It has come to my attention over the past few weeks that the most controversial player on the Thunder roster is the one least likely to stir up controversy.
Drafted in 2007 with the 5th overall pick acquired from Boston in the Ray Allen trade, Jeff Green was an afterthought to Sonics fans excited by the selection of Kevin Durant about fifteen minutes prior. Of course, much of the reason Sam Presti tabbed “Uncle Jeff” (as his teammates have been known to refer to him) with the second draft choice of his general managing career had everything to do with Green being satisfied with playing second fiddle. The draft was just a warm-up for him.
Every successful superstar in the NBA seems to need a less heralded companion who does all the dirty work while they make the headlines. Bill Russell had Bob Cousy. Tim Duncan has had Manu Ginobili. Kareem had Magic (then vice versa). Oh, and some guy named Michael Jordan used to play with this Scottie Pippen person.
Scottie Pippen is the gold standard for side kicks. When the 1990′s Bulls won six championships in eight years, Pippen did such an amazing job of being unassuming that everyone assumed he was unambitious. While Michael Jordan won scoring title after scoring title and built a multi billion dollar persona, Pippen simply reduced the pressure from Jordan on the floor and shouldered the fan’s blame when the team failed.
The Thunder hope that Jeff Green develops into a Scottie Pippen type of player. Not just in his approach to professionalism, which I would argue he already does perfectly, but also his production on the floor. For his career he averaged 16 points per game, but during Chicago’s glory days, he always hovered near twenty as the second option in their offense.
Looking at the two players’ third year stats, they are actually pretty close. Green is averaging 14.7 to Pippen’s 16.5 points, and in rebounds Pippen led 6.5 to 6.1. So, while Green could still improve upon or drop some in the last three-quarters of this season, he is not completely off pace.
You would not get that if you listen to the vocal detractors that are spawning. As the Thunder have enjoyed more and more success, some of the fans have been willing to give less and less of the credit to the team’s co-captain. Listening to the litany of complaints about Green–he’s inconsitent, too small, unworthy of starting, and a defensive liability–it’s sometimes forgotten that he’s the second best player on a team with playoff aspirations.
Of all the criticisms I hear about Green, the one I take most exception to, and what most of the other complaints stem from, is the implication that he isn’t a power forward. My response to that is: What is a power forward?
Is a power forward a guy who dominates the glass, like Dennis Rodman, or a scorer, like Zach Randolph? And if he is a scorer, does a power forward post up like Karl Malone, or play on the perimeter like Dirk Nowitzki? Does a four need to be seven-feet tall, like Tim Duncan, or can he be 6’6″ (on a good day) like Charles Barkley. And is a power forward thick, like Tractor Traylor, or rail-thin, like Kevin Garnett?
The truth is, all of those guys play (or played) the same position despite drastic differences. There is no proto-type to being a power forward, but the people who write Jeff Green off as not fitting that position all seem to believe that one exists. And their trump card is always that Green is too small to defend other players of that position.
So, I went through the exercise of testing that theory. Looking at the first 23 games of the 2009/10 season, in which Green has started every game at the power forward position, I looked at the output of the guy who started opposite of him. The aggregate player scores 12.0 points, grabs 7.0 rebounds, has 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks, and has 2 assists to 1.7 turnovers. On an average night, those same players would have scored 13.3 points, grabbed 7.7 rebounds, and had similar numbers the rest of the way. When smoothed out using per minute numbers (to eliminate the problem of players who weren’t everyday starters) the averages are almost identical to the first line.
My expectation going in, using the detractors null hypothesis, was that players being guarded by Green would be having career games against Oklahoma City. What I found was that only two guys have had extremely good nights, and those two are always capable of domination. Carlos Boozer scored 26 (on 11 of 15 shooting) in a Jazz loss, and Kevin Garnett went 10 of 11 for 23 points in a Celtic blowout. Other than that, no one’s night really stuck out. The other thing to expect, considering Green is supposedly giving up so much size, is that the players would be shooting a ton of free throws. In actuality, Green’s match-ups are getting very little time at the line. Only one player, Washington’s Antawn Jamison, has gotten as many as seven free throws in a single game…and he only made three, so it may have been in Coach Brooks’ strategy to foul him rather than give up good looks. On average, opposing power forwards are going to the line for 2.4 shots.
In the end, the worst you could say about Green’s defensive performance is that he’s only slightly above average because his match-ups are only doing slightly less than what they would do against anyone else. But meanwhile, Jeff Green is being the captain of this team, outplaying his opposition, and reducing the pressure on Kevin Durant.
I think fewer people should be criticizing him and more should be buying “Go Green” shirts from Tree and Leaf.