When Brian Scalabrine anointed Jeff Green the next James Worthy two years ago during the team's preseason trip to Turkey, he couldn't have made a more accurate comparison. After spending a year away from the game to recover from heart surgery, it looked like his comeback was in full effect. The athleticism. The grace around the rim. The power. (don't pass up on that clip, probably my favorite Jeff Green dunk) It was all there. But so was Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and a pre-ACL tear Rajon Rondo.
The team had other talented players to supplement the Big Three (like Avery Bradley, Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, and Courtney Lee), but Green was the best candidate to be that prototypical #3 or #4. He could defend multiple positions, work off the ball with Rondo and Pierce drawing defenders, catch & shoot or cut back door with Garnett in the post, or fill the lane on a fast break.
He sputtered early to start that season, but after Rondo went down, he closed out the regular season averaging 16.4 points on 49.7% shooting and 43% from 3. In a six-game series against the Knicks, he took it to New York as Boston's leading scorer at 20.3 PPG and 7.5 FTA. But that was all riding shotgun with two future Hall of Famers. After Pierce and Garnett were traded and with Rondo still months away from returning, it was assumed that Green would make the next jump and become The Man.
It didn't happen.
There were flashes. There was the game winner in LeBron's face on the road and the 39 he dropped on the Wizards. He played all 82 games last season and averaged more points than he ever had in his entire career, but it came with the lowest FG% in his six years in the league. He seemed passive at times and that lead to inconsistency. He finished 14 games in single digits and shot more threes than the two previous seasons combined. Some saw a lack of aggressiveness on Green's part and there may be some truth to that, but ultimately, it's just a matter of miscasting.
The Georgetown product looks the part of NBA leading man. He's 6'9 solid with a pretty jumper and hops. That's the mold they used to make LeBron, Carmelo, and Kobe. But for some reason or another, Jeff Green seems to be destined for smaller roles and that's OK. They win Oscars for best supporting actors and sometimes, they even win NBA Finals' MVP. Just ask James Worthy and more recently, Kawhi Leonard.
Look, first off: I don't want to throw shade on Kawhi's growth and rise this spring. Ziller and Woj rightly gave a lot of credit to Leonard himself rather than praise the Spurs or Popovich. Whenever anybody steps up on the biggest stage against arguably the world's best player, he deserved the spotlight and the award, but even the league's MVP knew what was what:
Apparently Kevin Durant isn't all that impressed with Kawhi Leonard. Tweets have since been deleted. #Thunder #OKC pic.twitter.com/2XJUQKj99l— Up The Thunder (@UpTheThunder) June 16, 2014
Kevin Durant backed off his tweet a smidge and instead credited the organization with putting young players in position to succeed, but still, KD's comments have some merit. When asked about the Spurs and particularly Leonard's MVP performance in the Finals, Brad Stevens said:
"Well, first of all, I think he's a very worthy MVP candidate and an outstanding player, and I think that's enhanced by the people he's around."
He, like KD, went on to further praise his teammates and the team-oriented culture of the Spurs, but it's tough not to point out that Leonard was the prime beneficiary of playing with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. Even in their advanced age, the Spurs' Big Three are all still touchstones in that offense. Leonard may have taken home the hardware, but he doesn't perform on that stage without DeNiro, Pacino, and Nicholson doing their thing.
Sometimes, it isn't just a matter of billing. You give Kevin Costner any role in any baseball movie and he's going to hit it out of the park, but you don't put him tights and cast him as Robin Hood. It's a matter of concept. The Celtics offense last year lacked an identity. To be honest, I got a sense sometimes that Stevens would oversimplify the playbook and run straight PnR's just to see how his players would react. Year 1 of he rebuild felt like an evaluation season for Brad to see what kind of hand he was dealt. He gave Green the opportunity to handle the ball more and Green underperformed.
This season, look for Brad to run Green off of more off-ball screens or freelancing with Rondo penetrating the paint. I know it's been an article full of analogies, but think of Green as a versatile tight end in football that can pass protect for the quarterback, block for the running back, or catch a pass. Not unlike how he thrived in the second half of 2012-2013 with Pierce and Garnett, he works best not in the glamour positions of QB or RB. Here are two GIF's from last season:
In that first clip, it's a simple action to get Jeff in motion with the bigger and slower Josh Smith defending him. The Spurs' offense is predicated on getting guys the ball already in motion and we should see a lot of that next year with the Celtics. The second highlight shows how Rondo at the controls just makes it so much easier for Green. With all eyes on RR, JG can back door a clueless Dwyane Wade for an easy lay up. The addition of Marcus Smart (particularly driving the lane) and the further development of Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk as passers will also bring out the best in Green. He's a match up nightmare for smaller small forwards or guards and slower power forwards; expect to see him come off more down screens or dribble hand offs to force situations where he has either a speed or size advantage on his defender. His isolation and post up numbers were decent, but getting Green in motion will be the key to unlocking his potential.
There's also the timing issue. Green was the perfect addition two years ago when the Celtics were still marquee contenders, but he and Ainge both have to decide whether it's cost effective to keep him in Boston. Green has a year left on his contract and a $9.5M player option for 2015-2016. Unless this upcoming season is a major success and it's followed up by a fruitful summer next year when the Celtics will have cap space to potentially bring in a big free agent, he could opt to test free agency and teams would certainly come calling for Green's services. He might get offers from GM's who still think that even at 29, he's leading man material and throw a money-he-can't-refuse deal his way. Contenders could convince him to take a pay cut and pitch him as the missing link to their championship. In a weird way, if you're a Jeff Green fan like I am, you're rooting against him to do well next year, because if he fulfills his promise, suitors of all kinds will want to steal him.
Or the movie takes a turn you didn't expect, he does well, and he stays by picking up his option or signing a new contract. That's what I'm hoping for. When Green was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, Ainge was forced to void his contract, but after his surgery, Green continued to hang with the team and made frequent locker room visits during their playoff run. When he was healthy enough to return, he called it a no-brainer to re-up in Boston. Despite trading him for Ray Allen back in 2007, I think Green has developed a trust and loyalty towards the franchise and given a chance to continue his career in green, he would take it. This is a guy that donated a $1,000,000 to his alma mater after going back and getting his degree during his recovery year. Even for a multi-millionaire athlete, that's a lot of cash and maybe I'm reading in to it too much, but Green strikes me as the type of guy who stays faithful to his roots. His reputation as a nice guy off the court has often times hurt his rep with some Celtics fans that want him to be more of an $#%&@ on the court, but if he finds the right role in Stevens' system, he could be a great fit in Boston's big picture.