When the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics tip off on Saturday night, they’ll be a lot of talk about stars such as Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, and DeMarcus Cousins. It will be the first chapter of what could turn into the NBA’s new biggest rivalry. But behind the stars and the spectacle of the moment lies two players that are highly respected by their individual fan bases and diminished anywhere outside of that.
On the left stands Marcus Smart, 6’4 220 lbs. guard/wing/center whose has helped lead the Celtics to the playoffs every year since he was drafted. On the right stands Draymond Green, a 6’7 do-it-all player that has re-defined the idea of a “tweener” and was the heart of the Warriors shaping the NBA in their image. Their paths to this moment are rarely discussed, but the similarities that went into creating two of the NBA’s most under appreciated unicorns is much more similar than you would imagine.
In Part I of this series, we’ll look at the backgrounds of Smart and Green while discussing the latter’s rise to prominence in the Bay. In Part II, we’ll go in-depth with Marcus Smart where the path that Green once traveled is now being journeyed by the Celtics vet.
I fell in love with Marcus Smart while he was playing in the midst of one of his worst offensive games in college back in 2014. He was going up against then powerhouse Kansas which was led by projected stars Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. This was a huge night for Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State; Kansas was the #5 team in the country and at that time, OSU was unranked.
Smart started the game missing his first seven shots of the half and yet, in a game filled with future NBA players, he looked like the best player on the court. He controlled the tempo offensively, creating easy looks for his back court mate Markel Brown, and defensively, he blew up everything Kansas wanted to do. He took every matchup with Andrew Wiggins personally and battled the young Embiid in the post (and won at times) as if he had every right to get the contested rebound. In the end, his offense came around and he finished with 21 points, 5 assists, and 4 steals. I came away thinking, “No matter what, this kid is going to help an NBA team.”
Two years prior, Michigan State was in Indiana taking on Victor Oladipo and the Hoosiers. I was excited to watch the game to see if Oladipo could make his mark against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Indiana won the game pretty convincingly, but the story of the night was Spartan Draymond Green.
The All-American killed on the block, where he gave every Indiana player a clinic in the post. On top of that, he could handle the ball, create for teammates, and was an emotional force who never stopped playing his hardest even when the rest of his teammates accepted their faith.
At that time, basketball positions were conventionally understood: you were either a small forward or a power forward, rarely both. So, like most people, I couldn’t for the life of me find out where Green would actually fit in when it came to the NBA, but hey, at least he was a super fun college player.
The NBA is and always has been a stars league. Ask someone who their favorite player is and why and you’ll hear LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird and how their impact can never be replicated. But behind every star’s story is a legendary team, and within every legendary team lies a guy that kept it altogether. He didn’t lead the team in scoring but he could help get a bucket when the team needed them to, he wasn’t always the strongest defender but he could get a stop when the team needed it, and if there was a loose ball, it was his body flying head first to secure it. Despite their unfair place in history, it’s these players that create a foundation for teams that stars can then take to new levels.
The 2014-15 season was when the Golden State Warriors took over the league, but it was in the 2014 NBA Playoffs where one move ultimately launched their rise. During a playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, Green got a rare opportunity and turned a lot of heads averaging 11.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, and 2.3 apg, including a tremendous 14 points, 14 rebounds, 5 steals, and 4 assists in a Game 6 loss.
With David Lee sidelined with an injury to start the 2014-15 season, the Warriors had made a bold move to start Green. Sam Esfandiari of the Warriors-centric Light Years podcast recalled the decision to start Green as intriguing but concerning. “It was clear Draymond was a huge net positive and made GSW better, but my question with him starting was always whether they could generate enough offense. At that time, we didn’t view Klay Thompson the way we do now, and the idea that Steph Curry could shoulder that load without anyone who’s sort of an inside guy seemed unbelievable.”
We know the rest of the story. That Warriors team wins 67 games, marches through the playoffs, and wins its first title. It was also during this run that the Death Lineup (Curry, Thompson, Green, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iquodala) took the NBA community by storm. There was already a movement towards positionless basketball that put a premium on three-point shooting and versatile defenders before, but the Warriors’ title validated the style as something that could lead to a championship.
“I loved it because we knew space and speed around Steph is unguardable,” recalled Esfandiari. “But I was skeptical how much they could use it. The idea you could play Draymond big minutes at C seemed unrealistic until we saw it could work.”
That lineup logged 172 minutes in the 2014-15 season and outscored teams by 47 net points per 100 possessions. They hit 53.4% of their threes in the regular season and when they unleashed it on the Cavaliers after falling behind in the series 2-1, Cleveland didn’t win another game.
Usually, when you play small you give up too much on defense because of the rebounds and overall interior presence, but Draymond Green redefined that conventional wisdom. Not only was he a passing hub that could help create looks from the living flamethrowers that were Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but he could battle inside with the league’s strongest big men and protect the paint as good as any of them. Suddenly, the “tweener” second round pick from Michigan State was the modern day glue guy holding together what would become the NBA’s next great dynasty.
In Part II, we’ll explore Smart’s path from key reserve to irreplaceable starter.