There is some unidentifiable, likely illusionary, quality that Jeff Green possesses that turns NBA executives into overzealous caretakers who are stricken by the belief that they have the necessary infrastructure in place to extract whatever furtive ability still lies beneath Green’s surface.
That unfettered confidence has twice been the justification for trading a first round pick for Green. Memphis dealt a first rounder that is expected to convey in 2018 to Boston for Green in Jan. 2015, and the Los Angeles Clippers traded a lottery-protected first (likely to convey in 2019) to Memphis for Green on Thursday. After dangling Lance Stephenson to a number of teams before the deadline, Los Angeles opted to move him for Green rather than Channing Frye, and the cost of acquiring a more intriguing asset (and an expiring contract with Bird Rights) was a first rounder.
That is, in a vacuum, logical thinking. Frye would have been a nice addition, but his impact would have been muted when Blake Griffin returned from injury and resumed playing 35 minutes a night at power forward.1 Green is younger, can be let go this summer if this trial doesn’t work out and can play a position the Clippers haven’t filled with an above average player in several years.
The troublesome part is that the Clippers are betting on a potentially counterfeit asset, and that the executive who thinks he has the right environment for Green to thrive in is also the coach, spawning some kind of circular logic founded on unsubstantiated optimism. This is the second time Doc Rivers has acquired Green, and though he is in the middle of his prime now, Green is even less of a reliable quantity than he was when the Celtics got him from the Thunder in 2011. Who knows how Green’s career would have turned out if he didn’t have to miss the entire 2011-12 season while he recovered from heart surgery, but his time in the league since has mostly been cloudy and underwhelming.
Green is a combo forward who doesn’t have standout qualifications for either position. He’s a good athlete who can play in transition and has shown some ability to attack the rim against bent defenses and on cuts, but his efficiency has always been lacking (he’s never had a PER above 15.01), he is an inconsistent outside shooter (he’s shooting 31 percent deep this season and his career average is 34 percent), his defense is average for someone with his physical tools and he is not much a ball mover or someone who creates good shots for his teammates.2
But then there are those stretches, those games, those possessions, where Green looks like a player worth salvaging, a patient worth treating with alternative means. There was a stretch at the end of January when Green scored 30, 21, 29 and 24 in consecutive games, shooting better than 60 percent on each occasion. When a coach like Rivers gives up a first rounder for Green, he isn’t looking at modest per game averages and cantankerous shooting percentages; he sees those glimpses, which are sometimes as prolonged as a whole week, and figures that kind of production would be nice to have, even if it comes in spurts.3
For a team that has been on the edge of a conference finals appearance, which should not be treated as some sort of laughable consolation prize given the current state of the West, that is far from the most objectionable rationale, and yet this trade reeks of the kind of move that a desperate team makes.
Contextually, this deal looks much worse than it is because of what the Pistons did Tuesday. Stan Van Gundy, whose front office debut has restored faith in the idea of coaches duel-wielding basketball-related responsibilities after Rivers sabotaged it, acquired a player who is essentially a younger, more malleable version of Green, Tobias Harris, without sacrificing any future assets, instead completing the deal with two expiring contracts as trade chips. Operating under the assumption that Orlando did the deal to clear an expensive cog in its forward log jam and to open up cap space in the summer, then the Clippers might have been able to send Stephenson and Jamal Crawford’s expiring contracts for Harris, who is under contract for three more seasons on a declining contract.
Then again, Rivers has never coached Harris before, so that move never seemed to be on that table. That Rivers has yet to expand beyond the scope of players he either coached or coached against might be the most concerning part about his tenure as a front office executive. One way to break that cycle is to inject some fresh (and cheap) talent into your locker room via the draft, but Rivers made how much he values draft picks evident in this deal.
To his discredit, Rivers has an embarrassing draft rap sheet, and the fact that he treated a first rounder like the worthless fodder his selections have turned out to be highlights an insensible thought process. The Clippers were the only team to sacrifice a small slice of its future in a win-now move at the deadline, which means they were the only team that thought it could improve enough to have a better shot at Golden State. All the other buyers on the market decided against pushing for contention because they had the sense to recognize how far off they are.
The Clippers have decent reason to believe they can give the Warriors a series, but that isn’t exactly the kind of ringing endorsement that should push a team to sacrifice a first round pick for a slight upgrade at small forward. That leads to the most interesting part of this trade: That Green might not be a significantly better basketball player than Stephenson, if he is better at all.
Stephenson was a spotty performer and never earned a spot in Rivers’ rotation, so Rivers traded for a commodity he was more comfortable with even though the new player might be worse and the opportunity cost of such a transaction was a first round pick.4
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Rivers has to realize the risk he took with this deal. He has to know that sacrificing a long term asset for a negligible upgrade in talent and fit is such bad business that even Kanye West wouldn’t consider it. He has to realize he has established a troubling trend of acquiring has-been and never-was players whom he has spent considerable time around and against.
Rivers must have considered of all of this before he decided to pull the trigger on a move in which he spent a first round pick on a perennially vague forward whose ideal situation is as hard to discover as gravitational waves. But despite all of the cons listed on his legal pad, Rivers was inebriated by Green’s imperceptible allure, and he is giving Green a third chance to prove that the grass can be greener if you find the proper pasture.