The Celtics have mercifully signed Jeff Green, finalizing a deal that will pay him roughly $36 million over four seasons, though we don’t yet know if some of the money on the back end is non-guaranteed — a tweak that, along with a partial guarantee on the final year of Kevin Garnett’s new deal, could help Boston gain at least a bit of cap flexibility in the summer of 2014. Until then? They’re capped out, and they may be capped out in that summer as well, the result of intriguing swing for the fences in which Boston has spent lavishly to keep its short-term title hopes alive while (they hope) locking up four players in their early- to mid-20s who might transition the team into the next era — Courtney Lee, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Green.
It’s hard to find a player who carries such uncertainty as Green does now after four full seasons in the league. But I was taken just a little off guard by this comment from Danny Ainge in his scripted statement expressing the customary glee over signing Green’s deal (via the Boston Herald, emphasis mine):
“We are thrilled to be able to have Jeff back with the Celtics. Jeff’s versatility on offense and ability to guard players out on the perimeter is something that we are looking forward to having on the court this season.”
Two notable things about this:
• Green primarily played power forward in Oklahoma City. Power forwards have to do a lot of defensive work on the perimeter, but that skill is not the first thing GMs would mention in a discussion about what makes a good power forward.
• Green has ranked as a horrific defender for most of his career, at least by the numbers. The Thunder and Celtics were consistently worse on both ends of the court with Green on the floor versus on the bench, but the damage was usually more dramatic on defense — and especially when Green played power forward. His rebounding numbers are in the dreaded Andrea Bargnani/Hedo Turkoglu range for big men, opposing players bullied him in the post to the tune of just about 50 percent shooting over 2009-10 and 2010-11 combined (per the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports) and he generally failed most of the “guarding the perimeter” duties that came with his job. Overall, Synergy ranked Green 429th in 2010-11 among all NBA players in points allowed per possession on defense — an attempt at a catch-all metric that considers every play in which a guy is directly involved. It’s not perfect; Synergy sometimes blames the wrong player for a spot-up basket, and few easy baskets have only one individual culprit in a complex five-man game.
But zoom out and increase the sample size enough, and the numbers start to be more meaningful. And the numbers are awful; there aren’t 429 players who receive meaningful minutes in an NBA season.
And yet: I’m excited to watch Green play next season, and Ainge’s comments have jacked up that excitement level. They indicate the Celtics consider Green primarily a wing player — a back-up small forward for Paul Pierce, and a player who can slide to power forward in smaller lineups including just one traditional big man. Boston has built its team around creating as many productive small lineups as possible. They finished last season with one semi-productive shooting guard (Ray Allen) and now have three, including Lee, who slid to small forward at times in Houston’s smaller lineups. They can now create small lineups that lean to the small/quick side (with lots of guards and only one of Pierce/Green) and to the big side (with both Pierce and Green, a combination Doc Rivers seemed to like in 2010-11). This is all designed with Miami’s evolution in mind; the Celtics clearly understand they cannot beat a Miami team with LeBron James at power forward by using Brandon Bass as James primary defender in bigger lineups or playing smaller lineups featuring one or even two unproductive, stand-still players.
But does Green and his allegedly awful defense fit in with this general notion of slowing the Heat? I’ve watched several hours of tape on Green’s defense over the last few days, and when you zero in on him like this, you begin to understand what at least a segment of Boston’s front office sees. Green is never going to be a lockdown defender at either forward position; he concedes too much against the extremes of both forward types, though he’s smart about how he concedes it. Against big post players, the Thunder often had Green front the post, a position of extreme vulnerability against good passing teams.
And against quicker wing players and guards, Green concedes territory. He’ll take a step back to contain a potential dribble drive, giving a shooter just a bit more space than usual for a mid-range jumper. Again: He’s smart about this concession — Corey Maggette gets a foot more space than Kobe Bryant. And against truly elite shooting wings, Green will sometimes stick close and funnel a drive to a particular direction the coaching staff has chosen — the baseline or to Serge Ibaka.
In these situations, you see the potential for serviceable defense Boston’s front office sees. Green’s feet are pretty nimble, and he generally stays in a nice crouch that allows him to slide side-to-side with his man. He keeps his feet on pump fakes. He has a good sense of his size advantage — the knowledge that if Manu Ginobili gets a step on him, he can still ride Ginobili’s hip and contest a floater from just a bit behind him.
It’s not spectacular defense, but it’s perfectly usable NBA defense, and it could work especially well against bigger wings with shaky jumpers (sound familiar)? The Celtics don’t need Green to guard LeBron or Joe Johnson for 35 minutes. They need Green to take up the burden for occasional stretches so that Paul Pierce doesn’t have to do it all the time.
James and Johnson are bigger wings, and Boston probably does not want Green guarding Ginobili or Bryant or Deron Williams, or any quick NBA guard/smaller wing. The Thunder’s system often forced Green into those assignments; Oklahoma City was a very young team in Green’s time there, and Scott Brooks had them switch a lot on pick-and-rolls, leaving Green in these sorts of mismatches. That kind of switching is not a core part of Boston’s defense.
Green’s struggles went beyond this kind of “tweener” matchup stuff into more general awareness and decision-making issues, but even here, it will be fun to see if playing in Boston’s system — and with Kevin Garnett — helps Green along. In Oklahoma City, when Green wasn’t involved as the big man in a pick-and-roll play, he had a tendency to over-help a bit — to sink further into the lane than he really had to, leaving him too far from power forwards with legit shooting range.
But think about the primary defenders on those pick-and-rolls — young, jumpy guards like Russell Westbrook, and a plodding starting center in Nenad Krstic. They required a lot of help, and Green over-compensated a bit.
And when he did overcompensate, he had trouble understanding where to go next. Those Thunder teams broke down in worse and more obvious ways defensively than most NBA teams when opponents swung the ball around the court. Green and Ibaka would hesitate for a precious half-second, unsure of which direction they should rotate or whether they had switched assignments amid the chaos. That hesitation is fatal, and doubly so when both confused young bigs rotate to the same player or end up paralyzed from indecision.
Again: Will the new context in Boston mitigate this? Defense for big men in the NBA is a tandem affair, requiring instant communication and chemistry earned over time; Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, for instance, are going through a mistake-filled learning process in Los Angeles. Boston has one of the half-dozen greatest defensive anchors in league history in Garnett, a savant and talker extraordinaire, and Green presumably won’t be guarding as many stretch power forwards in Boston, anyway.
The tape shows other glaring errors against complex NBA schemes. Green would sometimes get lost when opponents had two pieces of motion offense going at once, unable to balance watching the ball and tracking his man. For instance: Lots of NBA teams set screens for one of their big men under the rim, designed to get that big man moving into good post-up position. Green could generally navigate those just fine. But if a team did that with Green’s man while also running a high pick-and-roll or a Rip Hamilton-style curl play, Green would watch the action, unsure which threat was more dangerous, and fall a step or two behind in the process — a step he could not afford against Zach Randolph or Pau Gasol.
Some of that is instinct. Some players are just better than others at anticipating things and handing multiple stimuli at once. But some of it is about position (power forward), experience, coaching and the experience level of teammates.
Lots of those variables change in Boston. Will Green?