Forgive me, for I am clearly no Homer, but we can’t talk about the remarkably bizarre career of Jeff Green without drawing parallels to The Odyssey.
At its most basic, the story arc of The Odyssey is about the circuitous ten-year journey of Odysseus to return home to Ithaca. Odysseus, a strong and prideful warrior, is repeatedly laid low by his own decisions and those of his crew, but he is always gifted with additional opportunities through the assistance of gods and men, and eventually returns home. Jeff Green, a 6’9″, 235 lb. prototype combo forward, was born and raised in the DC suburbs of Maryland and attended Georgetown University. He has played ten full seasons in the NBA, winding his way through six franchises before finding his way to his hometown Washington Wizards this summer on a one-year minimum contract. His career has been a maelstrom of expectation, disappointment, and tumult, followed by being gifted with additional opportunities, in both life and basketball.
There is much scholarly debate about the etymology of the name Odysseus, but it is generally believed to mean some version of “giver and receiver of pain,” which is about the most on the nose description of Jeff Green’s NBA career I can imagine. This seems odd at first glance because his stats look so unremarkable. For his career, he averages 13.2 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, 1.6 assists per game, a 13.2 PER, and .074 Win Shares per 48 minutes. He’s never been particularly overpaid, having totaled about $67 million in career earnings over ten seasons. It paints a picture of a slightly below average rotation player, a guy you wouldn’t mind having on your team but would happily upgrade if one came along.
The trouble is that he has almost always been valued more highly by teams looking to acquire him — and usually given an outsize role relative to his production — because of his tantalizing talent. His star potential has perennially acted as his Trojan horse: it gets him in the door, but it never turns out to be what teams think. He has started 497 out of 783 games played since he came in the league, and he averages 30.3 minutes per game for his career.
Sometimes he is really good. He has scored 30+ points 14 times in his career, tied for 64th among active players during that span. Other times, he is completely invisible on the court; Green has had 21 games where he has played 30+ minutes and scored 10 or less points, had 4 or less rebounds, AND 3 or less assists, tied for 39th among active players. It’s legitimately hard to play 30 minutes and not meet any one of those benchmarks. The only players to appear above him on both of those lists are J.R. Smith, Eric Gordon, Joe Johnson, and DeMar DeRozan. Gordon, Johnson, and DeRozan appear to be statistical noise, as they all are or were much more likely to put up a big scoring night on a per game basis but also had a bunch of random stinkers thrown in there as well.
This leaves us with J.R., as well as one other guy who has had less 30-point games (12) but otherwise rates as Green’s statistical doppelganger in almost every other way — Harrison Barnes. It is probably not a good sign when the two best comps we can come up with are the scapegoats of two out of the last three NBA Finals — Barnes for his all-time no-show in the 2016 Finals with Golden State, and Smith for his historic mental boner in Game 1 of last year’s Finals, dribbling out the clock in regulation with the game tied, costing Cleveland both a game in which they played incredibly well, along with any chance of being competitive in the series with the Warriors’ juggernaut.
Setting aside J.R., who is his own animal, let’s take a look at Barnes, because he helps to paint the picture of just how unlucky Jeff Green has been. I can’t stress enough how uncannily similar Green and Barnes are statistically. In terms of minutes (30.3 per game for Green, 30.4 for Barnes), counting stats (13.2 ppg/4.6 rpg/1.6 apg for Green vs. 13.1 ppg/4.9 rpg/1.5 apg for Barnes), PER (13.2 vs. 13.3), True Shooting % (.531 vs. .538), Usage Rate (20.8 vs. 19.8), and shooting splits (44/33/80 vs. 45/37/79), it would be hard to find a closer match. From a narrative and stylistic perspective, they are also similar. Both are big-bodied, athletic combo forwards who were highly drafted out of power schools but have never quite lived up to their draft stature.
Barnes blossomed into his supporting role in 2014-15, his third year in the league, winning a title with Golden State as an overqualified fifth man in the newly-formed Death Lineup. He looked to be a player on the rise, but despite being a big part of the record-breaking 73-9 regular season in 2015-16, Barnes struggled mightily in the playoffs, highlighted by the aforementioned stink bomb in the 2016 Finals’ loss to Cleveland. Even with this black mark on his resume, Barnes found himself as an unrestricted free agent in the bat-shit insane summer of 2016 (after Golden State renounced his rights in order to sign Kevin Durant), and he signed a whopping 4-year/$94 million deal with Dallas.
Contrast this with Green who, after a draft-night trade from Boston to Seattle (later OKC) in the Ray Allen deal, found himself as a nice supporting piece on a young, upcoming Thunder squad with Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. In 2009-10, his third season in the league, he played all 82 games, averaged 37 minutes a night, 15.1 ppg, and 6.0 rpg for a team that won 50 games and went toe-to-toe with the eventual champion Lakers in the first round. Everything was looking up for him.
Then, at the trade deadline in 2011, with restricted free agency looming, he found himself traded to the Boston Celtics (who originally drafted him in 2007), primarily for enforcer/human Easter Island statue Kendrick Perkins. On the veteran-laden Celtics’ roster, Green found his role reduced somewhat, as he started only 2 games and averaged only 23 minutes per game the rest of the season. After the lockout, he chose to re-sign with Boston anyway, only to have his contract voided soon thereafter when a routine physical turned up a life-threatening aortic aneurysm in his heart. He would have open heart surgery, miss the entire 2011-12 season, and after rehab, eventually sign a 4-year/$36 million deal with the Celtics many considered to be an overpay as remuneration for the hardship he had endured. But we’ll get to his Boston tenure and its various offshoots in a moment. First, we need to back up and talk about a different Homer epic.
Green’s Iliad (of sorts) was his 2007 NCAA Tournament run with the Georgetown Hoyas. Coming off a Big East Conference Tournament Championship (Green was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player), the Hoyas garnered a 2-seed in the NCAA’s. Led by Green and verticality enthusiast Roy Hibbert, Georgetown defeated Belmont, Boston College, Vanderbilt, and the heavily-favored UNC Tar Heels to advance to the Final Four, their first trip to the National Semis since the Allen Iverson-led 1996 squad. Green had his one shining moment in the Vanderbilt game, banking in a game-winner which loses some of its luster when you look at it a bit closer:
[Yes, he definitely traveled, and in case the announcer did not make it clear, the Hoyas won.]
After the game-winner against Vandy and the upset of UNC, Georgetown faced off in the Final Four against a better-than-we-remember Ohio State team featuring Mike Conley and a surprisingly ambulatory Greg Oden. Green had played well in the tourney up until that point, averaging 15.8 points per game, but in what would become a running theme for his career, pulled a disappearing act against Ohio State, refusing to shoot for much of the game and scoring only 9 points in the loss. Georgetown has not escaped the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend since.
Despite the sour ending, Green’s overall performance in the postseason, combined with his impressive physical profile, caused him to shoot up draft boards. He was drafted 5th overall by the Celtics, and was immediately traded to Seattle as part of the Ray Allen deal, the first time of many where an NBA team moving on from Jeff Green would be happy it did so. It’s dangerous to play the ‘what if?’ game because of the potential Butterfly Effect of almost every NBA transaction, but it’s pretty fascinating in this case: What if Jeff Green got called for that travel against Vanderbilt?
Instead of being the hero, he’s the scapegoat, and he never gets the opportunity to take down the mighty Tar Heels in the next round. NBA teams will claim until they’re blue in the face that they don’t put much stock in NCAA Tournament success when drafting players, but come on. In this alternate universe, does Green get drafted at #5 by Boston? If not, then he almost certainly doesn’t get traded to Seattle/OKC, and the entire first leg of his career plays out differently. Perhaps he signs an extension with the team who drafts him (rather than being traded by the ever-aggressive Sam Presti of OKC), and his heart condition does not get discovered, and we end up comparing him to Reggie Lewis instead of Harrison Barnes.
Small changes can have drastic consequences down the line, and Green, for his part, remains thankful things have played out the way they have and that he was gifted with continued opportunities to live and play basketball. We’ll never know if he was guided to safety and prosperity by the unseen machinations of the basketball gods, or if it was just the blind luck we often take for granted when it comes to the meat grinder of NBA roster-building, but either way, it illustrates the blessing and the curse that is the career of Jeff Green.
At the risk of being overly glib, the stress Jeff Green’s heart has endured is only rivaled by the heartache he has caused his various NBA franchises. It’s an oversimplification, but the rule of thumb has held up throughout his career: trade away Jeff Green, and you will not regret it. Trade for Jeff Green, and trouble is headed your way. This is not to imply Green is some kind of malcontent or locker room problem; by all accounts, he is a great teammate and consummate professional. The combination of his tantalizing potential and erratic production have consistently left the teams acquiring him feeling buyer’s remorse, and even though he will play for his seventh franchise this season, the entire arc of his strange career is inextricably linked to the Boston Celtics. Jeff Green giveth, and Jeff Green taketh away, and no one is more acutely aware of this fact than Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge. Prepare to have your mind blown.
As mentioned previously, Green was traded to Seattle on draft night as part of the Ray Allen deal, a blockbuster which set the stage for the KG trade a month later and kicked off Boston’s “Big Three” era. The full deal was as follows:
Seattle gets: draft rights to Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, and a 2008 2nd round pick (Trent Plaisted would later be selected)
Boston gets: Ray Allen and Glen “Big Baby” Davis
As you may have heard, Boston won the title that year, with both Allen and Big Baby playing integral roles for the champs. Seattle got Green, who again, was actually pretty good for them. Szczerbiak and West were only with the Sonics briefly; fifty games into the ’07-’08 season, they were sent to Cleveland as part of a three-way deal (also including Chicago) which netted them NBA luminaries Adrian Griffin, Ira Newble, and the decaying corpse of 34-year-old Donyell Marshall. Plaisted’s rights would eventually be traded as part of a deal for D.J. White, who would go on to play a grand total of 451 unimpressive minutes for OKC before being dealt to Charlotte. So for a future Hall of Famer and an important rotation piece on an NBA champion, Seattle/OKC got three-plus seasons of Green and basically nothing else, outside of unloading Delonte West before he revealed himself to be a violent loon. So I guess they’ve got that going for them.
Boston’s bizarre co-dependence with Green was only beginning, however. On February 24, 2011, the Celtics acquired Green in the aforementioned deadline deal. Here’s the trade:
Boston gets: Green, Nenad Krstic, and a 2012 1st Round Pick (Fab Melo was later selected)
OKC gets: Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, the easy stuff. Krstic and Robinson were bit parts; both played minor roles for their new teams for the rest of the season and were subsequently released. Krstic left the NBA to play in Russia and never returned. Nate Robinson, the rare veteran to play for even more teams than Green, probably should have done the same. He played for five more franchises after OKC, starting a total of 35 more games in five years.
So the guts of the trade was Green and a 1st for Perkins. Perk was 26 and still a rugged defensive player at the time, but it’s telling that Presti was willing to deal a 24-year-old Green (even if his contract was expiring) AND include a first-rounder for Boston’s troubles. OKC would not regret trading the pick; Boston selected Fab Melo, who quickly washed out of the league before sadly passing away in his sleep in 2017 from what coroners suspect was a heart attack, an irony which should not be lost on us.
The trade was a great success for OKC. For all the jokes about his stinkface and total lack of offensive ability, Perkins added an element of toughness to the young Thunder and helped solidify their defense. James Harden stepped into the role vacated by Green and excelled, posting numbers which hinted at the type of player he would later become as a star for Houston. The team went 47-19 in the lockout-shortened season and went all the way to the Finals before meeting defeat at the hands of LeBron and the Heatles.
Green finished out the ’10-’11 season for Boston coming off the bench, averaging only 9.8 ppg before being diagnosed with the heart condition at the start of the ’11-’12 season. Boston would lose to Miami in the playoffs both with Green (in ’10-’11) and without him (in’11-’12). Armed with his new sympathy contract, Green actually had a nice bounce-back season in ’12-’13, even leading the team in scoring in the playoffs (20.3 ppg), albeit in a first-round loss to the Knicks, which pretty well sums up where the team’s fortunes were headed by that point.
After the ’12-’13 season, Boston blew it up. They traded coach Doc Rivers to the Clippers for a future 1st-rounder, replacing him with coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Somehow, this was only Ainge’s second-best move of the summer. Two weeks later, he would pull off the heist of the century, offloading aging franchise icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for what would eventually become FOUR unprotected first round picks from Brooklyn, spawning the Celtics’ currently wide-open window of contention and relegating the Nets to the NBA wilderness for half a decade. [If you need a laugh, check out Billy King’s reaction to the trade at the time.]
The Celtics were predictably bad in 2013-14, winning only 25 games in Stevens’ first year, but much like the previous season’s playoffs, Green continued to play some of his best basketball in a losing cause. He played all 82 games (one of only two seasons in his career) and led the team in the scoring, though his efficiency dipped, as he was clearly miscast as a primary option on a team full of misfits.
After allowing the team to stew in its own putrescence in ’13-’14, Ainge set to the task of remaking the roster in ’14-’15, and it spelled the end of Green’s time in green (see what I did there?). Boston shipped out Rajon Rondo and brought in Isaiah Thomas in separate deals, and in between, Ainge struck a deal with former Celtics’ GM Chris Wallace to send Green to Memphis as part of a three-way trade including the New Orleans Pelicans. In return for Green, the Celtics got Austin Rivers from New Orleans (who would famously be re-routed to play for his dad in LA only days later), as well as the exhumed skeleton of Tayshaun Prince and a future 1st round pick from Memphis. The pick still has not conveyed, and it is top-8 protected in 2019, top-6 protected in 2020, and unprotected in 2021. No matter when it conveys, it represents both a wildly valuable chip for Boston and a massive regret for Memphis.
Now, you would think this would be the last time we’d see anyone foolishly give up a first-rounder for Green, and the last time we’d see Boston benefit from it. But you’d be wrong on both counts.
Green spent the rest of the ’14-’15 and beginning of the ’15-’16 seasons as the same occasionally-spectacular-but-generally-underwhelming player he’s always been before being sent packing again. This time, the Clippers, forever desperate to find a SF to complement their Lob City nucleus, sent Lance Stephenson and a first-rounder to Memphis for Green. The pick is lottery protected in 2019 and 2020, and if LA misses the playoffs both years, it becomes a second-rounder in 2022. Green played 27 games for the Clippers, averaging around 26 minutes and 11 points per game. He also played in 6 playoff games that season, putting up similar numbers in a first-round loss to Portland (the one where both Blake Griffin and CP3 got injured, if you’re scoring at home) before signing a one-year/$15 million deal with Orlando as a free agent (summer of 2016 alert!). Another asset squandered on Green, another team with buyer’s remorse. Lather, rinse, repeat.
What does this have to do with Boston, you ask? Well, Memphis GM Chris Wallace wasn’t done bestowing gifts upon his former employer. During the 2016 draft, Memphis traded the protected Clippers’ pick to Boston in exchange for the 31st and 35th picks, which turned out to be high-upside big man Deyonta Davis and something called a Rade Zagorac. So under the right conditions — Memphis is bad but not atrocious this season and the Clippers sneak into the playoffs, both of which are reasonable outcomes — Boston could end up with two additional first-rounders in the top 15 or 16 picks of the 2019 draft, and they BOTH would have originated from ill-conceived trades involving none other than Jeff Green, who is now on his third team since either trade even happened!
But we’re not even done yet. Green responded to finally getting overpaid with his worst season as a pro for a rotten Orlando team in ’16-’17. At long last, the league seemed to get the “don’t spend big money or real assets on Jeff Green” memo, and he signed a vet minimum deal to chase a ring with Cleveland last season. And then a funny thing happened: he actually wasn’t that bad. He shot poorly from outside (31.2 percent), but other than that, all of his shooting percentages were career-highs. His minutes were limited, but his per-36 numbers were all right in line with career norms, and his generically bad defense appeared competent relative to the laughably poor efforts on that end of the rest of Cleveland’s roster.
He was predictably invisible for much of the 2018 playoffs, save for two good scoring nights in road wins over Toronto. Then came the Eastern Conference Finals against his long-time beneficiary, the Boston Celtics. There was simply no way the “giver and receiver of pain” was going to let Boston walk away with those two picks without feeling the other edge of the sword; that just isn’t how any of this works. Green stunk for the first five games of the series, totaling only 28 points as Cleveland went down 3-2 to the Celts. Then he summoned all of his inner Jeff Green-ness for games 6 and 7, scoring 33 points combined, including a 19-point/8-rebound effort over 41 minutes in the decisive Game 7 victory.
There is nothing more quintessentially Jeff Green than the idea of his ghost gifting a team two first round picks while his living, breathing self is simultaneously pulling two consecutive good games out of his ass to end that same team’s season. It is the perfect distillation of the Jeff Green Experience, the giving and receiving of pain in equal measure. His odyssey has now brought him home to Washington, where I have no doubt he will, even at age 32, continue to alternately tantalize and disappoint, just like he always has. Welcome home, strange warrior.