Hall of Fame basketball coach Don Nelson used to have a saying about a role player and what sometimes happens when you give him too much playing time.
“You have to be careful, though,” Nelson would say about over-using the part-time player. “He’s just good enough to get you beat.”
And with that, let’s jump into what already has turned into a major topic surrounding the Golden State Warriors these days: Should Draymond Green play the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward, regardless of David Lee's health?
With the postseason just around the corner and Lee’s status in question due to nerve irritation in his hamstring, this has become a pressing issue. If Lee can’t go or if he’s noticeably limited by the injury, it only makes sense for coach Mark Jackson to spoon-feed Green as many minutes as he can.
After all, Green has been a nice surprise this season, elbowing his way from more of a fringe player in 2012-13 to a bona fide contributor. He’s given the Warriors a good dose of what they’ve needed: defensive toughness and physicality, smarts and a little bit of an attitude.
Lee missed seven games due to his injury but has returned for the past two. Though he was rusty in those games against the Lakers and Blazers, he is expected to be healthy in the playoffs. But sentiment seems to be growing that Green deserves to be getting many or most of the minutes anyway.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News made that case last week.
However, playing Green extended minutes isn’t quite a no-brainer unless we’re talking about Lee being significantly limited or out completely.
The main reason there is a call for more Green is defense. In a small sample size, the trio of Andre Iguodala, Green and Andrew Bogut have proven to be quite effective at that end of the floor.
Bogut is a tremendous rim-protector; Green is fierce and dogged and seeks out tough matchups; and Iguodala has been steady all season long as a defender. It makes sense that a unit including those three could you get you a bunch of stops, particularly when you consider that both Bogut and Green are in the top five in individual defensive rating.
But be careful what you wish for.
There are dangers in trying to live and die with Green. First of all, if you take out Lee and insert Green the makeup of your team fundamentally changes. In essence, you go from a team with an offensive bent to a team with a defensive one.
Some would say that’s better, particularly as we head toward postseason basketball. At the defensive end, there is little doubt Green is better than Lee. But how much better? Is he so much better on defense that you’re willing to sacrifice a huge part of your offensive identity?
Green is quicker and more physical than Lee and has also shown the ability to guard multiple positions. Green is also more of a tweener than a true power forward, making him nimbler and more agile when defending the pick-and-roll.
Many have fallen in love with Green’s passion and his grit. He makes timely blocks, comes up with loose balls and plays to contact inside.
But it’s not all good with Green at that end. First of all, Green is undersized at the power forward position, and while he’s had success, he’s also had his share of struggles. For example, there is no power forward in the NBA who fouls more than Green in as few minutes.
Green’s advocates will surely say that his fouls aren’t necessarily bad fouls and that he refuses to give up easy buckets or give in on physical play. OK, but the more minutes Green gets, the more fouls he’ll commit (6.2 fouls per 48 minutes) and the sooner the opposition will be in the bonus.
Playing Green over Lee is risky more so for what it could it could mean for Golden State’s diverse and often explosive offense.
When you play Iguodala, Green and Bogut together you’re essentially playing three non-scorers, which puts a ton of pressure on the backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Iguodala has been everything the Warriors expected as a defender, but his offense continues to wane.
Iguodala is averaging just over seven shots and nine points per game this year. Last year, he averaged just 13 points per game for the Nuggets, a team that played in one of the most uptempo styles in the league. His days of knocking on the door to 20 points per game on a consistent basis are likely over.
Curry is already going to get a lot of attention in the postseason. He’ll likely get even more attention with Green on the court instead of Lee.
Thompson has had fantastic offensive moments this year and in many ways has been a team barometer. But even the most ardent Warriors fan will concede that Thompson can be erratic, and every once in a while he'll go a few games without knocking down shots consistently.
It’s hard enough for the Warriors to win without Thompson scoring, even with Lee playing. It’s going to be virtually impossible for the Warriors to win a postseason game without getting much from Thompson and Lee if the latter is glued to the bench.
Green’s supporters will say his offense is unfairly maligned. Besides, the statistics speak for themselves: The Warriors are plus-24 in the 71 minutes that Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green and Bogut have played together according to NBA.com stats.
One reason that trio hasn't played together much is because both Iguodala and Bogut have missed stretches of games with injury. And when Lee has been healthy as a Warrior, he's gotten plenty of minutes and then some.
But circumstances are dictating that Jackson use the threesome more.
The truth is that Green isn’t in Lee’s league at the offensive end. Lee scores twice as much as Green over a 36-minute average (20 points to 10 points), and their shooting percentages are miles apart. Lee shoots 52 percent from the field while Green shoots just 40 percent, an alarmingly low number for a power forward.
The wrinkle, supposedly, is that Green can shoot the three-pointer and Lee can’t. Using Green as a stretch 4 opens up the floor more for Curry and Thompson. At least that’s how the argument goes. But is Green really a stretch 4?
Not really. While Green has made a few big three-pointers this year, most notably a game-tying one against Portland on Sunday night at the end of regulation and a couple of weeks ago against Memphis, he’s still just a 32.3 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Take away a hot start the first three weeks of the season and we’re looking at a 29.9 percent three-point shooter.
You’ve got to believe the Clippers, Golden State’s likeliest first-round opponent, are going to be willing to let Green try to beat them from the perimeter. And if Green is shooting from beyond the arc, then Curry and Thompson aren’t. Advantage: Clippers.
The other side is that Green will do a significantly better job on Blake Griffin than Lee will do. But Griffin has never fully gotten over on Lee over the years, and 2013-14 was no different.
Yes, Griffin puts up his numbers against the Warriors (25 PPG this year), but Lee gets his, too, to the tune of 22 points per game. Plus, Lee’s been more efficient than Griffin in head-to-head games this year (58 percent to 52 percent from field).
Lee is not a perfect player. But he gives the Warriors a safety valve on the offensive end, which may very well end up being more important than all the things Green brings. At times this season, the Warriors have been susceptible to offensive dry spells.
They are less likely to suffer those with Lee at power forward. Lee is capable of carrying the Warriors’ offense when Curry’s just so-so and Thompson is having a clunker. Lee can score a little bit from the post, a little bit from the perimeter and a little bit on clever drives and flip shots in the lane.
The very real concern should be that without Lee the Warriors may not have enough offense to win a playoff series. The flip side is that Green’s defense makes the Warriors better overall, while his offense isn’t that bad.
We’ll find out in the playoffs whether Draymond Green is just good enough to get you beat.