If the Golden State Warriors proved anything by winning it all with 6'7" Draymond Green starting at power forward and eventually center, it's that versatility is king. The player with the ability to make the most plays on either end, whether it's by shooting, passing or defending, is the hardest one to beat.
You know how the NBA is getting smaller, and since this is a Memphis Grizzlies blog, you're probably tired of hearing about it. But if Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph couldn't raze Draymond down, who can? Going smaller is still the wave, and this isn't just about beating the Warriors: the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Trevor Ariza are only getting more familiar with the power forward position next season.
That's bad news for the Grizzlies, who watched as the Warriors targeted Randolph for stretchy pick-and-roll after stretchy pick-and-roll in the playoffs. Z-Bo can bulldoze some perimeter types straight back to their original position, but Harrison Barnes was just the first example of a wing who could hold steady in the post for long enough to dump in three-pointers on the other end.
At some point, the Grizzlies will need to join the rest of the NBA. Having access to every tool in the toolbox is a NBA virtue, especially these days, and they'll eventually need for theirs to include a small-ball counter that isn't just staying big.
Switching It Up
Jeff Green, welcome to Redemption Island! Small forward didn't work out so well, but with Matt Barnes brought in to be a two-way safety net on the wing and Jordan Adams sniffing for minutes out there, there's no better time to get reacquainted with the power forward position from the Oklahoma City Thunder days. Basketball-Reference estimates that Green logged 22% of his Grizzlies minutes at power forward last season, but that mostly came in garbage time or early-second quarters against bench-heavy units.
He has one skill in particular that should translate well for those situations where the Grizzlies need an anti-Randolph: the ability to defend ball-handlers of different shapes, sizes and positions. Green's length and athleticism are usually only pluses in the abstract, but they're very real in his defensive versatility. During the playoffs, Dave Joerger even matched him up on Steph Curry and C.J. McCollum for passing stretches.
Those guys might zip around with the ball a bit faster than Green can shuffle his feet, but his size advantage can eat up a lot of that difference:
You still probably don't want Green defending the Curry and McCollum types full-time; the reason he took them on in the playoffs was mostly because of the Mike Conley injury. But the fact that he can defend them matters, because there's switchability there. The Grizzlies can fast-track their way around screens on and off the ball by swapping assignments on the fly.
There wasn't much switching in the Grizzlies' defense last season, but that was probably more about personnel than philosophy, and the latter usually ends up adapting with the times anyway. Many of the small-ball lineups that would pace and space Randolph to death can be checked by playing Green at the 4, in theory. Everything stays one-on-one: screen-setters don't get away unfettered and Green can stay in front of waterbug ball-handlers, which is what this hinges on.
Screen-switching defenses are quickly becoming popular, another trend that hit a high point with the Warriors. In fact, teams are already starting to dig up ways to beat them, but you worry about that after putting a stop to the Curry/Draymond tornado. When the Grizzlies played Green in Randolph's place during the Warriors series, Curry pick-and-rolls were substituted for Draymond post-ups, and I'll take that any day of the week.
Playing Green presents its own problems, of course. His flaws aren't disappearing overnight - his help-and-recover instincts are poor going both ways, he's going to take poor routes around screens and he might not box out more than ten times all season long, which will be especially problematic if he toggles up a position.
Even playing Green for the express purpose of defending pick-and-rolls is undermined by the fact that he doesn't really know how to. On the play below, he hedges out too early and leaves Nikola Mirotic an open lane to the rim, while coming too tentatively to actually pressure the ball-handler.
Switching on screens is a bit more straightforward than hedge defense, but it's still unsure if Green can cleanly switch without miscommunication or late timing. The nuances of defense have eluded him all his career, which is why a player that looks and feels like a good defender often isn't. The best the Grizzlies can do is try to chip away at those deficiencies in their first training camp together.
Finding Room to Breathe
Green's flaws are largely the reason why the Grizzlies might want to tinker with his role in the first place. They jumped through CBA hoops to get Matt Barnes, who can also play a small-ball 4 but will probably spend most of his time providing the consistent, all-around goodness at the wing that the team didn't get from Green. In a perfect world, Green might've panned out more successfully and this talk of what to do with him would be very different.
But the Grizzlies do have a need for a player that grants them the ability to play smaller and faster. For what he is, playing power forward should put Green in better position (ayy) to do good. Replacing a plodding paint bruiser with a perimeter-oriented player would be a dramatic change in style, and one that should cater to Green's comfort zone.
Our Andrew Ford characterized Green as born to run; he excels in steeplechase. Athleticism has always been Green's calling card, and you see it most when he can gather downhill momentum behind him. The pace in Memphis has always ranked among the league's slowpokes, but they have no shortage of frisky perimeter players that can start a fast break going the other way.
So why not load up on them? Green at the 4 is a literal change of pace play; the Grizzlies can jump-start the tempo and encourage open-court havoc in transition. With as many as four or maybe even five players in a lineup capable of blitzing down the court, the Grizzlies can acquaint themselves with an uptempo game.
Even in a half-court setting, more room to build steam does Green huge favors. Simply put, when he attacks the basket, good and fun things happen. Of course, the problem was that they didn't happen that often.
It doesn't help that Green lacks the side-to-side quickness or ball-handling skill to create for himself (not unlike like Tobias Harris' dilemma in Orlando, for a high-profile analog), but we knew that was the case with him coming in. The Grizzlies' post-oriented style did him no favors there, with better players setting up shop on the low-block and choking off lanes to the rim at long-two range:
Taking a big man out from the low block for another perimeter guy spreads opposing defenses thinner and leaves more potential gaps out there. Let a pick-and-roll attacker (hi, Conley) get the defense worked up, and kick to Green with a lane already pried open:
Defenses won't suddenly start to fear him from the outside, but playing as the fourth perimeter player on the floor relieves the need for Green to be a 40 percent three-point shooter. He shot .362 from outside with the Grizzlies last season (.342 for his career, if you prefer), which compares favorably to Markieff Morris' .318 mark or Draymond's .337. Those players bring other things to the table, but Green should get by, especially if a four-out offense leaves him easier looks from the corners where he shot .423 last season.
To Survive in this League...
Nothing being's promised in this space - Randolph will be exploited by teams that can lure him to the outside, but those same teams might be able to pick Green apart too, on either end of the floor. None of this spells a definite answer to beating the Warriors, if that's what you clicked for. (Sorry.)
But every little thing Green can bring to the table will count in a game where everything circles back to versatility. In the same vein, the Grizzlies can't only be about ground and pound. That's their identity and it should stay that way as long as Randolph and Gasol are key players, but they have to be insured for all matchups. Playing Green at power forward would be different, and there's value in different.
More than anything else, that's the lesson I learned from the Warriors. They weren't trying to advance some small-ball agenda or drive all big men to extinction. Instead, they simply went with the best answer for whatever way with which opponents tried to beat them. And they always won.
Steve Kerr had this random post-game presser in March that I find myself going back to all the time for small-ball thoughts. This snippet on adapting to change seems especially relevant:
"[Small ball] is the way the league is changing. I mean, Brooklyn has entirely changed their style since the beginning of the year when we played them. They're playing one big and four smalls and they're switching everything on the perimeter. So to survive in this league you have to have the versatility with your wings and also your bigs."
Imagine putting Green on the floor with Conley, Barnes, Courtney Lee and Brandan Wright. That's a go-go lineup that can switch everything, open up the floor and run like hell. I can't remember the last time the Grizzlies could even play a lineup like that. How about we try something new?