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Surprise, surprise: Draymond Green makes a world of difference

Green’s value and impact was immediately apparent.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It was tough sledding for the Golden State Warriors without Draymond Green — but if you’ve been following this team for years now, you should’ve expected that.

Green missed 30 games due to a back injury. In those 30 games, the Warriors went 17-13 — still a winning record. But their offense (113.8 ORTG) drifted just outside the top 10 over that period. Their defense initially kept things afloat even without their best defender, but eventually suffered a precipitous decline.

Their efficiency on that end without Green (110.8 DRTG) turned them into a league-average defense, rather than the historic numbers they were putting up during the first half of the season.

Green not being there to marshal the defense has obviously been the main culprit behind the Warriors’ decline on that end. It’s why he was the favorite for winning his second Defensive Player of the Year award. The amount of games he has missed has certainly brought that into question, and odds are that 14 games aren’t enough to cover lost ground for his candidacy.

But what’s been more glaring has been the Warriors’ difficulty in establishing any sort of rhythm and flow in terms of half-court offense. In those 30 games without Green, the Warriors half-court offense (98.3 ORTG) was only 12th in the league.

Green has always been the main facilitator in the half-court. The multifaceted nature of his skill set in the half-court — his passing, screen-setting, and ability to be a deadly release valve on short-roll situations — has served as the key that unlocks the Warriors’ free-flowing perpetual-motion offense.

Stephen Curry — the ultimate movement shooter and off-ball-chaos generator — thrives off of Green’s skill set. But Curry has been forced to become more of a traditional on-ball playmaker without Green, and that has taken away a bit from his off-ball capabilities.

He has also had to work more for his shots; without Green there to find him on relocations, or to set screens to free him up or to act as a release valve on the short roll whenever he draws two defenders, Curry has had to deal with more defenses that sell out on him.

Green’s return against the Washington Wizards was timely — especially for Curry, who, on his 34th birthday, dropped 47 points on 25 shots (9-of-11 on twos, 7-of-14 on threes), and had a 82.4% True Shooting mark. It’s no coincidence that Curry had one of his most efficient scoring outings the moment he shared the floor with Green.

The very first offensive possession with Green and Curry on the floor involved a no-frills low-post split action — very much apropos:

Curry obviously benefits from having Green be the facilitator, especially as a low-post hub or as the ball handler at the top of the arc on “Delay” sets. But other beneficiaries that are often overlooked — but arguably as important — are whoever slots in as the 5 alongside Green: Kevon Looney or Nemanja Bjelica.

Both Looney and Bjelica have had to shoulder a significant amount of the on-ball-playmaking responsibilities without Green. Bjelica can function as a playmaking hub, but Looney is best served as a screener, both on and off the ball. Having Green be there to facilitate allows Looney to do what he does best: set hard screens for Curry and Klay Thompson, like he did for Curry above in split action.

Bjelica minutes without Green have been hard to swallow — but with Green on the floor to hide some of his warts on defense, it allows Bjelica to be more of a secondary playmaker and screener.

Case in point: the possession below, where Green finds Thompson around a wide down-screen set by Bjelica.

The debate concerning Curry’s usage off-ball vs. his usage on the ball has raged throughout Steve Kerr’s tenure as head coach. Some have been calling for a drastic decrease in him being placed off the ball, while there is a certain sector of off-ball apologists who argue that Curry is at his best when he’s causing all sorts of trouble running around and drawing attention.

The middle ground between the two approaches — a healthy balance of both philosophies — is looking more like the astute approach. Curry has proved time and again that he does plenty of damage when he’s off the ball, but that can only happen if Green is there to find him around down-screens and handoffs.

But having Curry see a significant amount of time with the ball in his hands is also paramount. No one doubts his ability to go one-on-one and isolate against all kinds of matchups — a testament to that being Curry’s 1.207 points per possession on isolations this season, 2nd among 88 players who have had at least 50 isolation possessions this season, per Synergy.

But those isolations are better served when they come against favorable matchups. Curry can take anyone off the dribble and cook, but it’s ideal that he does so against defenders who can’t keep up with him laterally, as well as those who can’t recover on time to close the distance when Curry gains separation.

Green helps in that department by knowing when and how to set ball screens for Curry. Defenses are then left with a conundrum: either you switch, which leaves Curry with a favorable matchup; or you blitz around the screen, which sets Green loose on the short roll on 4-on-3 situations, where he can carve up a disadvantaged backline defense.

Curiously, the Wizards opted to go with more conservative coverages — switching or drop — on Curry ball screens set by Green, which allowed Curry to cook in isolation or pull up against a big-man defender that isn’t crowding his space.

Green’s immediate on/off impact was felt, and it showed in the numbers. The Warriors outscored the Wizards by nearly 49 points per 100 possessions during Green’s 20 minutes, with an offense (151.1 ORTG) that blitzed the 7th-worse defense in the league, and a defense (102.3 DRTG) that kept the 20th-ranked offense from scoring.

Of course, the real tests are still looming. The Wizards are far from world beaters; the Boston Celtics, on the other hand, have been the best defense in the league in 2022 (103.5 DRTG), and are outscoring opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions — the best net rating in 2022. It’s a matchup worth watching to see how the Warriors will fare against the hottest team in the league.

But with Curry, Thompson, and Green now sharing the floor together — alongside the emergence of key complementary players such as Jordan Poole — the Warriors have regained a battle-tested arsenal that can surpass even the best of opponents.