Between Luka and the Mavs taking Phoenix’s soul, the relentless chatter surrounding the Ja Morant injury, the fantastic Celtics-Bucks series and the fever that descended on James Harden, Doc Rivers and the Sixers after their dud of a season-ending loss, I worry that one of the most depressing storylines of the week in the competition has been lost in the grand scheme of things.
In the first quarter of Philadelphia’s Game 6 with Miami, the ever-wobbly Joel Embiid tumbled to the ground again when he scored a basket, with most of his weight landing on the left leg of Sixers teammate Danny Green, who moved into position to take the shot. grab the board in case Embiid should miss.
In a way, it was quintessential Danny Green for that reason: a man who went out of his way to achieve what he has, hurt by continuing to work his tail off.
He’s the textbook definition of a perimeter player who is never really asked or expected to get in the paint. He has racked up less than one offensive rebound per game throughout his career. But on this game, Green found himself in the restricted area, effectively battling the ever-physical PJ Tucker for position in the trenches. After all, this was Philadelphia’s season at stake. In trying to stay alive, every point – every game – would matter. (Not that this is the takeaway, but Green’s mindset is part of what made Harden’s no-show so crazy.)
Green squirmed in pain and scrambled around for a few seconds, trying to finally get to his feet. But he couldn’t. The pain was too severe and he had to be carried off the floor. The image he would be worn would be brutal, regardless of a player’s age, but for Green – a role player turning 35 in a month or so – the situation felt particularly brutal. Everyone’s fears were confirmed when the Sixers announced that Green tore both his ACL and LCL during the game — the kind of injuries that require a long, grueling rehab. Green’s $10 million contract with Philly next season is not guaranteed, making the team highly unlikely to bring him back.
I have a huge weakness for distinctive role players. It’s rare – virtually unheard of – for NBA teams to win championships without superstars. But the same goes for NBA championship teams when it comes to role players like Green. They must have them.
Maybe that’s why Green has three championship rings, all with different teams. The Spurs in 2014. (San Antonio could have easily won in 2013, in part because of how incredible Green played in those finals against Miami.) The Raptors in 2019. The Lakers in 2020.
He’s been known as the NBA’s prototypical 3-and-D player for most of the past decade, meaning he has enough skill as a shooter to keep the defense fair by keeping the floor apart, while also stands his ground and shows resistance in one-on-one matchups against the league’s elite wing scorers. And there is no doubt that he excelled in that defined role. But if you know Green, or his backstory, there’s so much more to him than that.
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The product from North Carolina was far from certain in the NBA. He was drafted by the Cavaliers in the middle of the second round in 2009, during the final season of LeBron James’ first stint with Cleveland.
Green played for the Cavs, but also spent time in the G League. (Actually, this has been long enough since it was called the D League.) The Cavs cut him before the start of the next season, prompting the Spurs to pick him up… before they cut him too. San Antonio signed him back a few months later and then notified him at its D League branch in Austin before calling him again. The gritty nature of the minor league system was so remote from the NBA that Green wondered if he would realistically have a way back to the main stage. “I remember when we had tryouts where we would pick up random guys from the street, and they would try it out, like they were in the neighborhood five minutes ago. And now he’s on our team, and his job was to insult me in practice,” Green said. “And I think, ‘If that’s really how they work, can someone try and just join the team?'”
But Green did come back, of course. He told me about the numerous times he was reprimanded by coach Gregg Popovich for occasional confusion within the Spurs’ vaunted defense. But frankly, Popovich relied a lot on Green, given the guard’s humble beginnings in the NBA.
It’s often not thought of that way, but Green’s presence in San Antonio’s system allowed the Spurs to take a more patient approach with someone like Kawhi Leonard, who had the chance to get to grips with time over time. to grow instead of standing in a corner. (like Green), or instead of having to own the most difficult defensive assignment, game in, game out, as Green could share that responsibility.
Aside from that, Green possessed elite skill in one rare trait: He was at one point fantastic at serving as a one-man fortress in transition, so much so that ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote an entire breakdown of his ability to defend such plays. And offensively, in that 2013 final against Miami, Green hit 25 triples in the first five games alone, shattering the record in a championship run well before it even ended. (Frankly, much of the Heat’s comeback in that series came from Miami aggressively closing on Green, forcing him to put the ball on the ground. The squad cooled him down and he just shot 2-out -19 total in Games 6 and 7.)
By being a role player, there are opportunities for positive recognition. Robert Horry will always be seen as Big Shot Bob for his ability to get through those moments. But more often there are opportunities to become the goat. Green spoke of receiving death threats in October 2020 after missing a shot that would likely have given the Lakers the title in Game 5 of the Finals. Still, in Game 6, Green took a team-high with three triples in the title fight, which Los Angeles won by 13. It wasn’t necessarily glorious as a game-winning shot would have been. But it made sense, and that’s a role-player’s job.
It shouldn’t just be the stars and superstars that are appreciated as they fade. High-level cultural players like Green are so important. And in some ways they are as rare as the stars they play with. So I sincerely hope we get the chance to see Green contribute again in a meaningful way before his playing career comes to an end.
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