It's not easy being Green. First, he's traded for fan favorite Kendrick Perkins. Second, he misses an entire season due to heart surgery. And third, he signs a four-year deal that almost mirrors in money and years the Celtics' best player in Rajon Rondo. He'll be the most scrutinized player on the team next season in a no win situation. Succeed and he's just earning his paycheck. Fail and he'll take the "bust" tag off of Darko Milicic and wear the scarlet "B" on his chest until he's eligible for a trade.
But not unlike the Celtics team as a whole, Jeff Green's success won't be measured by how well he does against Milwaukee on some idle Thursday night during the regular season. Doc set the bar on beating the Heat and for Jeff Green, that means going head-to-head with LeBron James.
First, let's qualify Green's history as a poor defender. You have to dispel Green's sub par defensive numbers with the Thunder. Let's face it: Oklahoma City is a middle-of-the-road defensive team that would rather try and outscore you than lock you down on defense. With Kevin Durant at the 3, Green played predominantly as a power forward. You're talking about a steady diet of Pau Gasol, Lamarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Kevin Love, Zach Randolph, Blake Griffin, and Dirk Nowitzki. With his size, he's more suited in the Eastern Conference defending small forwards like Carmelo Anthony, Danny Granger, and LeBron James.
Remember: one of the big reasons that Danny brought Green to Boston was because of his defensive potential. Every Celtic fan knows that the only way Doc's going to give you minutes is if you prove your worth on D and in glimpses in 2011, both Doc and Danny had commended Green on that end of the court. After Game 3, Doc singled out Green for his effort on defense:
"He was huge," Doc Rivers said. "I mean, it's a great example where probably in Jeff's career he's been judged on points scored, and maybe for the first time in his career he was as valuable as he's ever been without scoring. He scored a couple points, but his defense, his pressure, getting up, his deflections, him running the floor, stretching the floor for other people, that's the Jeff Green we want to see every night. It was great. He has to keep doing that."
Bellinger pointed it out in the game recap and Jeff (Clark) loved Jeff (Green) here at CelticsBlog. People have forgotten how effective Green was against LeBron in the 2011 playoffs. I tried to find some stats on the history of the LeBron vs. Green matchup, but I could only find this little pre-series tidbit:
So how has Green performed while guarding James during his career? It's a limited sampling -- a mere 14 plays -- but, according to ESPN Stats and Info, James is 3-of-12 shooting (25 percent) with seven points and two turnovers when defended by Green.
That was before they faced each other in the playoffs in the second round. However, the fine folks at CelticsTown uploaded this little video from that series:
Jeff Green defends Lebron James (via Celticstown)
Green certainly possesses the physical tools to stay in front of LeBron. He's only 26 with a 7'2 wing span with a 6'9 frame (by comparison, Paul Pierce is 6'7 and Garnett's wing span in 7'4). He just has to commit to it like in the above clip. Not since James Posey in 2008 do the Celtics have the depth of two small forwards that can go toe-to-toe with the league's raining MVP. Think of the effect that Tony Allen had in the 2010 Finals against Kobe. Ray was limited on defense but would try and at least put in a couple of body blows and wear Kobe down by coming off screens. TA would then come in with his suffocating defense and try and swing for that knockout punch. That'll be the approach with Pierce and Green on LeBron James. Pierce has been a good defender against LBJ but he'll be able to ramp up his efforts knowing that Green is clocking in with fresh legs for the second shift.
Generally, forwards drafted in the lottery, especially in the top ten and surely in the top five, are expected to be studs. At that spot, you're looking for Batmans, not Robins, but when Sam Presti traded Ray Allen to Boston for Green's draft rights, he already had Kevin Durant with the #2 pick. Presti was shooting for the moon and probably hoping that Durant and Green could develop into a tandem like Jordan and Pippen, but that didn't happen. In subsequent drafts, OKC picked Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden and Jeff Green became the odd man out.
In Seattle and later OKC, Green became a victim of his circumstances. He played out of position in the offense and had to defer to volume scorers like Durant and Westbrook. Coming out of Georgetown, Green was touted as a facilitator and I'm sure that's what Presti saw in him, too. Unfortunately, circumstances dictated that a move to power forward and a more complementary role in the offense. A more slender, slim, and slight Durant was less suited to play in the post. Westbrook is a ball-heavy point guard and Scott Brooks knew that to accelerate his development, the rock had to be in his hands. That left JG to set picks and get the ball in pop outs and rolls. Although he played that role admirably, his numbers were deflated and he never reached the ceiling of his potential.
The irony is that in Boston, he'll be asked to fulfill the upside that Presti saw in him in 2007, Ainge saw in him in 2011, and Ainge still sees in him now. His impact on offense is a big question mark but at least Ainge is putting him in a position to answer it. But before he replaces The Captain as the starting small forward, he'll have to prove himself off the bench. Alongside Jason Terry, he'll be asked to play as the focal point of the second unit. This is a big deal. Ryan Hollins was the only sub to score a bucket in Game 7 against the Heat and I'm betting a lineup of Terry/Lee/Green/Sullinger/Wilcox might be able to muster a couple more points than that.
It'll be rare to see Green out there without a single starter on the court with him, but the majority of his playing time will probably be as a playmaker. On Thursday, we lost a point guard (Keyon Dooling) and picked up a big (Darko Milicic). Although both players were on the fringe, it nudges Green more into a centerpiece role. By adding Darko, the domino effect is potentially giving Wilcox more time at the 4 and using Green exclusively at small forward. There will be times when Doc will want to go small and use JG as a running 4 as a change of pace, but Green will predominately be asked to create for his teammates, regardless of who's on the floor with him.
In a lot of ways, this is Jeff Green's second chance to be a rookie. After successful heart surgery and a year recovery, he's got a new lease on life and a team committed to putting him in a situation where he can succeed. Forget that he was traded for Kendrick Perkins and played fourth fiddle for the Thunder. Consider his years in OKC as grad school after Georgetown and the 26 games he's already logged in Celtic green as a training camp and pre-season. That's all in the past now because this season is going to be unprecedented.
Is it possible to win Rookie Of The Year, Most Improved Player Of The Year, and Sixth Man Of The Year? The NBA did away with Comeback Player Of The Year back in 1986, but after this season, they might want to dust it off and give that to Jeff Green, too.