Danny Green has received a lot of flak lately for his uneven play and his tendency to disappear on offense. While his well documented problems with off-ball defense are hard to argue against, his deficient offensive performance might have an explanation that has little to do with him having regressed as a player.
Putting Danny's struggles in perspective
Green is still shooting over 40% from beyond the arc this season. Keep that in mind while you are reading this. Still, over the past ten game, Green is shooting just 30.6%, he shoots 32.6% when the scoring margin is within five points for either team and he tends to struggle the most in third quarters, which is when the starters have had the most trouble scoring. Once again, this is still a guy that can hit open looks but he has been slumping.
The point of this post is not to exonerate Green completely for his lack of versatility or for not hitting more shots. I've watched most of his three pointers and he has missed some open ones, just like everyone else in the league. But I've also noticed that some of the criticism lobbed at him comes from him disappearing and not contributing much on offense. And that's simply not his fault.
Why Danny is getting fewer open looks
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: teams want Green to put the ball on the floor. They know he can do damage from outside so they will close out extra aggressively and force him to dribble. He is a bad ball-handler, his in between game is non existent and while he is finishing at a high clip at the rim, he rarely goes all the way to the hoop. But what I want to get into is why Green is not getting enough open looks to begin with.
The starters have huge spacing issues
Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard were missing a lot to start the season yet Tim's shot attempts/36 minutes decreased only slightly while Leonard's increased rather significantly from a season ago. Splitter's and Green's decreased. Why is that?
Recap: Spurs lose to Thunder, 113-100
Without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were beaten soundly by the Thunder in San Antonio.
Since Splitter's and Green's field goals are typically both assisted and incredibly efficient (at the rim and from three, respectively) teams started working really hard to avoid surrendering them. If that meant leaving Duncan open from 18 feet on countless pick and pop jumpers, so be it. Just like the Spurs, most teams are fine with surrendering open mid-range jumpers, especially when they are not falling. The problem is Leonard started getting the same treatment after his struggles from outside the arc became notorious.
The other point of emphasis for opponents is to guard Parker's drives. Parker is a fantastic finisher in the paint, can create for others and draws fouls at a high rate when he gets to the rim. So how do you stop him from getting there? You help off someone. You can't help off Splitter underneath the basket or Green from beyond the arc. But as mentioned, teams are happy to help off Leonard constantly when he is spotting up and from Duncan when he is away from the paint.
That's what Green has to deal with now that Leonard can't hit threes consistently. The Spurs rarely run plays to get him open, opting instead to have him space the floor for others. But since he is the only guy that is a threat from outside, teams can key in on him while still helping in the paint by usually playing off of Leonard.
So Green will not be open while his teammates are, creating the illusion that he is being shut down. In a way, he is. But that is a positive for the Spurs because at least his man is not impeding Parker from driving. There is no way Parker can score on drives with all five players packing the paint. Because Kawhi is not a threat, the starting lineup has huge spacing issues that are making everyone less effective. Without Danny Green (or someone else spacing the floor), those problems would be insurmountable.
The starting unit is not "a shooter's paradise" right now
Additionally, the Spurs have been steadily going away from the pick-and-roll as their offensive identity. This season, only 21.1% of their plays finish in P&Rs, down from 23.1% in 2012. That's a good thing for the Spurs offensive versatility as a whole but bad news for a shooter like Green.
When executed right and with a properly spaced floor, the pick-and-roll creates a lot of looks for corner shooters, as someone has to help either on the penetrating guard after he turns the corner or on the dive man. The Spurs loved those open looks and often prioritized getting them even at the expense of the pick-and-roll ball-handler's field goal attempts. That's why every shooter the Spurs signed did better with them. This is still true with the second unit, where the spacing is pristine and there's more flow to the offense.
The starters, on the other hand, use their motion sets almost exclusively to free up Parker and have him finish plays instead of starting them, which partially explains why his assist percentage has declined significantly. That means Green often has to either screen for Parker or facilitate from the top of the arc, which has the side effect of keeping him away from the spots on the floor better suited for his skills. It's not that Parker is selfish or that the starters refuse to use the pick-and-roll as much as the bench. It's just that the aforementioned spacing issues are affecting what kind of looks they get off it, and Green is the one that it's hurting the most because of it.
Being the only shooter on the floor is killing Green's efficiency
I keep bringing up spacing and Kawhi Leonard because that's the biggest difference from a year ago. Here's how big an impact Kawhi's presence has on Green: when Leonard is not on the court, Green shoots 45.7% from three and averages a three point attempt every 4.2 minutes on the floor. When he shares the court with Leonard, he shoots 36.4% and averages a three every 7.1 minutes. And here's how much Kawhi affects the team's three point shooting: when he is on the floor, the Spurs average just 17.4 three point attempts per 48 minutes and connect on 34.9% of them. When he is off the floor, it's 26.1 attempts and 44.9% three point field goal percentage.
Green's woes have come mostly from the corner, where he is shooting 37.5%. This season only 33.2% of the Spurs' three pointers are coming from there, down from 36.2% in 2012/13. Green is taking a corner three pointer every 14.6 minutes on the court when last season he took one every 13 minutes. So both the quality (because of spacing issues created by Kawhi) and the quantity of those shots (because of the Spurs changing offensive priorities) is decreasing.
When/if Kawhi proves to the league once again that he is deadly from the corner and the Spurs figure out their spacing issues, it will open up things for their offense. That will likely result in more assists for Parker and better looks for Green. And when Green gets good looks consistently he traditionally converts them at a very high clip. The other option is to break up the starting lineup and have Green off the bench with a bench unit featuring more shooters but that would probably carry with it problems of its own.
Green, like Bonner before him, is the quintessential complementary player. He can provide value by spacing the floor but he needs someone to create open looks for him or his only skill becomes spacing the floor, which diminishes his value.
Green is the same player he was last season. He can still hit three pointers and stretch the D. It's the offensive play of the rest of the Spurs starters that has changed, and that is what has exposed Green's limitations in other areas. The good news is that if they improve, he'll likely improve as well.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats, MySynergySports, NBAwowy! and Basketball-Reference