MEMPHIS — There was an undetermined length of time this past summer that people within the Warriors believed Draymond Green might sign with the Memphis Grizzlies. Steph Curry remembers it. He was in Hawaii. The threat of Green departing for a conference rival, he said, felt legit for at least a portion of that vacation.
“A day,” Curry estimated.
Green had the ultimate say. The Grizzlies were in lucrative pursuit but were clearly a form of leverage against the incumbent Warriors. Was there even a moment Green truly believed he’d leave his only NBA home for Memphis?
“An eensy-bit of time,” he said.
What’s an eensy-bit? Two hours?
“Just an eensy-bit,” Green repeated, bringing his index finger and thumb a centimeter apart.
Green is rehashing these details with The Athletic late Friday night in the Memphis visiting locker room, the only side of the arena that will remain familiar to him. His Warriors just finished off the Grizzlies, 121-101, the rare easy win in a season that has otherwise rocked a fading dynasty.
They are 21-24, currently 12th in the standings, struggling to overcome an early season spiral that included two debilitating Green suspensions and 24 total missed games from the defensive engine who remains their second-best player.
“I know I have to be in the game,” Green said. “For us to have the best chance at winning, I have to be there.”
But quickly back to the summer. Green credited Joe Lacob, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Kirk Lacob for what he described as “straightforward” negotiations. They haggled over years and money, but the Warriors’ front office prioritized his return and eventually delivered quite the commitment: Four years, $100 million with a player option on the final season. They weren’t letting a franchise legend leave for the Grizzlies.
But before the contract was finalized, Green and Joe Lacob had a long conversation. Green’s preseason punch of Jordan Poole had derailed the previous Warriors’ season. Steve Kerr had come out a month prior and directly pinpointed that event as the moment everything went haywire. So, before Lacob green-lit the Green commitment (and tax ramifications), he wanted vocal assurance from Green about the expectations attached to it.
“What I need to be for this organization,” Green said. “The growth I need to show. Helping young guys out. Mentoring. I want to see this organization not only do great while I’m here but after. I’ll be mentioned with this organization forever. And this will be home forever. So you want to see it in a great spot. And I have a direct impact on how that works.”
Green put Rudy Gobert in a chokehold during the first quarter of the season’s 12th game. He was delivered a five-game suspension and another stern warning from the league that his past would impact his future, if incidents continue.
In the season’s 23rd game, just Green’s sixth after returning, he spasmed into a spinning forearm club of Jusuf Nurkic’s face, connecting with force and sending the big Phoenix center tumbling to the ground. After a quick review and Flagrant 2 ruling, he sprinted to the locker room and into an uncertain NBA future.
The next day, the league nailed him with an indefinite suspension. Green holed up in his Los Angeles area home. Two months into a four-year contract that felt risky on the team side, Green had already broken the Lacob pledge. During his first days away from the team, Lacob called him. He saw the name on his phone and froze.
“I couldn’t answer it,” Green said. “I couldn’t talk to him. I did not talk to him. I didn’t call back. I almost hid. He gave me his word and he stuck by it. I gave him my word and I’ve let him down. It was probably a little cowardly. Like, I couldn’t face the music.”
Green’s absence lasted longer than a month. They were 18-21 when he returned, unable to find any traction because they were unable to find any lineup combination that worked. In Green’s first press conference, he admitted the urgency he felt to return to form as quickly as possible.
“I’ve cost this team enough,” he said.
There are several other factors that have led this Warriors season nearly off a cliff. Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins had extended slumps. Kevon Looney’s impact has eroded. Kerr has been hesitant to trust the emerging youth at vital moments. They’ve collectively given away seven should-be wins in the final minute.
But the eulogies will first mention Green’s actions and suspensions, same as they did the season prior, tying everything back to the Poole punch. It’s the burden he now faces.
“Who we are, what we stand for is enough of a burden,” Green said. “We’re never expected to lose. There’s a standard that’s been set. So for me, that’s enough burden. So I don’t go around thinking every day like, ‘F—, we got to make these games up that I missed.’ But what I do know is if it doesn’t get turned around, then that’s kind of what’s going to be said.”
That you’ll be blamed for the failure of the season and the closing days of a dynasty.
“Yeah,” he said. “No one ever wants that. You gotta do what you gotta do to turn it around. I know that’s what it’s going to be. So to negate that, there’s only one way to negate that — play well and win.”
That has always been Green’s path back. Play well, win and everyone will have to zip back up. He can’t be blamed for a failed season if a season doesn’t fail, if a dynasty breathes again.
In his six games back, Green has been the transformative force he knows he must be. It took him two games before Kerr upped his minutes limit past the 30 mark out of necessity. In his fourth game back, Kerr played Green 46 minutes. The Warriors outscored the Lakers by 31 points with him on the floor and were outscored by 32 in his 12 minutes on the bench, losing by one in double overtime.
“Didn’t know how long it’d take him to get back in shape,” Curry said. “Didn’t take long at all.”
Kerr placed him in the starting lineup the next game against the Lakers, bringing together what the franchise now believes will be their best five-man starting and closing unit: Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Kuminga and Green. His presence as a playmaking center who covers up countless defensive errors has allowed Kerr to use the Wiggins, Kuminga wing combination that was previously unplayable (minus-106) without Green.
“We’re turning the corner,” Green said.
The record doesn’t indicate a substantial surge. The Warriors are a modest 3-2 in their last five games. But the two losses were by a single point and Green is a cumulative plus-92 in his court time during that five-game stretch. They are dominating his minutes at the center, which is quickly becoming the identity of a team that didn’t have one.
“He’s playing so well,” Kerr said. “He makes our defense so much better. With this new lineup, it feels like we’re faster, more athletic, more capable of staying in front of people. And he’s the middle linebacker. He calls out all the coverages, sees the floor. He’s been very focused. He’s been humbled by what happened, the absence. I think it gave him some time to think about how much he loves to play, loves to be a part of the team and he didn’t want to see that slip away.”
There is plenty of time left for Green and the Warriors to salvage the season. They are a half-game out of the 10th spot and four games out of the sixth seed. It’s within reach. But for it to be feasible, Green must remain eligible and out of the league’s crosshairs.
Upon his return, Kerr said the team has instructed Green not to even bother with referees, proving to his teammates and coaches that he is focused on winning and nothing else. Green referred to it as his “antics,” which he said he can avoid.
In his first few games back, he was noticeably reserved. After a questionable non-charge, he took a deep breath and walked away from the referee without a word. He avoided engaging with a fan behind the bench who told him he needed to go to the “asylum.”
“He swayed to the extreme at the beginning,” Curry said. “Now he’s fine.”
Fine for Green means still able to talk his occasional smack to referees and opponents. He belted out an ‘And-1!’ after he didn’t get a call on a layup Saturday night. He bumped around with D’Angelo Russell during that Lakers game and mocked Jarred Vanderbilt when the Lakers forward begged for a review after a hard Green foul. He can’t remain mute.
“That’s not ever going to work,” Curry said. “You can get upset. But you can’t let it linger or go beyond a play and you’re distracted. You move on and play basketball. Once it lingers, that’s a different conversation.”
Green is under an increased microscope not just from the league, but also from opponents and opposing crowds. After a normal transition foul his first game back, Memphis fans roared in the official’s direction for punishment.
“Eject him,” one fan yelled.
“Suspend him,” another did.
Then there was this foul on Anthony Davis and Vanderbilt’s reaction, which led to the mocking Green.
“Shut yo b*tch ass up.” – Draymond Green to Jarred Vanderbilt 💀 pic.twitter.com/fouVO3p70d
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) January 28, 2024
Against the Grizzlies on Friday night, he struck Jaren Jackson Jr. with an elbow while attempting a layup. Here’s the play.
There was a collision near the rim. Green said he was also hit on the play and showed off the bump on his cheek postgame. It was called an offensive foul, which seemed like the correct, fair outcome. But for about 10 seconds after the whistle, the Grizzlies bench pleaded for the play to be reviewed as the crowd again roared with fans demanding an ejection.
These are the kind of sequences that’ll test Green’s patience at high-octane moments. When the officials decided to go to the monitor, he strutted to the bench in frustration. The NBA TV and NBC cameraman came over for a close up shot of him. He threw a towel over both cameras.
“You have an obligation to the game of not reacting to a crowd,” Green said of the officials. “There’s clearly no f—ing flagrant foul.”
Does he get any level of joy when he is proven correct on review? The officials deemed it a common foul.
“No,” Green said. “Because it’s a waste of my time. It’s a waste of mine and everyone else’s time.
“It’s dumb,” Curry said of the microscope reviews of any semi-hard Green foul. “It’s been like that though. But he’s responding to it well. Even though it’s still not fair, you don’t fight it.”
“I do think that’s important for me,” Green said. “That I grow up for myself, for my teammates, for my family, for my kids. I think it’s important for me to show growth to those that care about me, those that trust me.”
But that doesn’t mean he won’t voice his displeasure when every proceeding opponent starts waving their finger for a review like Vanderbilt or the entire Grizzlies team. He told Vince Williams Jr. during a scuffle on Friday night: “You’re not tough.”
“It just really shows me who guys are,” Green said. “You got a lot of guys that act like they’re really tough. And then the first thing they do is start waving their fingers. Says a lot more about you than it says about me. If anything, I see a guy, all these guys doing this (waving) and I’m like, ‘Oh, I got you. You’re that afraid of me? You’re that afraid of me?’ If anything, it just shows weakness in them.”
Green spotlighted this Malik Monk foul against him in the loss to the Kings last week.
After it, there was some discussion about a possible review for a flagrant.
“I told the referee right away: ‘Why are y’all going to review this? Stop wasting our time. Like, don’t go review. This is not a flagrant foul,’” Green said. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in this league. A lot of guys that play tough. But when some of these guys start waving, you just showing me your true colors of who you really are. Yeah. And for me as a professional, as a guy who can definitely get under a lot of people’s skin, I don’t even need to worry about you no more. You toast. You’re begging for me to be out of the game. What does that say about you?”
If the Warriors are to pull off a surge to the playoffs and any type of unlikely run once they get there, they will be in continuous contentious situations with emotions running high and Green needing to be in the center of the action as the opponents, officials, league and fans hold a microscope up to his every move.
They need him to be the undersized emotional engine that fuels winning, but to avoid crossing the line even an inch. It’s quite the challenge for a player who has made a career out of testing boundaries. But it’s his lone path to redemption this season.
“The only way to really face the music is to go play,” Green said. “To go do what I know how to do, to do what I’m supposed to do, to live up to the commitment (Joe Lacob) made to me. That was one of the toughest things to deal with (during the suspension). I gave him my word. He gave me his word. He held his up. I’m letting mine down.”
(Photo: Justin Ford/Getty Images)