Jeff Green was a mercurial player before he signed a controversial four-year, $36.24 million contract (including a $9.4 million player option in 2016) with the most storied franchise in basketball. But all that deal did was create even more questions about a boundless talent who'd yet to show he could carry an offense or consistently contain elite colleagues at his position.
Is Green talented enough to bridge the defensively brilliant Kevin Garnett era with a more offensively-focused—Rajon Rondo-conducted?—future?
Thanks to a slew of consistent, efficient and imposing performances over the past few weeks, that question is much closer to being answered. And as the Boston Celtics begin their post-All-Star break run toward a postseason nobody believes will end happily, Green's name as a serious Sixth Man of the Year candidate should soon become a legitimate thing.
Right now it's difficult to say anyone on the Celtics aside from Garnett and Paul Pierce is better. Since dropping 19 points in just 29 minutes during Boston's blowout victory over the Los Angeles Lakers back on February 7, Green has been the team's most consistent player, scoring 17, 18, 8, 20, 15, 31 (on 14 shots!) and 11 points.
Plus/minus numbers have never been Green's friend. Carrying over from his days as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, whenever he took a seat on the bench, his team's offense would typically play better, as would the defense. But his spectacular play on both ends over the past few weeks is finally beginning to turn that around.
Since January 1 (better known as the return of Avery Bradley), the Celtics offense has scored 3.9 more points per 100 possessions with Green on the court than off. The better he's played, the more his game has expanded in Doc Rivers' offense.
Once primarily used in the post to exploit size mismatches, and from the corner for the occasional spot up three-pointer, lately Green has shown he can be much more than that—and I'm not referring to the treasure chest of ferocious dunks he continues to unleash.
During Friday night's victory over the Phoenix Suns (his first start of the year), Green facilitated from the elbow on several possessions, a truly exciting development.
Here the Celtics initiate a basic "Horns" set by feeding the ball to Green just above the left elbow. He then receives a ball screen from Chris Wilcox and has the responsibility of reading how the defense reacts to Wilcox's roll to the hoop. He can either hit him with a pass or pick up on whether Phoenix's weak-side defenders have dropped into the paint, which would create a wide open three-pointer for Jordan Crawford. The latter occurs, and Crawford knocks it down.
While some pundits have lazily attributed Green's success in that particular game to his overcoming a fictional battle against "mental toughness," those who've watched him this entire season know that wasn't the case.
Offensive aggressiveness was never the problem. He consistently attacks the basket with no hesitation and more often than not gets to the free-throw line. According to NBA.com/Stats, in his last 15 games Green has attempted 4.7 free-throws per 36 minutes. Not quite superstar numbers but enough to make a noticeable positive difference.
Getting to the basket is great, and Green does it often and well. But his jumper is something that has to be accounted for as well. According to Synergy Sports, Green averages 1.2 points per possession in spot-up situations (a sequence that takes up one out of every four plays he finishes). That ranks 29th out of all players in the entire league. Yikes.
Offense is great, but defense is what separates Green from every other serious Sixth Man of the Year candidate (apologies to Taj Gibson). Jamal Crawford, Kevin Martin, J.R. Smith and Jarrett Jack are all wonderful with the ball in their hands, but on the other end, they can often be overmatched.
On the other hand, Green's defensive impact is undeniable, and even though it'll be a long time before it's properly recognized as an important part of this particular award's narrative (or any award apart from Defensive Player of the Year, for that matter), it should be highlighted here as a significant reason as to why Green is a candidate whose legitimacy can no longer be ignored.
His contract was justified in the eyes of Celtics general manager Danny Ainge because of what he could hypothetically do guarding LeBron James. That might sound silly, but it's true. According to Synergy, in Boston's second matchup against the Miami Heat on January 27, Green guarded James for nine possessions. Seven of them resulted in a missed shot.
Here's one of them, and it's particularly impressive work.
Sixth Man of the Year is often an award suited for those who've embraced a role nobody grows up dreaming to claim. It rewards the ultimate sacrificial effort, and no player exemplifies that better than Green, who over the next two months will be asked to do everything and more for a Celtics team that probably has a 1-in-100 shot at reaching their ultimate goal.
The thought used to be that Boston's financial panic move wasn't a big deal because Green's presence on its roster was a contextual necessity. Someone had to spell Pierce, and someone had to cover the likes of James and Carmelo Anthony (and Paul George?) for stretches in a probable playoff series. He probably won't win. But it's about time we acknowledge Green's seat at the table.