CBS Sports' James Herbert and Matt Moore are reasonable people, so they both think the Golden State Warriors are going to win an obscene amount of games this season. Further, they think that reigning back-to-back Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry and 2014 MVP Kevin Durant are two of the three best players in the entire NBA. They differ, however, when it comes to who will prove to be Golden State's third banana. We'll render a verdict in the end.
James Herbert: I am excited to announce that Matt Moore and I have a disagreement. He thinks that Klay Thompson is the Warriors' third-most important player, while I think that this distinction belongs to Draymond Green. Over the past two seasons, league observers have generally believed that Green was their second-most valuable player, so I'm a little confused as to why Thompson would leapfrog him now. Matt, the burden of proof lies with you.
Matt Moore: I think much of this comes down to the fact that I was in the building for Warriors-Thunder Game 6 when Klay Thompson ascended to a higher plane of existence and rained fire down upon an entire franchise, effectively ending the Westbrook-Durant era in OKC and leaving dozens of veteran hoops writers walking around in shock. It was one of those games where you'd look at some journalist who has been doing this for decades, raise your eyebrows, and he'd just start shaking his head as if to say "I don't know what happened here, I just know it was not of this Earth."
James Herbert: Thanks for giving me an excuse to re-watch all of Thompson's 3-pointers that night. What a masterpiece that was. To look at his dead eyes after making contested, deep 3s with his historically great team down in an elimination game is to understand that there's a real possibility he is, as you put it, not of this Earth. That was unprecedented, and yet it felt a little familiar. When he scored 37 points in a quarter against the Sacramento Kings during an otherwise meaningless January game a couple of seasons ago, it was just as mystifying. Thompson hits that level a couple of times per season, and when he's there, he's the best player on the planet.
This Warriors team, however, has a couple other players who are capable of reaching that plane. We've seen Curry and Durant catch fire and score 50-plus points. We've seen each of them single-handedly destroy other teams' confidence with timely, impossible-looking shots. Green doesn't do that stuff, but what he does is essential to Golden State's greatness. He sets killer screens so the best shooters in the world get open. He essentially created the position "playmaking 4" because of his court vision. His ability to play center and switch onto smaller players is what created the "Death Lineup" and started a league-wide shift toward lineups that only feature versatile, skilled two-way players.
When I think about what could stop the Warriors from another record-breaking season, the first thing that comes to mind is a significant injury to Green. If Thompson was sidelined for a while, I don't think it would have the same impact.
Matt Moore: Klay's already come out this preseason and convinced everyone around the team and in the media that there's no way he sacrifices anything. He said over the summer, "I'm not sacrificing s---" -- and he's kept his word in preseason. Klay's getting good looks because of the weaponry on this team now, but he also knows if he passes it, he may not get it back. So he's letting it fly. He's going to get shot after shot after shot because Curry -- while impulsive and at times reckless with his shot selection (because he can be) -- is far from selfish, and if anything, Durant defers too often. Let me put it this way, Russell Westbrook isn't becoming Russell Westbrook next to a lot of other stars. Curry and Durant are givers. Thompson's going to get his shots.
Meanwhile, who was the ONE Warrior who started to crack last year when his role was compromised? Let's not gloss over that halftime blow-up by Draymond. It's one thing for frustrations to boil over when you're stuck around the same people for nine months out of the year in close quarters, but it's another when the specific complaint was about Steve Kerr's frustration with Draymond's shooting. That continued in the playoffs, when Draymond went absolutely into the gutter vs. OKC. He rebounded and nearly helped the Warriors wrap up the title in Game 7 with his first half shooting performance... except the Cavaliers stuck to their plan of making him shoot and he couldn't sustain.
This is always going to be the balance with Green. He's not a great shooter all the time, but he can shoot, and hit 39 percent of his threes in the regular season last year. So he knows he can shoot, and he wants to. But with this system, why would you ever want to settle for a Draymond shot when you have all these other guys? And in large part what the Warriors needed from Green was what he did in Games 6 and 7 vs. the Thunder, to get back to playing defense, making smart plays, being the emotional tempest.
Of course, that also boils over. Green's the heart and soul of the team, everyone close to the squad says that. Kerr's talked openly about it, and about how you have to live with the good and the bad. But if Durant has a stretch where he's out of rhythm or having a hard time, he'll just keep going, he's Kevin Durant. Same deal for Curry. With Green, the emotional swings are much greater. Which means he's either going to try and maintain his position as this key figure -- and face pushback because there just aren't enough shots to go around (and I'm going to bet that Steve Kerr wants more shots from those other guys) -- or he's going to go into a funk as he heads more toward the "robot" he accused Kerr of trying to make him into.
On top of all this? Green's coming off the Finals where his "take no prisoners, compromise nothing at all" approach netted him the most costly suspension in Finals history, and then even when he returned, despite that strong first half of Game 7, LeBron James had largely infected the Warriors' system like a virus, short-circuiting Green's ability. Green will likely carry some of that forward into this season.
He's among the team leaders in assists, but not the leading assists man. Same for rebounds, same for points. It's preseason, so whatever, but if we're going to ooh and ahh over the positive signs the Warriors have presented, we probably need to take note that Green is inherently less valuable because the things he does... Durant can do them. Green will still play center and will still help make the Death Lineup deadly, and the Warriors will romp over everyone.
But Thompson doesn't have to sacrifice anything... and Green's going to have to. Thompson can come in cold and go supernova, Green lives on an emotional edge. Everything points to a situation where Thompson continues to show what he did in that Game 6 while Green struggles to find a balance between what he was last year... and what he was when the Warriors won the title in 2015. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.
James Herbert: Let's talk about sacrifice. A couple of weeks after Durant signed with Golden State, he was with Green and Thompson in Las Vegas, practicing with Team USA. Before Thompson said he was "not sacrificing s---," Green told The Vertical's Michael Lee essentially the same thing.
"Long as you win, everything else takes care of itself," Green said. "I'd sacrifice everything for championships. When you win, you don't really sacrifice anything because everybody gets love when you win. That's kind of my thing. If you're a winner, you can't really be denied too much of anything. I don't mind sacrificing anything for championships, and that's what we set out to do, win championships."
That lines up with what Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Thompson's awesome quote: "I think what Klay was saying is ... of course, it's not sacrificing; he gets to play with Kevin Durant. So what's he really sacrificing?"
The idea here is that everybody, from Durant and Curry to Green, Thompson and super subs Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, could put up bigger individual numbers in a different situation. No one in Golden State's regular rotation is playing for a contract, though, and there is already a track record of this group playing freely and unselfishly. There are plenty of players on bad teams who would give up some touches in exchange for easier looks and wins.
Maybe Green's 3-point percentage will dip because it's more difficult for him to find a rhythm with fewer attempts. Those shots should be even more open now, though, and it's not like he's never going to have the ball in his hands. The way the Warriors play, I'm not concerned about his level of involvement or engagement. If anything, these guys -- Thompson included -- have sometimes looked too eager to make the extra pass in the preseason, swinging the ball when a high-percentage shot is available.
I understand the inclination to paint Green as the variable that could either keep Golden State together or bring the superteam down. After the locker-room tirade, the incidents involving Steven Adams' groin, the Finals suspension, the Snapchat accident and his lack of playing time in Rio de Janeiro, his personal brand is at an all-time low. I'm not sure, however, that he's really that much of a wild card. Green will always be an emotional player, but he's also an incredibly intelligent one. He knows what the Warriors need from him, and I'd be surprised if he became the forgotten man or started pouting about his place in the pecking order.
Also, sure, Durant's an awesome defender, but I don't think Golden State will want him battling with centers like Green does. For this reason, I don't see Durant's presence diminishing Green's value -- since Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli are gone, I'd argue that his ability to play the 5 is more important than it has ever been.
Matt Moore: Not arguing that Draymond will, or won't, continue to play the five, just that the things Draymond does aren't as vital this year because of Durant. The same can be said for Klay and Steph as they do many of the same things, but the difference is, they're still two of the ten best scorers in the league (at worst) next to each other. If you take away Grren's presence as the only Warriors who did a lot of things, because now Durant does a lot of those things, there isn;t any one thing left that makes Green as irreplaceable as he was the last two years for Golden State.
Still great, still Draymond, still special, but not a bigger deal than Klay.
It's key to once more be clear that it's not that Green had an outburst, he literally had an outburst about not being cleared to shoot more by Kerr. His role from that standpoint alone will likely diminish, perhaps considerably, and he is likely to struggle with it. It's easy to pitch Durant to join the squad; it's different when it's in practice.
This is probably the most fascinating storyline there is when it comes to the Warriors, though. They'll be great, that much is already evident; the adjustment time is less for them than other super teams. They'll mesh, Durant will fit in, they'll be villains for a while, but people will get over it.
How Thompson and Green adjust, not only in stats but function, will probably be the biggest controversy they'll have as they glide toward a seemingly inevitable rubber match with Cleveland.
OK, so the cases have been heard. Both Matt and James make good points. Before I render a verdict (by the way, this is NBA editor and resident Warriors nut Brad Botkin), I think it's important to note the most recent Golden State scuttlebutt -- which, conveniently, involves the two players in question. It comes courtesy of former Warriors irrationally confident streak shooter/utterly comical interviewee Marreese Speights, who told ESPN's Ethan Sherwood-Strauss that Klay and Draymond 'got into it a lot' and that Draymond 'f----- up practice' and hurt the team chemistry with his 'berating' of teammates.
So, basically, Draymond is a loose cannon. And Klay is a dog that backs down from nobody.
These things we know.
Personally, I don't think any of this "behind closed doors" stuff has much relevance in the case of the Warriors. I know it has torn other teams apart, and I don't mean to diminish the importance of locker-room dynamics or certainly on-court chemistry. But the latter has never suffered for the Warriors. Until it does, there's no reason to worry about who's saying what, particularly if the who is Marreese Speights.
So, on to the debate. Who is the Warriors' third-best player? Well, when you phrase it like that, I would say the answer is Klay Thompson. Matt's point about Klay's higher ceiling is an astute one. When he hits that level of shooting when the building is one step from evacuating, it's simply a level of impact that Draymond cannot go to -- though he has certainly impacted many a game, in many a way, on a truly Hall of Fame level.
Still, while Klay isn't doing what he did vs. OKC in Game 6 last year very often, or certainly scoring 37 points in a quarter, he is going on fairly regular shooting sprees that most players, even all-time great shooters, only put together a handful of times over an entire career. We simply take it for granted, and to be honest, somewhat overlook it due to Curry's one-upping brilliance.
It's also true, in this court's opinion, that both Thompson and Green are, to some degree, a product of the Warriors' system and surrounding talent. Klay still has some trouble creating his own space and shot (though he has improved dramatically in this area), while Green basically gets to play in a sea of open floor, a sea that will be even more vast this year with Durant spacing defenses to the parking lot.
Listen, both these guys would be very good on any team, but my guess is that if you put both of them on every other roster in the league, Klay, for his historic shooting and terrific perimeter defense, would be the better player on probably 75 percent of them. Draymond probably needs a more specific roster around him to be a true All-NBA player.
HOWEVER! We're not just talking about who's the better player of these two. We're asking who is the better player for the Warriors. It's an important distinction, and to me, in a painfully tough call, I'm going to have to side with James Herbert and say the answer is Draymond. And it's all about what the team would look like without him.
Yes, Klay is an all-time shooter and takes a ton of pressure off Curry on the defensive end with his ability to check the league's best point guards. But with Curry and Durant, shooting wouldn't exactly be a problem if Klay were gone, and the Warriors would still be loaded with like-sized, versatile perimeter defenders -- one of which, of course, is Green.
The key argument James pointed out here is the presence of the Death Lineup. With the sizable upgrade Durant represents over Barnes, you could realistically plug in Livingston for Klay and not lose much as an overall lineup. But if you take Green out of that lineup, well, you don't have a Death Lineup. Yes, Durant's presence eases some of Green's defensive and intangible burden, but the Warriors still need it, just as Durant's Thunder likely wouldn't have been able to threaten Golden State in last year's WCF without the presence of Steven Adams.
Green is irreplaceable on this team. Thompson is almost irreplaceable.