Golden State's Draymond Green problem

ByEthan Sherwood Strauss ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Editor's note: This story on Draymond Green was originally published on Oct. 19, 2016 and contains explicit language. Watch Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

ALL IN ALL, it was not the best few months for Draymond Green. On June 10, during Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Cavaliers, some 20 million viewers caught him in the act of trying to slap LeBron James in the groin. Three days later, after being suspended for that act, he watched his Warriors lose by 15 before dropping Games 6 and 7 in the greatest collapse in Finals history. In early July, he was arrested in East Lansing, Michigan, on an assault charge resulting from a scuffle in a college bar. Later that month, Green accidentally sent out a photo of his penis to the world.

By universal decree, the 2016-17 Warriors are a juggernaut. And if this juggernaut has a foundation, Green is it. Steph Curry is the reigning MVP; new acquisition Kevin Durant is one of the NBA's greatest scorers. But multiple Warriors staffers share the opinion that Green is their most important player. Nobody replicates his set of contributions. As one team official puts it: "The guys might be frustrated by his antics, but they had an opportunity to prove themselves without him in Game 5 and they played like a bunch of [cowards]."

Herein lies the paradox of the perfectly constructed squad: It's built on ground that roils with lava -- and on the back of a man who has become increasingly unpredictable, emboldened and unaccountable.

Draymond Green had a very bad summer. But that weekslong meltdown was a year in the making. And to understand the tensions that could undermine this season's presumptive champion, you must first understand the untold story of what undid the Warriors a season ago.

IT'S JUNE 19, 2015, three days after the Warriors have claimed their first title in 40 years, and Oakland's victory parade has become quite the joyful Draymond Green showcase. More than a million fans lining the parade route have been treated to Green on the mic, slurring in E-40-style syntax: "Cavaliers. Nope. We won? Yup. They suck? Yup." And as that parade reaches the rally beside Oakland's Lake Merritt park, they are also treated to a glimpse of the often tense relationship between Green and his coach, Steve Kerr.

When it's his turn to address the crowd, Green, victory cap slightly askew, shambles across the podium, snatches the mic and declares that he's excited to be speaking. Golden State PR maestro Raymond Ridder, Green explains, "tried not to let me talk today. He know I'm gonna get controversial."

And then he proceeds to validate most all of Ridder's fears: "With these guys, everything's fun. The only time it's not fun is practice ... film ... games ... bus rides. I'm the only person that gets talked about what shots I take and all those things by Steve Kerr. Like, every time I take a shot, he complains. So that's why, if you see, every time I make a shot, I look at him. Dude complain every time I take a shot."

From his seat on the stage behind Green, Kerr shrugs and loudly counters: "Twenty-four percent!" Which just happens to be Green's 3-point shooting percentage during the final three rounds of the playoffs.

Green chuckles, bounds over, grabs Kerr from his chair and drags him to the podium. There are hypothetically a few drops of tension to be wrung from this moment. "This my guy," Draymond starts, prompting Kerr to pat his chest. "From the start of training camp, he hated me. That's no lie. He probably still hates me. That's no lie. But we going to keep winning these championships -- and that's no lie."

Kerr, who's been gamely laughing at the display, steals the mic. "You know how they start to play music at the Oscars when it starts to go on a little long and security comes and grabs the guy? That may happen here in a few minutes. Thanks, though, Draymond," he finally offers, before fleeing for the safety of his seat.

EVERYTHING IS GOOD in a victory parade. But before Green's arrival in 2012, the Warriors were a byword for bad. They had made the playoffs only once in the prior 18 seasons. In 2011-12, the lockout-shortened season, they'd won a dismal 23 games, losing 17 of their final 20 to land the seventh pick in the draft. With it, they were hoping to find a savior. Instead, they took Harrison Barnes. The real savior arrived at pick 35.

Green, who declined to comment for this story, was underestimated coming into college at Michigan State and then into the NBA -- famously so. The reasons are myriad, but perhaps the main one is this: His approach represents a hybrid, if not a revolution. It's an aggressive, American brashness mixed with an egalitarian, European insistence on moving the ball. Intuition tells us the greats score in bunches, creating their own shot at will. Green does everything save for creating his own shot. It's no coincidence he holds the record for plus-minus in a season. To hear Green yell, mid-drive to the basket, "Hey! Steph!" while directing his superstar toward an open space in the corner is to watch a player who not only sees the open man but who speaks his teammates into openness. "He sees the game," says Warriors assistant and defensive guru Ron Adams.

There is another ineffable quality to the man: He just wants it more. It's an energy that overwhelms, fueled by what Kerr calls "that competitive fire, that rage." Or, as former teammate Leandro Barbosa once defined Green's optimal basketball mode: "the guy that always gets mad, the guy everybody hates." Indeed, his playing style is a constant assault. Every movement is efficient and vicious. He will come to your arena and play the villain, curse out your team, preen after every 3-pointer, light into the refs and possibly kick a foe where the sun doesn't shine.

Kerr once quipped of his team's appeal, "We have a very likable group of guys -- other than Draymond." The comment was said with a smile, meant with mirth. A lot of truth is said in jest, as the saying goes.

IT'S NOV. 27 in Phoenix, the 17th game of the Warriors' 2015-16 season, and there's nothing not to like about their performance so far. Over the summer, Kerr had predicted that the coming season would be their leap, that magical moment when last year's principles became reflexive. It happened, just not on Kerr's watch. The Warriors are undefeated, and their pattern is getting repetitive: Blow out the opponent, keep starters fresh with rest, keep bench guys happy with plenty of garbage-time run.

Up 25 with 4:14 left, this night is no different -- until Green fouls a driving Archie Goodwin. The action halts. Green helps Goodwin up from his fall as longtime NBA vet Jason Thompson saunters off the bench to check in for Green. The game, of course, is well beyond over, but Green pleads to stay in, shaking his head, holding his hand out in a "wait" signal before trudging to the end of the bench in a huff. Within a few seconds, an animated discussion ensues between him and interim coach Luke Walton. Green appears none too pleased. The reason: He is one rebound away from a triple-double.

After 25 seconds of game clock have elapsed, Green is back in front of the scorer's table, arms akimbo, ready to check in. He subs in at the timeout, and 52 seconds later, little-used guard Ian Clark misses a layup, which Green rebounds and lays in. On the very next possession, Green intentionally fouls Suns guard Devin Booker and lopes back to the bench, his mission complete.

A Warriors staffer would later say of the incident, "Luke would have left him in had he known." More to the point, as the interim coach, Walton already has enough on his plate without having to worry about aggravating his power forward. Indulging Green may have seemed the only realistic choice.

"Luke's my guy," Green would frequently say of his interim coach, even before Walton took the reins. The two were often seen laughing together during pushup challenges after practice. Both had charisma, but in different ways. Green was the loud life of the party; Walton operated at a languid pace that belied his quick wit.

When Walton took over for the first three months of the season, with Kerr sidelined due to complications from back surgery, he had assumed a light grip on the steering wheel. He was, for example, still rebounding for Green, just as he'd done as an assistant. Though the team had something of a power vacuum in Kerr's absence, Walton thought it best if he maintained his old duties, carrying on as though nothing were amiss.

The early results were historically good. The Warriors were dominating the league, dominating SportsCenter, Curry's incandescent start prompting teams to double-team him, allowing Green to make more plays than ever. Sixteen games into the season, Green had gone from averaging 3.7 assists a game the season before to 6.6, and a man who had tallied just two triple-doubles in his first three seasons was now a nightly triple-double threat. And nobody, apparently, was more aware of it than Green, who would end the regular season with 13 triple-doubles, the NBA's single-season record for power forwards. Suddenly far more than a "glue guy," Green was a star, flourishing without restrictions. But such conditions and such outcomes? They make it hard to tell a man anything.

IT'S JAN. 17, the day after the Warriors' first blowout loss of the season, a 113-95 drubbing by the Pistons. The team is holding practice in a snow-covered Michigan high school, at a remove from the camera flashes and screaming fans that await at nearly every practice in an arena. Walton begins his walk from the court to the assembled reporters in the corner of the gym. On practice days, it's traditional for the coach to kick off media interviews. But when Walton is within a few feet of the cameras, Green interjects, with a grin: "Luke! So we lose a game and you stop f---ing rebounding for me?!?"

The statement is said with no evident malice, but it halts Walton in his tracks. He shoots the media gaggle a glance, then turns, runs right over and starts shagging balls for his player.

IN RETROSPECT, IT'S hard to argue with any approach that leads to a record-setting regular season. Walton's strategy of Green indulgence coincided with the most successful run a rookie coach had ever seen, a 39 -- 4 start that did much to net Walton a head-coaching gig with the Lakers.

For Golden State's coaching staff, there was also realpolitik to handling Kerr's absence. Concessions had to be made, given Green's force of personality. On Dec. 11, in Boston, the Warriors had endured a high-intensity double overtime for the final victory of their historic 24-game winning streak to open the season. It was the first of a back-to-back, at the end of a brutal seven-game, two-week road trip out East. They were banged up, weary from the winning streak's onslaught of attention and pressure.

After the Boston win, Golden State's coaches had met to assess the situation. Together, they had decided to rest starters the next night in Milwaukee. But that plan was dashed after they walked in on the end of an impassioned speech by Green to teammates about the once-in-a-lifetime chance they had to chase the all-time record for wins. This team is on the edge of history! Green was yelling. These moments only come along so often! This was not uncommon. Throughout the season, Green, in the guise of motivation, would berate his co-workers during games and practices; on multiple occasions he had to be separated from teammates.

"Draymond f---ed up practice and s---," then-Warriors center Marreese Speights says. "Draymond's a good guy, but I think at the end of the day, it hurt the whole chemistry of the year." One player in particular, he says, took much of the heat: "Draymond and Klay got into it a lot." (Thompson declined to comment for this story.)

A code of conduct exists within the NBA. Some yelling is expected, but vets do not accept frequent Bobby Knight -- style haranguings from younger players. Or, as Speights puts it, "Guys don't respect you if you yell at them in front of all these fans. We're not trying to lose the game. F -- ."

And so it was that an hour before a win over the Lakers on Nov. 24, almost two months prior to his return to the sideline, Kerr visited with the team to deliver a speech on his four core values: joy, mindfulness, competition and compassion. According to team sources, the emphasis on compassion was meant as a message to Green.

IT'S JAN. 30 in Philadelphia, and Kerr is patrolling the sideline. One week earlier, Kerr had finally returned -- far from cured, still fighting chronic pain. Partly hastening his return, according to team sources: The Warriors had grown unruly after three months under Walton. Someone needed to take back control.

Green, with 10 points, 10 boards and 6 assists at the end of the second quarter, has another triple-double in his sights. But at halftime, with the Warriors up 19, Kerr informs Green that if he's angling for a triple-double tonight, against the consensus worst team in the NBA, it will have to come by the third quarter. No more of this playing-in-garbage-time-for-stats nonsense. That edict will lead to an unintended consequence.

On the first play of the second half, Green gets the ball with an open lane to the rim but stops short in favor of setting a ball screen and trying to lead a cutting Klay Thompson with a pass. Turnover. Green begins spraying passes all over the court on his way to seven turnovers. A 19-point fourth-quarter lead dissolves to nothing. On the game's second-to-last play, with the score tied, the Warriors avert disaster only when Green finds Barnes in the corner for a 3 with 0.2 of a second remaining. It's Green's ninth assist.

Green will confess after the game to his role in what went wrong: "We started turning the ball over due to my selfish unselfishness, and it was all downhill from there." When asked later about Green's comments, Kerr will commend his honesty. But though the Warriors continue to win -- 20 victories in their first 22 games following Kerr's return -- something has changed. Green goes into a shooting slump, or perhaps a shooting shrink. Under Walton, he had attempted 3.6 3s per game, making 41.4 percent of them. After Kerr's return, he's averaged 0.6 3-point attempts and made 28.6 percent.

Kerr is back. Green is diminished. And the correlation cannot be ignored.

IT'S FEB. 27 in Oklahoma City, during halftime of a nationally televised game, and Green is losing his holy mind. Inside the visitors locker room, he's hollering "I am not a robot!" at Kerr. When Kerr tells him to sit down, Green screams, "Motherf---er, come sit me down!" When he goes after Kerr, his teammates, including Curry and Thompson, step in to stave off disaster.

Minutes later, in her report following halftime, ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters will recite a portion of Green's explosion: "I am not a robot! I know I can play! You have me messed up right now! If you don't want me to shoot, I won't shoot the rest of the game!"

"I'm standing outside the locker room with the Oklahoma City police, which are always stationed outside of every locker room," Salters will later recall. "They kind of moved me aside, and the officer just kind of stood by the door, with his hand on his weapon like he was trying to determine what he should do. It was clear that something bad was about to happen in this locker room. We've never heard anything like this before."

Salters, with all of 50 seconds available for her report, had, in truth, conveyed only a fraction of the situation -- one so unnerving that at least one arena security official moved outside the locker room door in a SWAT-team pose. Throughout the night, Salters would be assailed by fans on Twitter, arguing that she should not have reported what had happened in the locker room. But this was not a private moment unscrupulously divulged to the public; it was a private moment so forceful it breached the walls of its sanctum. "This was something extraordinary that was happening," Salters says.

Publicly, the Warriors downplay the incident. At the next practice, Kerr says, "It's the NBA. Every team I've ever been on has had stuff like this. Every team. Championship teams or not, it happens. It's 15 alpha males in a room trying to compete, money on the line and prestige and trophies and competition. This is being so overblown."

Privately, according to sources close to the team, Green's teammates respond by voting to fine him. (When asked a week later about the fine, a livid Green would insist, "I asked to be fined. You can report that!") Green also does not take kindly to the coverage of his outburst, which leads to the Warriors brokering a sit-down between him and Salters. Salters recalls telling him, "What kind of bothered me about it was hearing the pain that was in your voice -- you weren't just mad, you were in pain, emotional pain."

Kerr maintains that what happened, while unusual, was not unique. "If it didn't happen, it would be kind of weird," he says. "It would be like nobody is revealing anything to each other. You have to let stuff out as a team. Rage means that's happening."

Then Kerr pauses and, as if acknowledging something that can't be swept aside, offers: "You have to find the edge, you find the balance. About two years ago, [Draymond] was good. This last year, a couple of times he went over the brink. That's the challenge."

INSOFAR AS THERE can be unanimity regarding the unknown, the Warriors believe this: The 2016 title would have been theirs if not for Green's Game 5 suspension, the penalty he earned in the waning moments of Game 4 by swiping at LeBron's genitals after James guided his undercarriage over the back of Green's skull. Few things capture the beautiful absurdity of sports quite like this moment deciding a championship, a moment Speights frames as, "If somebody put they balls on your head, what are you supposed to do?"

In response, the Warriors had united around Green, with the two most powerful team executives rising in defense of their guy. Owner Joe Lacob, who due to his brashness is often internally referred to as the Draymond of his operation, sported a Green jersey at Game 5. Meanwhile, Warriors GM Bob Myers watched the proceedings alongside Green in a suite at the Coliseum. After that Game 5 loss, and the collapse in Games 6 and 7, when Green had apologized to his teammates in his final news conference, Kerr had insisted that Green had nothing to apologize for: "Without you, we're not even here."

But herein lies the problem the Warriors have to solve. By so often defending Green publicly, the franchise might also be sending him the message that he doesn't need to confront the central tension of his career: that what makes him great on the court -- the passion and drive, the recklessness and ego -- threatens to undermine him off it.

Consider how he responded at Team USA minicamp when he was asked about the East Lansing incident, in which Green reportedly slapped a man who'd been heckling him in a bar, and in which Green wasn't allowed to leave jail, according to the police report, "until completely sober." Did he need to adjust his behavior? With a grin, Green replied, "Being me has gotten me this far." Two weeks later, he shared his genitals with the world.

There is, in truth, a note of resignation in how team officials discuss Green these days. More than one expressed that what transpired in East Lansing is indivisible from what makes Green such a maddeningly effective on-court opponent. More than one expressed that this would be a permanent issue.

Myers, for his part, says he's the wrong person to ask. "I have some blind spots for Draymond," he says. "I know that's probably not the right answer. Yeah, he could do some things differently. He'd be the first to acknowledge that. He had a lot come to him, maybe unexpectedly, as far as fame and things like that. But if caring too much is your problem? Or living too much? Well, you can fix those things, I hope. Trying to get someone to care or have emotion? That's harder to do."

Two years ago, Green escaped the realm of role player by dint of talent but also pride. Pride is what fueled a rise far beyond modest expectations. The issue is what pride becomes once massively validated. To hear many around the Warriors tell it, it's turned into an ego on overdrive and metastasized into something that imperils the team's stability well beyond the 2016 Finals.

All of which leaves Kerr in a suboptimal situation. As much as he might want Green to stop making the wrong kind of news, he's wary of sabotaging Green's id, the part of him he most needs as the coach of a team that won 73 games last season. "The dangerous thing is," Kerr says, "if you try to temper him too much, are you taking away his edge?" And should Kerr attempt to counter Green's excesses, there's seemingly little organizational support. "He's on an island," one Warriors official says of Kerr.

Indeed, ask most team officials about how Green approaches life off the court and they routinely answer with a go-to phrase that's one part scouting report, one part absolution: "He gets after it." Despite the arrest (for which he ultimately reached a plea deal), despite the penis pic, despite Green's Snapchat of a 118 mph drive toward Oakland's heavily trafficked Caldecott Tunnel, how much, they note, can teams credibly focus on off-hours behavior in a league that has routinely seen players who "get after it" bring more energy than their opponents?

There is, to be sure, a "boys will be boys" ethos in the NBA that condones a high level of hedonism, as long as the player produces. Still, the chorus of murmurs around Green is growing -- not because his production is suffering but because his discretion is. As one Warriors official says, "There's an a--hole in every bar. The question is, why are you winding up in that situation?" And as one NBA team executive says of Green's behavior, and its potential to subvert a potential dynasty, "He's what will ultimately prevent them from having long-term success."

THREE YEARS AGO, the Warriors had a mystery on their hands. Team trainers were noticing that the stationary bikes in their practice facility had become rather unstationary. More to the point, they were disappearing. Eventually, the mystery was solved. Green was dragging the stationary cycles to the sauna and leaving them there to soak.

It turned out that Green, who's struggled with his weight since his days at Michigan State, had developed a theory: By riding the bikes in the sauna, he could more efficiently shed pounds. In the short term, biking in a sauna will do that, but much of what is lost is water weight and is soon gained back. Golden State trainers were aware that Green's regimen was, at best, scientifically dubious. Also, the bikes were getting ruined. Says a former Golden State trainer: "He would come in and say, 'The screen's not working on the bike.' And I'd be like, 'Yeah, I wonder why.'"

Still, the team chose to ultimately allow it. It did involve cardio. And Green was loath to give it up. At the end of the day, success trusts its routine, no matter how absurd, grueling or dangerous to electronic equipment it might be.

And so it goes with the Warriors and their enigmatic star. The team indulges his more questionable behavior -- the late-night mischief, the berating of teammates, the feuding with coaches, the waterboarding of bikes -- because in doing so it has enabled him to become perhaps the best two-way player in the league. On the other hand, it might also have cost them a championship.

The Warriors have a problem to solve. The success of Draymond Green is inextricably wrapped up in the enigma of Draymond Green. There is, after all, more than one way to enable a man.

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