Picture this. An NBA player enters the league having had a decent-but-not-exceptional run in the NCAA and having fallen in the draft more than expected. His first few years are a bit disappointing, for reasons that don't necessarily have to do with him, but he figures out his place in the league and blossoms in the last few years of his deal. In that time, a lot of things happen -- his fingers brush against a Finals MVP trophy, he becomes one of the league's best defensive stoppers at the wing, and his temporarily-broken three point shot becomes a legitimate weapon in his arsenal. All the while, the player in question is stuck on a massively below-market deal that would've made him the cheapest Finals MVP of all time. As he mulls over max-to-near-max contract offers after a long season as his team's rock, the question of whether he'd remain a San Antonio Spur is suddenly far more in flux than anyone expected.
Most of that is known, at least for most NBA fans. The interesting thing about the paragraph isn't the obvious person it describes (Kawhi Leonard, of course!), but that it ALSO provides a decent summary of San Antonio's second most important player during the 2015 season to date: Danny Green. The first thing anyone does when they think of Danny Green as a max contract player is balk. But the 2015 season has been a wild one for San Antonio and the league as a whole, and Danny Green may serve to be the beneficiary of the San Antonio's trouble spot and a changing league. To understand why, let's begin at the playoff run that will undoubtedly form the crux of Danny's free agency pitch: his unlikely run at the 2013 Finals MVP trophy.
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Although Danny played better in the 2013 Finals than he'd ever played before, it's often overlooked that he played pretty excellent basketball in in the first few rounds as well. As you might remember, Danny Green averaged a pedestrian (but team-best!) 18-4-1 line in San Antonio's first five games of the 2013 Finals, which put him in the catbird seat with San Antonio up 3-2. Green's real accomplishment wasn't his per-game averages but his borderline impossible efficiency, as he averaged (no joke) 57% from the field, 66% from three, and 83% from the line over those first five games. While slightly neutered, that efficiency was still present in the earlier rounds -- after an uncharacteristic 33% from three point range against the Lakers, Green averaged 44% from three against the Warriors on 6 heaves a game and 47% on 4 heaves a game against a tough Memphis defense. Over the pre-finals playoff run, Green averaged 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal/block as well -- all solid tertiary statistics for a player whose primary value is in lethal floor-warping three point prowess.
Hold up, there's a mistake in that idea -- offense isn't actually Green's primary value. The offensive per-game stats ignore Green's real value during that run (and every run after it) -- Green was one of the bulwarks of San Antonio's improved defensive attack. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined to form one of the best defensive "smalls" duo in the 2013 playoffs (second only to the Conley/Allen pairing on the Memphis Grizzlies), and their ability to shut down guard plays outside the painted area lessened the burden on Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the interior. One could make the argument that Green and Leonard's defense was what saved Duncan's legs enough for him to crank out the vintage games that nearly stole San Antonio the title. If you look at what the Spurs did in the playoffs before Kawhi and Green had broken into the rotation, you see the difference -- even with a younger Duncan in 2011, Splitter couldn't even handle the amount of pressure that even the semi-broken Memphis offense placed on him, and Duncan didn't have the energy to pick up the slack. San Antonio has improved defensively in each season since their best-in-the-west 2011 record, despite getting fewer and fewer minutes from their talented big men. Although such an improvement is never entirely one change, the impact of Green/Leonard looms large. Richard Jefferson, Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili -- these were the players San Antonio gave big minutes as perimeter defenders before Green and Leonard took the bulk of the wing minutes, and these were the players who have slowly gotten phased out of the rotation (either through age or attrition) as San Antonio's defense came back to form.
Before the Spurs had Green and Leonard, any guard that wanted to get to the rim could pretty easily fake out the first line of defense and make it to the paint. That didn't necessarily ruin San Antonio's chances at a good record -- Duncan and Splitter made it through the 2011 season doing fine, statistically, and the team still had an amazing record due to their collective offensive brilliance and their good-enough defense. But when your star big is old and creaky, having to constantly defend several actions on the same play grows tiring, and Duncan had absolutely no legs left by the end of the season. Every blown coverage that resulted in an easy layup attempt in November made Duncan a step slower in April, and the impact accumulated badly -- even before their inglorious playoff ouster, the 2011 Spurs had a few months of mediocre-to-bad play as Duncan tried to get his legs back under him. Although the team was better due to small improvements, the same was true in 2012's final series -- although those Spurs blitzed through the first few teams of the playoffs offensively, as soon as Oklahoma City players figured out how to break through San Antonio's big minutes wings (Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, and the rookie Kawhi Leonard) with pinpoint passing, Duncan's inability to cover that many broken defensive schemes and lazy layups over a whole season became apparent, and their defense blew apart like a house of cards in a windstorm.
Starting in 2013, with Green and Leonard emergent as San Antonio's big sponges at the wing, San Antonio finally had two lockdown perimeter defenders who could force guards to stay outside of the paint on offense without complicated pick and rolls. That allowed Duncan/Splitter to focus on bigs and simple actions, and it proved the difference in 2013 and 2014. By cutting down on the unexpected paint intrusions, Green and Leonard let Duncan and Splitter play their best defense possible when it actually mattered. Even with Danny Green's lesser "counting" statistics in the 2014 playoffs (9-3-1-1-1 on 49-48-82), Green was the biggest difference in San Antonio's WCF rematch against the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he shot 54% from three and averaged two steals a night while buggering Westbrook and Jackson into uncharacteristic mistakes and apprehension towards their usual driving and slicing. Most of San Antonio's players were about as good as they were in 2012, if not worse -- each member of San Antonio's big three had worse statistics in the 2014 rematch than they did in the original, and Kawhi Leonard's improvements were constrained to defense-only -- Ibaka excepted, Green and Splitter were the main differentiators that turned that series around on the San Antonio side.
In sum: while Green's offensive efficiency almost got him a Finals MVP trophy, it wouldn't have been why he deserved it. His blossoming defense (in concert with Kawhi Leonard's blossoming "everything") was what flipped the script on San Antonio's disappointing playoff runs from 2008 to 2012, and what conspired to change San Antonio from an offense-led paper tiger to a whirling dervish of basketball borg collectives.
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This brings us to the current season, where Danny Green is putting up averages of 13-4-2-1-1. Pedestrian, right? The entire premise I'm working with here is that Green might actually deserve a max contract, and those averages would tend to imply that the answer is an emphatic "NOPE." He deserves a raise, obviously, but a max? It's tough to argue that, until you go a bit deeper and start picking apart how he's reached those numbers and how the league is heading. For one thing, Danny Green is just now putting the kibosh on the best month of his entire career -- after starting the season off slowly, Green has been on a rampage over the last month. He's shooting 49-50-95 over his past 17 games for a true shooting percentage of 79.6%. His usage has remained constant (hovering around 17% on the full season and 16.6% over the stretch, the biggest knock on his max player candidacy from an offensive perspective) but his defensive responsibilities have been substantially greater than usual due to Kawhi Leonard's injury absence. San Antonio's defense remains in the top five despite Leonard's constant absence, Tiago Splitter playing just 8.5% of San Antonio's minutes, and a large infusion of lazy Boris Diaw minutes. (NOTE: I love Boris Diaw. That said, he's been playing lazy defense this season and someone should probably call him on it -- it's a borderline miracle that San Antonio remains in the upper echelons of league defense despite Diaw's lost assignments and further loss of speed.) That's Duncan and Green's influence, as they compose San Antonio's most important duo in a snakebit season.
As you sift through the deeper abstracts of Green's statistics, you find a mixed bag. Although he's been borderline terrible at pull-up jumpers this year (he's averaging 28% on pull-up jump shots -- yes, Virginia, a player with a TS% of 80% is somehow shooting 28% on pull-up jumpers. He's that bad at them.), he's finally started to convert at the rim, which is slowly ticking his free throw rate in a positive direction. This is good, because Green has been San Antonio's best foul shooter this year, whether through luck or serious improvement from his career average of 83%. He's shot 97% from the line on the whole season, which puts him at fourth place behind Jerryd Bayless, Ryan Kelly, and Chris Douglas-Roberts as the best free throw shooters in the league (who take more than 1 foul shot a night, obviously). Players shoot 15% worse when Danny Green is guarding them within 6 feet of the basket, making Green better at close-shot guarding than many of the NBA's centers (which, of course, makes sense -- he's currently 2nd in the league in shot blocks for a guard or a wing, right behind Philadelphia's K.J. McDaniels and right ahead of Golden State's Draymond Green, another Green poised for a massive raise when is contract expires). He's a top-percentile rebounder from the guard position despite generally skying for long rebounds and ceding offensive boards, and while his passing is hardly of the "run-the-team" variety, Green functions as an excellent cog in San Antonio's passing machine.
The knock on Danny Green has never been his shooting or his defense -- its his dribbling, and his inability to create shots for himself. And indeed, that's a problem. His incredibly poor percentage on pull-up jumpers even in this incredible stretch underlines that problem, and it's uncertain whether any NBA franchise will shell out max money for a player who can't really create for himself. The thing is? The league is always changing, and you never know exactly when a player's flaws move from an unacceptable flaw to something the league can live with. This season is putting Green in a position where max money may come regardless of his ability to create for himself. Consider this -- the 2015 Atlanta Hawks and the 2015 Golden State Warriors both feature a defensive star at the large guard position who drains threes and has trouble creating offense. Kyle Korver has been making teams better on a mild contract for years now, and Klay Thompson's value is such that almost everyone's coming around to the idea that Golden State made a defensible (if not apt) decision to pass on the proposed Klay Thompson/Kevin Love swap. Neither of them are very good at creating for themselves, but Golden State's offense is built around the Curry/Klay threat (and the Klay/Bogut defense) while Atlanta uses Korver's gravity to free up Teague and Horford for easy buckets.
The game done changed, and contract equations are in flux. It used to be that any player who couldn't dribble wasn't worth a thing in the NBA, as offenses depended on every single player being able to put the ball on the floor (at least to a limited extent). But Atlanta and Golden State are showing that such an equation simply isn't true anymore, and San Antonio's title last season supports it even moreso. Leonard, Green, and Bellinelli barely have a dribble or two between them as creators or shot-designers -- they don't work well as point guards, and they have trouble breaking defense if they're caught in a corner. But the Spurs marched to a title on their backs regardless, working through an offense where dribbling wasn't anything they really had to do. The same has been true for Golden State and Atlanta -- they've minimized Korver and Thompson's need to put the ball on the floor in favor of quick passes if they realize they don't have the shot. Given the modern conception of offense, it's worked fine. Thompson has greatly improved this season in a lot of ways, not least of which his dribbling -- he's been far more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and creating offense, which has improved the team. But Golden State's sets are still designed to take advantage of his catch-and-shoot mastery -- half his shots come without a single dribble. That's fewer than Korver (75%) and Green (62%), but it's in the same general range.
As you're probably aware, Klay Thompson just got a max contract anyway. Green isn't as young as Thompson, but Kyle Korver and Tony Allen have gone great lengths to prove that catch-and-shoot stoppers don't fall off much until their mid 30s. Green is 28, meaning that his next long contract should take him right to Kyle Korver's current age (33). Is it that hard to believe that an NBA team in a cash-flush post-TV deal world will be willing to take a max-contract bet on owning the next Kyle Korver for four years? Green is the rare defensive stopper with offense-bending gravity and the playoff chops to prove it. He may not get a max contract, but it's hard to imagine Green getting much less than Klay Thompson's current "rookie max" deal. Luckily for San Antonio, Green's only been in the league for 6 years -- he'll only be eligible for the 0-6 year max, which represents 25% of the salary cap. Compounding this luck, barring some sort of revenue easing, the cap isn't going to go nuts due to the new TV deal until the 2016 offseason, which means that 25% of the salary cap will likely remain a 15-16 million a year type deal rather than the 20+ that it'll likely represent under the post-TV deal cap environment.
That works in two ways for San Antonio (or whatever team ends up signing Green). First, it means that the salary is simply lower than it would be if this was two years from now, which is always nice from an organizational standpoint. Second, it means the cap will explode shortly after the team signs the contract, which means the contract will take up a proportionally smaller amount of a team's cap space than it would've in a normal environment. Signing a max contract usually means that you're carving out 20-25% of your cap over the duration of the deal for that individual player. In the current environment, that 25% figure only lasts for a single season -- for the other three years of a max deal, the player will likely only take up 15-20% of the cap, a considerably smaller sum that gives teams much more flexibility. The difference is even greater if you consider the possibility that San Antonio is forced to max both Danny Green AND Kawhi Leonard -- if they do that, they're looking at $15 million dollar salaries for the both of them. In a normal environment, that's $30 million out of a cap of $66, or 45%. If the cap blows up to $80 million or more, as expected, that's suddenly only 30% of the cap, leaving 70% of San Antonio's cap free to build a team around their ace perimeter duo. Long story short? Even if the Spurs are forced to max Green (or pay a near-max salary, or something above $12 million), it's entirely possible they'll look at the equation and realize it makes sense in the long run.
So, to circle back: does Danny Green deserve a max contract? It's unclear. On the plus side, his defense is ridiculously good for a guard, and he's one of the best end-to-end fastbreak quashers in the league. He sticks to his man like glue above the three point line and cuts off actions before they get to the last line of defense. He compounds that defensive value with one of the quickest catch-and-shoot jumpers in the league, and (if this season is to be believed) he may have improved his free throw form to become one of the best free throw shooters out there. He rebounds like a big and he's surprisingly durable. On the other hand, he can't dribble worth a donkey's necktie and he doesn't use very many possessions on offense -- he has incredible gravity, but that gravity isn't always a guarantee that he's going to get you a better shot. He's a cold/hot player, and his cold games can be difficult for the offense to survive.
When I asked the question on Twitter last night, most Spurs fans balked at the idea, and many were confused as to why it was even a question after a game where he'd scored 11 points. But the NBA works in mysterious ways -- whether he deserves it or not, Green has played his way into a massive payday of some sort, and the league's environment is warping in such a way that his flaws just might not matter when the contract negotiations come around. For non-star players on the fringes, a big payday requires an intersection of bankable talent, an environment that values you, and the luck to let those overlap.
We may not know exactly what he's about to make, but one thing is clear -- Danny Green is one lucky man.