NBA Meta: When Draymond Green Shakes Everything Up
We’ve established that the NBA is a copycat league. In fact, not only from a strategic sense does mimicry run rampant, but the movement of players, coaches and front offices highlights the NBA’s incredibly incestuous hiring practices. Strategies spread because they are demonstrated to be successful and the people who practice them pollinate the league with their innovations.
So often when we discuss the NBA meta, it is from the standpoint of observing trends or groups of players. But those changes, whether sudden or gradual, must originate somewhere. The league’s three-point revolution was not embraced overnight, but slowly enthralled teams over decades. Other times, shifts come from a single inflection point. Tom Thibadeau’s innovative Boston Celtics defense was one such inflection point that strategically shook the league. For this, Thiboadeau is lauded and revered as a defensive wizard.
But coaches and front office executives are different than players. Their careers can span decades and are mostly hidden from the public eye. The ripples in the NBA pool caused by old heads aren’t fun. They’re neat.
Sometimes, a player comes along who changes everything. The way he plays shakes the league and social consumption of the game to its core. Stephen Curry revolutionized the understanding of a good three-point attempt. His uncanny shooting ability and general success has spawned a generation of three-point bombing. He has generated mimicry from NBA pros like Damian Lilliard and Kemba Walker, aspiring NBA guards like Lonzo and LaMelo Ball, and nearly every man, woman and child playing pickup or shooting at a basket in their driveway.
But the Golden State Warriors dynasty has not risen from his brilliance alone.
Draymond Green is the player, just as much, if not more than Steph Curry, who has changed how teams and front offices approach the game. Draymond Green has shaken the NBA, and its subsequent meta, to its foundation.
Draymond Green is the one who knocks.
What is Draymond?
Teams are constantly searching for skilled players who can fill a role: players who can defend on the perimeter, who can shoot. Some role players do one of these things well. Others do multiple.
Understanding Green’s uniqueness is quintessential to understanding the meta. It’s not that his toolset are unique; it is his rare combination of size (numbers below via DraftExpress) and different skills—especially those crucial to the current meta—which makes him a star.
Draymond Green, the sub-6’6″ power forward drafted at No. 35 by the Warriors, has blossomed into one of the best 20 players in the league. DraftExpress and many others identified him as having limited upside. The tweener monkier was bestowed upon him, an insult meant to describe a quickness and height deficiency that would undermine him at either the 3 or the 4.
But toward the end of the aughts, tweeners’ place on the court began to change.
Within the current meta, teams typically opt to use tweeners as an extension of the three-and-D wing at the power forward slot. Ball-dominant point guards and superstar wings control the game flow in the pick-and-roll, so the most effective offenses have accumulated players who can be threatening to defenses without the rock in their hands, to the point that they create space on the court for their high-usage teammates to operate. This is what three-and-D players represent in the NBA meta: role players who can be effectively called upon when a defense throws resources at the star. Players who once fit the tweener moniker are now shifted to the 4, as opposed to being asked to waffle between the forward spots, as Draymond was expected to do when he was drafted.
So the meta evolved in a way that benefited Green, which is what has made him successful? Yes and no.
Yes, he came into the league with a team that was able to figure out how to use him. No, that does not entirely describe why he’s so effective. Green has a unique skill set that doesn’t typically fit together in one player, especially not one of his size.
Draymond’s Ball-handler Defense
The spread pick-and-roll is used to create a mismatch between the ball-handler and the roll man’s defender. The quick switch is supposed to open an opportunity to get into the paint for a layup or quick kick out for a three-point shot. However, this type of attack is not nearly as effective when an incredible defender, like Green, is able to effectively stymie the ball-handler:
Whether in transition, isolated on an island or in the pick-and-roll, Green is at home, ready to pounce on the ball-handler.
Green initiates the offense off the dribble, on the wing, from the high post, from the low post and off the break. He passes to shooters, cutters and big men for easy dunks. The former second-round pick, whose ability to dribble and move decisively adds to his advantage, acts as a playmaker from the 4.
His passing within the Warriors’ movement-heavy offense enables him to pick defenses apart. He’s one of the best distributing forwards in the league, ranking as one of two non-point guards in the top 10 in assists last year, along with Lebron James.
Green, despite his height, is an elite rim-protector. He does this with his hands, timing, positioning and ability to read the offensive player, all of which helped him rank as the NBA’s second-best player at defending the hoop in 2016-17.
Green quarterbacks the Golden State defense and shapes the game in his own unique way. He calls opponent’s plays, steps out to defend on the perimeter and operates as a premier defensive presence on the interior. This season, the Warriors were 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with the supposed tweener on the floor, and the opposing offense was 5.0 points better with him off. Though on/off splits aren’t in a vacuum, they demonstrate his effectiveness and the crucial contributions he makes on both sides of the floor.
From a scheme-shaping standpoint, Green’s rim-protection is the most significant of his skills. While his ability to guard on the perimeter enables Golden State to run a switch-heavy defense (he’s adept at guarding both point guards and centers), it kicks into high gear when it moves him to the center position.
The move forces the opposing team to make decisions.
By placing a typical 7-footer on him, it gives Green the opportunity to draw the opponent’s rim-protector out to the perimeter. However, should teams attempt to mirror him with a shorter, more mobile big, they remove that rim-protector from the floor, allowing other Warriors greater chances to score in the paint. Members of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Twitter contingent, Frank Madden and Ben Thompson, remarked on the significance of shorter rim-protectors and their value in the league during the 2017 NBA Finals, as Green’s play forced the Cleveland Cavailers to downsize their own rotation in an attempt to counter his offense.
It's why "small" rim protectors are arguably the most valuable players in the game right now. Green, Durant, Giannis…
— NoTechBen (@NoTechBen) June 13, 2017
This is why Green’s rim-protection is the linchpin of his utilization.
His ability to be one of the best interior defenders at a lesser height creates a massive mismatch. When we talked about unicorns, we noted they could theoretically protect the hoop at the 4 because of their athleticism. This is Green. He harnesses the versatility and abilities people drool over when they see unicorns. However, his effectiveness is not a result of his jaw-dropping athleticism and length.
Green is, functionally, a defensive unicorn because of his cerebral understanding of the game and overwhelming technical prowess. He shapes play through his all-encompassing defensive play and standout playmaking skills. Within the meta, Draymond is a rim-protector, a post-up threat, a playmaking big, a switchable tweener and a lock-down defender, all rolled into one.
His profile is unique because he doesn’t possess one or two of the skills that define the meta; he possesses many.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @jarvrt14.