I know why I dislike Jeff Green, and it’s not just because he underwhelmed last season in Boston. Considering that he entered a vastly different role, played the understudy to a whole slew of All-Stars, and learned both a new offense and a complicated defense on the run, his relative failures should have been expected (at least to an extent).
No, I don’t dislike Green because he played poorly last season. Hell, I don’t even dislike him because the Celtics relied on him and he failed to provide much (or sometimes any) help. I don’t dislike him because some people still overlook his advanced statistics, which say and have always said that Green’s a mediocre, inefficient player. I don’t dislike him because he shames Antoine Walker’s old number eight (alright, that’s just a joke) and I don’t dislike him because the Celtics traded away one of my favorite players to acquire him.
I dislike Jeff Green because he never seems to try. A rebound ricochets off the rim and Green might watch it fall, almost as if the rebound were a rain drop and Green were standing underneath a balcony trying to avoid it. The rest of the Celtics rotate seamlessly on defense, but there’s Green, hugging his man. He doesn’t always miss rebounds and he doesn’t always miss rotations, but Green does so enough to let us believe he’s not putting in the required effort. To make matters worse, we can see talent in him, we can see his potential, we can see that he possesses a lot of the skills to become a stud.
But everything Green does on the basketball court—whether he rises into the stratosphere to slam down an alley-oop dunk or falls to the floor after being bullied for a rebound—comes equipped with the same blank stare. The lack of facial expressions doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Tim Duncan, except for his incessant whining to officials, rarely shows his emotions on the court. Derrick Rose’s face looks almost vacant most of the time. And the next on-court smile you see from Rajon Rondo will be his first. But when Green couples his “dear in the headlights” look with his “out for a morning jog” pace of play, his startlingly nonchalant disposition makes you wonder if he really doesn’t care.
Last night at an awards ceremony, Larry Bird discussed the tail end of his career, when Kevin McHale broke his foot, Robert Parish suffered nagging injuries and Bird himself was barely healthy enough to walk to the team bus after games. Knowing what Bird knew—that his body wasn’t ever going to improve, neither would his teammates’, and together they would limp into retirement (or, in Parish’s case, a form of semi-retirement that allowed him to play a limited role for several more years)—a reporter asked Bird if he would have broken up The Original Big Three sooner in an effort to rebuild.
“Absolutely not,” Bird was quoted by ESPN. “That’s what Boston stands for. Respect. If you give it all you’ve got, play as hard as you can, [the fans] will come out and support you. Not only for that game, for your whole career. I know, I lived it.”
If you give it all you’ve got, play as hard as you can, we will support you. That’s why I still adore Eddie House but feel disgusted on a regular basis while watching Jeff Green. That’s why I can put up with Jermaine O’Neal but couldn’t stand Rasheed Wallace. That’s why James Posey became a faux legend and its why we can overlook Delonte West’s personal struggles and its why Ryan Gomes will still get an ovation every time he comes to Boston.
The best experiment to test Bird’s hypothesis might have been conducted by Nate Robinson. From a “rooting for the Celtics” standpoint, I should have loathed a lot Robinson offered. He loved shooting bad shots; in multiple cases, a three-on-one fast break became Robinson’s latest 27-foot pull-up jumper. He often got tortured on defense. I can vividly recall one five-minute span when J.J. Barea made Robinson look like a blind kindergartener. In retrospect, after Barea played a crucial role for the NBA champions, Robinson’s humiliating stretch doesn’t seem quite as bad. But believe me, Robinson got a free clinic that day in how to succeed as a Lilliputian. Perhaps even more frustrating, Robinson didn’t know how to run an offense, he was 5’7, and the most lasting thing he has ever done in basketball (and I imagine the most lasting thing he will ever do) was win three slam dunk championships. He can fly into the sky, he can score, but winning basketball? It was, and is, largely foreign to him.
But he played hard. Even when Robinson failed to make his way over a screen, he tried. Even when he missed a layup, he bounded off bigger, stronger defenders just to get there. Even when he pulled up for a three-pointer on a fast break, I got the sinking feeling he actually thought it was a good idea. And so I didn’t mind him. I never loved him, but I couldn’t find it within myself to dislike a player who A) played his pants off every time he stepped on the court, and B) cheered for his teammates like a 13-year old fan no matter how many successive minutes he sat on the bench.
In December, I compared Nate Robinson to a troublemaker I dealt with during my lifeguarding days. (Celtics Blog)
The third troublemaker, I didn’t hate. Not at all. Maybe I should have. This kid would break every pool rule, every single day. I would tell him to walk, and 0.2 seconds later he’d be sprinting full speed. I’d tell him to stop splashing, and the next thing I knew his friends would be under a barrage of splashing water. I’d tell him not to do a back flip, and — wouldn’t you know it? — his next dive would be a back flip.
But there was a difference to the third boy’s troublemaking — it was all in good fun. He wasn’t annoying, and he wasn’t choking out any of his friends. Mostly, he didn’t harm anything or anybody at all. He just broke a lot of rules because he was a free spirit, because he was so excited to swim in the pool he couldn’t contain himself. Every time he broke a rule, he’d get a look on his face, like, “Oops. I can’t believe I just did that. I’m so sorry.” And he always had a smile on his face, so I couldn’t stay mad at this kid. I just couldn’t, no matter how many rules he broke. It wasn’t entirely his fault. He just couldn’t help himself.
In case you are still wondering, the third boy is the swimming pool equivalent of Nate Robinson. Nate does some really stupid things on a basketball court. He loves pulling up for threes on 1-on-3 fast breaks. He occasionally makes dumb passes, and his height can hinder him defensively. There was one play Sunday when Robinson took a shot, over his head, literally without even looking at the hoop. It hit the side of the backboard and bounced off, and I imagine Doc Rivers sat on the sideline shaking his head in disbelief.
But I can’t stay mad at Nate. Because on that very same play, Nate chased down his rebound and somehow passed it to Ray Allen in the corner, who made a bucket. The play after that, Nate made a nice defensive play which resulted in a fast break lay-in. A quarter or two later, a loose ball bounced on the court, and three differentIndiana Pacers were in pursuit. Naturally, Nate, farthest away from the ball, dove on the floor and beat all three Pacers to it. Two or three plays after THAT, Nate dove into the first row of the stands, after a ball he probably never had a chance of reaching.
What I’m trying to say is this: Nate Robinson is not the world’s smartest basketball player, nor is he anywhere close to it. But I can live with his occasional brain farts because I know everything he does has the right intention, because he does it all with a smile on his face, and because no matter how many times he screws up, I know he’s actually trying as hard as he possibly can. He loves basketball, loves being part of a winner, and plays with the exuberance of Pool Troublemaker #3.
I imagine players don’t care very much whether a young blogger for some fan-run website called “Celtics Town” appreciates their style of play. But if for some reason Jeff Green did care, I would tell him to play with more passion. I would tell him to chase down rebounds like they were the girl of his dreams. I would tell him to defend opponents like his next meal depended on it. I would tell him to smile, to scream, to display emotion, to dive on the floor. The smiling and screaming part doesn’t actually have anything to do with success, but at least it would show us he cares.
There was a scene in “Jerry McGuire” when sports agent Jerry McGuire tells his football-playing client Rod Tidwell why the Arizona Cardinals haven’t offered him a big contract.
“I’ll tell you why you don’t have your ten million dollars yet,” Jerry said. “Right now, you are a paycheck player. You play with your head, not your heart. Your personal life, heart. But when you get on the field, it’s all about what you didn’t get, who’s to blame, who overthrew the pass, who’s got the contract you don’t, who’s not giving you your love. You know what, that is NOT what inspires people. That is not what inspires people. Just shut up, play the game, play it from your heart. And you know what? I will show you the ‘coin’ (money). And that’s the truth, man. That’s the truth. Can you handle it?”
How am I going to support paying Jeff Green this summer when everything he does tells me he’s a paycheck player? Play the game, Jeff, play it from your heart. And then I will feel comfortable showing you the coin.