There's an annual ritual that occurs every summer in the NBA, like clockwork - the moment the final buzzer sounds on the Finals and a winner has been crowned, all 29 other teams in the NBA begin positioning themselves to emulate the new champion. Or, at the very least, they pay a little lip service to the idea of doing so.
It's been going on for a while now. When the Celtics won the title in 2008, every team in the league was racing to tell their fanbases about their vision for the future - one built, no doubt, around veteran leadership, teamwork and defense. When the Heat finally broke through and won the Finals in 2012, then again in '13, everyone wanted to imitate Erik Spoelstra's offense and build a team that could pace, space and hit open jump shots. When the Spurs dethroned Miami in 2014, the words "play like the Spurs" were the league's new favorite mantra, and they were applied to everything from ball movement to managing players' minutes to the way team personnel handled the media. It was an epidemic. No one could be Spurs-like enough.
Now, in 2015, the new champions hail from Golden State, and that means everyone in the league is searching frantically for a way to play like the Warriors. When it comes to the current champs, there are certain things you can easily emulate and certain others you can't. As for the latter: Part of the Warriors' identity is their two leading scorers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who together constitute quite possibly the best-shooting backcourt in the history of the game. Talented players like that don't just grow on trees. You can't imitate Golden State simply by scooping up a couple of shooters in free agency. The Warriors' guys are next-level.
However, it's worth noting that it was Golden State's defense, moreso than the offense, that was truly the team's calling card. Forget not that the Warriors ranked first in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, with only 101.4; in points scored, they finished the season second behind the Clippers at 111.6 (and for much of the year they trailed Dallas as well, though the Mavs slipped at the end of the year while integrating a certain new point guard who shall remain nameless, but that's a sore subject). In any event, the Warriors were a defensive team first and foremost.
The Warriors' defense, if you ask me, is a far more imitable aspect of their game than their O. It's not about finding "once in a generation"-type talents - guys who go No. 1 in the draft or command $100 million in free agency. It's more about a style of play. The Warriors thrived because of their hardworking, collaborative play on the defensive end of the floor. They also - and this part is really important - gave a lot of minutes to versatile players who had the size and speed to guard multiple positions. They could switch every pick-and-roll, no matter the personnel involved. Point guard on power forward, shooting guard on center, it didn't matter - everyone could guard anyone.
Here's the weird thing: Golden State made the leap from "good" to "great" last fall, and it was largely by accident. They had David Lee penciled in as their starting power forward - a former All-Star and a productive player in terms of points and rebounds, but the complete antithesis of the "all-purpose defensive juggernaut" type the Warriors are now known for employing. Then Lee injured his hamstring during the preseason, and Steve Kerr was stuck with starting Draymond Green instead.
The results were better than anyone - even Green himself - could have imagined. Green meshed beautifully with Harrison Barnes, Thompson and Curry to form a spiderweb of suffocating defense. Bolstered by Andrew Bogut at the rim and Andre Iguodala helping off the bench, the six men teamed up to win 67 regular-season games and an NBA championship.
A month ago, the Warriors won the Finals by taking down the Cleveland Cavaliers - incidentally, the team to which they almost traded Thompson last summer for Kevin Love. Like Lee, Love would have been precisely the wrong player for the type of defensive system the Warriors wanted to implement. As it turns out, they won the title thanks to their Draymond-fueled defense. It makes you think about their team-building strategy (though calling it a "strategy" feels weird because, again, it happened by accident). Here's a relevant tidbit from what Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote about the Warriors' grand experiment during the Finals last month:
"I had no idea Draymond was going to be this good," Kerr admits. "But you look at the way the game is played now, and it’s all about versatility and two-way players. Can you score a basket and then go guard three positions?"
Gathering as many two-way players as possible seems like an obvious goal, but it has become even more urgent for front offices to do this as teams trend toward fast-paced, drive-and-kick offenses heavy on passing and 3s. It's harder to be one-dimensional, on either end, when everyone is moving. Doing everything at a "B" level is the new NBA skill.
Most perimeter players can switch among themselves without creating fatal mismatches, but that doesn't do much good against a pick-and-roll involving a point guard and a big man. A power forward who can switch that play has unique value. He is the pivot point between a normal NBA defense and a switching machine that walls off the paint. In a pick-and-roll league, more teams want that player. More teams want their own Draymond Green.
Think about that for a moment. More teams want their own Draymond Green. It's brilliant! Unlike finding your own Steph Curry, which is freaking impossible because Steph Curry is a world-beater, finding your own Draymond is actually a realistic goal. I say this because players like Draymond are still out there to be found, like diamonds in the rough. The real Draymond Green just signed an extension with Golden State for five years and $82 million, but there are probably dozens of guys out there with the potential to play that same role. They just need the opportunity. And they don't all demand massive contracts. It's a market inefficiency - much like baseball players who draw walks back in the pre-"Moneyball" era, switchy defenders in basketball are undervalued, and it's only a matter of time before the market corrects itself. The smart teams know to find talent now, before it's too late.
So. About the Celtics.
The ironic thing is that Danny Ainge went out this summer and did the exact opposite of finding his own Draymond Green - he literally acquired David Lee from the Warriors, taking on precisely the player that Golden State won a championship by benching. However, the Celtics' basketball ops guru also made commitments to a few other guys who I find rather interesting because of their potential Draymond-iness.
Lee was introduced this week at a press conference in Waltham, and standing next to him at the podium holding their own green jerseys were four other recent acquisitions - Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Perry Jones III and Jonas Jerebko. Crowder and Jerebko are holdovers from last year's playoff run, of course, while Johnson left the Raptors in free agency this summer and Jones was salary-dumped a couple of weeks ago by Oklahoma City. None of the above four guys is expected to be a difference-maker on a championship team - forget being the next Steph Curry, none of them even looks like Draymond Green. But who's to say that one or more of the Celtics' new guys can't play that same role, serving as a "jack of all trades" defender who can guard multiple positions?
Let's look at a few examples.
This is a play from the Celtics' Game 2 against the Cavaliers this spring. It's a fairly forgettable one - just a basic drive to the basket by Kyrie Irving that ended with a missed layup. But watch what happens at the beginning of this clip. It's quick, but notable - LeBron James brings the ball up the floor, and he's guarded by Crowder. The moment Kyrie even approaches Crowder to begin setting a screen, Crowder switches instantly with Isaiah Thomas, picking up Kyrie while Isaiah takes LeBron. Kyrie takes his chances driving against the bigger, supposedly slower defender; he ends up with an off-balance attempt at a layup, which misses.
Crowder's switch with Thomas was automatic. It was effortless. And it's amazing that the two Celtics defenders moved so seamlessly - after all, you're asking Crowder to transition from guarding the NBA's biggest, baddest man-beast in LeBron to picking up one of the quickest, most agile scorers in Kyrie. Who else in the game could guard both players comfortably? Not Paul Pierce, that's for sure. Against the Celtics of three years ago, this play would have been an automatic two points.
Next, an Amir example:
This play, from a Raptors loss to the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs this year, begins with Johnson guarding Kevin Seraphin, who's milling around at the elbow while the play develops. Louis Williams is guarding ball-handler Ramon Sessions at the top of the key, while Greivis Vasquez is sagging off of Bradley Beal in the left corner, giving him plenty of space. As Beal starts cutting around the arc to meet Seraphin at the top of the key, he loses Vasquez easily. Johnson, who's a bit of a lumbering power forward, is forced to switch onto the lightning-quick, energetic perimeter guy in Beal. Beal drives right and tries to go to the rim, attacking the mismatch - Johnson uses great footwork to double back, protect the rim and force Beal to drive too hard to the right, missing the layup. That's just solid defensive play.
Now here's PJ3 (or are we supposed to call him PJ38 now? I'm not sure):
This one is just awesome. While the Nets frantically shuffle the ball around the floor, looking for an opening to attack the basket, Jones manages to guard three guys at once. He starts out checking Deron Williams, but as Deron cuts along the baseline to the opposite corner, PJ abandons him and picks up Brook Lopez instead. He does a good job on Lopez, first deterring him from the paint and then fronting him in the post to keep from getting the ball inside. Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett curls over to the elbow and demands the ball, and it quickly becomes clear that Kendrick Perkins is in no position to stop KG from driving to the rim. Desperate to prevent the easy layup, Jones decides to re-switch at the last second, leaping into the paint to contest KG's drive and alter his attempt at a layup. KG misses, Reggie Jackson snares the rebound and the Thunder take over.
Jones is a unique player. He's 6-foot-11, 235 pounds, boasting a crazy combination of strength, wingspan and quickness. And it's a good thing, because it takes a unique player to guard Deron, Brook and KG all on the same play. (That's 19 total All-Star selections, if anyone's counting.) It's not easy to find players who can do this stuff; the NBA is still in the early stages of moving toward a positionless game. Most players still have rigidly defined roles. They either guard point guards or power forwards; doing both at once is ludicrous.
Unless, of course, you're Perry Jones. Or Amir Johnson. Or Jae Crowder.
No one's going to put these recent Celtics acquisitions up against the LaMarcus Aldridges or Greg Monroes of the world. These are not marquee signings. But if you ask me, they are meaningful. The Celtics are a young squad that's still building for their long-term future; they're a lump of clay that still needs to be shaped into a team with a real identity.
They don't have that identity yet. It would be just about impossible to expect them to. They have about 94 guys on the roster at the moment (that's only a slight exaggeration), and they can't even say definitively who will see the floor come November, who will warm the bench and who will be looking for work. You can't start scheming to win a championship if you don't even know who you are yet. This roster is not Danny Ainge's finished product. It's a bus stop somewhere in between Rebuild Road and Banner Boulevard. It's not clear whether anyone in this current group is capable of being the best player on a title contender. Maybe not even the second-best.
But in committing to the three players you see above (and the Celtics have more than just those three - Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are no defensive slouches, either), Ainge has made a statement. He's made it known the kind of talent that he believes in. He's found an archetype of player that he believes will be successful in tomorrow's NBA. He may not have found his own Draymond Green, exactly, but he's building a team full of guys who can do a solid impression.