After a defensive breakdown in the second quarter of Saturday’s 129-118 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson walked over to Draymond Green to discuss how Milwaukee’s Damian Lillard drove with ease to the hoop for a wide-open layup.
Later in the fourth quarter as Golden State’s defense faded, Green ran from his spot on the bench to point Atkinson toward another defensive error. The Warriors’ start to 2024 has been full of them.
“He was talking to [his teammates] about how to guard certain guys, which direction to send them,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the game about Green’s involvement from the bench.
“Draymond is a huge help, but I’m more looking forward to getting him back on the floor.”
Since his reinstatement following his indefinite suspension for striking Phoenix Suns center Jusuf Nurkic on Dec. 12, Green — who is expected to return to game action Monday against the Memphis Grizzlies — will now try to revive a struggling Warriors team that’s in 12th place in the Western Conference.
Green’s suspension lasted 12 games, and he has missed an additional four working on his conditioning. He was also suspended five games in November for putting Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert in a chokehold.
Throughout Green’s recent 16-game absence, the Warriors are second worst in the league in defense, allowing 123.8 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Warriors have also given up at least 70 first-half points four times this season, all of which occurred in their past six games.
But Green, a four-time All-Star, will help stabilize a rotation missing Moses Moody, Chris Paul and Gary Payton II because of injuries. Green’s return could also limit minutes for Jonathan Kuminga — a player Kerr has increasingly relied on and who started in 14 of those games without Green.
If there’s any area that could be immediately impacted by Green’s return, it’s the Warriors’ defense. But even the former Defensive Player of the Year said his return won’t solve everything that ails this team.
“Nothing ever just flips,” Green told ESPN. “I don’t look at myself as some savior, like this is going to save our defense or anything like that. I think I can help with communication.
“‘And like with everything else, it’s contagious.”
By his All-Defense standards, Green is having a down season, holding opponents to 44.5% shooting as the primary defender — his worst rate since 2014, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
He’s also holding opponents to 53.1% shooting in the paint, an increase from last season’s 43.6%, which was the second-best mark in the league among players who contested at least 40 such shots.
But Green’s presence will be most felt at the rim. The Warriors have allowed opponents to shoot 71% at the rim (compared to 63% when he was in the lineup), according to Second Spectrum.
“We’re not the Warriors without him,” guard Klay Thompson told ESPN.
Perhaps the area in which Green will be needed the most, though, is the least tangible. Communication — or lack thereof — has repeatedly been pinpointed by the team as the Warriors’ key defensive issue.
“The lack of communication leads to lack of trust,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry told ESPN. “You have to give up something in the league, whether it’s one of the weaker shooters, whether you’re blitzing the guy that has the hot hand or their go-to, helping on drives.
“But if you don’t trust each other, there isn’t just going to be one breakdown, but the second one and the third one.”
Golden State’s defense has been particularly problematic in transition. Since the Dec. 14 loss against the LA Clippers (Green’s first game out after the Nurkic incident), Golden State ranks 26th in transition defense, allowing 1.43 points per possession in transition, according to Second Spectrum.
“Getting back is always the first responsibility. And then communication,” Green said. “When we are communicating, things go properly. And when we aren’t, then everyone’s just guessing.
“It’s like an offense. You find me a team that doesn’t run any sets … they are going to get blown out. Defense is no different. Our communication can be better, and that falls on me.”
Green spent his entire suspension — which spanned 3½ weeks — away from his team. He stayed at his home in Los Angeles with his wife and children. He didn’t pick up a basketball for the first 10 days.
He has said that experience alone felt like a form of therapy. Green also participated in individual counseling sessions, as well as group calls with his agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul; Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr.; trainer Rick Celebrini; and members of the players’ union.
Green didn’t step foot back in the Warriors’ facilities until after he was reinstated Jan. 6. The space, Kerr said, was needed on all sides.
“He’s still obviously a huge part of this thing and a huge part of our leadership,” Kerr said after Green’s reinstatement. “But he needs the awareness that comes with what he’s just gone through and what he has put the team through, as well.”
Now that Green is back, there’s a need for him to not risk another suspension by maintaining his composure, especially in heated moments.
“You can’t stage these things that happen. They just happen on the fly,” Green said. “For me, I just have to be ready to react. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to be there for my teammates, that’s all I know how to do, too. Just got to make sure I react in the proper way.”
With Paul out several more weeks because of a hand injury suffered earlier this month, Green is also expected to take some of the pressure off Curry. Since Green has been out, Curry has seen his scoring average drop from 29.4 to 23.3 points, and his 3-point percentage slide from 43% to 36%.
Without Green, Curry’s burden increases substantially, and the star point guard is forced to create more looks on the floor. Curry’s shot creation rate jumps to 71% without his co-star. When the two share the floor this season, Curry needs to create only 61% of his shots.
“There’s an understanding that when he came back he [needed] to build up that endurance, and now that he’s back in the fray, we’re all patiently waiting,” Curry said.
After his reinstatement, Green said the decision of when he would return to the court was made collectively by the coaches, performance staff and his teammates.
“These guys have been through enough,” Green said. “The energy has been waning. If I can bring that energy, hopefully, guys can feed off that.”