Somehow, Jeff Green Still Keeps Popping Up on NBA Rosters
It's easy to convince yourself that Jeff Green can help your team, but time after time he manages to disappoint you, regardless of how little you expected from him.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
You are walking in the park one day when an old crone draped in a red and black robe emerges from the bushes. She croaks at you with a hideous, reedy voice. “What kind of player does your squad need?”
You are taken aback for a second, unnerved by the sheer gruesomeness of this crone, and the really very unnerving specificity of the question. But, your squad does have some needs to get to the next level and you’re not opposed to talking sports with your elders, so you answer nevertheless. “I’m thinking an experienced wing player with obvious NBA skill and athleticism, but he’s still big enough to play the four. Long arms, of course.”
“Well well, have I got a DEAL for you!” The crone laughs, hideous laughter that seems to call forward the spirits of chaos from the bushes. Then you both stand there for a second, she says "OK, bye," and walks to a nearby bodega to buy a Slim Jim. That was weird, you think to yourself, but you just walk it off.
You head home, crash out on the couch, and whip out your phone. There’s a notification... from ESPN… your squad has…
...They’ve signed Jeff Green.
Boston, Memphis, Los Angeles, Orlando and now, the Cavs. Every one of these squads felt like they needed an athletic forward who could create a little, shoot a little, and defend a little, and they all saw Jeff Green play and decided that he was that dude. There’s something about him, he always looks fine, just a little out of place. It’s exceedingly easy to convince yourself that your coaches can figure out how to use him, the game is shifting towards smaller fours or bigger threes, or whatever excuse you formulate in your brain. But, like clockwork, as the years or the weeks and months go along, he proves them wrong, managing to disappoint no matter what you were expecting from him.
There are NBA players—Tracy McGrady, Chris Paul, nearly every Toronto Raptor—who seem cursed. They’re always tumbling into some playoff fuck-up or another, whose contending ambitions perpetually get scuttled by some contender or another forming from the mist and running them down in a depressing second round series. But this curse is of the existential variety, a curse in the way we all can feel cursed. Jeff Green is not cursed like this. Jeff Green is cursed like a talisman is cursed, like a monkey’s paw is cursed, like a fun, flirty, short summertime haircut is cursed. You convince yourself you need him, that there’s no other solution to your problems, and he just fucks you every time.
What do the Cavs need from Green? Much the same thing they need from most of their players: to be a body who is not LeBron James. And yet, even at this, there is some apparent difficulty. Green was insanely terrible in Cleveland's Game 2 loss to the Celtics, notching a measly six points, two boards, and an assist in 28 minutes, and really EARNING a game-worst -17 box plus/minus rating.
Green spent most of his minutes chilling behind the three point line. Now, of course, chilling in the corner has a lot of value, sometimes, but Green’s deeply middling three point shooting makes him a functional non-threat from beyond the arc, and his defender, whoever his defender happens to be, is totally unconcerned with shadowing him in any meaningful way, opting, instead, to help crowd the paint and keep LeBron from the rim.
But Green doesn’t just, like, spot up. He shuffles around back there, drifting back and forth in his corner box, half-engaged in the proceedings at large. During a down and dirty, all-bodies-to-the-floor jump ball contest between Aron Baynes and Larry Nance, Jr., while everyone else was throwing themselves onto the pile and letting themselves get taken over by the spirit of rowdy-boy competition, Jeff just strolled over slowly and stood and watched at middle distance. Malaise is Jeff’s trademark, his Jordan tongue. He is nearly inspiring in transition, like a vision out of an ad for warm up pants, vacillating between light jogging and straight up walking.
Then again, it’s not like an engaged Jeff is doing much more out there. Early in the second quarter, with LeBron sitting on the bench, Jeff gets touched by the Holy Ghost for God-knows-what reason, and calls his own number. He and Kyle Korver run a high screen and manage to get a switch, leaving Green up top with Semi Ojeleye guarding him. Green takes a pair of big dribbles into the paint, executes a tremendously slow spin move, extends for the layup, then slides on the floor as he watches his shot hit the bottom-left side of the rim. He ambles back on defense, arriving right as Rodney Hood is boarding a Marcus Smart miss. Then, he jogs back into into his corner, gets the ball with Al Horford shadowing him, decides that he has an advantage, drives at the rim, mushes into Al’s wide body almost immediately, turns around to bail on the drive, and gets his attempt at a pass out immediately picked off by Jayson Tatum.
Jeff does manage two good plays. The first is hitting an extremely open corner three pointer—unremarkable. The second is more interesting. With 2:50 remaining in the first half, Greg Monroe has J.R. Smith in transition in the post. Marcus Smart throws a post-entry pass to Greg and J.R., unable and unwilling to get down in the post with Big Greg, unsuccessfully gambles for a steal and leaves the rim totally unprotected. Jeff, in the right place at the right time, rises up on a driving Monroe and sends his dunk attempt flying.
Monroe is a profoundly marginal dude in today’s game, but once upon a time GMs lost their shit for dudes like him: a big man with some post-scoring ability but defects in other areas, slow footed on defense and prone to occasional lapses in competitive spirit. Front offices took every chance they could to get players with that combination of size and touch, and kept extending their careers one contract after another, each one smaller than the last. The Monroes of the league took in a pretty good haul on resumes where not much of use happened, drifting from team to team and irritating whatever fanbase was cursed with watching them kind of laze about on their teams. Around ten years ago, Greg Monroe was what Jeff Green is now.
The game demands something else now, though. It demands versatility, length, switchability, speed, shooting—all things Green can appear to have if you break your brain thinking about it. And so, a new kind of deeply mediocre player has risen from the ashes, listless as his predecessors but standing in the corner instead of in the post, defined by his altogether lack of utility on the perimeter.
Watching the Celtics defense enact a scouting report that just says “Who gives a shit?” and letting Jeff Green fester beyond the line while his assigned defender does everything he can to deter LeBron from getting into the paint, thoughts drift to the difference between what a general manager does and what a scout does. When you’re building a roster, getting whatever dude you think could possibly work, you consider things from a very wide perspective, thinking about fit and potential and utility and health in a very broad way. What could possibly help here, and how much do I have to pay them? is the operating question, not What is going to happen TONIGHT?, the question a person putting together a scouting report for a playoff series is going to ask.
Time after time, GMs ask the first question and talk themselves into Jeff Green and his ilk, while some dude looking at Synergy and SportsVU data night to night draws a flip book of a hand doing a jerk-off motion in the scouting report. Not that that dude is always right, either: volume scorers and other types of try-hards fool pretty much every eye-test known to man. Green’s whole career is the war between thinking big and thinking small, the general and the specific, playing out on your TV, game after game.
Jeff was still in the game in the fourth quarter, because the Cavs were out of dudes who could be a body out there. He got fouled and missed the first free throw with about a minute and a half remaining. He made the second, tacking another point to his playoff pile, getting larger in small increments, one contract at a time.