If you think back to the first two games of the Golden State Warriors' season, you'll recall the vague remnants of what looked like one of the worst teams in the NBA. They haven't looked like that in a while, having won eight of their previous 12 games entering Thursday's affair against the Knicks.
What changed for the Warriors over that span?
A few things, but mainly Draymond Green.
Green was out early in the season recovering from COVID-19 and nursing a minor foot injury, and without him, the Warriors were a complete mess on both ends. They had no chance on defense, and their offense looked like a blind man learning to drive with people literally running into one another in a state of perpetual confusion.
On Thursday, Green was ejected late in the second quarter after receiving his second technical foul. It was a bogus call. After looking at the play during halftime, the officials acknowledged that Draymond, in fact, was yelling at his own teammate, James Wiseman, rather than at the official who ran Green.
The technical will likely be rescinded by the league and Green won't pay a fine, and beyond that, Green made a good point after the game when he questioned why any other foul can be reviewed, and overruled if deemed inaccurate, so why not a technical?
Green's point, while valid, didn't do the Warriors any good against the Knicks, who took a six-point halftime lead and turned it into a 119-104 win that wasn't even as close as that 15-point margin might indicate. Without Green on the floor, the Warriors regressed back into a shell of their recent offensive evolution, scoring just 28 points through the first 19 minutes of the second half.
Meanwhile, the Knicks started carving Golden State's defense up. Without Green to body Julius Randle and quarterback all the help defense required to keep the collective rim-crashing, athletic size of the Knicks at bay, it was a wrap.
Randle is having the best season of his career, and he started using his leverage against smaller defenders to facilitate. Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin started rim running and cutting and dunking like a video game as Wiseman and company struggled with the dual responsibility of containing ball-handlers while also staying attached to backside lob threats and baseline cutters.
If you haven't watched much of the Knicks this season, they're not the same old Knicks. They're one of the best defensive teams in the league, actually. They're big and athletic and physical in a manner befitting a Tom Thibodeau team. This isn't meaning to take anything away from how well Randle played, or Robinson, or certainly R.J. Barrett, who scored a career-high 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting. If the playoffs started today, the Knicks would be in. They were beating Golden State even with Green on the floor.
Still, the tale of the Warriors pre- and post-Draymond ejection is telling as to Green's value, which is most easily understood in his absence. It's easy to lose sight of all that Green does when some of the best scorers in history are running around shooting from the moon, but he's always been arguably the strongest link in the Warriors' chain.
Now without all-world talent on this Golden State roster, Green becomes even more irreplaceable. Entering Thursday, Golden State was sporting a 103.6 defensive rating with Green on the court, which would register as the best defense in the league by an appreciable margin, compared to a 113.8 rating when he was off the court, which would rank as the seventh-worst defense in the league.
The offensive numbers don't tell the same kind of story because Green is often sharing the court with Wiseman and Oubre, who had, entering Thursday, dragged the offense down by a collective 25 points per 100 possessions. But anyone watching knows how differently the Warriors function with Green conducting and Curry drawing attention off the ball. It's night and day.
The award for Most Valuable Player is always a tough one to encapsulate. Generally, the award goes to one of the best players on one of the best teams. Every once in a while, a player will be so great in lifting a mediocre team into relevance that he'll get consideration or even win the award, like Russell Westbrook in 2016-17. You'll never see a player like Draymond in the running for MVP.
And you probably shouldn't. If you threw Draymond out there without Curry, the Warriors would be just as bad, if not worse, if in different ways. But as Friday night again illustrated, Draymond's value is, and long has been, right up there with any player in the league, and you need not look any further than the results of his absence for such confirmation.