NBA Finals: One game away from…Danny Green, Finals MVP?

Danny Green wasn’t ever a blue chip NBA prospect. Unlike many of his North Carolina ilk, Green was highly recruited, yet not the type of college player whose talent would propel him towards an early entrance into the NBA Draft. He spent all four years at UNC, capping off his collegiate career as a key role player on the 2009 NCAA Champion Tarheels. Embedded as deep into his amateur career as would be in his professional career, Green was overshadowed by the better players on the floor. Surrounded by Ty Lawson, Tyler Hanbrough, Ed Davis and Wayne Ellington, Danny played his part while his teammates grabbed national headlines and lottery pick status. Green finished the year nearly getting skunked in regular season accolades, barely making an All-ACC team (Third Team, no less), let alone anything as lofty as an All-American selection
 
He found a place in the NBA, but just barely. The Cleveland Cavaliers took Green with the 46th pick in the 2009 Draft, giving the swingman the opportunity to make the team out of training camp without any guaranteed money. With a sweet long range shot and the requisite defensive chops to make Roy Williams’ tough rotation, he certainly had enough skills to make it as a NBA player, but only with a ton of hard work and the right system to take advantage of his very specific talents.
 
But, as Adam Morrison, Joe Alexander and Shelden Williams will tell you, all the potential in the world might not save your NBA career. Green languished in the Cavs system for his rookie year, playing in only 20 games with the big league club, whilst being sent down to the D-League throughout the year. He was cut as soon as the 2010 season started, a dubious distinction considering how rancid the post-LeBron James Cavaliers were. Green was then picked up by the San Antonio Spurs, but he was far from the steady professional he is now–in his first year with the Spurs, he was waived within six days of his first signing, then spent months in the D-League on a non-NBA contract, and the signed again in March 2011 for the stretch run. He only played 8 games that year for San Antonio, but obviously someone on the coaching staff or the front office saw something significant in the young guard’s game.
 
Last season, Green broke out into a full fledged contributor, starting in 38 games and playing 66 regular season contests for the Spurs in 23 minutes a night. His defensive acumen wasn’t just reputation–it was fully formed in it’s execution. Moreover, Green was every bit of the shooter he looked in college. At the close of the 2011-2012 campaign, he threw down an unreal .436 3P% from the 3-point line, forging himself a permanent role on the reborn run-and-gun San Antonio offense. Green was the perfect component for what coach Gregg Popovich wanted to run: a young, long athlete who was willing to run the floor, play defense on every possession and could knock down a jumper anytime the ball was in his hands. He averaged 9.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg, career-high marks only topped by this year’s numbers: 27 mpg with 10.1 ppg, while starting all 80 of his appearances.
 
Even still, Green never seemed to forget his place in the San Antonio system–he was a role player, plain and simple. He has succeeded despite a career of disappointments and well wishes on future endeavors. There’s very few times where he tries to overextend himself and try to penetrate the lane like Tony Parker, or launch off-balance jumpers like Manu Ginobili. For better or worse, Danny Green is Danny Green, and he’ll continue to do exactly what’s gotten him here. There’s truly nothing more you could ask from a consummate professional role player. He’ll never be an All-Star, he’ll never make an All-NBA team and certainly won’t make the Basketball Hall of Fame despite an understated, but quite excellent college career.
 
For all these reasons and more, the fact that we’re on the precipice of a Danny Green Finals MVP trophy is one of the most significant stories in NBA history.

Let’s make this clear: this has never been done before. Since 1969, only 2 men have won the NBA Finals MVP and not made the Hall of Fame (not counting names like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, whose enshrinement is just a matter of protocol). Those two men are Jo Jo White and Cedric Maxwell, who starred on the 1976 and 1981 Champion Boston Celtics, respectively. The caveats? 1976 Finals MVP White was an All-Star that year and made All-NBA Second Team the year before and after. 1981 Finals MVP Maxwell only averaged 15 points that season, but was two years removed from being a reliable 20 point scorer and understandably stunted his own game to complement stars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Wes Unseld, the 1978 Finals MVP for the Washington Bullets, was certainly on the downside of his career (averaging just 7.6 point and 10.9 rebounds during the regular season), but a MVP-level performance on the highest stage wasn’t completely out of the question for him: the man had been a 5-time All-Star and the 1969 MVP. Chauncey Billups is the most recent trivia answer that comes to mind, but even he has his share of accomplishments: 5-time All-Star, 3 All-NBA nods and two excellent seasons at the University of Colorado (including a Second Team All-America selection). Mr. Big Shot is a borderline Hall of Famer.

Danny Green will never score 20 points per game, nor will he ever make an All-Star team. He won’t be a former MVP, nor will be an All-NBAer. He is, and most likely forever will be a role player.

But what he’s doing in these Finals? He might be the most impactful player on the Spurs roster. His line over 5 games: 18 ppg, 4 rpg, 56.6% FG%, 65.8% 3P% in 34 minutes a game. He leads San Antonio in minutes, points and three-pointers (he’s already set the NBA record for 3’s in a NBA Finals), as well as coming in second in FGM and third in rebounding. He’s been one of the team’s best three players in all but one contest (Game 4), including a savage 27 points in Game 3 and 24/6 in last night’s Game 5 (in 39 minutes, to boot). Without Green’s knockdown, back breaking shooting from distance, the Spurs might not be getting open looks in the paint for Duncan, Leonard and Parker and simultaneously running the Miami defense ragged. His defense has been excellent on Dwyane Wade and at times LeBron James, but it’s truly his long range sniping that’s been one of the biggest, if not the most important tipping points in this series. The numbers do speak for themselves, but the Spurs’ starting shooting guard has made an even bigger impact that his statistics dictate.

However, as great as Green’s been, there’s a real chance that IF the Spurs are to win either Game 6 or Game 7, Tim Duncan or Tony Parker could take the Finals MVP. Timmy is throwing down a relatively mortal 15/11 (down from his monstrous 24/17 average he put up in the 2003 Finals) but serving as the fulcrum for the powerful Spurs interior defensive scheme, while Tony Parker is obviously hobbled, but never the less scoring 16 with 6 assists on a very good but not quite “Tony Parker-like” 49% shooting. Both players will have the advantage of their reputations preceding them, regardless of Green’s monumental performance over the past 5 games, not to mention two more games to make their respective cases.

Basketball is different than baseball or football. In most cases, given a sample size greater than a 2 or 3 games, the cream will truly rise to the top. There are very few fluke performances, a sparing number of unforeseen breakthrough performances from men who may never be heard from again. Players like Desmond Howard, David Eckstein and Edgar Renteria have emerged in a crowded field of superstars and Hall of Famers to pick up MVPs on the greatest stages of their respective sports, regardless of their role player status and pedestrian careers. In the NBA, this simply does not happen. Role players of zero distinction do not grab the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy. The NBA game always has a way of extracting the anomalous nature of these other sports, and bringing the best out of the best. There is something about the grind of a 48 minute game over 4 to 7 games that will level the playing field and get the most talented players to shine brightest.

But Danny Green is a 20 point game and one victory away from rightfully winning arguably the most coveted player award in all of basketball. This isn’t just an amazing story, this isn’t just a strange occurrence. This is one of the most groundbreaking  moments in NBA history. Somehow, Danny Green could change the way we examine the nature of the NBA Finals.

 

 

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