In the backyard of Draymond Green’s $10 million home in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, where white columns and a marble patio overlook the greenest of grass, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr chatted with the heartbeat of his team.
Hours earlier, the Warriors had landed in Los Angeles to a whirlwind of drama. The night before, Dec. 12 in Phoenix, Green had protested an uncalled foul by spinning and flailing his arms. He struck Suns center Jusuf Nurkić in the face, incurring a Flagrant 2 foul and automatic ejection. This was just shy of a month after his previous Flagrant 2, a five-second chokehold of Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert that landed Green a five-game suspension and a promise of harsher future league penalties.
So while the basketball world waited for the league’s latest punishment — an indefinite suspension that ended up lasting 12 games — and before the Warriors took on the host Clippers, Kerr visited Green for their latest heart-to-heart talk. These two have argued and debated. They’ve cursed each other out. They’ve strategized together. Bared their souls to one another. On this day, they cried together.
And Kerr came equipped with an appeal: “I want you to end this the right way. I want us to end this the right way.”
Discussing the end strikes a chord with Green. Kerr knew it would. He’s spent the last five years in the trenches with Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, warding off the inevitable. Fighting against basketball mortality. The way last season ended, and how this one has gone, they can hardly deny the end is nearing. Stalking them. They can feel its breath.
“We’re in a position where we’re getting older, trying to defend everything that we’ve done over the last decade,” Kerr said recently after practice, explaining his pitch to Green. “Let’s do it the right way. Let’s do it with dignity. Let’s do it with competitive desire. Let’s do it joyfully. What this team has been built on, and I think what attracts a lot of our fans, it’s not just the style but it’s the joy that the players feel, the competitive desire that sort of complements that. It’s been a wonderful combination.”
Since the NBA went to a two-round draft in 1989, only three players have made the Hall of Fame who were not selected in the first round: Toni Kukoč, Ben Wallace and Manu Ginobili. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokić is sure to join them. But not before Green, the No. 35 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. His next decade was worthy of a documentary.
That’s why it’s imperative for the 33-year-old Green, who is expected to return to game action Monday and has three years and over $77 million remaining on his contract, to end his career right. Because finality with a shot of regret is too strong an elixir. Over the last 15 months, he has been choreographing a conclusion that sullies the quality of his journey. His prominence has become more about flagrants and flails, suspensions and stomps, petulance and punches.
Green’s legacy should be a glorious one. An improbable legend, a four-time NBA champion born of the rare combination of skill, intellect and toughness. The chubby kid from rusty Saginaw, Mich., forged himself into an all-time great. A testament to the capacity of will, of what sports can blossom from unlikely soils.
“He was 285 pounds when I first got him,” said Tom Izzo, who coached Green at Michigan State.
Instead, his reputation is currently more about the problems he causes than the championship solutions he has delivered. But his teammates believe, his coach believes, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his enforcer, executive vice president Joe Dumars, believe there is a Draymond in there worth fighting to save. A legacy that deserves better punctuation.
“When I look back at these situations,” Green said last week, “it’s like, ‘Can I remove the antics?’ I am very confident I can remove the antics. And I am very confident if I do, no one is worried about how I play the game of basketball, how I carry myself in the game of basketball. It’s the antics. That’s the focus. It’s not changing who I am completely. You don’t change the spots on a leopard.”
Kevon Looney’s AAU coach, Shelby Parrish, was in the Bay Area visiting, not long after Looney was drafted in 2015. Looney was showing his youth coach around and, next thing he knew, Green was hanging out with coach Parrish. They talked for at least an hour.
Then Green invited Looney and his guests to hang out at Halftime Sports Bar in Oakland. In the middle of the day, they were playing dominoes with Green. Parrish had the memory of a lifetime.
“The reason that he’s allowed to yell at people,” Looney said of Green, “and get animated is because he only wants to win and he puts the time in off the court. … When I first got here, any time there was a rookie, anytime somebody new came to the team, he’s the first person to take them in and take them out. Show ’em the town. Put them in touch with the people they need to know. That’s what he did for me. All my family and friends, he made them feel comfortable, like they were his family.”
Back in October, Trayce Jackson-Davis worked out in the team’s practice facility on the ground floor of Chase Center. The rookie big man, who turns 24 in February, was still getting accustomed to life in the NBA when he learned he would start at center against Sacramento in the third preseason game. Green, sidelined with a sprained left ankle, interrupted the rookie’s workout. He gave Jackson-Davis 10 minutes of pointers on defending Kings big man Domantas Sabonis. The four-time champion schooling the No. 57 pick. Green walked through how to give Sabonis space, how to hold his ground when Sabonis lowers his shoulder or digs in his elbow, and how to get into Sabonis’ body on rebounds.
“It was great, especially how nervous I was,” Jackson-Davis said, “being so early in the season. The vets, at that time, weren’t around. We hadn’t developed relationships yet. He didn’t have to do that. But it helped. Especially in the first quarter, I guarded him really well.”
The dynamics of the Warriors, of locker rooms, of relationships within teams helps explain why, even after his laundry list of violations over the years, Green is still a Warrior. Still welcomed. Still redeemable.
It sounds like an oxymoron for a player who keeps letting his team down. Green’s inability to control himself and make sure he’s available for a team that desperately needs him could be seen as disloyalty. Watching the Warriors’ defense decline significantly without him underscores how much his absence hurts the Warriors.
“Part of that complexity,” Kerr explained, “is this intense loyalty to the team and to the organization, to his coaches. He’s loyal to me. We’ve definitely had our share of run-ins, but it’s all in the name of trying to win.”
“I think the people that he trusts and he believes in, he’d die for ’em,” Izzo said. “I know that sounds like a drastic statement. I believe it. I really do.”
Green is a dichotomy. Most aren’t privy to the countless impactful moments behind the scenes. That character is behind the patience he receives within the organization. It also fuels the hope he can rectify his name.
As Looney said, “There is way more good than bad.”
The one incident Looney doesn’t get behind, the one the Warriors all agree was the most wrong Green has been, was punching Jordan Poole in October 2022. Fresh off of a summer of basking in championship glory, Green again changed the narrative about himself when he attacked Poole in practice in an altercation that escalated too far. The video leak made it a permanent mark on Green’s record.
Striking Poole wasn’t motivated by winning, or loyalty, or getting the most out of his teammates. Of all the things Green has done, it’s the sin that’s been forgiven but not forgotten. And it continues to haunt the Warriors, as the spark of the more volatile version of Green that has been suspended four times for a total of 19 games in the last 10 months.
Green wasn’t suspended for the Poole punch. At the time, the Warriors believed a suspension wasn’t enough. They wanted him to live in the discomfort he caused. They kept his locker next to Poole, perhaps hoping they would reconcile. In the end, it just kept the discomfort alive, and Green had to live with it. His punishment was having to earn back the trust.
He did eventually. But accumulation is now a factor. Earlier in his career, Green could just go dominate and shut everyone up. That’s not so easy anymore. As the antics have increased, the winning has lessened. Now that the NBA is involved and increasingly punitive, the price of his antics is greater than it’s ever been. Green’s problems have become less a caveat of success and more a barricade in the way of it.
“Part of what drives Draymond is the insecurity that we all have in us,” Kerr said. “Most people don’t really want to admit vulnerability. He’s not Steph Curry. He’s not LeBron James. He can’t just ride on, ‘Well, I’ll go get 25 tonight.’ For him to play well, he has to be all in, emotionally and physically and spiritually. And there are times where And there are times where because it’s an 82-game season with all the drama, all the BS that’s out there … it eats at him. And then he can’t just rely on that skill … so then he’ll lash out. And when he lashes out, there’s repercussions.”
If anybody could be done with Green and his antics, it’s Kerr. But they’re so much alike, which Kerr made clear to Green in that backyard talk. Kerr, a five-time NBA champion as a player, knows what’s it like to become so maddened by his competitive drive. He’s been where Green is, so he knows where Green needs to go to deal with that consuming drive.
“It’s kind of deep s—, you know, that we’re talking about,” Kerr said. “Being vulnerable. That’s one of the things I’m encouraging him to do. Be more vulnerable. Just admit you’re wrong. There’s a power in that, you know? If he does, then he doesn’t have to explain himself. And if he’s not explaining himself, I think people will have more sympathy.”
Green was expecting to be a first-round pick in 2012. He played four seasons at Michigan State, played in two Final Fours and as a senior was a consensus All-American.
But Green didn’t fit the NBA mold. He was seen as a “tweener” — a player whose combination of size and skill left him between the traditional positions. The 6-foot, 7 1/2-inch Green was considered too small to be a power forward and not athletic enough to be a small forward. None of his measurements added up to what he’s become.
But his immeasurables were off the charts. And the No. 1 attribute working on his behalf is still the thing mentioned first about him today. Draymond is synonymous with winning.
“You just don’t have that many people anymore for whom winning is the most important thing,” Izzo said. “You know, sometimes I get mad at him because his podcast takes up time. … But all these players have distractions. But with him, it’s about winning. If you need him to set a screen, get a rebound, make a pass, take a shot, never take a shot — whatever it is. I just don’t know enough people that put winning as the priority.”
When the Warriors drafted him in the second round, it was the perfect match. A franchise needing to build a winning culture landed a player with the formula it lacked. High basketball IQ. Defensive genius and leadership. Natural talent. Heart. And it was on display immediately.
At Summer League in 2012, the Warriors’ young players were in Las Vegas practicing and playing some high-intensity scrimmages. Harrison Barnes was the lottery pick that year. Festus Ezeli was the Warriors’ other first-round pick. Green wasn’t one of the prized young talents. Jeremy Tyler, a former high school sensation who was selected in the second round in 2011, was assigned to be Green’s mentor. That was until Tyler called a foul during the scrimmage in Las Vegas that Green thought was weak and a sign of his softness.
“He dropped him as his vet,” Barnes recalled in an interview with the Mercury News in 2015. “He said Jeremy couldn’t be his vet anymore.”
Months later, when the full team got together for pickup runs before training camp, Green was going at veteran David Lee, the Warriors’ lone All-Star at the time.
Green was this way at Civitan Recreation Center in Saginaw, when he was the little guy earning his keep on the court with the older kids. He was this way at Saginaw High, when he led his school to two state championships and a top-five national ranking as a senior. He was this way as a freshman at Michigan State, when he played six minutes in his debut and by the end of the season was a rotation player in the national championship game.
“A lot of my respect for Draymond comes from on the court,” Looney said. “I always took pride in being a tough guy, being tenacious, being relentless, always showing up and holding yourself accountable. And I always see him sacrifice the most. As a young player, I admired that. He’ll make every play.”
Before the antics, winning was Green’s clear legacy. It’s how he garnered respect, awe even. It’s his worth in a league full of bigger, more athletic and more talented players. It’s how he made four All-Star Games and earned two All-NBA nods, eight All-NBA Defense selections and a Defensive Player of the Year award.
“He’s the ultimate winner,” Kerr said. “A champion. This whole business is about winning. … Draymond, even though he can be hard to coach because of emotion, he is actually easy to coach because of his brain and his loyalty and his fight and his competitive drive. I’ll take those guys every day of the week.”
None of the Warriors’ success happens without Green. That’s the declaration in Kerr’s appeal to end the right way.
As the heartbeat, Green has shown he can will the Warriors to a higher level, but he’s also shown he can drag them into the muck. The same fire he used to help refine the Warriors into a dynasty has proven hot enough to burn what they’ve built.
Now, the journey begins, again, to see if the Warriors can rely on Green. If the reflection takes. If the counseling and growth sticks. If so, the Warriors can go out with class, celebrated for their valiance. That would fit their story, and Green’s. But they can’t end this right without him.
“My thing with him now is,” Izzo said, “can you take these last three years or whatever, and just focus in on this. Really leave the legacy that you deserve to have. And that’s as one of the greatest winners. That’s one of the tougher competitors. That’s a very good teammate.”
(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Jane Tyska / Digital First Media / East Bay Times