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What Can the Boston Celtics Realistically Expect Out of Jeff Green?

Let’s go back to around February 25, 2011. One of the most controversial trades in Celtics’ history has just taken place.

Danny Ainge decides to trade Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, and draft considerations. Looking past that date to a few weeks later, rumors surface that OKC general manager Sam Presti had turned down Danny Ainge’s many attempts to land James Harden instead of Jeff Green in that deal, leading Ainge to settle for Green instead.

Obviously, at that point, it was not entirely clear that James Harden would be leading the NBA in scoring this year and emerge as a sure-fire franchise cornerstone and top-10 overall player in the league. However, it was clear that he would have been an upgrade over Jeff Green.

Regardless, the Celtics decided to roll the dice with Green’s size, length and athleticism. He was, in fact, a great fit for the Celtics – the size and ability to play multiple positions, a young athlete to give rest to Paul Pierce and someone that Rajon Rondo could run with in the open court.

The honeymoon was short lived. After arriving to the Celtics, Green looked lost or disinterested on the court, leading many to believe that he was scared of the moment, or scared to assert himself around a group of established veterans and future Hall of Famers. He hovered around 10 points and five rebounds, which is a respectable tally, unless you were the replacement to a teammate with immense respect from his peers like Kendrick Perkins. We know what happened in the playoffs – Green looked tentative, scared even. Rondo dislocated his elbow. The Heat dispatched of the Celtics in five games, en route to losing in the NBA Finals to the Mavericks.

The offseason arrived. Hopes for Green again rose – the offseason would provide time for him to develop his role on the team. He would figure it out and start averaging 15-18 points and 6-8 rebounds – basically become what he was in OKC. Then we all realized that would not materialize. Green developed a mystery health condition that kept him out of the entire preseason. The condition was eventually diagnosed as a heart condition requiring surgery, ending his 2011-12 campaign.

Again, we all know how the story ends. The Celtics lose to the Heat in a hotly contested seven games, Paul Pierce plays on a balky knee, KG wears out at the end of the season, and the Celtics continually trot out the likes of Sasha Pavlovic and Mickael Pietrus as the first guys off the bench, which led to one of the worst scoring benches in the NBA. Everyone figured that Jeff Green would have pushed this team over the top and sent them into the NBA Finals -one more chance at the elusive eighteenth banner.

Over this past off-season, Jeff Green re-signed with the Celtics for a rumored $36-million over four years. He looked incredible over the preseason, leading many to compare him to the likes of James Worthy (a little premature, but still). He showed all the gifts that gave Celtics fans hope – length, athleticism, quickness, a mid-range game, a back to the basket game. He defended, he scored, he was aggressive. At times, he looked like the best player on the floor.

Let’s all fast forward to the present day. The Celtics are quite early into the season, and seem to be struggling for many reasons – defensive lapses, rotation questions, bench scoring (again), and the early season woes of offseason pickups Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. However, the same question remains—what the hell is going on with Jeff Green?

Yes, I know, we’re only four games into the season. But check out these staggering per-game numbers: 22 minutes, 8 points, 2 rebounds. Look past those numbers, and you’ll see a player who looks tentative, confused and sometimes apathetic on the court. The preseason aggressive Jeff Green, the one who looked like an emerging star, has been replaced by the passive 2010 version of Jeff Green, the one who looked scared of the moment, scared to assert himself on the court.

Now, before we overreact to body language and facial expression, let me drop some $50,000 knowledge on you all. My degree in Sports Psychology has taught me that body language can be quite misleading at times. If one were to look at most great athletes, most of them make their respective craft look quite easy, as if they’re not really trying that hard. Ever see Leo Messi make a run from midfield and slice an entire defense to shreds before scoring a sublime goal? He makes that look like a simple task, as he’s not grimacing, breathing hard, or showing any dramatic effects. However, some of his runs are, quite literally, only feasible for Messi and no one else.

I am obviously not comparing Messi’s greatness to Jeff Green, just that one’s perceived effort is not always the reality. Doc Rivers echoed this sentiment on Boston’s WEEI this morning by saying, “Jeff’s not going to show you intensity, even though he may have it…He’s a poker faced-player.” That’s never been my issue, personally. My issue is with Doc’s next statement, “What you want out of [Green] is great play, and he has to play better, there’s no doubt about that.”

My personal basketball knowledge is handicapped by the fact that I have never played the sport at a high level, so I just know what my eye test tells me – who stands out on the TV. Therefore, I sometimes miss the intricacies of the game, what makes players who look the same to the regular viewer different to those who have played or coached the game. Thankfully, I have a source for such observations. I’ll call him “Sandy V,” which echoes his general attitude. The Sand-Man is a former professional basketball player and coach, and I take the majority of his insight as the truth. He had the following observations about Jeff Green:

“At Georgetown, Green and Roy Hibbert were the corner stone of John Thompson III’s rise to prominence in the college basketball world…Hibbert, however, was the guy that got the most focus when it came to defending Georgetown.  Green made some big shots in his college career, and I mean BIG. However when I think back to those teams, everyone gameplanned against Hibbert…[after being drafted to the NBA], it is important to note that the Thunder had also drafted Kevin Durant as well, and this gave Green the Hibbert situation he had at Georgetown.  As the years went forward, the Thunder would add Russell Westbrook and James Harden in subsequent drafts, both years turning out to be the best statistical years of Green’s career.”

My takeaways: are our expectations of Jeff Green the wrong expectations? Sandy has a point in that, throughout Jeff Green’s successes in his basketball career, he has been never been the focal point of a team’s defense. In Boston, Green is being asked to come off the bench and be the focal point of the second unit at times. Are we flawed in expecting Green to be able to handle that responsibility?

At Georgetown, Hibbert was the scoring horse, and his immense size forced many defenses to commit to stopping him with multiple looks and players, leaving Green to face a defense that was focused on someone else. In OKC, defenses were (and still are) forced to focus on a plethora of superior offensive weapons, never leaving Green to face the number one defender of another team. If Green is being asked to anchor the second unit, is his failure to do so a sign that he cannot be a primary scoring option at any point? Well, Sandy gets to that point with his next statement:

“…It was said publically that Green would be the heir apparent to Paul Pierce, meaning the pressure could not be higher. The last part of the frustrating puzzle for Green would be the style of play that the C’s entertain. The Thunder, while Green was there, were a run-and-gun team.  Get the board, put the ball in Westbrook’s hands, and get up the floor was the offense 70-percent of the time for those Thunder teams.  The Celtics, coached by the cerebral Doc Rivers, ran a far more complex system. Being an older team, they often set up in the half court and generate the offense to their stars. Moreover, The Thunder were never known as a defensive stalwart in the league.  It was the reason they went out and agreed on a trade for Perkins.  They were starved for defending, especially for a center who could erase the mistakes of their perimeter players.  The Celtics, on the other hand, took massive pride in their defense.  One of the top teams in the league in defense were the Celtics, and with it was the incredibly intimidating Kevin Garnett.  Garnett will call you out and hold you accountable to your effort, and heart, on defense.  So, this leaves Green, living up to the trade and his initial drafting, living up to being the supposed replacement to Celtic legend Paul Pierce, to a team that is more complex both in offense and defense, while having another future Hall of Famer in his face barking at him when he doesn’t get back on defense. Then, the heart thing happens. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to know that your heart needs to be repaired for you to continue on in life. I certainly understand that there might be constant worry about it. With the injury and recovery, Green now probably missed reps and learning sessions for offense and defense that occur during an entire season.”

My takeaways: Sandy certainly echoes many points that maybe Jeff Green isn’t going to be the long-term answer as a franchise cornerstone. Thinking about having James Harden in this role frustrates me more than I care to express, obviously. Taking into account a life and career-threatening heart injury, maybe Jeff Green just hasn’t gotten past that quite yet. We often hear stories of athletes who don’t fully trust their repaired knees, shoulders, etc. until a significant amount of time has passed. Thinking about those stories, though, the worst that could happen if a balky knee were to blow-out again would be another year of rehab. In Green’s case, trusting your heart to do its job is obviously quite important, and the repercussions of the injury reoccurring go beyond the court and deal with Green’s fatality. The conclusion of all of Sandy’s observations? Here it is, from the horse’s mouth:

“My thinking is that [Green] is still unsure about his ailment, unsure about where he fits in, unsure about the playbook, and just not that into what his role should be. [The Celtics] expect him to be the second banana – he hasn’t been since college, and he is more freaked out now than he has ever been.”

So…where do we go from here? When you pay a player almost $9-million for every year, you expect that player to have a very significant role. Again referring back to the proposed trade that would have sent James Harden to the Celtics instead of Green, $9-million would have been the biggest bargain in the NBA for a player that is now a sure franchise cornerstone. Rajon Rondo makes as much as Jeff Green does, per year. Rondo is widely considered in the conversation for being one of the best point guards in the league. For the type of money that Jeff Green makes, he must be asked to play a major role on a championship contender.

However, let’s be aware that like any other athlete, Green is coming off a major injury. Maybe it takes some time to fully trust himself to give his best effort without fear of re-injury. Green must be able to trust his body to sustain his career. It takes athletes who suffer knee injuries months and months to fully be able to trust the limb that betrayed them…imagine what it would take an athlete to trust the organ that determines whether he’s allowed to be able to walk the planet or not. Four games does not a season make, but the early results suggest that Green may not be the player that we all thought he would be. He’s clearly not yet ready to fill the shoes of Paul Pierce, but let’s be sure to factor in not only Green’s injury, but the fact that this season is his first full season with the Celtics.

Other underperforming Celtics, like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, are not taking nearly as much heat as Green. Let’s give him time to adjust, but let’s also adjust our expectations – Green is not going to be Paul Pierce, but hopefully he can be Jeff Green at some point this year.

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