Draymond Green is the best story in basketball.
A great story isn't one thing. It's not just positive and inspiring. It's not just controversial and wild. It has to have nuance, and figures you can debate the decisions of. You have to have conflict and something you can take away from the story. Green has brought all of that to sports fans over his five years in the NBA.
He's been loved. Adored. Respected. Disrespected. Hated on. Fined. Suspended. Had screaming matches with his coach. He's gotten into the face of the franchise icon he himself helped sign. He's trash talked an entire city after he beat them in the Finals. He went from being a second-round pick to one of the 15 best players in basketball and the likely Defensive Player of the Year award winner. He is the most loved and hated player in the NBA at the moment, and he didn't even sign with a different team (yet).
But these Finals may be the best chapter yet because so much is on the line for Green when the Cavaliers and Warriors tip off on Thursday in Game 1.
A long time coming
In December of 2012, Draymond Green was facing LeBron James for the first time. It was Green's rookie season and James was in the midst of changing his entire career narrative with the Heat after winning his first title. And yet, Green went right at James on the defensive end. When James went in for an and-one over Green, Draymond walked right up to him and trash talked him in his face.
Watching it, I thought "Oh, this isn't going to work out well for that kid."
Well, turns out, it did.
We should have known then. There just aren't players that stand up to legends like that. Green has never shown any fear, whatsoever, no matter who it was. Second-round tweeners don't take over the starting spot in a rotation. But when David Lee went down in the playoffs, he did, and never relinquished it.
Green has destroyed conventional thought. Green used to be the kind of players teams were terrified to draft. He wasn't tall enough to be a power forward, wasn't nimble enough or a good enough shooter to be a small forward. Instead, his passing has unlocked Golden State's potential. It gets lost, but Green leads the Warriors, widely considered the best passing team in the league, in both passes and assists. He showed the value of a player that's mobile enough to pass on the move and cut, but who can also shoot from the outside (and is a better playoff shooter than in the regular season) and most importantly, can guard all five positions.
He's amazing. And he lets you know it. Constantly.
After the Warriors won the 2015 Finals, despite James taking the Warriors to six without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, Green blistered the Cavs in a pretty-clearly inebriated parade interview, saying the Cavaliers "suck."
This happened, on camera. An NBA star tore down LeBron James' team despite two of their players being out.
That's who Green is. There is just zero holding back. And lest you think that all of this isn't a construct, here's Green sitting down with LeBron James' close friend and business associate Maverick Carter for Uninterrupted, a company both Green and James have a financial stake in.
But between the lines, Green is off the hook. Off the chain. Unleashed. Unfiltered. It's who he is.
"I never want to lose my name," Green said on the Uninterrupted "Dray Day" Podcast in discussing how stars can lose their brand to a team or a system. He doesn't want his name synonymous with the Warriors. He's always who he is.
And sometimes, there's a price on that, too.
Look, maybe there are no basketball gods. But if they are, they heard Green's comments at that parade. And they saw his actions throughout the 2016 playoffs, where he went on what can only be described as an onslaught against the groins of every team Golden State faced in the playoffs.
The led to this.
Golden State fans will always point to James stepping over Green in disrespect. The Warriors will always cry foul that they felt James lobbied the league to suspend Green for Game 5.
But Green had avoided suspension already and each time he made contact with anyone's mid-section or bathing suit era, the internet sleuths were all over it. Green lost his temper, and it cost him. He was suspended for Game 5. The Warriors would not win another game in the series, suffering the biggest and most humiliating collapse in NBA Finals history.
It should be noted that I am one of the few people on the planet who don't think Green's suspension mattered. In Game 5, facing elimination, James had 41 points on 16 of 30 shooting, most of them jumpers. Kyrie Irving had 41 points on 17 of 24. Neither Green, nor anyone in NBA history, was stopping the Cavs on a night when they had that kind of shooting performance. I think the entire series switched when Klay Thompson said James was "in his feelings." This was LeBron's response, and the moment when the Warriors lost the NBA Finals:
Green watched Game 5 at the Oakland A's game across the street. He vowed to be better in Game 6. He had eight points on seven shots, six assists, and five fouls, and was a minus-12 as the Cavs rolled to force Game 7. In Game 7, Green hit five first-half 3-pointers, and the Warriors led. The Cavs kept daring him to hit. He shot 1 of 3 in the second half, and watched as LeBron James made the best defensive play in NBA Finals history, then Green fouled James to produce free throws, the one James made would be the final points scored in the series.
Green's first words post-game?
That was that.
What's to come
Think about what's on the line for Green in this series. He was suspended for Game 5. He suffered an embarrassing summer that involved an illicit accidental public photo on social media, a bar scuffle back in Michigan, getting benched in the Olympics, and then an ESPN story that highlighted just how much tension constantly surrounds Green with the Warriors. (The Warriors refuted the story and defended Green with zeal, predictably.)
And he gets to make all that go away. Green recruited Durant for what may have been over a year before joining the Warriors for the final successful pitch in the Hamptons last summer. He put together one of the best defensive campaigns we've seen. He is critical to the Warriors' culture of accountability. And he's hitting 47 percent of this 3-pointers (not a typo) in these playoffs.
Green will have different assignments in these Finals. He has Durant on board to defend James, especially in late-game situations. His offensive role is smaller, his playoff usage rate is the lowest since his rookie season. But he will still make his impact felt. If anything, the overwhelming talent the Warriors have only empowers him to make impact plays all the more. He's not an afterthought, he's the possession-smothering, big-shot-hitting, wild-celebration-making, and-one-screaming, questionable-foot-extension cherry on the best sundae in the NBA.
Win this series, beat this team, and sure, there will be in-the-moment talk of how they needed to add Kevin Durant, and about how muted it feels with all that talent. But it will mean two NBA titles for Green, a likely Defensive Player of the Year award, and it will elevate him to a new level. Consider it this way: if the Warriors win his title, will Green have had a better or worse career already than Horace Grant? It's debatable. (It's also notable that Grant isn't in the Hall of Fame.)
Now, on the other side, consider if they fall short. Is Green acquitted? Do more hijinx ensue involving him? Can the Warriors' core survive another round of disappointment and humiliation at the hands of James?
These Finals will be discussed through a prism of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. They are the stars of this series. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are supporting cast members who may steal a scene or two. But odds are, however they end, Green will have his own thread throughout them. This is Green's chance at redemption, at revenge, at validation. Green has constantly demanded more and more from the game, made his case for being considered great at every turn. This is his chance to prove it ... or to face a stark and uncompromising audit of his impact and approach to the game.
James' legacy is already largely settled, we're debating margins. Curry and Durant's places in history seem defined, pre-ordained. But Green's is still battling for position like Green did for minutes under Lee his rookie season. And odds are he'll face that challenge the same way he did that year, trash talking anyone that stands in his way.
Down in front, the best part of this Broadway production is about to see its curtains rise on Draymond Green.