Jeff Green entered the year as something of a punch line. Year after year, he would be rewarded with a big contract or a team would trade a first-round pick for him only to be very disappointed by what they received on the court.
What’s funny about Green on the Cavaliers in the 2017-18 season was that while many jokes about how “a team should never rely on Green” stuck with him, they didn’t really apply.
Green signed for the veteran’s minimum, coming off a career-worst year with the Orlando Magic after they became the latest punchline to overpay the swingman, and even at the lowest price point possible, the signing was met with a degree of scorn from some corners of the internet.
A cool thing about basketball is that it’s one of the more flexible sports - who you’re playing with, the role you have, what you’re asked to do and what system you’re running can have enormous impacts on your value. And, as a minimum-salary player on a capped out team? Green more than outplayed his contract.
Much of Green’s relative success with the Cavaliers came due to something simple: shot selection. He was sort of a disaster in Orlando. Only 23.3 percent of his attempts came within 0-3 feet of the rim, per basketball reference while taking a truly staggering 48.2 percent of shot from 16 feet or further from the rim. Jeff Green can’t shoot, so that’s uh, a problem.
In Cleveland? Green’s entire shot profile changed.
He still shot way too much from three (27.5 percent of his shot attempts), but your boy got to the rim. 39.8 percent of Jeff Green’s shot attempts this season came at the rim per Basketball reference. That’s a career high.
Green was unleashed as a baseline menace and cutter in space while defenses focused on LeBron James at the top of the arc or Kyle Korver’s off-ball dances.
Jeff Green came to play in Game 1 pic.twitter.com/w1H3ALxjHz— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 2, 2018
Green as an on-ball asset is, to be kind, not optimal. He doesn’t have great vision, teams hang off him because he can’t shoot, and he really, really thinks he can shoot better than he is capable of. Off-ball? His athleticism shines, and he was a perfect pairing alongside LeBron James when defenses fell asleep.
Another benefit of attacking the cup? Green’s free throw rate was astronomically higher than it had ever been. That doesn’t normally happen for 31-year-olds, but it happened in 2017-18.
Green got to the line .379 times per field goal attempt. That blasts past his previous career high of .329, and is worlds better than his career average of .294.
One of the ways he did that was being an absolute terror in transition, drawing fouls on 29.3 percent of his field goal attempts on the fast break. He was able to grab a rebound (on the rare occasions he actually grabbed a defensive rebound) and lead the break himself, or continue to prove his value as a cutter.
Jeff Green AND-ONE ! #WhateverItTakes #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/s1Vu6XqYGu— NBA France (@NBAFRANCE) May 28, 2018
That extra efficiency did wonders for Green’s overall numbers - he posted a 58.7 percent true shooting percentage, also a career best.
His jumper came and went, and he was downright icy from three for huge stretches, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Before the All-Star Break, Green was shooting a poor 32 percent from distance on just 1.8 such attempts per game.
After the All-Star Break? His percentage dropped by two, but his attempts nearly doubled to 3.2. That was doubly damaging. It obviously affected the team’s ability to score while he was clanking away — that’s obvious.
What’s less obvious is that deciding to spot up around the perimeter took Green away from the things that made him effective - lurking as an opportunistic cutter and foul-drawer. Bear in mind, these numbers did coincide with the return of Tristan Thompson, who ate up Green’s valuable airspace. Channing Frye also was cut from the rotation and eventually traded. Neither helped.
Defensively, Green proved that it never hurts to be athletic and tall. While he’ll probably never be the most alert defender off-ball, he did more than a respectable job while being given tasks that probably were not entirely fair. Green probably didn’t sign with the team to be a primary defender on James Harden or DeMar DeRozan. Sometimes he failed, but sometimes, he performed quite admirably.
What a block by Jeff Green pic.twitter.com/uSJaOtsIpf— Hoops Provider (@HoopsProvider) March 22, 2018
Green consistently battled in the Cavaliers switch-heavy scheme, defending centers despite playing much of his career at small forward heading into this season. As noted - he really gets lost on rotations, but as the primary help defender? He could affect shots.
This is as close to picture perfect help defense as you are going to find from Jeff Green (shoutout to coach Perk). Leaves Baynes at the perfect time, blocks Brown at the rim and finds the streaking James who is fouled the other way in transition pic.twitter.com/6DaEWgDjCy— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) May 27, 2018
Where Green hurt the team defensively was as a defensive rebounder. Despite playing more minutes at the power forward spot than any other time in his career, he posted a career-worst defensive rebound rate at a paltry 10.9 percent of available boards grabbed.
For a frame of reference, here’s a list of players who had a better defensive rebound rate than Green this season: Shane Larkin, C.J. Miles, Terrence Ross, Joe Harris, Jodie Meeks, and much, much more.
As a nearly full-time power forward and part time center (Green only played 3% of his minutes at SF, per basketball reference), that number just can’t happen, and it prevented the Cavaliers from finishing the few possessions they actually got stops on this season.
Ultimately, that’s been the knock on Green over the course of his career, even at his best — he’s a player that can fill up a stat sheet but fails to make a positive impact on the game by not doing the little things right.
Rebounding aside, that just wasn’t the case this year.
Green managed the best net rating of his career, as the Cavaliers outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possesions when he was on the floor. The team’s defense was an astounding 7.8 points per possession better when he was on the floor than when he was off it.
Some of that is playing against opposing benches, but it would be folly to assume he didn’t have a part in allowing the Cavaliers to play switch-heavy lineups that simplified their scheme and prevented them from getting torched several rotations into a possession.
Green wasn’t a perfect player - he went through stretches where he fell asleep defensively and was too eager to jack threes, or worse, mid-range post-up fadeaways. In the playoffs, some of these flaws were exacerbated, as they tend to be in the postseason. Twitter, naturally had their fun at Cleveland’s expense for being so foolish as to believe in Green.
That’s fine — you don’t get perfect players for the veteran’s minimum. Teams take stabs on players that don’t go anywhere, many of whom are much more popular than Jeff Green among the NBA intelligentsia - remind me if you remember the outcry that the Warriors were allowed to sign Omri Casspi.
After functioning for the last four years as either an albatross on a team’s cap sheet, or the manifestation of misplaced hope passed from one ill-fated would-be contender to another, Green found a place he could thrive alongside a player who understood how to best use him in LeBron James.
Green gave the Cavaliers more as a minimum player than almost any other year of his entire career, even if Twitter was too busy to notice.
He more than made up for his contract, and unlike plenty of Green’s teams in the past — the team should try to get him back for next season.