As the 2012-13 regular season wraps up, there’s no weirder, more disorienting team to watch right now than the Boston Celtics. The Celtics have been odd ducks all season, patching together winning and losing streaks with no obvious internal logic or correlation to one another, cycling through lineups and featured players at a rate that only last year’s Knicks could really match in recent hoops history. The C’s of recent weeks went next-level with this, however. In Monday’s game against the Timberwolves, they played a 10-man rotation that only overlapped two players (Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass) with the 10-man rotation they played in a win over the Miami Heat exactly a year before, while losing in Minnesota for the first time since Kevin Garnett was shuttled between the two teams.
Now, a lot of this is obviously due to injuries. The Celtics’ Big Three have all missed time this season, with Rajon Rondo out half the season and counting with a torn ACL, KG sidelined indefinitely with ankle inflammation, and even the generally durable Paul Pierce missing Monday’s game with a sore ankle. And there was definitely a conscious effort to retool the team some last summer, making them younger, tougher and (in most cases) more athletic. To that extent, it makes sense that the roster would look markedly different than the classic KG-era Celtics rosters that we’re used to.
Still, that only goes half of the way to explaining the cognitive dissonance one feels watching the Celtics now — watching Jason Terry, Terrence Williams and Jordan Crawford all come off the same bench, watching games with Brandon Bass and Shavlik Randolph as the primary centers, watching the Celtics score 100 points and still lose, as they have in three of their last nine games. It’s not just a depleted Boston roster, it’s one with a completely different style and ethos, far closer to the run-and-gun small ball system employed by the late-’00s Warriors than the defensive-minded, half-court-oriented look of the late-’00s Celtics. It seems less like a team struggling through injuries than one that decided to rebuild completely without telling anybody. And at the heart of it all is Jeff Green.
Jeff Green entered this season as something of the forgotten man in the Celtics lineup, and possibly the whole NBA. Or at least, he would have been, if he hadn’t signed a four-year, $36 million contract with Boston that many instantly concluded was not close to commiserate with his likely production, a burden of anticipated-failure that hung over him as he followed up a promising preseason with a very slow start to the regular season, going FG-less in the season debut against Miami and then averaging an underwhelming 8.7 points and 2.5 rebounds on just 42 percent shooting (29 percent from deep) in November. The numbers improved little in December and January, and it quickly seemed like Green’s extension would be an albatross for Boston.
But have you seen Green’s splits coming off the bench (which he did for the majority of the season while Boston was healthier) and starting (as he’s done recently with so many regulars out)? If not, you really, really should:
Reserve: 64 Games, 10.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 44% FG, 33% 3PT
Starter: 10 Games, 21.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.6 APG, 55% FG, 52% 3PT
That’s not just the difference between a decent player and a good one, that’s the difference between a fringe rotation player and a borderline superstar. Reserve Jeff Green is overpaid and overhyped, Starter Jeff Green is on the shortlist of the league’s biggest bargains. It’s an absolutely staggering dichotomy, one made even more astounding by Green’s minutes-per-game splits, which show that not only does he score more when he plays more, he also scores more efficiently — shooting 39 percent when he plays 10-19 minutes, 46 percent when plays 20-29, 47 percent when he plays 30-39, and an astounding 52 percent when he plays 40 or more (in a sample size of just five games, too small to draw any real conclusions, but big enough to remain intriguing).
These 10 games cast a shadow over not only the beginning of the Celtics season, but the previous six years of Green’s pro career, a career more characterized by confusion and disappointment than production and achievement. Green never floundered enough in his three-and-a-half seasons as a Sonic/Thunder to be considered a bust, and the perception persisted that he was a valuable player. But you rarely saw him dominate games, you were never really sure what his true role was (his skill set seemingly somewhat redundant with fellow oversized small forward Kevin Durant), and when you looked closely at the stats, little about them really backed up the idea that he was an All-Star talent.
The experts confirmed this, with John Hollinger claiming in 2012 of Green that “there’s no evidence he’s actually good” and calling his extension the “worst contract of the summer,” and Zach Lowe rebutting Bill Simmons’ eye-test-over-advanced-stats vote of confidence in the new Celtic on a BS Report podcast by saying that it wasn’t just advanced stats that didn’t like him, no level of stats were particularly complimentary to him. Lowe’s point was arguable — Green did average 16.2 PPG and 6.5 RPG in ’08-’09 on 45 percent shooting and 39 percent from three, pretty decent face-value numbers — but it was true that Green had never posted a PER above 14 (NBA average is 15) for a season, and that only once had his defensive rating been lower than his offensive rating, posting a 106/105 in ’09-’10.
Also confounding the perception of Green as a good player was that not only had he not ever won much, he’d been involved in two trades in his career that helped build contenders, and he was sent the other way in both of them. Few could hold the first against him, where he was traded as the No. 5 pick in the 2007 draft from Boston to Seattle — seemingly moving from one lottery-bound club to another, except that Boston was able to use their trade return of Ray Allen as the prelude for a much bigger blockbuster deal that landed them franchise-changer Kevin Garnett, winning their first championship in over 20 years the very next season, as the Sonics won 20 games in their last season in Seattle. Green would at least go on to be part of the rebuilding effort in OKC, forming a lower-credentialed Big Three with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the now-Thunder fought their way back to NBA respectability.
The second trade, however, would be the real doozy. Coming out of nowhere at the trade deadline in 2011, Green was sent from the Thunder back to the Celtics, in a deal that brought back Boston center/enforcer Kendrick Perkins. The Celtics, who had been absolutely rolling that season, going 41-14 before the trade, slipped badly after the trade deadline, going just 15-12 the rest of the way and losing to the Heat in five games in the second round of the playoffs, with their core so badly disrupted and their lack of frontcourt depth exposed after the trade of Perkins and injuries to aging centers Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal. It seemed like the Celtics had sacrificed their title chances to rebuild in part around Green, and his production — about 10 points and three rebounds a game off the bench behind Paul Pierce — did little to justify that decision in the short term.
Meanwhile, even more damningly, the Thunder — who never won a playoff series with Green — made it all the way to the conference finals that year, falling to the eventual champion Mavericks but establishing themselves as a team to be reckoned with over the next decade. It wasn’t even that Perkins, their primary return in the trade, played all that well for OKC — his stats that season were far more negligible than Green’s ever were — but it was that without Green, their team suddenly made sense. There was no more positional overlap between with Kevin Durant, as the far more complimentary shot-blocker Serge Ibaka slid into the starting power forward role, and his scoring load was easily replaced by a stepped-up effort from second year combo guard James Harden, whose scoring was efficient in all the ways Green’s wasn’t. Seemingly just by ridding themselves of Jeff Green, the Thunder went from exciting young team to title contender overnight.
And that’s what’s really dogged Jeff Green for his entire pro career. He’s just never fit. His excellent (at times, anyway) perimeter defense and his lack of big rebounding numbers would suggest that he’s more of a small forward than a power forward, but he’s never played on a team that didn’t already have one of the best small forwards of the 21st century on it. His stats say that he’s better the more minutes he gets — Doc Rivers played him the entire first half against Minnesota, as if to test whether there was any kind of breaking point to the correlation — but he can’t get those minutes without playing a role that seemingly leaves his team compromised in some other area. It makes sense that his production would begin to explode as his high-usage teammates would gradually fall to injury. Finally: Minutes and shots enough at last.
It’s really been quite breathtaking to watch Jeff Green be truly unleashed on the NBA. Of course, it started in one of those reserve games, when he helped save the Celtics’ season by shutting down LeBron James in overtime during the emotional C’s victory over the Heat on the day news about Rondo’s season-ending injury leaked. Then the true breakout came in the teams’ rematch, where Green shredded the Heat for a career-high 43 in arguably the greatest challenge to Miami’s endless winning streak until the Bulls snapped it for good. As surprising as Green’s excellence was both times, it didn’t look unnatural. With his length, athleticism, shooting touch and driving ability, there was really no reason why he shouldn’t be one of just a handful of players on Earth with the potential to play the role of a true LeBron nemesis.
Even amidst the haywire, Nellyball-reminiscent play of the recent Celtics, in just about every start Green’s made since those two games, there have been at least a couple of moments that give you flashes back to those two games, where Green alternately played the unstoppable force and the immovable object. A falling-away three to hit the buzzer. A layup drive too long and strong to be challenged by anyone. A defensive stand on the perimeter that forces a long fadeaway two. C’s announcer Tommy Heinsohn seems as stunned and perplexed by it as anyone — the awe and incredulity was obvious in his voice on the call last night after a Green dime to a diving Shavlik Randolph in the pick-and-roll: “Nice pass by Green … hey, Green can pass the ball, too! He’s … he’s got a lot of all-around skills!”
But the coming out party has to end sometime for Jeff Green. Paul Pierce isn’t sidelined more than day-to-day, and presumably, Kevin Garnett will be back at some point, forcing the question of whether it’ll be Starter Jeff Green or Reserve Jeff Green we see in the first round of the playoffs. Will Doc dare attempt a Pierce-Green-Garnett frontcourt? Will Green’s excellence be maintained in decreased minutes, if not a bench role? And is all of this a small-sample-size mirage, and once 10 starts for Boston becomes 20 or 30, will Green’s stats and level of play sag back down to the underwhelming levels we’d come to expect from him? I don’t know the answers to any of these, but I’ll absolutely watch every Boston game for the rest of the season, even as the games themselves get less and less meaningful, to find out.
And just watching Green, the man himself, is nearly as fascinating as watching his on-court production. I’ve always had a reflexive, deep sympathy for players whose faces seem to wear the trials and tribulations of their entire life and career — I think FreeDarko once described Tracy McGrady’s face as “dripping with humanity,” and that’s probably why I believe it to be one of the NBA’s greatest personal tragedies that he never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. Green has maybe the most expressive face since T-Mac, a sensitive, almost Charlie Brown-ish mug through which you can see the lines of his years of letdowns, of media and fan abuse, and lest we forget, of health scares, as the heart surgery he faced at the beginning of last season undoubtedly marked a far greater test of courage and character than anything his rocky NBA career has provided him. Along with his unassuming-but-striking name — made doubly interesting by his playing in Boston — it adds an extra level of perceived complexity to an already fascinating player.
In the end, it’s the enigmatic NBA players that get us. As a Sixers fan, I love both Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, but while the consistently excellent Holiday makes my heart go pitter-patter, it’s the hot-and-cold, feast-or-famine Turner whose successes and failures I truly live and die with. The promise of potential perpetually unrealized, of something lurking beneath the surface that pops out for a moment before seeming to disappear forever, is an unmatched intrigue in this league, and being around for the rare moments where these enigmas appear to finally unveil themselves is about as great a thrill as sports has to offer. Nobody in basketball has a story quite like Jeff Green’s, and nobody in basketball is as interesting right now as it moves into its next chapter.