Behind the Warriors' sudden turnaround: The reintroduction of Draymond Green

Trayce Jackson-Davis has shown some exciting flashes this season — as a shot-blocker, an aggressive offensive rebounder, an athletic vertical spacer, etc. One thing you really have to like about the rookie, though? His reaction time.

Asked what has inspired the Warriors’ recent improvement on the defensive end, Jackson-Davis scarcely needed a split-second to answer. His no-hesitation reply: “Um, Draymond. Draymond Green is what inspires us.”

It feels like just yesterday that Golden State was mired in the doldrums. Losses in seven of 10 games, three games under .500, in 12th place in the West. A negative point differential and the NBA’s No. 23 defense; a once-proud champion laid low, wrangling with multiple existential crises, staring down the end of its dynastic run.

Six weeks later, though, the Warriors have pulled a 180, resumed raging against the dying of the light. Golden State enters Thursday’s matchup against the wounded Knicks as one of the NBA’s hottest teams, winners of 11 of 14 games, with the league’s No. 7 offense and No. 5 defense since Jan. 15.

Hey, what happened on Jan. 15? Oh, right: That’s when Green returned from suspension.

It’s easy to forget when you’re not watching it every night — out of sight, out of mind, and all that — but there just haven’t been many defenders like Draymond … well, ever.

Draymond Green illo
(Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

If you were tasked with sketching out the ideal defender from scratch, you probably wouldn’t draw someone just shy of 6-foot-6 with a lower max vertical leap (33 inches) than Joe Harris (33.5). But Green’s combination of strength (230 pounds), length (7-foot-1 wingspan), lateral agility, foot speed, active hands and an even more active mind has made him Steve Kerr’s weapon of choice against all manner of elite offensive players for years. Including this one, which has seen Green hold Anthony Davis to 9-for-24 shooting and Joel Embiid to 3-for-10, while also pulling shifts on the likes of Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, De’Aaron Fox and Dejounte Murray.

When a weapon like that’s removed from your arsenal, you become less dangerous. (Quieter, too. Kerr noted during Green’s suspension that one downstream effect of his absence was that the Warriors communicated a lot less, and a lot more softly.) When it’s returned, though, its effect can feel even stronger. Golden State is giving up just 108.9 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor since his return, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Only the league-leading Timberwolves have been stingier over the full season.

Minnesota’s overwhelming defense is built on a pair of 7-footers and several other dudes standing at least 6-foot-9. The Warriors? Well, they’re built on Draymond — a ferocious and cerebral competitor who understands that even a comparatively smaller man can cast a very large shadow if he’s able to out-think you.

Green is averaging 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks and 2.7 deflections per 36 minutes of floor time since coming back — a guaranteed handful of havoc-wreaking moments in each game, to say nothing of the larger number of possessions he disrupts with clever positioning, well-timed stunts and shifts into gaps, contesting shots without fouling and a Ph.D-level understanding of both what an offense wants to accomplish and how best to prevent it from ever getting the chance:

There were multiple factors behind Kerr’s decision to downshift and play Green at center full-time after his reintroduction: the persistent struggles of longtime giving tree Kevon Looney at the 5, the lack of oomph in units where newcomer Dario Šarić manned the middle, the coach’s reluctance to put too much faith in a rookie like Jackson-Davis (who, as long as we’re talking about it, should probably get a little more runway), etc.

One big reason, though, was the need to find a pathway to both continuing to feature Jonathan Kuminga, who’d bristled for more opportunity amid Golden State’s early-season struggles and shined once he got it in Green’s absence, and rejuvenating Andrew Wiggins, who’d gone from arguably the second-best player during the Warriors’ 2022 championship run to a shell of his former self, playing below-replacement-level ball on his way to losing his starting spot.

The pairing of the two athletic wings had produced brutal results in the early going, with Golden State getting rinsed by 106 points in their 171 shared minutes through mid-January. Since then, though — again, when Green came back — Warriors lineups featuring that combination have outscored opponents by 73 in 296 minutes.

“Draymond really changed things with his return, because he connects those guys on both ends of the floor, just with his communication defensively and the way he helps get us organized offensively,” Kerr recently told reporters.

Wiggins — who missed Golden State’s Tuesday win over the Wizards and will miss Thursday’s meeting with the Knicks due to personal reasons — has looked significantly more energized and engaged when flanked by Green: aggressively picking up ball-handlers in the backcourt, fighting hard to get over screens, even showing more of an interest in returning to hitting the glass.

Since Green’s return, Wiggins has grabbed 12.6% of available defensive rebounds during his time on the court; that’s not quite the 15.8% he hauled in while playing the best basketball of his life during the 2022 championship, but a dramatic and welcome improvement over the 9.9% he collected during the first half of the season. Combine that with an uptick from the floor — he’s shooting 68.6% at the rim and 46.4% from 3-point land since Jan. 15, with Draymond assisting on 12% of his baskets — and it’s almost like Green’s activation returned two players to the Warriors’ rotation.

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) catches a pass Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George, left, defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Draymond Green is always looking to set up his teammates. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

And because Green doesn’t demand many scoring opportunities for himself, preferring instead to seek out opportunities to set up others — dialing up back-screens that free the wings up to slice backdoor into open space for high-low feeds, scanning the floor immediately after a defensive rebound to hunt hit-aheads for early offense, leveraging the blitzes that heart-attack-inducer Stephen Curry routinely draws in the pick-and-roll to pick out baseline cutters for alley-oops — the Warriors have been able to reintegrate him without minimizing the young players who’d pushed to the forefront while he was suspended. Kuminga and rookie guard Brandin Podziemski are scoring more, taking more shots and using a higher share of Golden State’s possessions since Green came back than they did when he was out.

That allows Kerr to play a younger, more versatile, longer and more active defensive group than Golden State featured in the season — one that, in an admittedly limited 148-minute sample, has blown opponents’ doors off by 22 points-per-100.

“With this new lineup, it feels like we’re faster, more athletic, more capable of staying in front of people,” Kerr told reporters after a win in Memphis earlier this month. “And [Green is] the middle linebacker. He calls out all the coverages, sees the floor. He’s been very focused.”

Before we get too deep into a hosanna-soundtracked redemption story, though, it’s worth remembering that Green played a starring role in those aforementioned doldrums. Both with his play on the court — foul rate up, rim protection and overall defensive impact down, Golden State getting outscored by nearly seven points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which has almost never been the case in his career — and, more loudly and obviously, with his inability to stay on it.

After getting ejected for, and later suspended over, choking Wolves center Rudy Gobert and fouling out of an early December loss to the Thunder, Green had missed all or part of 10 of the Warriors’ first 22 games. Then came the Dec. 12 ejection for clocking Suns center Jusuf Nurkić — Green’s second violent outburst in less than a month and his third since April.

That earned him an indefinite suspension, keeping him away from the team for 16 more games … and, to hear his longtime running buddy tell it, maybe bringing the 33-year-old face-to-face with some uncomfortable truths.

“I think the biggest thing he talked about [during this latest suspension] is that he knew this is the ultimatum because this is his last real chance to be the player that he wants to be,” Curry recently told Logan Murdock of The Ringer. “It don’t matter what anybody else says, it’s him. And it’s just a level of awareness of things needed to change.”

Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green hugs Stephen Curry (30) during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
It's no coincidence that Stephen Curry is shooting better since Green's return. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Whether, or to what degree, Green’s mentality has actually changed is the sort of thing that we outsiders can only guess about. What’s been visible since his return, though, is that he’s staying on the court — and making the kind of dramatic impact to which we’ve become accustomed over the past decade.

Green’s averaging 9.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 27.9 minutes per game since his return, shooting 51.2% from the field and — shocker! — 46.3% from 3-point range on 2.3 attempts per game. (Stuff that in your backpack and smoke it.) During that period, he boasts Golden State’s best on-court/off-court splits; the Dubs have outscored opponents by 11.1 points-per-100 with him on the floor, scoring and defending at elite levels in his minutes.

His reintroduction has injected a sense of “put the show on speed” urgency into the Warriors’ attack, bumping an offense that had ranked 13th in the NBA in pace all the way up to sixth. During his suspension, the Warriors ranked 17th in the average amount of time it took for them to get a shot off on a possession, according to Inpredictable. They’re up to third since Green came back into the fold, shaving nearly a full second off their average time to shot behind his combination of grab-and-go juice in transition and lightning-fast processing in the half-court.

That combination matters. A lot. It is not a coincidence that Curry averaged 23.3 points per game on 40.8% shooting from the floor and 36% shooting from 3-point range during Green’s second suspension. Nor is it an accident that, since Draymond came back, Steph has once again more frequently looked like the flaming sword of judgment, averaging 29.1 points per game on 47.8% shooting, including a blistering 43% mark from downtown on 13 attempts per game.

Curry’s the greatest shooter of all time, and one of the most creative and devastating pick-and-roll ball-handlers and playmakers ever; he’s good enough to get his virtually no matter who he’s playing with. But Green is an all-time partner in his own right — one of the best screeners and big-man passers of his era — and, by virtue of all the time they’ve spent together, the most qualified person on the planet to get Steph that rarest of commodities against NBA defenses: something easier.

“Nobody understands how to get shooters shots better than Draymond Green,” Suns coach Frank Vogel recently told reporters.

After playing more than 800 regular- and postseason games together, logging untold millions of reps over the past dozen years, Curry and Green can read not only any coverage a defense throws at them, but also one another’s minds. That level of understanding and confidence, combined with their respective penchants for improvisation, unlocks countless variations for which a defense has to account.

It’s not just the dribble handoffs for quick-trigger pulls; it’s also the pass-fakes before Green calls his own number for a keeper drive to the rim. And the myriad random screens and pitch-backs in transition. And the sudden flip of a pick, punishing a defender overplaying in one direction by springing Steph in another. And the anticipation to throw the pass not to where Curry’s standing, but to where he’s going to be when he finishes slaloming through bodies and is ready to launch a relocation 3.

Building that kind of chemistry is a career-long project — the backbone of four NBA championships and two Hall of Fame careers. And it’s why, despite missing 24 of Golden State’s 57 games, Green has assisted more Curry baskets than any other Warrior this season — a full 30 more than second-place Chris Paul. Curry’s true shooting percentage skyrockets from .595 with Green off the floor to .661 when Green’s on it, according to PBP Stats — the difference between shooting like a very good shooter (say, Jalen Brunson or CJ McCollum) and shooting like … y’know … Stephen friggin’ Curry.

With Green away, and with CP3 sidelined by a broken bone in his hand, the Warriors just didn’t have anyone who could consistently manipulate defensive coverages to put Curry into position to destroy them. With him back, though, Kerr once again has the conductor of his whirling dervish offense — ever demonstrative, forever surveying the defense from the top of the key, literally pointing teammates into the places on the floor where they should set the screens that he knows Steph and Klay Thompson need to curl into clean catches, open space and opportunities to rain fire.

At the risk of sounding reductive, the difference between an empty possession and a good one can sometimes just boil down to someone telling you the right place to stand:

Sometimes, it’s about changing the angle of approach to make opponents unsure where anybody’s going to be standing in a second.

Green’s return gives Golden State back its best playmaker out of the post. That allows Kerr to cycle through a punishing suite of options to weaponize his guards’ singular off-ball movement, whether running their trademark split cuts or breaking loose out of “gaggle” actions, where Draymond gets to pick his target like a QB running the spread with a bunch to one side of the formation:

This is who the Warriors have been, who they still want to be: unpredictable, fast, relentless, overwhelming. That identity, as it always has, starts with Steph and Klay. But it also, as it always has, stems from Green — who, it turns out, remains a really important player when he’s able to color (mostly) within the lines.

“It’s mostly him living up to this word in the conversations we had when he was out, and how he felt in those moments where he knew what he needed to do,” Curry told reporters earlier this month. “At the end of the day, we just need him available.”

It’s possible that even that won’t be enough; that the hole Draymond and the Warriors dug in the first half of the season was too deep to climb all the way out of. As Dieter Kurtenbach of the Bay Area News Group noted, the setup — shuffle the rotation, slide Draymond to center, watch Steph go boom — bears a striking resemblance to the latter stages of the 2021 season, when an underperforming Warriors team got hot enough late in the season to make the postseason, only to run out of gas in the play-in tournament.

Climbing this far, though — up to 10th in the West, 3.5 games out of sixth place with 25 games to go, one of the friendliest remaining schedules in the league — is a start. And from here, with what he’s brought back and what the Warriors have found since he brought it, Green can see forever.

“I think the possibilities are endless,” Green recently told NBC Sports Bay Area's Zena Keita. “I think this team has an unlimited amount of potential, and we're trending in the right direction at the right time.”