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Let’s talk about Jeff Green and what him starting means

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The Cavs named Jeff Green a playoff starter due to his defensive versatility. Here’s an examination of his play on that end and how becoming a “big man” can continue to boost his offense.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Cleveland Cavaliers took on the Washington Wizards Thursday night, Ty Lue — in his return to the Cavs’ bench — named Jeff Green a starter for the rest of the season and playoffs.

Over the next two games, Green scored a total of 54 points on 18-22 shooting and 7-9 from behind the arc. While the shooting numbers are not going to continue, it is time to talk about Jeff Green.

Green has started 12 games this season — all coming since March 11 — and the Cavs are 8-4 in those games with wins over Toronto twice, Milwaukee and Washington. As a starter, Green is averaging 31.4 minutes per game. Since Kevin Love’s return on March 19, Green is second on the team in minutes per game (29.3) and third on the team in points per game (13).

Defense

But it’s clear that Green is not starting for his offense. In his press conference, Lue mentioned DeMar DeRozan, Victor Oladipo, John Wall and Bradley Beal as players the team believes Green can defend (notably all these players are guards).

In fact, Green’s versatility on the defensive end is close to unparalleled. Since the All-Star Break — when Green stepped into Jae Crowder’s vacated role — he has guarded everyone from post-behemoth Jusuf Nurkic to defending MVP Russell Westbrook and all sizes in between.

Green’s block on DeMar DeRozan from behind was a crucial moment in the closing minutes of Cleveland’s win over Toronto on March 21:

Even when a quicker guard is able to get a step on Green — as Wall does here — he is able to use his speed and length to recover and contest at the rim:

Opponents are shooting just 53.8 percent at the rim on the 3.9 shots Green has defended per game since the All-Star Break. This ties him for 18th overall and 1st among non-traditional big men with Giannis Antetekounmpo over that time.

Taking a look at a sampling of who Green has guarded since the All-Star Break (using NBA.com’s new Matchups tool) demonstrates his versatility:

PTS v. 100 Poss. Avg. = How many points the player scored compared to his 100 possession average when guarded by Green. Anything less than 0 is good.
Deterrence Factor = How often a player shoots compared to his 100 possession average when guarded by Green. 100 is exactly the same. Greater than 100 is more often and less than 100 is less often

He has held DeMar DeRozan, John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry to fewer points than expected on fewer shots than their average. This means that he has both deterred them from attempting shots and that they have shot poorly when guarded by Green.

Therefore, it is not a surprise that since the All-Star Break, the Cavs have a 104.9 defensive rating with Green on the floor and a 112.3 dRTG when he is on the bench. If you adjust for minutes LeBron James has played, James + Green have a 105.6 dRTG together and James without Green has a 113.6 dRTG.

But there is some caution to be had when it comes to these numbers. With Green on the floor, opponents are shooting 32 percent from three point range. When he sits, that number jumps up to 41.2 percent. Similarly, opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 50.6 percent against James + Green (would rank 27th) compared to 55.9 percent against James alone (would rank 2nd).

As Kevin Pelton notes below, while opponent shot quality gets a “little worse” with Green on the floor (per Second Spectrum), the decrease in percentage is largely explained by shot making rather than any specific impact made by Green.

But the Cavs clearly trust Green defensively. Roster construction plays some role here as well. LeBron James is no longer going to guard the opposing team’s best player, especially given the 33 percent usage he has carried offensively since the All-Star Break. A brief examination of Rodney Hood’s matchups shows that Cleveland often has him guard off-ball shooters (like JJ Redick, Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr.). George Hill has done an excellent job on opposing point guards, but is limited in his ability to guard taller players.

With Jae Crowder gone and J.R. Smith struggling defensively, all signs point back to Green. He has proven he is up for the challenge defensively thus far.

Offense

The offensive end is where Cavs fans have found Green more difficult to embrace. A below average three-point shooter throughout his career, Green is shooting just 31.7 percent from deep this season.

But, confusingly, Green has upped his three-point attempts since the All-Star Break. He shot 32 percent on 2.9 3-point attempts per-36 minutes before the Break. In 20 games following the Break, he is shooting 31.3 percent on 4.5 attempts per-36 minutes.

Per my Shot Quality Metric, Green’s 3-point attempts rank in just the 24th percentile in terms of difficulty this season (with 100th percentile being the most difficult). His -8.7 percent three-point shooting below average ranks him 210th of 225 players with at least 100 three-point attempts on the season.

Recently, Green mentioned that he has been working with Kyle Korver on his shot from deep. In the interview, Green claimed that the work did not actually lead to an alteration to his shot, but rather a boost in his confidence.

But in the course of my film study, it appears that Green did indeed make a change in his shot between the New Orleans game and the Toronto game last week. Watch here as he catches the ball flat-footed, reducing the movement before his shot:

Compare that to his pre-shot movement before this March attempt against the Lakers where he hops into his jumper:

While the sample size is small, Green is 9-14 from 3 since the shot mechanics change. This will be high on the list of things to track as the Cavs head into the playoffs.

Examining Green’s playtype data since the All-Star Break, we can see that he has done an excellent job in traditional big man categories, but the shooting has held him back.

Green’s play since the Break on Post-Ups and Cuts would both rank him in the 85th percentile for all players for the full the season. In addition, he remains a terror in Transition and has drawn shooting fouls on 27.3 percent of his attempts — fourth most in the NBA.

Cleveland gets out in transition on 0.9 percent more possessions (69th percentile) with Green on the floor — largely due to his ability to out-run the defense:

But you can see that these three possession types make up only 52 percent of his high-usage playtypes since the All-Star Break. The other 48 percent are devoted to Spot Ups, where he ranks in just the 21st percentile.

Breaking out his Spot Ups into specific plays, we can see that shooting is at the root of his struggles:

Some teams have responded by deploying what might be a playoff preview — guarding Green with their Center (as Crowder faced earlier this season), hanging back and daring him to shoot:

This move simultaneously allows teams to guard Love with a more mobile Power Forward to better contend with pick and pop actions and close out to his newfound deep three point range.

Despite his struggles shooting, the Cavs have continued to prosper offensively with Green on the floor. Since the All-Star Break, they have a 114.7 oRTG in the minutes he has played with James. Add Love to the mix and that number jumps all the way to a 126.6 oRTG in 134 minutes.

If Green can slot into more of a traditional big man role offensively next to Love, the Cavs can likely continue to succeed in his minutes. But if he continues to shoot threes at a high volume and low efficiency, Cleveland may run into problems on that end in the playoffs.

Rebounding

One final area that must be mentioned with Green is his lack of rebounding. Since the All-Star Break, the Cavs have rebounded 76.2 percent of opponent misses with Green on the floor and 80.2 percent of opponent misses when he sits.

While both would be good marks (and the number with Green off would lead the league), they square with the overall trend for the season. The Cavs give up 2.9 percent more offensive rebounds with Green on the floor, which ranks in the 11th percentile.

This is largely due to Green grabbing just 9.7 percent of all opponent missed field goals (not including missed free throws), which ranks in the 3rd percentile for all Bigs. Green is averaging just 3.4 rebounds per-36 minutes after the All-Star Break after grabbing 5.5 rebounds per-36 minutes prior to the Break.

The difficulties are reflected in the lineups that Cleveland has played with Green at Center. These lineups give up offensive rebounds on 32.1 percent of opponent misses — the worst mark of any lineup combination in the league (minimum 100 possessions).

With Green starting and both Thompson and Nance coming off the bench, it appeared as if these lineups would cease to exist. But Lue broke them out in the most recent game against Philadelphia and they surrendered offensive rebounds on 37.5 percent of possessions — a key factor in Cleveland’s fourth quarter struggles.

These lineups with Green at Center should largely be scrapped for the playoffs, especially when the opposing team has a traditional big man on the floor.

Conclusion

Jeff Green’s versatility on the defensive end has been both the most impressive and unexpected development of his season. Cleveland trusts him to guard 1-5 and he has shown the ability to slow down some of the East’s best guards.

Inserting him into the starting lineup for the playoffs only solidifies that trust. But there have been some negative downstream effects as it relates to Cleveland’s Center rotation.

By starting Love at Center, the Cavs are bringing both Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. off the bench. Against Washington, this led to eight horrendous minutes of the two together (70 oRTG, 100 dRTG). On the next night, Thompson and Nance ended playing only six minutes each, including zero combined in the second half before the final play.

The Cavs are going to need either Nance or Thompson to step up in the playoffs and cannot continue to search for answers regarding their playing time.

As for Green, the Cavs will hope that their defensive success with him on the floor will continue into the playoffs. In addition, he will need to continue to focus on his offensive strengths while limiting his weaknesses. This means a significant reduction in the volume of his three point attempts — even if they are wide open.

Green largely remains a conundrum. The 11th year veteran has not been trusted to start games consistently since 2015. He looked like he may wash out of the league following last season with Orlando, signing in Cleveland for just the minimum. He has played in 38 career playoff games, but has found little postseason success.

Green’s renaissance is confusing and its sustainability is questionable. But he continues to prove his worth defensively on a night-in, night-out basis. His ability on that end allows LeBron James to work in a Free Safety role and lets Rodney Hood chase shooters. His offense has been just good enough to not hurt the team. Whether those things continue in the playoffs is an open question.

The Cavs projected playoff starting of James, Hood, Green, Kevin Love and George Hill has only played 10 possessions together due to a litany of injuries. There is hope Hill can return for the final two games of the season, but Cleveland will unquestionably enter the playoffs at a chemistry deficit.

But they have James playing some of the best offensive basketball of his career. They have Love and his newfound shooting range. They have Rodney Hood looking more comfortable of late. They have George Hill to stabilize the offense with his shooting and defense with his length.

And now they have defensive stopper Jeff Green to take the opponent’s best player for the duration of a playoff series.

Green has been better than anyone could have expected since stepping into this role. The question now is whether he can continue his success with a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals on the line.