Gregg Popovich Helped Danny Green Turn The Corner

Melissa Rohlin

Danny Green's relationship with Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich was never simple, but it was definitely career-altering.

Popovich gave Green tough love, helping him transform from a fringe player who had stints with three different G-League teams into a two-time NBA champion.

Green said they have a love-hate relationship, acknowledging there were hard times. But he said they talk often and Popovich will always be family.

"He's like my grandpa," Green told Sports Illustrated. "I treat him like that and we're blood. I love him to death."

Green, who signed a two year, $30 million deal with the Lakers in July, struggled when he first came into the league in 2009. He said Popovich helped turn things around.

Popovich taught Green to have 'the appropriate fear,' a phrase he uses to remind players to respect the game and its ephemeral nature. 

"That keeps me going," Green said. "That keeps me in the league and keeps me not satisfied with what I've done." 

It's what inspired Green to continually morph and develop. He's now in his 11th season as a highly valued role player.

Green is a sharpshooter but he's always been streaky, so he learned to make himself invaluable in other ways. He's a lockdown defender, stretches the floor and he's a good teammate. 

"Danny’s a great guy," Dwight Howard said. "He’s always dancing, always having a good time. He works extremely hard. It’s just fun. He’s a great guy to be around."

Green has struggled with his three-point shooting this season, averaging 38.1 percent from beyond the arc, a significant dip from the career-high 45.5 percent he shot from that distance with Toronto last season. 

"This year, I haven't been the specialist that I've needed to be," Green said. "Still getting better, still perfecting it. But nothing in this league is easy to do, especially when people know what you're good at. They're going to try to limit that, take that away from you."

That's been frustrating at times for Green, but he's found other ways to help the Lakers. 

He hustles and does the small things, the stuff that shows up in corners of stat sheets, if at all.

In a game against Memphis last Friday, Green had the highest plus-minus rating (26) of anyone on the court even though he was one-for-three from the field. 

"His IQ and intelligence is an underrated part of defense," Lakers' coach Frank Vogel said. "He’s always in the right spot. He has great toughness and size. He has a great ability to use his instincts to deflect the basketball. You get a lot of those scrums in the paint. You see him stripping balls and coming up with balls and things like that. Obviously he’s one of the best chase-down blocks wings in the game and is great at contesting threes as well. Definitely a huge part of our defensive effectiveness this year."

Green felt at home with the Lakers right away.

Early on, the players started a group text message chain in which superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis often joke around, creating a culture of openness and acceptance. 

"When they're in the group chat able to just be themselves and be characters and put together things for the team, it's easier for everybody to just learn each other," Green said.

Green's relationship with James extends back to his rookie season, when he played in 20 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009. 

Green said it's been really interesting reconnecting with James at this stage in his career, now that he's 35 years old, has three NBA championships and is widely considered one of the greatest players of all time. 

"He's been a character since day one, since my rookie year," Green said. "Obviously, he's a winner now, he's definitely more mature, has older children, all those things since nine years ago, 10 years ago. But our relationship is a good one. I think it's pretty unique."

One of the Lakers' many strengths this season is their chemistry. They're a team that genuinely likes each other, often sharing dinners on the road and inviting each other to their personal events. 

Green is an essential part of that brotherhood. 

"Danny’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, you know, as far as genuinely caring about you, about how you’re doing," Alex Caruso said. "And honestly, as a basketball player, multiple time champ. He’s a bonafide pro."

Green has a well-decorated career, but he took a lot of bumps along the way. 

After playing four years at North Carolina, Green was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the 46th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft but was waived the following season. The Spurs then acquired Green in Nov. 2010, waiving him after six days, then re-signing him in March. Over that period, Green had stints in the G League with the Erie BayHawks, Reno Bighorns and Austin Toros as he fought to prove he belonged in the NBA. After the lockout ended in 2011, Green started making a name for himself.

Green set an NBA Finals record by making 27 three-pointers for the Spurs against Miami in 2013. He was a key part of the Spurs' championship team in 2014. And he was one of just four players to shoot over 40 percent from beyond the three-point line from 2011-12 through 2014-15, along with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver. 

The Spurs reluctantly parted ways with Green in 2018. He was included in a deal that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto for salary cap purposes. Green went on to win his second championship with the Raptors in 2019. 

"We were very close to Danny," Popovich told reporters in November. "We miss him. He was a wonderful person and a great player for us. He was a big part of everything we did."

Green's journey has made him a role model to some of his teammates. 

"I think he’s just a great pro for all of the young guys, even me, being a 10-year player in the NBA," Avery Bradley said. "I’ve learned a lot from Danny. I just really respect his approach every single day. He’s a consistent person every single day. Every day he comes in he just has a smile on his face and is happy to be here. I think it’s a continuous reminder for us to appreciate every moment we have to play this game."

Green's goal for the rest of the season is simple.

There's 25 games left, but he wants to double that number.  

"If we do what we're supposed to do and play until June, we'll play another 50 games," Green said.

Green knows how to go deep in the playoffs. 

It's something he learned from Popovich, who challenged, inspired and cajoled him to mature into a respected NBA champion. 

"I give the whole [Spurs] organization a ton of credit in building me to who I am and who I've become," Green said. "They really turned me into a player there."

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