Smart people are wondering whether Draymond Green will get a max contract offer in the summer. That's amazing.
Less than three years ago, Green fell to the second round in a so-called shallow NBA Draft. Two seasons ago, Green was a lightly-used, low-performing reserve, despite being one of the oldest and thus most "NBA-ready" rookies in the league. Last season, Green was a spot starter on a really good team, but still averaged only 21 minutes, six points and five rebounds per game and shot around 40 percent from the field.
And now we're talking about a max contract.
What's driving that talk is Green has become the heartbeat of one of the highest-performing teams in NBA history by developing into a nifty, albeit low-volume, scorer and an incredible defender. Green's modest scoring ability and strong court vision -- he's averaging 4.1 assists per game -- help balance Steve Kerr's active offense. He also might be the Warriors' most important defender, and that's saying something considering they have Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala on the roster and Klay Thompson responsible for some of Stephen Curry's toughest assignments. And he appears to be fantastic in the locker room. What's not to like?
We've become accustomed to two types of max players: the context-free superstars and the effective 7-footers. You can't teach height, so you buy it. That's how Roy Hibbert gets a max deal. The context-free superstars would be brilliant on any team. These guys are usually scorers, or at least score enough in combination with big assist numbers, great size or standout defense to justify huge contracts. Think Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Paul George or Blake Griffin. Even most of the young players who get max contracts land them on the promise of their future offense prowess. Consider the Warriors' own Thompson, who signed an extension quite near the max based on his shooting exploits and solid defense.
The thing about Green -- and, in some ways, Kawhi Leonard and even Jimmy Butler -- is his impact is totally contextual. Put him on a team without two explosive scorers or a team that doesn't have lots of defensive talent and you're still probably only getting 12 points and eight rebounds with really good individual defense and good ball movement. That's nice and all, but it's not $14 million a year nice. To justify the salary, the situational superstar needs to exist in the proper situation.
Look at Shawn Marion. He was perfect in Phoenix under Mike D'Antoni, where his malleability and varied skill set allowed Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and a bevy of shooters function at their peaks. He was a regular all-star and well-compensated. He moved on to Miami and Toronto and was much less important and looked way less valuable. By the time he hit free agency in 2009 at age 31, he took a steep pay cut to join the Mavericks, where he flourished and played a massive role on a championship team. Context has been everything for Marion's career. He looked like a good value making $15 million with a team that used him well and a bust making $17 million on a team that was mediocre with or without him.
(Tangent alert: how interesting that Suns' general manager Steve Kerr traded Marion to the Heat for the more traditionally-excellent Shaq. One could say Kerr then didn't appreciate fully exactly what Marion, the situational superstar, gave Phoenix. Now Kerr relies heavily on Green's odd gifts give the Warriors, and we can be sure Kerr will lobby his bosses heavily to give Green whatever the market demands in July.)
The subtext to all of this is that an individual's impact on defense is so hard to rate, especially when the individual isn't 7-feet tall. There are great NBA defenders who don't make $14 million a year and never would. Tony Allen, for example, is such a minus in most aspects of offense that a mid-level range deal for him has always seemed reasonable. Bruce Bowen in his heyday couldn't do anything but defend and hit threes, and no one talked about max deals for him.
Allen and Bowen are among the most excellent defenders of their generations. So what separates them from the current crop of rising young defenders -- Green, Leonard, Butler -- is offensive usefulness. Leonard is a top defender who can also shoot and score well. Butler is a great defender who is now also an explosive scorer. Green can defend a wide swath of the NBA effectively, but can also move the ball as well as many guards on offense. (We could talk about Danny Green here, too, but adding another Green to the mix is just going to lead to confusion.)
You can hire cheap wing defense in the NBA. And you can always find an affordable player to give you useful if sub-awesome offense. It's the combination of stellar defense and offensive usefulness that makes teams pay out the nose these days. That's why Green will get paid a pretty penny, even if not quite a max contract. (My guess is that he signs for $10-12 million per season and stays with Golden State.)
The question isn't whether Green will do enough to earn out that contract. It's whether the Warriors will continue to field the right mix of talent around him to keep his particular contextual gifts relevant.