Before the Golden State Warriors became the most statistically dominant and aesthetically appealing team in the NBA, before they made a star out of Klay Thompson and an MVP out of Stephen Curry, before they reached the NBA Finals for the first time in 40 years, Steve Kerr's group had to let the rest of the league know that, this season, something would be different.
It only took four games to do it.
It was early November and the Warriors were taking on the Clippers at Oracle Arena. Aside from hiring Kerr and adding Shaun Livingston to the bench, this was essentially the same team the Clippers beat a year ago in seven games. But something about the Warriors had changed, and Los Angeles got a firsthand view of it that night.
The Warriors raced out to a 10-point advantage by the end of the first quarter, and turned the game into a blowout by halftime. That's when Draymond Green decided to rub it in. Making his fourth straight start for the injured David Lee, Green drilled consecutive three-pointers to give Golden State a 29-point lead early in the third quarter. Then he ran down the court chasing after Blake Griffin with his tongue out.
It was odd, obnoxious and arrogant. It was the most demonstrative example yet of how the Warriors had evolved.
For too long, the Warriors seemed like the NBA's nice guys. Curry has long been noted for his kindness. Thompson has no problem admitting he never expected to be this good. By moving Green to the starting lineup, the Warriors not only unlocked a ferocious defender and skilled offensive player, they also found a rambling swagger they desperately needed.
In the coming months, the conviction Green had always shown in his own ability started to characterize the Warriors as a whole. He stared down Dahntay Jones and mocked Doc Rivers. He needled the Rockets relentlessly after video surfaced of James Harden saying the Warriors weren't "that good." As Golden State's point differential reached historic heights and the team achieved a rare blend of elite balance on both sides of the ball, Green was there to serve as the mouthpiece for the Warriors' supremacy.
It's impossible to know how the Warriors would have looked had Lee not strained his hamstring in the last game of the preseason. By the time Lee was ready to come back in late December, there was no debate over who the Warriors' starting power forward should be. The team was 22-3 and Green had given Golden State a dimension on both ends of the floor it never had with Lee.
It made Lee something like a modern day Wally Pipp. He had averaged over 18 points per game last year, and he was an All-Star the season before that. He is also the highest-paid player on the team, making $14 million more this season than what Green earns.
Lee probably still could have been a productive player elsewhere in the league, but the fit with Green in Golden State just makes too much sense. On offense, Green turns the Warriors into a four-out team, as he attempts more than four three-pointers per game at a respectable percentage. He is also a much more gifted passer than Lee ever was, a skill that's become a Warriors hallmark as the team went from throwing the fewest passes in the NBA under Mark Jackson to becoming arguably the premier passing team in the league under Kerr a year later.
Defensively, there's no comparison. A player who once fell to the second round because teams didn't know what position he would guard became one of the best individual defenders in the league even as its shortest power forward. Golden State is six points better defensively per 100 possessions with him on the floor than on the bench, the difference between the No. 1 defense in the league and one in the middle of the pack. So far in the playoffs, he's taken on the superhuman ability of Anthony Davis, the veteran craftsmanship of Zach Randolph, and drawn assignments on both Dwight Howard and James Harden while holding his own the entire way.
In July, Green will hit free agency. He's made less than $1 million each season of his career so far and now he seems likely to sign a max contract. That might feel steep for a player who averaged 11.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on 44 percent shooting, but a box score was never going to be big enough to capture all the things Green does. He's become the Warriors' beating heart in the same way Tony Allen defines the Grizzlies and Joakim Noah defines the Bulls.
Of course, that payday doesn't come until after Green gets his biggest test ever on the game's largest stage. No one man is going to be checking LeBron James alone for Golden State, but you can bet Green will draw a large chunk of the assignment. After watching the way James carved up Chicago and Atlanta with his passing, the Warriors might be hesitant to throw an extra defender at him, too.
It doesn't get any bigger than staring down LeBron with the championship on the line. The moment would be too big for most third-year players or former second-round picks, but it won't be for Green. If nothing else, at this point Draymond Green has proven that he's never scared. And now, because of him, neither are the Warriors.
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