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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
Green sparked some controversy last week when on Showtime’s “All The Smoke” podcast the Golden State Warriors big man suggested he had a greater impact on basketball than Charles Barkley. Such a comment shows a startling lack of historical awareness, and as NBA writer Russ Bengston noted, it is more apt to ask “whether he’s had as big an impact as Horace Grant.”
As with most upper-echelon role players, we can carve Grant’s prime any number of ways. His peak may have been something closer to a nine-year run, but he was a productive starter on a Chicago Bulls team that pushed the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons to six games in the 1989 Eastern Conference finals and still one on a legendary Los Angeles Lakers squad that won a title in 2001.
From 1988-2001, Grant averaged 12.1 points (54.3 true shooting percentage), 8.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.2 combined blocks and steals in 35.2 minutes per game. Playing for four different teams in that 13-year span, he missed the playoffs just once, competing in eight conference finals, five Finals and winning four rings. Grant was named an All-Star in his lone season as a second option on the Bulls and a top-four defensive forward for four straight years from 1992-96.
In 156 playoff games from 1988-2001, he averaged 11.5 points (56.6 true shooting percentage), 8.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 combined blocks and steals in 36.8 minutes a night. Grant was the third option behind Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on a Bulls team that won three straight rings and a fifth option for both Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway’s Orlando Magic team that reached the 1995 Finals and O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers team that won the 2001 crown.
Likewise, Green’s peak is clearly behind him, but he was still an invaluable piece on a Golden State Warriors team that had its 2019 title chances derailed by injuries. During this quarantined-shortened season, Green either proved himself as past his prime or a player whose skills are far less useful in the absence of future Hall of Fame teammates. Still, we will consider him an elite role player at age 29, given the Warriors will enter next season with hopes of contending again.
From the 2014-15 season, when he took over full time as a starter, through this season, Green has averaged 10.7 points (54.4 true shooting percentage), 7.9 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.8 combined blocks and steals in 32.2 minutes per game. In those six seasons, Green played in five straight Finals, winning three, before the wheels fell off and his Warriors entered the current hiatus as the league’s worst team. Green was an All-Star in three of those seasons and a top-four defensive forward in five of them, including his 2017 Defensive Player of the Year campaign.
Green finished seventh in the MVP race during Golden State’s 73-win 2015-16 season, when he made his sole Second Team All-NBA appearance, and twice more finished second in DPOY voting. Grant never appeared on an MVP ballot and finished no higher than sixth in a DPOY race.
In 104 playoff games over the previous five seasons, Green averaged 13.3 points (54.6 true shooting percentage), 10.0 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 3.2 combined blocks and steals in 37.8 minutes. He was the third option behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on Golden State’s first two Finals teams and fell to fourth once Kevin Durant joined their superteam in 2016.
Obviously, Green has proven himself to be the superior playmaker and a better defender at his peak, but Grant was productive for twice as long as Green has been to date. Even if Green continues to contribute meaningful minutes, it is hard to imagine him having the equivalent of Grant’s age 35 season in 2025-26. As it is, Grant amassed 118.2 win shares over 17 seasons and another 20 in the playoffs to Green’s 44.4 and 20. For now, you have to take Grant’s longevity.
Green’s apex clearly came during the 2015-16 season, despite Golden State’s Finals defeat — one he played a key role in spoiling. He earned his first of three All-Star nods, the middle of three straight All-Defensive First Team selections and his Second Team All-NBA bid, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and seventh in the MVP race for a 73-win team.
Green averaged career highs of 14 points (58.7 TS%), 9.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists that season, along with 2.9 combined blocks and steals in 34.7 minutes per game. Over 23 playoff games in 2016, he averaged a 15-10-6 on 43/37/74 shooting splits with 3.4 blocks/steals in 38.2 minutes.
There was a real chance Green would have captured Finals MVP honors in 2016 had he not been suspended for a Game 5 that swung the momentum of a 3-1 series in favor of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Green averaged 16.5 points (49/41/78 splits), 10.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.7 blocks/steals in his six appearances during that series, posting team highs of 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in the Game 7 they lost on Kyrie Irving’s last-minute 3-pointer.
It might be logical to select Grant’s lone All-Star bid as his peak, considering he nearly posted career-high counting statistics across the board as the second-best player on a 55-win Bulls team that nearly reached the conference finals without Jordan. But for a player whose career is defined by his contributions to winning teams, Grant’s pinnacle really came two years earlier, when he was an uber-efficient third option on a team that won the middle of three straight titles.
During the 1991-92 season, Grant averaged 14.2 points (61.8 TS%), 10 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.8 combined blocks and steals in 35.3 minutes per game. In 22 playoff games, he averaged an 11-9-3 on 54 percent shooting from the field with 2.9 combined blocks/steals in 38.9 minutes.
(We should note that Grant attempted 71 career 3-pointers in the regular season and playoffs — 41 fewer than Green did in the 2016 playoffs alone. It was a different time, and it is reasonable to think Grant could have equaled Green’s career 31.9 3-point percentage had his proficient mid-range game been extended, as it surely would have been had he played in today’s era.)
In the 1992 Finals, Grant averaged 9.2 points (56.7 TS%), 7.8 rebounds, four assists and 3.1 combined blocks and steals in 37.8 minutes over a six-game series victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. While he was an integral and dependable contributor to Chicago’s first three-peat, at no point from 1991-93 was Grant a threat to take Finals MVP votes from either Jordan or Pippen.
It is not as though a title tilts this category in Grant’s favor, given that Green had comparable statistical seasons to his Bulls counterpart, if not superior playoff production, en route to rings in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Green was considered a top-10 player by most measures at his peak. The same cannot be said of Grant, even if we consider him underrated for much of his lengthy career.
Considering they played with some of the most dominant teams of their respective eras — one featuring the greatest player in NBA history and the other three of the best shooters the game has ever seen — neither Grant nor Green saw a ton of clutch scoring opportunities. Nor did they play in a lot of advance-or-go-home games. Still, they got their chances with so many playoff games.
Grant played just six do-or-die games in his career, finishing with a 3-3 record (1-2 sans Jordan). In those games, he averaged 11.8 points (51 TS%), 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2.8 combined blocks/steals. In the four biggest games of his career — two conference semifinals Game 7s and two conference finals Game 7s between 1990-95 — Grant really only had one no-show, a 10-point effort on 17 shots in Chicago’s 1990 Eastern Conference finals loss to the Bad Boy Pistons.
In 26 games over five Finals appearances in his prime, Grant averaged 10.6 points (54.6 TS%), 8.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.4 combined blocks/steals. His offense often fluctuated, but he registered one of the most clutch defensive plays in Finals history, blocking Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin Johnson’s game-winning attempt to seal the Bulls’ third straight championship.
Green has played in only three Game 7s in his career, including the aforementioned 32-15-9 effort in the 2016 Finals Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers. He scored 11 points on 14 shots in Golden State’s 2016 Western Conference finals win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and 10 points on 13 shots in a 2018 conference finals victory against the Houston Rockets. In those three games, he averaged 17.7 points (60.6 TS%), 12.3 rebounds, six assists and 2.3 combined blocks/steals.
Green played in 27 games in five Finals trips, averaging 12.7 points (53.7 TS%), 9.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.9 combined blocks/steals. He often performed at his best when it mattered most.
Unfortunately, Green’s most memorable playoff moments have come in losses — a last-minute block of LeBron in an overtime Game 2 loss in 2015, his Game 7 against the Cavs in 2016 and a triple-double in the Game 6 close-out loss to the Toronto Raptors last year. And his hot-tempered punch to LeBron’s groin at the end of Game 4 may well have cost his team a fourth ring in 2016.
Still, Green’s overwhelming production advantage in the Finals and must-win playoff games is evidence of his ability to impact games on a broader scale, doing more work in a complete clutch picture than the view of Grant’s title-sealing block opposite Green’s potential title-costing punch.
• Grant: Four-time NBA champion; 1994 All-Star; four-time All-Defensive Second Team selection
• Green: Three-time NBA champion; 2017 Defensive Player of the Year; two-time All-NBA selection (1x Second Team, 1x Third Team); three-time All-Star; five-time All-Defensive selection (3x First Team); 2017 steals leader; 2016 Olympic gold medalist
Would you rather have that extra ring on your mantle or a Defensive Player of the Year award, a gold medal and a handful more All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive appearances on display? It is a close call, especially since Green’s best chance at a fourth ring would have cemented the 2016 Warriors as the most successful team ever. In Green’s case, though, his hardware proves that not only did he win three rings, but he was among the game’s top 25 players each time he did.
For the culture
Beyond his contributions as the third man on Jordan and Pippen’s first three-peat, two things immediately pop to mind when we think about Grant — his trademark goggles and his talented basketball family. Horace’s twin brother, Grant, and nephews Jerami and Jerian have combined to play 21 NBA seasons and counting, but the old-school Bulls forward was the best of the bunch.
Despite multiple contract disputes and some well-publicized internal quarrels with Jordan, Grant ultimately commanded respect across the Bulls organization. He served as a veteran presence on winning teams after leaving Chicago until his desire to play outweighed his ability as a 36-year-old in 2002, when then-Magic coach Doc Rivers publicly depicted him as a locker-room “cancer.”
Grant has largely remained out of the public eye since his retirement in 2004 — until Sunday night, when he called the Pistons "straight-up b----es” in ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary.
Meanwhile, Green has made a name for himself beyond his talent, which has begun to fade in the years since winning Defensive Player of the Year honors at age 26. He famously clashed with Warriors coach Steve Kerr and teammate Kevin Durant, contributing to the downfall of a dynasty.
He also helped revolutionize the game. At his best, Green’s versatility unlocked Golden State’s Death Lineup. His awareness and playmaking ability allowed for a brand of small-ball that emphasized offensive spacing and multidimensional defense — an approach often imitated and not yet duplicated. Waning athleticism and an errant jumper have since lessened his impact.
Green’s defining quality, though, is his passion for the game. With the intensity that took the Warriors to another level competitively comes near-constant complaining and trash talk, which leads to technical fouls and spats both internal and external. He has provoked LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Barkley, among others, in ways that often reflect poorly on his own limitations.
To be sure, Green will have an NBA media spot waiting for him should he follow Barkley’s lead. He may ultimately fall short of Barkley as a commentator, too, but there is no doubt Green will make his presence known more than Grant in retirement. That their matchup here is this close testifies to both Grant’s underrated value and Green’s overinflated sense of impact. Both were stars in their roles on legendary teams, and Green may well get a Hall of Fame call because of it.
THE DAGGER: Draymond Green has had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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