Jeff Green sprints past Charlie Villanueva in the open court, with his speed reminiscent of The Sandlot scene when Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez eluded The Beast, except in this scenario The Beast is cancerous to his team and the NBA.
As Green distances himself from Villanueva, Delonte West can see opportunity unfolding. West throws an alley oop high into the air, and this time it doesn’t become a shot instead, and Green trampolines off the floor, slightly off-balance, with his right arm reaching high into the TD Garden atmosphere. He catches the pass and slams it through the hoop, all in one motion, then falls crashing to the floor as the home crowd stands and roars its support.
These are the moments when Green’s talent tantalizes. When he shows the athleticism that allows him to play either forward position well. When he wows us with a highlight, and Tommy Heinsohn inevitably begins his latest “Green should do things like this more often, but he’s a bit hesitant in his new environment” speech, and basketball briefly looks very easy, at least the way Jeff Green plays it.
Then the crowd’s cheers finally die down. Fans sit back in their seats. And Green once again becomes an afterthought, someone who can impress the hell out of us one second, or one quarter, or one half, or one game, but is just as likely to disappear the next.
Full disclosure: Jeff Green confuses me. I watch him play, and I wonder why he’s not more productive. I wonder why he’s not more willing to take a game by the throat and make his mark on it. I wonder why he hasn’t scored in double figures during any of his last six games, despite possessing a skill set that allows him to score from anywhere. I wonder why he’s not more of a matchup problem, despite theoretically being too quick for power forwards and too big for small forwards. Basketball comes easy to Jeff Green, it often looks like, but he still hasn’t made his presence felt consistently in Boston.
There were signs he might struggle to produce in Boston, at least at the high levels some people expected. Green’s advanced statistics from his tenure in Oklahoma City shouted “‘tweener with a non-existent rebounding rate, a poor defensive reputation and an overrated ability to score.” Any statistical mind could very easily see why the Thunder were so willing to trade Green, especially in return for a young big man with a mean streak and the ability to defend any post player one-on-one. (Note: In honor of Perk, I just cried one tear, poured a sip of water onto the ground, drove to the closest gym so I could berate the nearest referee, and did it all with a scowl on my face.)
Green has always scored, but he has done so inefficiently, and he has done so without showcasing any other true strengths. In baseball, scouts call a dominant pitch, a pitch which sets a pitcher apart from his peers, a “plus pitch.” Green doesn’t have any plus pitches. He throws a 90-MPH fastball, a decent curve, a solid sinker, and an okay slider. He can throw any pitch in any count, but he doesn’t have that one pitch—like Mariano Rivera’s cutter or Barry Zito’s curveball—to rely on when he really needs an out. In that way, you can think of Green as a black, 6’9″ Daisuke Matsuzaka.
But the talent exists for Green to become so much more. And that’s why he perplexes me.
Scoring comes easy to Jeff Green. That sounds weird for me to say, especially considering A) I already told you he has not reached double figures in any of his last six games, and B) I just spent a paragraph explaining that Green’s actually an inefficient scorer. But watch him play. Watch how easily he can create a shot when he wants to. He can post up smaller players with success. He has a nice repertoire of post moves, the rare combo forward who can succeed with his back to the basket or from the three-point line. He can sink an open three, excel in transition, soar for dunks, or create space to shoot a pull-up jumper at almost any time, no matter who’s defending him.
Sometimes I think scoring comes too easy for Green. He can get a decent shot so easily that he doesn’t work to get an easier shot. He has such an easy time working himself free for a pull-up jumper that he doesn’t exert the extra effort to get all the way to the rim. At his size, with his athleticism, with his skill set, Jeff Green should be a problem for opponents. But he’s not. Not always.
Since Green’s days at Georgetown, he’s been a reluctant star. Not that a player’s mentality in college pigeonholes him into that same role in the NBA (think Michael Jordan’s evolution into an assassin, or Rajon Rondo’s never-would-have-expected-that ascent to greatness), but something about Green has always kept him from being a “take this game over” player. I can’t tell whether it’s a barely-visible flaw in his game (for example, Green’s handle seems to keep him from driving more often) or simply a case of a player’s mentality being ill-equipped to maximize his skills. It’s probably a combination of both. Either way, Green’s production has always fallen short of his promise.
It wasn’t that Green sucked in college; on the contrary, he became the Big East Player of the Year while leading the Hoyas to the Final Four. But even while compiling such lofty collegiate accolades, Green never averaged more than 14.3 points per game. He was more “win with intangibles and all-around prowess” than “put the team on my back and carry them,” a player who combined all the skills to be the country’s most dominant player with an “I’d rather blend into the background” psyche. Green rarely forced offense and rarely took matters into his own hands, preferring to let the game come to him. It was a mentality that worked perfectly in John Thompson III’s Princeton offense, but kept him from developing into a go-to player. It was the same mentality that still exists within Green today, a mentality that sometimes allows Green to go entire games without making his impact felt.
If Green were a character from The Wire, he’s more Wallace than Omar. If Omar wanted something, you could be damn sure he was going to get it. He was going to do things his way, and he was going to walk around with his shotgun across his chest, and he was going to take what he wanted, regardless of what he needed to do to get it. He wasn’t going to be stopped, not by Brother Mouzone, not by Prop Joe, not by Avon Barksdale, not by anybody else.
But that’s not how Green operates. He’s more likely to become disgusted by a murder and meekly ask out of the drug game, than to brandish a shotgun and make the toughest people in Washington Baltimore submit to his demands. He’s more likely to go live with his grandmother in an attempt to stay safe, than to march into crime-ridden projects where everyone wants him dead, with the intent of robbing the most dangerous men in town. I’m not saying Danny Ainge is going to force Von Wafer and Delonte West to kill Green in his apartment one night. I’m just saying Green’s not a natural-born killer. And I swear, these two paragraphs actually made sense when I wrote them.
At some point, the Celtics will have to decide whether they want to build around Green in the future. They’ll have to decide whether he’s worth spending upwards of $30 million to team with Rajon Rondo. They’ll have to decide whether Green can reasonably be expected to improve and become a legitimate star (or at least a quasi-star), or whether he is what the stat heads thought he was—overrated and perfectly replaceable.
The Celtics shook up their entire roster and broke apart a starting unit that had never lost a playoff series, mostly because they expected Green would make Boston’s bench a difference-maker. The bench had struggled all season long to hold leads, and things took a turn for the worse (that phrase always makes me think of The Oregon Trail) on February 6. Marquis Daniels fell to the floor that day, injuring his spine and ending his season, if not his career. And the Celtics, who had decided not to sign any other small forwards this offseason despite Daniels’ long injury history, had no replacement on their roster. They had no choice but to make an addition at the trade deadline. Anthony Parker’s name was thrown around as a possible target, but Danny Ainge decided to make a drastic change instead. Enter Green.
The pundits instantly debated Green’s merits. Depending on how people viewed Green, he was considered either “a much more accomplished basketball player” than Perkins and “the best player of the four players” traded (both quotes from Bob Ryan’s column), or what I described earlier, a tweener who was most likely overrated because of box score statistics. Regardless, the Celtics obviously expected his presence would catapult the team to the next level. Because Danny Ainge felt so strongly about Green’s potential impact, both this season and beyond, he was willing to roll the dice with a team that had already cemented itself as the title favorite.
Some fans wondered why Ainge would tinker with such a good thing. Others kept faith and threw themselves fully behind the deal. Whatever fans thought about the trade, the Celtics quickly rattled off five straight wins with their new additions. Krstic played well enough to keep the Perk reminiscing to a minimum, and Green’s talent shined bright. Then the Celtics started losing. And they kept losing. The team no longer has an identity, some folks say. They lost their toughness during the trade, and Green and Krstic haven’t contributed enough to erase those doubts. According to Green’s unadjusted plus/minus numbers, the Celtics are 11 points worse when he’s on the court. The offense scores seven fewer points per 100 possessions, and the defense allows three more points per 100 possessions. Some of that can be blamed on Boston’s team-wide struggles. Some of it can be blamed on poor chemistry, or under-performing teammates, or whatever else. But the Thunder were also better without Green on the court, a trend that’s troublesome. Especially from a player who was expected to give Boston’s bench a real boost. Especially from a player who has enough talent to become an All-Star.
Part of Green’s allure is that, during the best of times, he can make basketball look as easy as riding a bike downhill. Some players just look like natural basketball players. They move with a certain grace, an elegance that makes the game look effortless. Green’s one of those players. Even when he’s racing past Charlie Villanueva, he looks like he’s gliding. Even when he’s working hard, he looks like he’s hardly working. He’s one of the few players capable of joining Ray Allen in the “Players Who Probably Don’t Even Need to Shower After a Game” club. Yet despite all that smoothness, Green doesn’t contribute on a nightly basis.
I’ve come all this way, more than 1,900 words now, and I still don’t really know how to describe Green. Is he the player who makes basketball look so easy at times, or the player who makes his team worse? The player who the Celtics decided to risk their season on, or the player stat heads think is overrated? The player who can look so good, who can be so tough to stop, or the player who can disappear at any time? The player who has always been capable of blending into the background, or the player with all the potential to become a star?
He’s all of those things, all at once, a confusing combination of strength and power, size and skill, grace and athleticism, greatness and disappearances, basketball IQ and a lacking killer instinct. The Celtics need more from him. They need him to become more aggressive but continue taking good shots. They need him to continue learning the defensive schemes, and they need him to grab a rebound every once in a while. And they need him to play like he deserves a long-term extension when his contract expires after this season, even though the one positive to his recent struggles is that he might be playing himself out of a huge contract.
I thought writing this column would help me unscramble my own thoughts about Green. Instead, I’m even more confused than ever.