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How Danny Green helps the Sixers click

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Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Philadelphia 76ers only had to give up one first-round pick to move on from Al Horford, it was seen as a win for the team. A chance to reset from a failed roster experiment without sacrificing too much. To make the deal even better, the Sixers acquired Danny Green, a proven 3-and-D player with extensive playoff experience and three championships to his name. For a team that needed to smooth out its starting lineup and add more shooting for this season, Green was an ideal addition.

In his first 60 games as a Sixer, he’s averaged 9.5 points with a 59.2 true shooting percentage, 3.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, while leading the team in three-point attempts (6.1 per game) and making them at a 41.3 percent clip.

Green checks so many boxes for the Sixers, subtly complementing his star teammates at both ends of the floor. And over the last three months in particular, Green has excelled.

In 39 games since the start of February, Green has shot 44.1 percent from three on a team-high 6.1 attempts per game. Besides just shooting at a lights-out percentage, Green’s quick trigger to fire away from deep on high volume is key in giving the Sixers the kind of spacing they need around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. It’s that kind of confident shooting, even when defenders are closing out, that has made such a difference in comparison to last season’s starting five featuring Horford and Josh Richardson. If defenses lose sight of Green or are simply late to rotate, he won’t give them a chance to recover before he’s launched a triple. Throw in other valuable acquisitions like Seth Curry and George Hill as well, and the difference from a year ago is glaring.

The Sixers’ coaching staff has wanted Green to keep letting his shots fly all season.

“We want him to throw it at the basket,” head coach Doc Rivers says. “I tell him that all the time. ‘Can’t go in unless you throw it up there.’ And I’ll give him credit, he definitely listens, but we want him to do that. Every once in a while he’ll take one [shot] where even me — and I rarely say, ‘bad shot’ — I’m thinking, ‘uh, not sure about that one!’”

“But I want him to be that aggressive, because he really stretches the floor for us. He scares the heck out of other teams in transition, and that’s exactly what we want him to do.”

As Rivers mentions, Green can make the occasional questionable decision. But he gives the Sixers what they need from him.

“Scares the heck out of other teams in transition” is an apt description for Green’s fast break ability. Green gunning without hesitation when he runs ahead down the floor or hangs back for trailing opportunities has contributed to the Sixers increasing their scoring efficiency in transition from 1.086 points per possession a season ago to 1.131 — a jump from 22nd in the league to 12th.

When you watch how calm Green usually is when defenders are closing out on him, it’s no surprise that he’s also leading the Sixers in “tightly” contested (when a defender is within 2-4 feet) three-point attempts at 1.1 a night. The Sixers desperately needed more quick-trigger shooters who wouldn’t hesitate or pass up shots against closeouts last season. This year, Green has been essential in addressing that flaw.

One six-game run in late March highlighted Green’s confidence more than ever, as he did his part to help fire up the offense in Embiid’s 10-game absence due to a bone bruise. In this stretch, Green averaged 17.2 points a night and buried 4.8 of his 9 three-point attempts per game.

Green’s IQ is the other essential part of his value on offense. Rather than just waiting for easy spot-up opportunities to come to him, he knows how to find space. Doc Rivers is unsurprisingly a fan of how Green cuts and finds space when players like Embiid are double teamed — the head coach has simply dubbed one of Green’s relocation tactics as “The Danny Green Cut”.

Green is an expert at cutting along the baseline. He knows how to lose the attention of defenders by sneakily shifting into space on the opposite side of the floor, selling a cut before darting back to his original corner for three, or cutting straight to the basket. If he isn’t just slipping out of a defender’s line of sight, he’s tricking them into thinking he’s too many passes away to worry about on the weak-side of the floor before doubling back into unguarded territory. By this point, Green is often uncovered and open for three. Simple yet crafty, unexpected off-ball movements help Green find open looks and create easier passes for his teammates.

Green often uses these tactics alongside Ben Simmons, who has enjoyed playing with Philly’s new sharpshooter all season. Simmons has assisted Green 56 times this year (at least 20 times more than anyone else), often setting him up on cuts, spot-ups out of drives, or as a target in transition.

“Danny’s been great,” Simmons said in late February when talking about Green’s movement off the ball. “He’s been a great leader on this team. I’m still learning to play with him, where he wants his shots, but he’s been great at cutting. Especially when I’m down in the post and posting up, he’s getting those sneaky back-door cuts, which have been great.”

Green leads the NBA in made corner threes at 75, and can always be relied upon as a shooting outlet when Embiid faces a double team or ball-handlers are looking to drive and kick. Combine Embiid’s improved passing and Green’s quick trigger, and there have been far more possessions where the Sixers have punished scrambling opponents after a double team this season. This also applies when the Sixers use Embiid at the elbows or in “delay” action, which sets him up in the middle of the court and allows him to scan the floor for easier passing reads (Doc Rivers and his staff have increased this usage for Embiid to great effect). When defenses help off shooters or send a double team towards Embiid, Green is a reliable target.

Green’s trusty nature and intelligence has stood out on defense as well. At almost 34 years old, he lacks the lateral quickness he had in his prime. While he competes and has sound footwork with good size, faster guards and wings can give him trouble when attacking off the dribble. That said, on a Sixers team that has elite defenders like Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle to throw at top ball-handlers, it’s less of an issue. Especially as Green is so helpful off the ball.

Various internal developments have helped the Sixers’ defense ascend to rank 2nd in the NBA this season. Ben Simmons is hounding all positions like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Joel Embiid is an elite, engaged anchor in the paint. Tobias Harris’s defense has been better than ever. Matisse Thybulle has cemented himself as an All-Defensive team level player. Other young guys like Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton have improved their individual defense. The arrival of Doc Rivers and his new staff has also played a part. Former Indiana Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke, a highly-respected defensive wiz, was brought in to help shape the defense, and clearly seems to be doing a stellar job. Some schematic adjustments — such as using more varied pick-and-roll coverages (i.e. bringing centers higher up against more screens) and being more aggressive in helping off shooters to contain drivers — have made a difference as well.

Green has fit his role perfectly. He helps on time, communicates, has sharp instincts to read plays as they’re developing, and knows how to break up passing lanes without making unwise gambles. He’s played his part in the Sixers making a significant jump from 9th in steals per game last season (8) to 2nd this year (9.2).

“He’s trying to do a team mentality,” Korkmaz says of Green’s defense. “He’s trying to play team defense well. Then you’re good because you’re on the same page. All the five guys when you’re on the same page, you can guard anybody.”

“He likes to talk,” Korkmaz adds when talking about Green’s guidance. “Danny likes to talk, so he’s really helpful. I think it’s a good thing to have him around. He’s got rings, he’s got experience, we all got to be hungry to listen.”

Besides just playing disciplined team defense, Green is opportunistic. He finds ways to disrupt plays rather than just focusing on his man. He has a keen sense of when to dig at ball-handlers and pry away steals when opponents don’t expect it, making it even harder for players to drive into the paint or create penetration with pick-and-rolls. And even though he has limited speed, he can still disrupt plays on the ball with his persistence, length, anticipation, coordination, and active hands — tools that help him break up dribble hand-offs and bother players when he trails them around screens.

When Simmons and Thybulle smothering players on the ball with Embiid locking down the paint, adding Green into the mix can be unfair for opponents. His impact falls below that of his star defensive teammates, but his contribution to the Sixers’ elite defense shouldn’t be overlooked.

Plus, as has been the case for years, Green is a terrific transition defender. He cuts off driving lanes, pokes the ball away from unsuspecting opponents, and contests players at the rim without desperately fouling in an effort to recover down the court. (Unfortunately for the Sixers, though, Green alone hasn’t been enough to save their 29th-ranked transition defense.)

Sacramento Kings v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Since day one, Rivers also wanted Green to come in and work with the team’s young players. And from the start of training camp in the offseason, Green has been eager to take on that leadership role.

“These guys make it easy, my teammates,” Green said recently. “I’m able to be impactful to them because of how willing they are to learn and take criticism. How open they are to ask me questions. I’m not able to be a good leader without my teammates allowing me to lead, and Doc put me in a position to do so.”

For a team with several young contributors who want to soak up everything from defensive pointers to general NBA advice, it’s safe to say Green has filled this role.

“Off the court, [Green is] somebody who’s always approachable,” Shake Milton says. “You can always come talk to him. He’s the true definition of a vet and it’s been great for him to just be around. I think he’s gonna have a really big impact on how far we go.”

“Danny’s one of those guys, coming into the NBA and being very aware of what I bring to the table, that I wanted my career to emulate, in a sense,” Thybulle says. “Being able to play with him and play with a player who has a very similar skillset but just a little more refined than myself is huge — being able to pick up on his tendencies from watching and also just as a mentor, giving me advice and helping me through the things that I’ve struggled with because he’s seen it all.”

From his shooting, to his defense, to his communication and impact off the court, Green has been a seamless fit in Philly.

“He’s been with some really good teams all the way through college, and he finds himself on winning teams and I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Rivers says. “I think that’s part of who he is and what he gives the team, on the floor and in the locker room.”