The Long Two: Draymond’s offensive value, the Heat’s title case

Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, NBA

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Why Draymond Green’s offense may be just as important to the Warriors as his defense. Plus: why the Miami Heat might be the best team in the East.

After more than 1000 days on ice, one of the truly unique trios in NBA history is intact once again. Draymond Green’s return from a back injury this week finally reunited him with Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, and though a left foot injury could sideline Curry until the start of the playoffs, the coming weeks will eventually provide the first extended look at the Warriors’ star trio in nearly three years.

The beauty of the Curry-Thompson-Green constellation is in the way each piece complements the other two. All three brilliantly accentuate one another’s strengths while masking each other’s deficiencies, amplifying everyone’s value in a perfectly symbiotic partnership. At their best, those three transform themselves and their teammates into something far greater than the sum of their parts, and to try and parse one player’s value from the others’ is to almost miss the point of their unique on-court alchemy.

Draymond Green makes everything easier for the Warriors

The flip side of that codependency, however, is that when one piece is removed from the operation, the entire team suffers — as evidenced by Golden State’s recent struggles without Green. The Warriors were 17-14 without their frontcourt anchor, with just a plus-2.6 net rating in the eight weeks he missed.

After sporting the best defense in the NBA for the first four months of the season, Golden State slipped to third in defensive efficiency and fell outside the top 10 in offense without Green, underscoring just how vital he is on both ends of the floor. It’s not just Green’s ability to guard five positions and protect the rim, or the way he facilitates and creates space for teammates, that makes him so integral to the Warriors’ success; it’s how all of those skills fit into — and in many ways, define — the team’s identity. Few players see the game the way he does, and an even thinner subsect have elite physical tools to pair with that intelligence.

Though best-known as a singular defender, Green may be just as important to the Warriors’ offense because of the way he makes the game easier for Curry and unlocks the most lethal parts of his game. Curry is the most devastating off-ball player in NBA history, and it’s Green’s ball-handling and passing that frees him to weaponize that movement away from the ball as effectively as he does. Curry and Thompson sow chaos with their off-ball movement, but playing that style requires a sound decision-maker who can deliver the ball to the right places on the court. Green plays that role as well as anyone in the NBA, masterfully reading defenses’ reactions to his teammates’ movement and finding the resulting advantage.

Without Green around to facilitate, Curry had to take on a much heavier on-ball workload, which reduced his capacity for off-ball activity and forced him to take more difficult shots. Curry has gotten fewer assisted 3s and fewer shots at the rim in the 36 games Green has missed this season while shooting a meaningfully lower percentage from both areas of the floor. “Steph has to do a lot more off the dribble when I’m not playing,” Green recently explained on the Old Man and the Three podcast. “He doesn’t have to be on the ball as much when I am playing because I kind of shoulder all of those responsibilities.”

The difference was evident the moment Green stepped on the floor Monday night. He teed up a wide-open Curry 3 on his first offensive possession of the game, then, as if he’d never been away, found Curry again with a crosscourt laser:

Green should have a similar effect on Thompson, whose shot selection has left more than a little to be desired since his return to the lineup. Green, in theory, will allow him to find better shots within the flow of the offense because he knows how to direct that flow in specific directions.

“That’s one of the responsibilities that I really take on is just understanding with him, just keep track of the flow of the game and what’s going on,” Green said on the Old Man and the Three. “Because if you get him great shots, he’ll take those great shots. But if you don’t, he’s gonna take shots regardless, so you may as well do the job of trying to make them great.”

Just as important as his interplay with Curry and Thompson is Green’s ability to leverage their off-ball gravity into open shots for other Warriors, either by finding cutters slipping to the basket or spraying passes to shooters when the Splash Brothers draw two defenders:

Those are the kinds of improvisational sequences that were largely absent from the Warriors’ offense the last eight weeks, and though they’ll be less common without Curry on the floor, they’re still representative of Golden State’s offense at its best.

For now, all the Warriors can do is try to survive Curry’s absence (and wait for Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala to get healthy) and hope to hit the ground running when he returns. Soon enough, we may finally see the Warriors at full force and find out, after almost three full seasons, what has changed and what hasn’t.

Are the Heat the favorites to win the East?

The NBA’s narrative arc has passed through several Eastern Conference cities this season, with no fewer than five teams — Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland and Boston — positioning themselves at the center of the general NBA discourse at different moments. All the while, the Miami Heat have been lurking just outside the spotlight, quietly humming along at a steady 54-win pace while making perhaps the most convincing argument for championship viability of any team in the conference.

If there’s a theme of the Heat’s season, it’s their adaptability — a reflection of both Erik Spoelstra’s innovative coaching and the collective intelligence and competitiveness of his players. Despite a constant stream of injuries, Miami’s 46-24 record is the best in the East, with the second-best point differential in the conference and NBA’s 12th-easiest remaining schedule to boot.

Bam Adebayo, the team’s offensive fulcrum and defensive anchor, has missed 25 games this season; Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s best all-around player, has missed 22 while Kyle Lowry has sat out 17. Those three have logged just 489 minutes together all season, which has thrust previously unproven players like Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Omer Yurtseven into more prominent roles. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that those role players have more than picked up the slack and Miami has carried on just the same, outscoring its opponents even with Lowry, Butler and Adebayo all off the floor.

That’s obviously a testament to the talent and work of every player that has helped keep the team afloat, but it’s also proof of Spoelstra’s ability to squeeze the most out of any lineup, scheme or situation. The Heat run a smart, egalitarian offense predicated upon ball and player movement rather than individual dominance, which allows Miami to maintain its offensive principles even without its best players.

Stars like Butler, Adebayo and Lowry elevate the offense significantly, but there’s still enough structure in place to hold firm in those players’ absences. Miami takes the most basic basketball concepts and elevates them to a point of dynamic intricacy and critical importance. Off-ball movement, extra passes and spontaneous reads aren’t just flourishes to the system, they’re the foundation of it. The Heat turn those principles into high art, each possession a masterclass in collective improvisation. Every player is a threat, yet none are asked to play beyond their capabilities.

Now finally healthy, Miami can slide Martin, Vincent and Strus into more comfortable roles while Butler, Lowry and Adebayo grab the reins of the offense again, which should only serve to amplify one of the most balanced attacks in the NBA. Their crisp ball and player movement has helped make the Heat the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA this season, and Miami features arguably the deepest arsenal of shooters in the league, which allows the Heat to get away with their two best players being virtual non-threats from deep. Strus is a near-automatic catch-and-shoot marksman, while Martin and Vincent have transformed themselves into reliable floor spacers. And even in a cold season, Duncan Robinson still possesses enough shooting gravity to bend defenses and generate four-on-three advantages that spur gorgeous passing sequences:

The same discipline and versatility that make the Heat one of the league’s best offenses has also translated to a top-five defense. Miami has forced the third-highest share of turnovers in the NBA while still keeping opponents off the offensive glass, and is capable of employing virtually any defensive coverage depending on matchups and personnel. While the Heat have benefitted from opponent shooting variance (they concede the most 3-pointers in the league), they also keep teams away from the rim and make them shoot under duress more often than the average defense. Stocked with smart and rangy perimeter defenders, Miami flies around with almost frenetic speed, yet remains connected enough to help and recover on the weak side. Butler, Lowry and P.J. Tucker have all slowed down on the perimeter but remain strong team defenders, and nailing defensive basics is a prerequisite for role players in Spoelstra’s rotation.

Miami’s connectedness is its greatest defensive strength, but Adebayo deserves mention for his growth as an individual defender as well. The big man has taken another step forward as a rim protector and all-around defender this year, and the Heat have held opponents to just 103.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — eight points better than when he sits and over three points better than the Jazz with Rudy Gobert on the court (albeit with significantly better defenders around him).

Part of that is the result of shooting luck, but it also reflects Adebayo’s unrivaled versatility. Against the pick-and-roll, he can hang back in a conventional drop coverage, meet the ball at the level of the screen, scamper out and trap the ball or simply switch onto the perimeter and keep guards in front of him. He’s quick enough to contain most any player in an isolation, yet can still bang with true centers on the block. He still isn’t quite an elite rim protector, which could keep him out of All-Defense consideration, but has been more reliable helping from the weak side and quelling threats at the rim this season.

Robinson and Tyler Herro’s defensive limitations will likely become more costly in the playoffs, but Miami’s limitless scheme versatility and depth should allow them to either mask those weaknesses or simply replace poor defenders with better ones against severe mismatches. The Heat could also run into offensive issues in the postseason if smart defenses like Milwaukee or Boston can mitigate the effectiveness of their ball movement and force Butler and Adebayo to create individually. The Bucks may even still be slight favorites over Miami to emerge from the East for their two-way balance and superior top-end talent. Yet in the absence of a clear favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference, maybe the team with the best hope of reaching the NBA Finals is the one that has offered the least reason for skepticism.

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