, television cameras caught Warriors head coach Steve Kerr saying he’s “so fucking tired of Draymond’s shit.”

Several metrics that have long smiled at Green’s impact continued to do so — he finished top-five in Defensive Real Plus-Minus for the fourth time in five years — but for significant stretches it looked like his time as a top-15 player was nearing its end. Since 2015, the Warriors had never posted a negative plus/minus for an entire month with Green on the court. In February, they were -22. The possibility of a great player stumbling towards the next phase of his career was real. Instead, what followed was a masterful playoff run; a seasoned tour de force of patience, wisdom, and command that was unlike anything seen from Green before. (Triple-doubles aren’t everything, but from 2015-2018 he recorded four of them. In these playoffs, Green had six.)

“I’d say this is the best basketball I’ve seen him play. I mean, what area of his game is he not better at?” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told SB Nation days before the Finals began. “I just think he’s in a good place. He doesn’t have to prove [anything]. He’s getting credit for what he’s elite at. Now, his job is to stay in that good place.”

Back in the scrum, a reporter asks Green about his future. As someone whose professional accomplishments will someday be applauded through a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, how does he — entering the final year of his contract — prioritize his goals after showing the world that the best may still be yet to come?

“I’m a person who knows if we’re winning it’ll all take care of itself. When you’re winning you get the accolades. When you’re on a team that wins 20 games you usually don’t get accolades. That’s just the way it goes,” he said. “So I’m just gonna continue to try to do what we’ve been doing, and all the rest of those things take care of themselves.”

Little did Green know what was about to happen. Nine days later, Durant would rupture his Achilles. Three after that, Thompson’s torn ACL all but ended Golden State’s chance at a three-peat. The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA championship with a 114-110 victory in Game 6 on June 13. Green couldn’t save the Warriors, but he finished the playoffs as their leader in plus/minus, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, averaging 13.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game.

Random injuries, shifting trends, and locker room melodrama prohibit an accurate read on what will happen six days from now, let alone a calendar year, for any player. The NBA is a turbulent place. But even though most inquiries into Green’s future are unanswerable until July 2020, when his current contract expires, that doesn’t make them any less consequential, divisive, or fascinating right now, as the Warriors lick their wounds and climb back up towards a prize that isn’t promised to anyone.

Will Golden State pay him the most he’s eligible to receive? If not, will Green stay for less money, particularly if another team is willing to offer more? And how will his unique game age, whether alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson or elsewhere? (A chicken or egg predicament those around the NBA have contemplated for years.)

After a heartbreaking loss in Oracle Arena’s series finale, Green sat in the interview room while the Raptors bathed in champagne. “I think everybody thinks it’s kind of the end of us. But that’s just not smart. We’re not done yet,” he said. “We lost this year. Clearly just wasn’t our year, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes. But, yeah, I hear a lot of that noise, it’s the end of a run and all that jazz. I don’t see it happening though. We’ll be back.”

Finding the good place

If the on and off-court growth that was on display over the past couple months sustains itself, Green’s free agency will be powerful enough to disrupt the league’s hierarchy. Much has been made about his diet, the underlying discipline that’s required to keep lost weight off, and how it’s all positively impacted his psyche and temperament. (“He’s handling things so much different now,” Izzo said.) And for good reason. When blended with myriad ways his game has transformed — with weaker sections being acknowledged and then rectified — that self-maturation gives credence to the arguments for Green as a force through his next contract, in or outside the Bay Area.

The ramifications here are somewhat astonishing for a player who was drafted 35th overall after four years with the Spartans. He was never treated as a threat from behind the three-point line, and came out of school with no discernible NBA position or role. At times, his worst enemy was himself. Green battled weight issues and struggled with conditioning, but there were unquantifiable, transcendent distinctions that helped propel him into the career he’s had, and the future he’s equipped to enjoy.

“He was really good [in college], but I wouldn’t say great at anything,” Izzo said. “I’d agree with everybody, and they’d say ‘well what does he do great to be a first-round pick? Wins.’ He wins! He wins and he’s got toughness and he’s got intelligence. But people don’t look at those as skills and that’s why I think he’s transformed the game. Toughness and the heart he plays with is a skill. Intelligence is a skill. And, man, winning is a skill. There’s a lot of great players that aren’t great winners.”

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Louisville v Michigan State
Draymond Green running the court for the Michigan State Spartans during the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry spent one year as an assistant with the Warriors. It didn’t take long for him to see how special Green was. “The guy really is a coach’s dream,” Gentry told the Detroit Free Press in 2015. “You can’t place a value on that. Use every cliché you can. His teams always win. The squad you put him on in a scrimmage, his team is going to win.”

It’s all translated into him becoming a transformational figure who’s spent his entire life triumphing over doubt. In these playoffs, he was victorious in ways unseen before: The determination it takes to remove alcohol and junk food from your diet isn’t easy after they’ve been in it so long. Vices can be harder to shake than a bad reputation. But removing them not only helped his body, it also relieved his mind.

”When I went on this diet, it’s like a sense of control,” Green told ESPN. “Having that control, it carries over to other areas in your life.”

Green’s emotional steadiness is important. But so is his body, refurbished and prepared to complement an evolving mind. “To me, it all ties together,” Kerr said during the Finals. In games played over the past two months, Green was lean enough to do things he otherwise couldn’t on a consistent basis, be it switching on a guard early in a possession and then shutting him down for 18 straight seconds, or pushing a fastbreak late in the fourth quarter and scoring without assistance. He was also more poised in one very specific and notable way.

For Golden State’s entire reign, it was scripture for every defense to ignore Green whenever he didn’t have the ball. The strategy has had mixed results but was never without logic, given the existence of Curry and Thompson. The result: Green’s career postseason three-point rate was 41 percent before these playoffs began. Heading into the Finals, it dropped all the way down to 22.4 percent, despite no real change in teammates, role, or his opponent’s behavior.

“He’ll get mad at me if he saw, but I don’t think he’s comfortable with his outside shot,” Izzo said. “I don’t think he’s as confident.” The 64-year-old attributes that to Green not having enough time last summer to work on his mechanics. Instead, a chunk of his offseason was spent rehabbing injuries down in Florida, where Izzo traveled twice to check in.

“I like when he passes them up. And people say ‘well, why is he passing them up?’ I say ‘what do you want him to do, shoot them and miss them?’ Izzo said. “Winning is more important than his ego. Maybe when he was younger, like all of us, maybe his ego was more important than winning [laughs].”

Green’s self-awareness expanded how he was able to control the action, frustrating opposing coaching staffs that believed they finally figured him out.

“I know that was apart of our game plan and our thought process coming in, that we would try to see if he wanted to try to make as many shots as he could from [behind the three-point line] because he wasn’t guarded,” Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach David Vanterpool — who coached against Green in the Western Conference Finals as an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers — told SB Nation. “Lesser intelligent players on that stage may take that bait. He’s not one of them. I think he’ll try a shot and if he misses he’ll say ‘alright I’ll do something different,’ where other guys will take the bait.”

The Warriors insist they didn’t instruct Green to shoot fewer threes — his three-point nearly doubled in the Finals from the conference finals — and instead cite his uncanny intelligence as a reason for the adjustment. “You never want to take confidence away from any of your players,” Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins told SB Nation. “We encourage him. If he’s open, shoot it. But if not, if you don’t want to, these are your options.”

In Green’s opinion, the rationale for change was straightforward: “[My three-point rate] is down because I’ve just been getting to the hole. If I can get to the hole, that’s a better shot for me,” he said. “Saying that, I don’t think much of it. If I had a three-point shot and I got a lane, I’m going to take that lane and get to the basket.”

After averaging 2.2 and 2.4 drives per game in the past two postseasons, Green went up to 4.2 this year. Some of that was thanks to Durant’s injury and not having DeMarcus Cousins around to take up space in the paint. But unlike the past, Green was also a much more accurate scorer at the basket. Among all players who attempted at least 100 shots at the rim in any postseason since 2001, only eight registered a higher field goal percentage than Green’s 74.1.

Green was a blur, too, and the primary reason why Golden State had the postseason’s second-fastest offense with him on the floor and third-slowest when he sat. He reestablished himself as a point guard who regularly forces the other team to feel him in the open floor. “I think the one added dimension he’s brought to the table is when he’s pushed the ball, he’s finished and finished well for us in transition,” Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown told SB Nation. Every playoff push was like a bowling ball with its own microprocessor. It reflected a conscious decision to redistribute his shot selection in ways that impact winning, with a body and outlook that let him be more potent and useful in areas that were once compromising.

“He’s being more patient out there because he’s expanded the things he’s doing for us offensively, from, not only getting to the rim and finishing, but playing the DHO game, playing the swing pick-and-roll game, and, obviously what he’s always done, just waiting for shooters to come off of pindowns,” Brown said. “I think that’s just a testament of his game evolving.”

Staying in the good place

It’s not wrong to process these changes then think Green’s future is notably brighter than one might’ve thought before the playoffs began. The Warriors have more information about him than anyone, for better and for worse, but they can’t ignore his ongoing influence when considering what life without him could look like.

Green’s willingness to prolong his middle-aged perspective and fine-tuned physique will go a long way towards determining how much these questions actually matter; those who’ve been around him for years are optimistic about his ability to replicate this run for another few years, at least.

“From my own personal experience in the league, the most important thing as you age is how you maintain your body,” Collins said. “He knows that, and being around guys, veterans that have played many, many years in this league, from David West to Zaza Pachulia, to Andrew Bogut, to Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, he sees that and he knows that.”

Tied to that point, one’s health is, of course, unpredictable. But players who treat their body like a temple have an inherent leg up on father time, especially as it related to players from the past, thanks to a league that’s more inclined to conserve — as opposed to exploit — its talent.

“I was required to play four games in five nights and still practice. The NBA wasn’t making a constant effort to make sure that you preserve the players,” ESPN analyst Jalen Rose told SB Nation. “When I played there was more guys that averaged 38-40 minutes per games. I think now it allows the player to play a lot longer and be a lot more effective.”

Physical decline impacts every player, but Green should be able to stiff arm its effect longer than most. Green possesses certain on-court traits that aren’t likely to corrode, and betting on his faults to improve isn’t a bad idea. High-level passing tends to age well and, daring approach aside, Green is one of the game’s smartest passers. His assist rate in this postseason was a career high and nearly ten points above what it was during Golden State’s first title run. (His potential assists were 9.4 during the 2014-15 playoffs and ended at 15.7 this year — more than everyone except Russell Westbrook. He finished with 51 more total potential assists than anyone else.) Few players, at any position, see the floor with his panoramic vision.

“[Draymond’s game] isn’t really based on athleticism, you know? I think as long as he takes care of his body, and as long as he continues to eat right, stay at a healthy weight, and not just go in there for treatment like he has an injury, but get treatment for maintenance, I think he can play this way for a while,” Brown said. “If he relied on his athleticism to get rebounds and make plays, I don’t know how his game would translate in the years to come.”

The instantaneous recognition of a GPS system and an exceptional ability to think through every possession on both sides of the ball won’t disappear, either. “He’ll probably still get [to his spots],” Vanterpool said. “You’ll just wonder how he’s getting there so quickly.”

Green is also a savvy screener, so much so that Izzo turns the best into a highlight film he then force feeds to incoming Spartan bigs. The clips illustrate all the different ways Green shifts his body and tweaks his feet to free teammates up. Those split-second battles within the battle define him, and, in many ways, Golden State’s historic run. (With their season on the line in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Warriors exclusively leaned on Curry-Green pick-and-rolls.)

“I think he could adapt to a lot of teams,” Izzo said. “But if he’s setting those great screens and guys aren’t making shots, it’s not as good.”

Green understands when to pummel the game’s flow, and when to give it a shoulder rub. One minute he’s bullying all rhythm into submission, the next he’s stabilizing it. Green’s jurisdiction over all activity is almost too broad for a neat player comp, but elements of PJ Tucker (34 years old), Paul Millsap (34), and Al Horford (33) are relevant for interested teams attempting to project what Green will look like a few years from now. Historically, Dennis Rodman (minus the playmaking) is a popular parallel, as well as Jason Kidd, whose ameliorated three-point shot provides hope for anyone confident in Green’s ability to become a respected outside threat.

“Somebody better hope he doesn’t restructure that shot this summer,” Izzo said. “Because if he does, he’s gonna have three, four years of incredible basketball, if he can stay healthy.”

Searching for another place?

For 29 other teams, Green’s value is fluid. Independent of Hall of Fame teammates and a system that accentuates his sharpest qualities, he’s still one of the most predatory defenders in NBA history, with offensive blemishes that can either be mitigated or amplified. Some around the league are still unable to disentangle Green’s success from all the benefits provided by the two most feared shooters we’ve ever seen.

“I don’t think he moves the needle if he goes to an average team,” one Western Conference assistant coach told SB Nation. “When you prep for them you don’t mention him. We have to spend so much stress and time with the split-action game that’s it hard not to be good when people literally don’t guard you.”

There’s no definitive evidence on either side of the aisle, but situational context, role, and surrounding personnel are a big deal for 99.9 percent of the NBA’s work force. No player is perfect and some skill-sets are more or less suitable beside the strengths and weaknesses of others. It’s not as if anyone could plug into Golden State’s scheme and duplicate Green’s authority. As a playmaker and defensive anchor, he simplifies what Curry and Thompson need to focus on in meaningful ways.

“Obviously Steph and Klay are phenomenal and take nothing away from them, but Draymond Green goes hand in hand with all of their winning,” Vanterpool said. “I think Steph and Klay are allowed to be more Steph and Klay because of Draymond. Because of the way that they play, it allows them to run around and just take shots.”

Since 2015, the Warriors are +4 in the playoffs when Curry is on the court without Green. When Green plays without Curry, the Warriors are +146. Some of that was due to the time Curry missed in 2016 and 2018, and the same effect doesn’t translate during the regular season, but it’s still jarring. Despite a persistent and fair doubt in his ability to score or even create quality offense without the Splash Brothers, Green has prevailed as a North Star for one of the most impressive journeys in NBA history. His intelligence, toughness, and universally-appreciated intangibles should translate wherever he goes.

“He makes so many plays under the rim because he’s helping, he’s cheating, he’s jumping out of the lane, back in the lane,” Izzo said. “Watch other teams, nobody does that! A guy rolls to the basket and is wide open but Draymond’s there so they don’t even throw it to him, so he doesn’t get credit for good defense, unless you’re a coach looking for that stuff. So many players don’t play that way.”

During the past two postseasons, former Houston Rockets associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik admired Green from afar, awed by someone who showed no weakness whenever Golden State tried to get a stop. “He sniffs plays out,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do with him defensively. He’s a one-man wrecking crew.”

During the conference finals, Green consistently poisoned Portland’s offensive strategy by making the Blazers second guess their own game plan before it was even actualized.

“A lot of times, we’d try to put him in the pick-and-roll to limit their backside help,” Vanterpool says. “But now that makes the screen and the trap off the pick-and-roll more aggressive and causes a totally different problem. There are a lot of ways to move him around and complicate things, but what ends up happening a lot of times is you have to do so much that you end up making life more complicated for your guys before you’ve even gone through the process of the set.”

Should he enter unrestricted free agency, alternate destinations will be available. Many teams are positioned to have max cap space in 2020 — the first summer all those toxic 2016 deals come off the books — and besides Davis there won’t really be any other stars to bid on. But how many buyers can sell Green (and themselves) on immediate championship contention? The Denver Nuggets might be one. What will the Dallas Mavericks or Atlanta Hawks look like?

That ability to play with the ball in his hands is a gift and a curse. So long as he’s surrounded by diligent shooters who screen, cut, and enthusiastically run the floor, there’s no issue. Otherwise, so much of what makes Green a special offensive player is muted. “What he does isn’t for all 30 teams,” Rose said. “But I do believe you can plug and play him into a lot of other winning situations.”

How the money works

All this will be considered when his new agent, Rich Paul, sits down to negotiate Green’s next contract with Warriors management. After the 2018 Finals, ESPN reported that Green was not expected to take a pay cut on his next deal. “I don’t look at it like it’s their turn to do me right. If I continue to play my game, if I continue to do better, they got to do me right, or somebody else will,” he said.

The sentiment echoed something Green alluded to one day before the 2019 Finals began: “I’m not going to sit here and say money doesn’t matter or accolades doesn’t matter. Who doesn’t want those things? But I think what we have done a great job of is putting the number one goal ahead of all of that. It started with me in 2015. We won a championship. I got my contract. And then it went to Steph and Andre and Klay, even before me, and Kevin. I think so many times you see people struggle to put those team goals ahead of their personal goals, thinking their personal goals are taking a back seat. But if you put the team goals ahead of that, it pulls your personal goals right along with it.”

2018 NBA Finals - Game Four
From left: Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors celebrate after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If Green makes an All-NBA team or wins Defensive Player of the Year next season, he will be eligible for the super max. According to current salary cap projections, that’s nearly $240 million over five years. If he doesn’t qualify, Green’s max from Golden State will be about $156 over four years and $201 million over five. That money isn’t a lock, but barring an inexplicable event Green is lined up to receive a steep raise from whoever’s willing to pay it. (The most any other team can offer is approximately $150 million over four years.)

With Durant and Thompson likely out of the picture next season, Green has an opportunity to treat the max as a worst-case scenario when negotiating with an ownership group that may not be willing to absorb the loss of a franchise icon as it opens their new arena.

Money isn’t the end all be all for every free agent, though. (Even one who aspires to become a billionaire.) The bond Green shares with Curry, Thompson, Kerr, and Warriors general manager Bob Myers is lifelong; few players, ever, can relate to everything they’ve gone through together. Trust and loyalty are two words that matter to Green, and even in the cutthroat world of professional sports, they won’t be ignored. In the back of his mind, well aware of how long it would take to construct the key tenets found in every successful relationship in a new environment, moving on may never be something he comes around to doing.

“I’m not his father and I’m not his agent but I do think there’s certain places for certain people. My humble opinion, he’s with the right team, the right players, the right coach and the right GM,” Izzo said. “When Bob Myers sat with him when he was kicked out of Game 5, that to me seemed un-NBA-ish. I don’t know of a general manager that would’ve done something like that. I always tell Draymond, ‘Hey if he’s mad at somebody, remember when you were down they were sitting with you, man!’ Just brilliant. Brilliant. Match made in heaven. Now that can change. People have great marriages, get divorced. It can change. But I just think that he has too much of a great relationship with Steph and Klay. Those guys have been there with him. That’s three amigos right there, boy.”

Maybe he will look around and realize a max contract in another city isn’t the same as slightly less money for the opportunity to sustain something special in San Francisco. Or maybe his irrepressible pride won’t accept any disregard for his unique gifts.

Perhaps the Warriors explore moving Green before next year’s trade deadline to protect themselves from losing him for nothing. Assuming Thompson and Durant are out of the on-court equation next year, the Warriors may want to take a step back before they can leap forward. And even with blooming revenue streams, the outlandish cost of keeping an aging core together may not be what Warriors primary owner Joe Lacob wants to do.

If a five-year max is what Green seeks, league insiders polled for this article aren’t bullish on Golden State complying. One Western Conference general manager’s response to whether the Warriors will offer Green max money, let alone the super max if he’s eligible, was “probably not.” That doesn’t mean the two sides can’t find common ground. The chance of a maximum contract that’s shorter than five years is always possible. Perhaps a three-year deal (with a player option in year three) that aligns with Curry’s, or, if Thompson agrees to a five-year deal this summer, a four-year pact that expires at the same time. A four-year extension may be offered by Golden State this offseason, but if Green were to accept it he’d leave between $50 and $100 million on the table. “You never get what you deserve, you only get what you have the leverage to negotiate,” Rose said. “For their team and what they’re trying to accomplish, he definitely deserves a maximum contract.”

Again, it’s hard to dig into Golden State’s thought process this far out. If they do not enter 2021 as defending champions, why would they want to lock into an aging core at a cost that vaporizes all flexibility and throws them deep into the luxury/repeater tax? Assuming Thompson and Curry are on max contracts, upgrading from Green with available cap space won’t be easy. The Warriors can’t outright afford Anthony Davis next summer, or Giannis Antetokounmpo (who’s represented by the same agency as Curry) a year after that. There’s risk going down those roads but — for an organization that views itself as being light years ahead of the competition, with full understanding that rings are worn by the bold — they may as well explore them.

The future is unknown

Nothing about Green is simple, including any attempt to forecast whatever lies ahead. He exists on a spectrum, at once passionate, intellectual, perceptive, obtuse, precise, raw, confident, insecure, self-sacrificing, and egotistical. His skill-set is so particular to the wildly successful situation in which he’s spent his entire career that imagining him outside it is almost impossible, if not besides the point. He’s influential yet one and only. And, at his core, above everything else, he’s a conqueror; the exultant, flawed, and memorable main character in any epic that’s worth reading twice.

Coming out of these playoffs, his staunch belief that everything will take care of itself is more sensible than naive. Bruised feelings are always possible if Green stays healthy and pushes to earn a max contract that is never offered, but he isn’t slowing down and very little about his game suggests meaningful decline will occur anytime soon. Several realistic paths lie ahead, and at least a few involve him signing with a team that’s willing to roll the dice on a string of variables that could finally reveal how much he impacts winning when not surrounded by the greatest shooters who ever lived, empowered by an organization that understands who he is and everything he needs.

If that’s the case, Green will inevitably be scrutinized and embraced at the exact same time. Will his lifelong trend as a difference-making victor carry on, or — as all things must do — come to an end?

Ask him about it and all you’ll hear is the relentless resolve of a generation-influencing archetype. A soulful provocateur who knows he has more to give, wherever it may be. “I hope I continue to play better and better and show signs of peaking,” he said. “But I hope it’s not really me peaking. I don’t believe in peaking.”

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