As the season winds down, Draymond Green's candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year has crystalized and been discussed. Cases for other players like Utah’s Rudy Gobert have been made, but with the Warriors dominating defensively (more on that later) without a traditional rim protector, it appears that many have decided this is the year that the two-time DPOY runner-up will win the award. A recent somewhat hyperbolic discussion of Green's place all-time as a defensive player opens up a broader conversation about what makes Green’s defense elite in 2017.
Defensive versatility is the absolute key to Green being both an elite defensive player and for that matter an All-Star. Without his ability to defend each position on the court, he likely doesn’t touch the floor for Steve Kerr three years ago and never gets the opportunity to develop his offensive skills. In today’s fast-paced game, teams often use spread pick-n-roll offenses that are designed to utilize concepts like four-out-one-in that space the floor for guards to penetrate and kick to open shooters. This makes someone like Green very valuable as he is able to switch onto most opposing players. This gives defenses increased flexibility, teams to be more aggressive when trapping, and provides them the ability to cover up for weaker defensive players (i.e, Steph Curry). Green, who is listed as 6’7 and 229 pounds, is able to use his strength down low, and quickness up top, making him extremely effective on the defensive end of the court. In his three years starting for Golden State, Green has helped the Warriors finish in the top three of opponent field goal percentage and top four in points allowed per shot every season.
The issue here isn’t that Green isn’t an elite defender or that he’s not helping the Warriors have an elite defense, it’s that somehow his ability to switch has already made him an all-time great defender.
When the NBA eliminated the illegal defense rules, and thus allowed zone defenses to be played, it took away the ability of bigs to sit in the post and go to work. With zone defenses and teams playing a more trap-heavy style, no one this side of Shaq (who the rule was eliminated for in order to slow down) is able to score particularly efficiently from the low block. As players take their first dribble, they’re immediately surrounded and must give up the ball to perimeter players. Because of this, guys who are smaller like Green are able to defend adequately against bigger guys like DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin. With Green only having to guard these opposing big men for a few seconds at a time, it spares his body the punishment that older big men had to endure when players would have to sit down low and guard players for five, ten, or even fifteen seconds at a time. The zone defense, along with the implementation of the Charles Barkley Rule (5 second back to the basket) has made it almost impossible for modern players to dominate in the paint.
While Green handles the low-post defense well for a big man, the thing that most people rave about is his ability to simultaneously defend big men and then switch onto guards. As referenced above, Green is 6’7 and 229 pounds. For comparison sake, the greatest perimeter defender of all-time, Scottie Pippen (don’t @ me) is 6’8 and 228 pounds. While Green often plays power forward and center, Pippen spent the majority of his career at small forward while having the playmaking duties of a guard. Green was dismissed as an inch or two too short to play power forward in the NBA, which caused his draft stock to fall. The reason for this is because, historically, players fall into certain height or weight classifications that determine their position. However, that is not the current NBA.
If you had a guy like Pippen playing in the modern NBA, he likely plays the same type of role he always played that LeBron James currently occupies of a “do-everything-guard-everyone” forward. He would spend each game guarding the opposing teams best player whether that is a point guard or center. Pippen could do this because he was an absolute beast defending one-on-one on the perimeter and strong enough to handle shorter post players as they spent the five or ten seconds attempting to back him down.
The difference with Green is that he’s never actually guarding anyone consistently. The Warriors' defense relies on Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala to be excellent at guarding man-to-man while Green and Kevin Durant are free to roam the paint in search of help defense opportunities and steals. Green’s man-to-man defensive skills are solid (they really are) so he is able to guard those big men adequately out on the perimeter or even on a quick post-up opportunity, but you will never see him take a perimeter player and defend him for a full game. While he chases well and can use his length (7’1.25” wingspan) and quick feet to stay in front of guards, he is not the lockdown defender he is marketed as.
While it may be unfair to use Pippen as an example next to Green (despite their incredibly close measurables), there are many other players who would have been able to do this same style of defense to showcase versatility. Players from the golden age of basketball (80s and 90s) were trained to defend their position at all costs as defensive switches weren’t as easily covered up by zone defense or roaming players like Green, as they would have been in violation of the illegal defense rule (an all-time bad rule). Because of this, defensive principles of the time were designed to shut down the paint and trust defenders to play a disciplined man-to-man defense. In terms of versatility, any great defender over 6’6 and 215 pounds with a long wingspan would likely have been able to play the same type of role that Green is playing today.
The idea of putting Green into the same category as Pippen, Bill Russell, Tim Duncan and Dikembe Mutombo at this point in his career is premature. Green, who is in his fifth year in the NBA, is without a doubt a terrific defender and can chalk up much of his success to be him taking advantage of the current style of NBA offenses. While there is nothing wrong with that, it cannot be suggested that his doing this for a few years puts him among the all-time elite defensive players. For comparison sake, James Harden has been putting up outrageous numbers in Houston for the past five years, absolutely abusing the NBA’s hand-checking rule in order to make every trip to the basket a layup, a foul, or both. Just as Harden is the king of the current NBA hand-checking rules, Green is the king of zone, switch-everything defense. Both are succeeding in ways that many may not like, but they’re doing it in a way that is helping their respective teams win games, which after all, is the goal of basketball.