Top Stories

Q&A: Draymond Green talks playing middle linebacker for NBA's best defense

The 3-time champ describes his chase for Kia DPOY, as well as developing a scoring mentality

Draymond Green has found the form that lifted him and the Warriors to the peaks of their success.

He ranks 27th in steals and 29th in blocked shots. And if you screen for advanced individual stats, there are nine rotation regulars on Draymond Green’s own team that have stingier defensive ratings than he does.

But Green is as much a front-runner as anyone to win the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year Award. Golden State ranks first in defensive rating, first in opponents’ field-goal percentage, first in points allowed, second in defensive rebounding percentage and fourth in opponents’ 3-point percentage. And Green is their engine, as reflected so far in his top-rung status in the two monthly editions of Defensive Ladders this season here at

Green also happens to play for one of the league’s top contenders, a franchise trying to chase a fourth championship and sixth Finals appearance in eight seasons. He has personal statistics that seem ordinary – 8.4 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists, teased as a “triple-single” by TNT’s Inside the NBA crew – but his impact rivals teammate Steph Curry. And his coach, Steve Kerr, considers him the best defender in the league.

At 31, in his 10th season, Green spoke earlier this week for this exclusive Q&A about those team and individual ambitions, the challenge of keeping a defense aligned through the comings and goings of the league’s Health and Safety Protocols, his recent “intentional” turnover, the potential return of his offensive game and more.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.

Go inside the gym with the 3-time NBA champion as he reminisces about his career. Can you help us sort out the fruit salad of NBA defenders, where comparing rim protectors, on-ball defenders and do-it-all types such as yourself makes for an apples vs. oranges vs. bananas choice in assessing the league’s best on that side of the ball?

Draymond Green: Here’s the way I look at defense. When I watch film from a game or watch any particular game, I’m not watching the guy who plays the passing lane to get the steal. That guy more often than not will completely destroy our shell. He’s destroying rotations on the defensive end. And more importantly, he’s gambling. And just like any time in your life when you gamble, there’s a higher risk that you’re going to lose. Your defense will probably suffer from that guy, killing your positioning.

It’s the same way with blocked shots. In order to be a great defensive player, you can’t just do that. We never say LeBron James is great because he scores so well. We never say it’s because he passes the ball so well. We never say it’s because he runs the team well. We say LeBron James is great because he does all of those things.

Defense historically is not viewed like that. The guy who gets a lot of steals or blocked shots, a lot of times, is Defensive Player of the Year. I just don’t think that tells the story of the defensive end.

About two-thirds of DPOY winners have been big men. As the style of play in this league has moved outside, has that diminished the value of the shot intimidators’ defense?

Definitely not. When those shots are affected is usually when guys are attacking the rim. Guys are never not going to attack the rim. But the reality is, the game is played more outside-in now. You can go six or seven possessions in a row and a team will shoot six or seven threes.

I think it’s important that you do have a rim protector because if you don’t, your whole defense breaks down. I understand that 1,000%. But at the same time, this game has gone away from slashers who don’t shoot the basketball. That’s the last thing people are looking for today. And if you don’t have slashers who don’t shoot the ball, where does the rim protection come into play?

The way you play defense is less about individual stops or stats and more about help and rotations. That means relying on and organizing your four teammates, to achieve that on-a-string synchronization.

It’s important to cover for everyone. Whether you’re stopping the roll, whether you’re stopping the block. That’s covering on the backdoor cut. That’s putting guys in the right position. That’s the middle linebacker who’s reading the play and knows what the offense is going to do right up to the line, and shifts his defensive tackle over to close the gap you know they’re about to run through.

That’s how I like to approach the defensive end: a linebacker who’s going to get everybody in the right spots. And after I get them into the right spots, that middle linebacker has to be there to cover them.

Draymond Green has been one of the best versatile defenders in the NBA.

The DPOY is an award that many winners have claimed in back-to-back seasons. You planted your flag for it in 2017 but didn’t come close the next season or, really, in any season since. You make All-Defense teams but the top spot has eluded you. Why?

Winning in 2017, we had an incredible year. Then in 2018, I’m not sure why I didn’t win it. I think sometimes you get caught in the crossfire. You still have a great team but people see it over and over and it’s not as “exciting” as it was the year before. It’s like, oh, we’ve seen this movie before. I also think in 2018 it was less about being great on the defensive end and more about being healthy when June rolled around. When you have the type of team we had, after winning in 2017, you want to win as much as you can but you want to make sure you’re healthy.

How necessary it is to talk on defense? You’re a natural talker but it seems like there’s no wiggle room out on the court – good defenders have to talk.

A guy who talks well and doesn’t move well has a much better chance of being successful on the defensive end than a guy who moves well but doesn’t talk. Defense is all communication. Defense is a gray area. A team is going to set a guard screen and the guard slips out – boom, you’re faced with a gray area right there. Defense is made up of a million different gray areas, and if you don’t communicate, those gray areas turn into confusion.

But if you communicate, then you talk your way through those areas. It’s no longer confusion. It means you’ve cleaned up the gray areas and made it very black or white.

So it’s extremely important, especially for your big man. Because more often than not, you’re the back line of the defense. You’re everyone’s eyes. You can see everything that’s taking place. Sometimes you have a guard on the ball who can’t see anything behind him, doesn’t have a clue. So if you aren’t talking, being the eyes for that entire defense, it doesn’t work.

You mention how NBA play has changed, going more to the outside in recent years partly due to the team for which you play. It makes me wonder if you would be as successful as a defender say 25 years ago compared to now.

I like to think I would be, just for the fact that I guard the post, I guard the ball. I like to think I’d have found a way. But having said that, I’m not sure I would have been able to guard Shaquille O’Neal. I’m not sure I would have been able to guard Hakeem Olajuwon. I’m not crazy enough to begin to say, “Yeah, I could have stopped Shaq.” But if I couldn’t, I guess I fit into a category with a bunch of other people.

Draymond Green explains why he considers himself the best defender in NBA history.

It appears that the defensive expectations within your team are pretty high, with players beyond yourself such as Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., Andrew Wiggins, even rookie Jonathan Kuminga.

That’s the staple of our team. No matter what. The way Steve (Kerr) always puts it is, “The defense leads to the show.” We don’t just come out and have the show begin. The show will take place once we’ve established our defense, we get stops and we get out in transition. Now Steph Curry is bombing threes, everybody is running out to Steph and we get dunks. Klay Thompson will be bombing threes, the defense overreacts and Andre Iguodala flies down the paint for a dunk. With his signature, hold-that-pose afterward. We’ve always said, it has to start with the defense.

As raw as Kuminga is, it seems his nose for defense has gotten him minutes.

One-hundred percent. I always try to tell the young guys, from my personal experience, that’s your way onto the court. No coach is keeping a guy off the court who’s going to guard and do whatever it takes on the defensive end. Go defend the best player – whoever the best player is, go out and try to make it hard on him. Once you find your way onto the court, then you can show everything else you can do.

The No. 1 reason young guys don’t play in this league is, they don’t understand defensive rotations. So it has to start on that end. And even if you’re a rookie and we understand you’re going to screw up some of those rotations, as long as you’re giving that effort, we can live with the mistakes.

You’re playing against the best offensive players in the world. Everybody is going to make mistakes simply because they’re that good,. But it’s the effort you give on that end that covers for mistakes, more so than knowledge.

How has your team managed to serve two agendas at once this year: winning while developing younger players for the future?

When you have guys like Damion Lee, Otto Porter, Nemanja Bjelica, Andre Iguodala on your roster, it makes it easier to develop younger guys at the same time as having a successful season. Those are veterans that young guys have an opportunity to follow, to watch and learn from and see how things are done.

I don’t know if this exactly qualifies as savvy defense, but it worked out that way when you inbounded late in the game at Indiana. Taking a turnover was the best of all options at that point and you took it.

The absolute last thing I wanted to do was take a five-second count. I had used a timeout right before that. So now when I saw the first two guys break open but they didn’t have a path, an opening, I just threw the ball to their guys. In part because the first thing you’re going to do is take off dribbling down the court, thinking you can get a shot off. That works in a situation where they don’t have timeouts left and I knew they didn’t. And sure enough, Malcolm Brogdon took off dribbling when he retrieved the ball. Then literally, after a second or so, he realized he didn’t have enough time. And he didn’t even get a shot off.

If we’re going to turn the ball over, I don’t want it to be a dead ball turnover where the [other] coach can sub and have an opportunity to call a home-run play. If you get the ball on that turnover and hit a three-quarter court heave, then it was meant for us to lose that game anyway. The clock’s running, they’ve lost a second and a half before even realizing, “I need to get a shot off.”

Maybe people didn’t notice the other night because you got upstaged by your 5-year-old son D.J., serving as a towel boy for your team’s game against Sacramento. But you got a triple-double – 16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists – which generally is a good thing for your team. You guys are 30-1 when you do that. Heck, Golden State is 24-5 the past two seasons when you simply score 10 points or more. Shouldn’t you be looking to score more? Just a little?

Eh, honestly, the reality is this: When Kevin [Durant] came here, I had to make a decision. And the decision for me was, I can continue to shoot the same shots I’ve been shooting, at the same rate I’ve been shooting ‘em, and it will take us a lot longer to figure this thing out. Or I can sacrifice my shots to get everybody else involved and do all the other things that need to be done to make sure this team can be successful. I made the decision right away that I would be the one to sacrifice shots – I didn’t want Klay Thompson doing that, I didn’t want Steph Curry doing that and I didn’t want Kevin coming in, having to figure out how to play any other way than what he was comfortable playing. So that went on for three years.

But you haven’t just cut back on your shots. You rank 15th on the Warriors in shots per minute. Behind Kevon Looney, Chris Chiozza, Andre Iguodala. Behind them all.

The reality is, scoring is a mindset. It’s a mentality. When you’ve totally shut that off for three years, it’s not as simple as people may think to just turn it back on. So I have spent the last couple years turning that mindset back on. I’ll have these games where it’s clicking right away and I’m in attack mode, and then I’ll have games where I kind of get lost in the shuffle and I’m just doing everything else to make sure we’re successful.

I am working to make sure that mindset is more constant. I’m working to make sure that’s a nightly mentality. But it doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a total mindset you have to change. And like with anything else in life, that takes a while. So I think I’m getting there. I’m getting back comfortable with doing it. But it’s a process.

And just when you figure it out, Klay will be back and his shots will have to come from somewhere.

For sure. However, totally different team with more opportunities. I have to be on it and make sure I’m taking advantage of those opportunities, not just passing them up.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.