Draymond Green Looks Like NBA's Next Defensive Superstar

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2015

Dec 14, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) reacts after scoring in overtime of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center. The Warriors defeated the Pelicans 128-122 in overtime.  Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Draymond Green has earned lots of labels in his breakout season with the Golden State Warriors: leader, heart and soul, tone-setter. This summer, he might get a new one.

Pioneer.

That's because Green, 24, soon to be a restricted free agent, is poised to collect a max contract exclusively on the basis of his defense. Nobody's ever done that before.

If Green becomes the first, he'll have earned it; we can't take that away from him. But it's also key to recognize that he picked a good point in NBA history to be an analytics darling.

In the past, we might have anecdotally noted the way Green could guard multiple positions. We might have termed him a nice role player, but a limited one. We might have looked at his cosmetic numbers and quickly concluded he wasn't a real difference-maker, and that he certainly wasn't a star.

In this, his best statistical season ever, Green averages 11.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 43.9 percent shooting. Those are nice numbers, sure, but not ones readily associated with a max player.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 10: Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets posts up against Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors on December 10, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Noah Graham/Getty Images

"We’re talking about a second-round pick who’s shorter than 6'6" in socks, who doesn't jump high, create his own shot or dominate the ball," wrote Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com. "A rookie max deal for a scrappy 'tweener' averaging the fourth-most points per game on his team? Basketball doesn’t work that way—yet."

Change is on the horizon, though. Thanks to new stats and, just as importantly, a trend toward valuing defensive metrics, we can look past the anecdotes and middling conventional numbers to see the real worth in players like Green. Although, that's kind of the whole thing: There really aren't players like Green—players who fly under the radar while rating among the league's most valuable commodities.

Green's greatest statistical advocate is real plus-minus, which slots him among the NBA's 10 most valuable players, per ESPN.com. According to that catch-all stat, which measures net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions (while accounting for teammates and strength of opponent), Green rates ahead of John Wall and behind DeMarcus Cousins.

Real Plus-Minus Loves Draymond
PlayerORPMDRPMRPM
Stephen Curry6.012.268.27
Damian Lillard5.490.846.33
Anthony Davis2.343.906.24
Kyle Lowry5.790.446.23
James Harden6.110.066.17
Chris Paul5.850.145.99
Tim Duncan0.535.295.82
DeMarcus Cousins1.644.035.67
Draymond Green0.594.695.28
John Wall2.872.375.24
ESPN.com

Almost all of Green's value comes from his defense, a fact reinforced by his No. 1 ranking in individual defensive rating and defensive win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com, as well as his coach's incessant praise.

There's more, this time from ESPN's Tom Haberstroh back on Jan. 7:

According to SportVU data provided to ESPN Insider, Green has defended 38 drives by point guards this season, and those 38 drives have resulted in a measly 15 points, for an average of 0.39 points per drive. The league average on points per drive: 0.63. Also: Among the 18 players who have defended at least 75 post-ups, no one has held their opponent to a lower payoff than Green (0.68 points per post-up). The guy does everything.

Pick any advanced defensive metric and Green is right near the top. For Defensive Player of the Year, that's my leader in the clubhouse.

Steve Kerr has been effusive in talking up Green all season, and he didn't hold back after his power forward registered just four points in a December win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, telling reporters Green's effort was, "one of the greatest four-point performances I've ever seen in my life. I mean that. He's our heart and soul."

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Fortunately for Green, we're getting better at quantifying heart and soul...in a manner of speaking.

Green plays extremely hard, propelled by active hands, wild emotional swings and a maniacal desire to win his individual matchups—no matter the opponent. He helps with uncommon urgency, shuts off passing lanes quickly and almost never gets caught unaware. He's also pretty good at coming out of nowhere to make the right play at the right time.

That's where the analysis would have stopped in the past. Now, we can wrap all of that together and convert it into a figure that actually means something—like real plus-minus. We've got the numbers to properly evaluate Green, so there's no excuse for fans or front-office executives to overlook him, which brings us back to his impending free agency.

Green's defensive stats reveal him to be one of the single most valuable players in the NBA. And as it gradually becomes accepted that an elite defender is worth just as much as an elite scorer, we could be heading into an era where player salaries will reflect that equality.

You might argue that spending big on defensive dynamos like Green wouldn't be such a new thing, but there's simply no precedent for what could be coming this summer.

Sure, Scottie Pippen collected plenty of cash in his career. Rightfully so; he was as fearsome and versatile of a defender as the league has ever seen. But he spent his early career chronically underpaid, never making more than $3.4 million in a year until he left the Chicago Bulls in 1998, after he'd collected six championships and seven All-Star nods.

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 7: Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during the game against the Indiana Pacers on January 7, 2015 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Dikembe Mutombo was all about defense, too, and he cashed in far better than Pippen did. But he was different, and the reason he logged seven seasons of eight-figure salaries was because he played a premium defensive position, center, and posted huge rebound and block totals.

Those are just two examples, but a much deeper look will reveal the same thing: You'll never find a precedent for a 6'6" power forward averaging 11.5 points per game in his third NBA season getting max consideration.

Never.

Green believes his numbers-fueled shot at a big payday could be the start of a trend, per Strauss: "I think it has to [catch on], because everything now is about winning. You can score 25 a night, but if you're on a losing team nobody cares."

Much could change about the way teams allocate their resources going forward if Green cashes in. An increased emphasis on defense could mean, by extension, that cash for big-time scorers won't be as readily available as it once was.

If teams are willing to spend on guys like Green, it could eventually result in a league where the highest-paid players don't all come straight from the top 10 on the points-per-game leaderboard.

For the Warriors, specifically, it could mean doing something they've desperately tried to avoid for years: paying the luxury tax. If Green gets a max offer sheet this summer, they'll be forced into a position where matching it will put them over the tax line (barring a major salary-shedding trade between now and then), someplace they've never been.

Not long ago, the idea of taking on a massive financial burden for a guy with Green's basic numbers would have seemed insane. Soon, it'll just be good sense.

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