By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
“Suddenly playing the charming bad guy was my thing.” – Ray Liotta
Every hero needs a villain, every conquest needs an adversary and every day needs a night with that ladies and gentlemen allow me to reintroduce Mr. Draymond Green. The basketball savant has mastered his role of villain and in the process proved that a Warrior’s valor can never be measured.
The Golden State Warriors are playing in their third straight NBA Finals because Green has been everything the jump shooting team needs, while being everything NBA fans want. A bad guy who oddly enough plays the game in its purest form. The forward has provided a villainous component with an authentic toughness that basketball lovers can’t help but to acknowledge, if not admire. A yeoman heart (along with an occasional kick to the man region) have led the Warriors to a 207 – 42 record with the volatile forward in the line-up. Golden State has experienced five straight winning seasons since the former Michigan State Spartan stepped in the Bay Area. This is in complete contrast to the three winning campaigns in the 20 seasons prior to his arrival.
On a team with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, it is Draymond’s leadership, grind and reconnaissance that have allowed this group to compete in a high powered Western Conference. Before anyone considers loathing the impact Green has on this franchise consider the circumstances in the four immediate years prior to his arrival. The 2008/2009 year saw the Bay Area team finish 29 – 53. The cornerstones of the franchise were deemed to be “prized” rookie Anthony Rudolph, along with Andris Biedrins and Anthony Morrow. The club was led by Stephen Jackson, Jamal Crawford, Monta Ellis, and Corey Maggette. Despite a plethora of ball handlers on the roster Golden State grabbed Davidson product Steph Curry in the 2009 NBA draft. The sharpshooter paid no dividends as the squad finished the 2009/2010 year 26 – 56.
The next two seasons Curry would play for two coaches and the team compiled a record of 59 – 89. Then along came Jerry West. The logo officially joined the group on May 20, 2011 and quickly played a major role in drafting Klay Thompson in the first round. After another losing year West then nabbed Green. The Big Ten Player of the Year and Michigan State all-time leading rebounder was an afterthought behind first round picks Harrison Barnes (7th overall) and Festus Ezeli (30th overall). The club’s final pick that year finished eighth in total minutes played, but the team finished with their first winning record (47 – 35) in four years. Some might say this was a mere coincidence and scoff at the premise of the Golden State forward being the straw that stirs the Warriors championship nectar. Those individuals only need to consider the words uttered by General Manager Bob Myers. When asked to describe what attracted him to the forward, Myers said “all he did (at Michigan State) was produce and win”. Five years, two All-Star game appearances and one NBA title later the Spartan and Warriors haven’t stopped winning.
Green’s skillset of winning comes at a price he is all too willing to pay with a reality check. It’s a work ethic that at times can be abrasive and can come in the form of technical fouls over highlight reel dunks. It is the grit work like leading the league in steals per game (2.0) or being second in total steals (154) total deflections (295) and deflections per game (3.9) that illustrate the forward’s effort. But gaudy defensive numbers, setting solid screens, denying ball, and boxing out can sometimes fail to resonate if not accompanied with dyed hair and wedding dresses.
While those numbers are what makes the second round pick great, what makes him special is virtually impossible to quantify. It is why Kevin Durant ran to get Green for the fist fight known as the NBA Finals. It is a fire that is only consistent in champions, a grind absent of praise and only appreciated with wins and titles. There is a line that many or not willing to cross in their pursuit of greatness. The Saginaw native willingly crossed that line and basketball fans are indebted to him for it. How entertaining would this NBA championship series be without the man who uttered, “I want to destroy Cleveland. No ifs and buts about it”?
The Golden State All-Star not only is embracing the challenge of LeBron, he is looking forward to making the game’s greatest player suffer. That is what we all came for, to watch the world’s greatest players compete at the highest level. If James and some of the other celebrated players throughout the league are what is right in world, than yes to that extent Green is what is wrong. Because the former All-American is willing to do whatever is necessary to win the battle at hand, and isn’t that why we are all entertained. The logo called Green a top 10 player, not because of a 40 inch vert or the sweetest of strokes, but because he plays the game the right way. Team owner Joe Lacob wore the star forward’s jersey during last year’s Finals and often refers to himself as the “Draymond Green of the business side” because he recognizes the value in the champion’s worth.
There is complexity in contradiction and Green contradicts everything that makes the NBA fun to watch with his lack of athleticism. Nevertheless, it is the complexity of the range of his emotions and the fury in which he attacks his opponent that have sports fans captivated. Pundits have wasted moments expressing what the forward does wrong, simply because it is easier than spending days expressing what he does right. Toronto Raptors All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan offered $100 to anyone who could stop LeBron James, who doubts Draymond would accept that challenge and tell DeRozan to keep the dough.
That mentality and commitment to winning is why we should all be thankful that these NBA Finals will feature the greatest player in the game pitted against the greatest competitor in the game.
For the Houston Rockets to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, Rockets’ All-Star James Harden must go from elite scorer to elite player. As the series nears closer the question is not “can” the offensive minded guard make this metamorphosis, but rather “will” he?
Prior to the 2009 NBA draft most pundits ranked the 6’5 guard as a top five prospect, and when Oklahoma City selected Harden the consensus was the All-American would translate well into the NBA. It is safe to say the five time All-Star has done more than just translate well, he has exceeded all expectations. With that being said it is time to up the ante. If we as fans are to believe the scorer can be anything other than a numbers harlot now is the time for the Houston star to do so. The Spurs and specifically forward Kawhi Leonard are on the horizon, and the game done changed for young Mr. Harden.
This is a career defining series for the Southern California native, and how the Rockets perform will be the key defining factor. Scoring 30 plus points and distributing 10 or more dimes won’t cut it this round. Houston must win this series for James to be considered more than just another George Gervin, Dominque Wilkins, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. All were or are phenomenal scorers who never were capable of getting their squad over the hump.
Yes the challenge is daunting, as most with extreme consequences are. Nevertheless, the time has come to see if the former Sun Devil is ready to eat at the big boy table. The NBA has always provided a divisive line between superior and inferior, clearly defining who resided where. We remember and salute the leaders from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Bird to LeBron James, only to recall Steve Nash, Bernard King, Rolando Blackman, and Charles Barkley to name a few. This is where Harden is teetering.
In his seventh season “the Beard” has been nothing short of spectacular, posting a career high in points per (29.1), rebounds per (8.1), and assists per (11.1). The individual numbers do not tail off when going against the likes of Boston (33.5 ppg/7.0 rpg/9.5 apg), Cleveland (39.5 ppg/8.5 rpg/13.0 apg), Golden State (21.8 ppg/11.0 rpg/11.3 apg), or San Antonio (29.8 ppg/9.0 rpg/11.8 apg). However, a record of 4 – 8 is where things get questionable and the gumbo really gets thick when you focus solely on the Spurs and Warriors results. The Houston Rocket is 2 – 6 versus the one and two seeds in the western conference, shooting a gut wrenching 40 percent.
This is why it is imperative the former Arizona State All-American win this series, at this time and versus this team. If he ever desires to reside in the upper echelon of top players in the league nothing short of victory is acceptable. Harden is not hampered by an inferior team like say a Russell Westbrook. No, the Rocket guard is armed with a top shooter in guard Eric Gordon, a playoff tested Nene who has been a fixture of multiple 50 win clubs, guard Lou Williams a top reserve in the league, and a champion in Trevor Arizia. So there can be no excuses disguised as reasons if the playoff journey ends here for the MVP candidate.
In fact, the guard’s biggest impediment may come from his very own coach. Mike D’Antoni is 0 – 4 versus the Spurs in the playoffs and before defeating the Thunder had a combined playoff record of 26 – 33. To say the coach does not have the same zest for defense would be stating the obvious. But it is D’Antoni’s inability to make in-game adjustments that also play a role in his playoff demise. It will be incumbent upon the scorer to captain the offense AND the defense for Houston to win. Those impeccable basketball instincts will be necessary to sustain the head coach’s habitual shortcomings.
Then there is the whole Kawhi Leonard playing the best ball of his career problem. More specifically, how Harden handles being matched up against the forward will ultimately be the deciding factor in the series. There is zero doubt the All-Star starter will get his numbers. The question is can he avoid the very same fate he dealt to Westbrook, another numbers maverick. This Spurs group, while still potent, is not the team that had been so formidable in previous years. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge has seen his scoring dip in the playoffs (17.3 to 14.8) while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are entering senior citizen status. So Houston’s most proficient rocket has the opportunity to seize the moment.
This is the series that will show every NBA fan if Mr. Harden is merely another overly celebrated scorer or legitimate championship leader. Scorers have always captivated the league and led us all to believe they would one day be champions. Yet, the one thing Durant’s bolt to Golden State has taught us, is there is a gargantuan difference between leading your team in scoring and leading your team to a title. Or at the very least leading your team to consistently compete for a title.
It will take more than points and passes to win this series, it will take a herculean effort. An effort that is common among the game’s elite. Thus far James has been more scoring enigma than elite player, but now is the time for him to announce where he resides on that pendulum. Harden’s game has evolved (or revolved depending who you ask) around his scoring ability. To date that has been good enough for the Rockets, but it is time for the team and its fans to demand more. Or else everything that has transpired, from the triple-doubles to the magnificent scoring outputs, will only be referenced for what never came from those performances.