NEW YORK -- Jeff Green has spent his seven-year career confounding pundits. Dominant on some nights, underwhelming on others, Green has proven he can score. But he has never found an ideal fit during stints in Oklahoma City and Boston. He was the fourth option when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ran the show in Oklahoma City, struggled to find comfort on the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen Celtics teams and was the only gifted scorer in town after all those players departed.
Trapped in an ill-suited role on the rebuilding Celtics, the 28-year old swingman needed a change before his prime passed. He’s not the go-to scorer that Boston forced him to be this season, but he has an ideal frame (6-foot-9, 235 pounds), a field-goal percentage (43.4) and inside-and-out scoring game to support other more dominant scorers.
Green, who the Grizzlies acquired in a three-team trade on Monday, may have finally found the ideal fit.
His Memphis debut on Wednesday was quiet, but his presence was felt. Green finished with 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting in the Grizzlies’ easy 103-92 over the struggling Nets. Wednesday's concern was finding comfort, and Green was at ease.
“I think I played with every guy in the lineup [Wednesday],” Green said after the game. “You only feel nervous for a couple of minutes, and then, well, you just go out and play basketball.”
Green signifies an important transition for a Memphis team whose offense has improved this year, but remains an unknown entering the second half of the season. The Grizzlies dumped traditional alpha scorers O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay two seasons ago in favor of a front court scoring attack anchored by stars Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Both years, with their suffocating defense and physical offense, the Grizzlies were unlikely but legitimate Western Conference contenders.
The problem? You may not need an alpha scorer like Kevin Durant or LeBron James, but you need some dependable ones. During the Western Conference Finals in 2013 and a memorable seven-game series against Oklahoma City last season, Memphis trusted high-leverage perimeter shots in the hands of Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter and Courtney Lee.
Enter Green. The former No. 5 overall pick automatically improves the offense not just by his scoring ability (he has a career average of 14.4), but by his versatility. For a Grizzlies team who has banked on their big men and defense the past two seasons, Green is the sixth man that Joerger has missed these last two years. Coupled with the stunning surge of guard Courtney Lee, who scored 18 points on Wednesday to up his three-point shooting percentage to an astonishing 49.9 percent, Green gives Joerger a second perimeter threat and arguably the best driver he’s had since taking over the team.
“His athleticism allows him to move from the three to the four,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley says. “One second he’s posting up, one second he’s behind the three-point line and then he’s above the rim. Everything he has at his disposal makes him so tough to guard.”
But to Joerger, it’s not the scoring that makes Green an ideal addition to the team. It’s his dynamism.
“I just love him,” Joerger said. “You see the athleticism when he fires out of his position. He can drive it, he has some playmaking to him. He finds players for open shots. He can hit runners. We need that playmaking and athleticism.”
For instance: Joerger first subbed Green to join starters Gasol, Randolph and Lee along with backup point guard Beno Udrih. On Green’s second possession, Gasol, a known threat from 12-20 feet, faced up against defender Brook Lopez, who was protecting against a jump shot.
Green delivered a sharp cut, the “burst of athleticism” that Joerger alluded to, to cut around Gasol and toward the low right-hand block. Lopez backed off, seeing Green open so close to the bucket, which immediately allowed Gasol to swish a 10-foot turnaround jumper. Green exploded past his defender on the cut. He didn’t have the ball, but he should have been awarded an assist.
His larger impact was seen in some of the lineups he played in against the Nets. There were smaller, faster lineup combos like two, and bigger, slower lineups like four and five:
|3||Green-Vince Carter-Udrih-Kosta Koufos-Leuer|
“We can really mess around with some things with [Green] here,” Joerger said. “We’re never going to be a small-ball team, but we’ve got to match up with the small ball teams in the west.”
Already one of the most dangerous benches in the NBA, the Grizzlies can now comfortably run nine players for large portions of the game (only Leuer, Jarnell Stokes and Jordan Adams saw the floor for less than 10 minutes on Wednesday night).
In Green, they add a player who never fit in anywhere, but could now be their ticket to the Western Conference Finals.