Warriors' Draymond Green faces 'one of the most important years of my career'

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 12, 2023

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- On a long and busy day of drills, competitive runs and bonding at Michigan State's third annual Spartan Grind Week, Draymond Green found himself last Thursday reminiscing about something other than his college days.

His phone buzzed with a text of a photo of a pair of sneakers the power forward wore during his early years with the Golden State Warriors.

"What year are these from?" Stephen Curry asked in the text.

Green, recalling those kicks, then replied: "Man, good times."

Curry, though, wasn't thinking about the past. The duo, like their star teammate Klay Thompson, has been focused on the upcoming season and the new memories they can create.

"Yep," Curry texted back. "We still right here. We ain't going nowhere."

After a 2022-23 Warriors season that started with the altercation between Green and Jordan Poole and ended with the first pre-Finals playoff elimination in the coach Steve Kerr era, the Warriors heard the speculation about whether this group's dominant run was nearing an end.

Green, though, re-signed with the Warriors on a four-year, $100-million deal. Golden State traded away Poole and added veteran Chris Paul in hopes of getting its Big Three a fifth championship.

But Green is thinking why stop there? With the right players, more experience and better chemistry, Green believes the Golden State trio can even equal Michael Jordan's six titles.

"I don't like to necessarily put a number on things," Green told ESPN. "But I don't see why we can't get two more championships. Why not?"

There are hurdles that can stop the Warriors. While Curry can still play at an MVP level and Thompson is determined to return to his pre-injury form, Green knows much will be riding on his shoulders. He wants to make amends for last season's failure, which he knows he played a part in when the Poole punch fractured team chemistry. And the fiery forward has to put any past bitterness between him and Paul behind them to get the Warriors back to the top.

"I look at this as one of the most important years of my career," said Green, who is entering his 12th season. "... It's not to redeem anything about Draymond. My goal is that we can help Chris Paul get his first championship."

WHEN GREEN HEARD from the Warriors that they were considering adding Paul, the team's emotional leader admitted he wasn't thrilled. He needed time to wrap his mind around the possibility of teaming up with a "hated" foe.

If anyone could get under Green's skin, it was the 6-foot point guard, who has described himself as a "sworn enemy" of the Warriors. Paul helped the LA Clippers knock the Warriors out of the first round in seven games in 2014, leading to Kerr's hiring the following season. And Paul and the Houston Rockets had the Warriors down 3-2 in the 2018 Western Conference finals before the point guard missed the last two games because of injury.

Asked on a scale of one to 10 how much he previously despised Paul, Green interrupted.

"Eleven! I hated him," Green said. "Eleven! But I think that's also a sign of respect."

Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr., who was promoted to the position June 16, said he needed to talk to Green and Paul to see if this partnership could work.

"I wanted to hear from both of them," Dunleavy told ESPN. "Really anytime we make a big move, whether it's going to Steph, Klay, Draymond, you want to kind of feel it out and see what they think.

"All of them initially, including Chris, sort of had some pause. But then they thought about it and real quick became like, 'Let's do this. This is going to be great.'"

After the trade in late June, Green said he and Paul touched base briefly before giving each other space and time to digest everything. But they've since had "face-to-face" and phone conversations. Listening to Green talk about all the things that used to drive him wild about Paul is almost like hearing an opponent describe what it is like to battle Green in the playoffs.

"A guy that's at the center of everything," Green said of Paul. "At the center of every play, what the other team is running at the center of their defense, talking on both ends of the floor, working the referees, working our coach, working players in the middle of every tussle. Battling. Elbowing. Nasty.

"... Of course you're going to hate him [as an opponent]. And if you don't, guess what? You'll lose to him. We've seen a bunch of guys lose to him as well."

The Warriors are hoping Paul provides them with the same boost he has given to all his new teams in the first season -- an increase in wins. In his first season in Phoenix in 2020-21, the point guard assisted a turnaround that saw the Suns go from 34 wins the season before to the NBA Finals.

But Golden State will likely have an adjustment period with its new point guard's more deliberate pace. Golden State recorded the shortest average length of time the ball was in a player's hand, averaging just over 2.7 seconds this past season. Paul had an average of 5.6 seconds in 2022-23, the seventh-longest time among players, according to Second Spectrum.

"You don't have the answers right now," Paul said in early July. "We'll practice, and I'm sure there will be things I've got to learn about them, they've got to learn about me, but that's the case with any team."

At their best, Paul and Green are both facilitators with the ball in their hands. Both of them will have to play off the ball more and find ways to adapt to each other's strengths.

"The way they'll fit together is their competitiveness and their intelligence," Dunleavy said. "We will see how the skill set aligns and anytime you add another player like Chris Paul, I think there's things you got to figure out."

What Green and Paul do share is their obsession with winning, even if it will take time for them to mesh.

"We've kind of gotten over that hump now," Green said of the idea that Paul is his new teammate. "But then there'll be another hump of actually playing together that'll take some getting used to. But I'm excited about it.

"We've gotten together as a team, we've kicked it together and the vibe feels great. And I'm a student of the game of basketball and Chris Paul is a master, and I'm looking forward to learning from him."

THE PRACTICE COURTS at Michigan State's basketball facility buzzed when Green, along with other NBA veterans such as Xavier Tillman andGary Harris, were mentoring current Spartans players.

In between the younger Spartan big men throwing down some power dunks, Green turned the clock back a bit during a drill and delivered three consecutive driving dunks off curls -- a rare sight after the Warriors veteran had 21 dunks all of last season.

The 33-year-old power forward also used Grind Week, Michigan State basketball's annual reunion event, to prepare himself physically for another championship run with Curry and Thompson. The trio is fully aware of the exclusive club they are trying to join.

Inside Thompson's locker at the Chase Center, the shooter has taped up a newspaper clipping of the faces of all 26 players who have won five or more NBA championships.

"That's definitely a Klay-ism," Green said with a laugh. "But those are the type of things that drives Klay. And when Klay is driven, we don't lose."

Last season, though, the Warriors could not overcome their poor chemistry, road play and defensive issues. The Poole fracas compromised the season from the start, and Green admitted it impacted his ability to be an effective vocal leader. Kerr said, "There was some trust lost."

There were times when Green wondered if he would have the opportunity to re-sign with the only team he has known as a pro.

"What gave me doubt is that I didn't know if I would have the opportunity to redeem myself," said Green, who took a leave of absence from Oct. 8 to Oct. 13. "Not [because] that thing necessarily happened. It's that, do you have an opportunity to make it right, or is that just it? It doesn't change what happened. It doesn't change that I was at fault. But I'm a human being, and human beings do wrong.

"But how do you stand when it goes wrong, when things ain't on your side. When everybody's against you, when the world is saying, 'Oh man, now all of a sudden you're not worth the money you make.' Or, 'You're the cancer and you're the problem' four championships later."

Green credited Michigan State coach Tom Izzo with calling him daily in October to help his former star pupil reset.

"What makes Izzo the best is I've had my fair share of things happen in my time with the Golden State Warriors," Green said. "... And he was so important for me last year, just the constant dialogue.

"In October when all the stuff was going on, he's on the phone, 'Are you OK? What's going on?' Every single day, just checking in, making sure I'm OK. And there's times when you go through stuff like that and you need your support system to help get you through. And he's always right there."

It helped the versatile Green, who finished last season with a career-high 52.7% from the field while holding opponents to 39.2% shooting as the contesting defender -- second best among players to contest 500 shots, according to Second Spectrum.

"He's getting into his 30s, does he still do the stuff that he's so good at?" Dunleavy said. "I think the answer is pretty clearly yes. For us, once the season ended, sort of [doing] everything we could to retain him and to get him back on board."

Green said if the Warriors are going to rediscover their championship form, they need to get back to defending and find their chemistry again.

"We have to bring this group back together as one," Green said. "... You couldn't break our team. You may break one guy, you may break two, but you can't break this team. And that's what made us unbeatable."

After Golden State's six-game loss to the Lakers in the second round, it would be easy to forget that no one had beaten the Warriors in a Western Conference playoff series since Paul's Clippers in 2014.

Green, though, didn't need that text from Curry to remind him of the Warriors' longevity and swagger. Green is eager to remind foes that he, Curry and Thompson -- and now Paul -- aren't going anywhere.

"[The Lakers have] done it once, and that's great," Green said of the Lakers breaking Golden State's Western Conference playoff series victory streak. "Now someone has to do it again and again.

"And I don't foresee that happening."

Related Video