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Six Degrees of Jeff Green

After 16 NBA seasons with 12 teams and 240 different teammates, the man they call Uncle Jeff is a living piece of NBA history, connecting the game’s greatest legends to an ascendant Nuggets team searching for its first championship

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jeff Green has seen some things. Promising young cores. Real-deal contenders. Teams desperate to get over the hump, and some that were never going anywhere to begin with. Superteams and snakebitten teams and snakebitten superteams. Over the course of his 16-year career, he’s played for 12 different NBA clubs—including one that doesn’t even exist anymore. And if he plays another two or three seasons, which he plans to, he could wind up having more teammates than anyone else in league history.

“You name it, I’ve done it,” Green says. “I’ve been there. I’ve played with legends. I’ve played with MVPs.” He’s also played with workaday veterans and 10-day signees. Green has played with 240 other pros in all, including Nikola Jokic (the latest of the aforementioned MVPs), Jamal Murray, and the rest of the Denver Nuggets as they compete in the NBA Finals. Green has made himself a crucial part of Denver’s playoff rotation in his second season with the team—taking advantage of a rare opportunity. It had been almost a decade since Green finished consecutive seasons with a franchise, which helps explain how a talented player with a valued skill set winds up with enough former teammates to host a convention.

Green wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I wouldn’t change my career for nothing,” he says. “I’m happy with all the things I went through, because I think that formed me into the man I am today—the player I am today—and it allowed me to see different aspects of what the NBA is.”

Green has a direct connection to virtually every all-time great of his era. He’s played with eight different MVPs—and three of them (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden) he teamed up with multiple times for different franchises. If Green didn’t work alongside a future Hall of Famer directly, he played with someone who did. He was teammates with Shaquille O’Neal, who played with Kobe Bryant. He overlapped with Keith Bogans, who played with Tim Duncan. He spent part of his rookie year with (newly hired Bucks head coach) Adrian Griffin, who played with Steve Nash. As it turns out, the entire history of the league can be told within six degrees of Jeff Green, whose journeyman career has made him a nexus point for the game itself. You can literally connect Ossie Schectman—the Brooklyn native credited with scoring the first basket in NBA history—all the way to Green within six connections.

Schectman, who made his NBA debut in 1946, is credited with the first basket in league history.
Art courtesy of Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team—which was created to honor the 76* greatest players the league has ever seen (and somehow doesn’t include Jokic)—falls within six degrees of Green, and most in far fewer than that. George Mikan is the only player on the list who is even five degrees away, according to the NBA Degrees of Separation tool developed by Rob Misiorowski. You can connect Green to Jerry West in three teammates; to George Gervin in two; and to Michael Jordan in one. (Both played with power forward/poet Etan Thomas.)

Green has played with eight different MVPs, three of whom he teamed up with multiple times with different franchises.

Some of those connections are little more than trivia. Green played with Bogans, for example, for all of six games. Yet others make up what is effectively a pipeline of institutional knowledge, connecting the players who came before Green to an ascendant Nuggets team searching now for what it takes to close out its first championship.

Maybe that understanding can be passed down through playing generations. Green was traded from Boston to Seattle on draft night in 2007, as the primary return in the deal for Ray Allen that rounded out the Celtics’ new Big Three and first paired Green with Durant, his draft classmate and childhood friend. The first time Green was traded as an active player came four years later, when the Thunder (née Sonics) sent Green back to the Celtics for a package built around (future ESPN pundit) Kendrick Perkins. What Green found in Boston was an education in the real NBA, courtesy of Kevin Garnett.

“You’ve gotta think: OKC was me, Russ, James, KD, Serge [Ibaka],” Green says. “So it was a lot of young guys around. We worked hard, but we didn’t quite know at that point how to do it. We just went off coming to the gym and just playing basketball. But when I got to Boston, with KG—I really looked at what he was bringing to the table, how he went about his everyday routine.” Green built his entire approach—the way he prepares and the way he works—by reflecting what he saw from Garnett. Now that same routine is a model for players like Michael Porter Jr., Green’s teammate in Denver who is the same age now that Green was when he became a Celtic.

“His voice, he has the respect of the entire locker room,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said earlier this season, according to The Denver Gazette. “I think when he uses his voice and he steps up, I think it’s critical to our success, and it’s critical to our young players. If it’s me all the time, that’s cool. We’re only going to be a good team. When our players and our veterans take ownership and leadership, I think that allows you the potential to go much further, much farther and much deeper.”

Everywhere Green went, he picked up something new. When he was traded to Memphis in 2015, he saw late-career Vince Carter go to incredible lengths just to make himself available. “He’s somebody who I watched come into the gym every day and prepare himself for battle,” Green says. (The influence certainly shows in the vertical.) When Green signed with the Cavs in 2017, he shadowed LeBron James and saw an entirely different level of investment: an around-the-clock loop of training, lifting, cardio, treatment, body work, film study, and deliberate recovery. “That’s where I was like, ‘Damn, this is big time,’” Green says. “This is what it takes.”

Green’s connections to the current NBA coaches who played in the league.

At every stop, Green was asked to do something slightly different. There’s a version of his story that reads a bit like a tragedy—the tale of a no. 5 pick who, try as he might, could never find a proper basketball home. But Green won’t allow it, in part because no matter how many times he changed franchises and moved cities, the offers kept coming. There was always another team that could talk itself into taking a swing on Jeff Green. He’s already appeared in the postseason with more teams than any other player. Some wanted him as a forward who could handle and stretch the floor to a degree. Others needed his size to at least put up a fight against bigger wings—putting Green opposite the likes of LeBron and KD when he wasn’t on their side. Green bounced around the league for so long that the game began to change around him; eventually, teams started to look at him as a small-ball 5 to bring in off the bench, creating an entirely new market for his services. All of which made Green very employable but never quite essential. Versatile enough that an executive would bring him in for a year, but so amorphous and inconsistent that they might not bring him back.

“I think that was the fault of early on in my career, I did everything,” Green says. “I didn’t do everything great. … I think people wanted great, and I think that’s why it never really stuck.”

Until now. The formless quality of Green’s game has helped the Nuggets in ways they didn’t even know they needed. All throughout the regular season, Malone attempted to spell Jokic with semi-conventional backup centers—DeAndre Jordan, Thomas Bryant, Zeke Nnaji—to largely unconvincing effect. So in postseason play, Malone tried something different: deploying Green and Aaron Gordon as sort of a backup center tandem, virtually interchangeable depending on matchup and circumstance. Those lineups have been startlingly effective in the playoffs, outscoring opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, and flipping Denver’s biggest regular-season weakness on its head. The Suns and Lakers were flummoxed as to why they couldn’t gain any ground with Jokic on the bench earlier in these playoffs, and never quite figured out what to do with a lineup of apositional oddities who could switch on defense and attack any which way.

“You’ve got three guys who have played every position,” Green says. “Myself, Aaron, and Bruce [Brown]—we know how to play off of each other. We’re not selfish, we all can dribble, we all can pass, we all can shoot.” It is as if Green’s circuitous path through the league—and all of its ever-shifting roles—had been preparing him for this exact situation, down to the fact that he had played with both Gordon and Brown once before at different stops. “Jeff is my big bro,” Gordon says. “We played in Orlando together [in 2016-17]. Different opportunity, different circumstances.” Green met Gordon at a distinct place in his career, when the younger, wildly athletic forward was exploring everything he could be and do for a losing team. All of the fat in Gordon’s approach—all of the creative excess in trying to manufacture shots for himself—has since been trimmed away.

Green’s connections to the Denver Nuggets during the 1976-77 season, the franchise’s first in the NBA.

“His development has been amazing from our time in Orlando,” Green says. “He simplified the game.”

Green and Brown crossed paths in Brooklyn in 2020, when they were both accessories to one of the wildest basketball experiments ever conducted—and a superteam concept that was too garish to last, to the extent that it ever truly launched at all. Brown was an unconventional player: not a pure point guard and not strictly a spot-up shooter, but something altogether more kinetic. There wasn’t a lot of clarity internally as to what the team needed around Durant, Harden, and Kyrie Irving. But there was an opportunity for supporting players who could find their way in chaotic situations, which is partly how Brown became something of a pint-sized center, rolling and finishing down the middle of the lane.

“We became close,” Green says, “because we were kind of in the same predicament: trying to figure out what position we were gonna be, where we’re gonna play, and how we’re gonna play.” When the Nuggets pursued Brown in free agency last summer, Green helped to pitch his former teammate on the concept and assuage his doubts about the fit. “Without Jeff, I don’t know if I would have been here or not,” says Brown, whose hyper-flexible play has slotted in perfectly in all sorts of lineups for Denver. In retrospect, that deal—for a contender to land a crucial rotation player for just $13.3 million over two years—proved to be one of the most important moves of the offseason.

“I’m here to push them to be better,” Green says of Gordon and Brown. “Make sure that they’re doing what they need to do for us to win, but also for their career to go to the next level. Together we’ve been great, and that’s just a culmination of our relationship and trying to understand each other.”

Green’s connections to the Miami Heat players (plus Pat Riley) whom he’s facing in the 2023 NBA Finals.

Even in their Game 2 loss, the Nuggets’ biggest run of the night—a 14-0 sprint at the start of the second quarter—came with Green, Gordon, and Brown on the floor. During that time, Green knocked down a corner 3 in transition that swung the momentum of the game. He walled up Miami’s All-Star center, Bam Adebayo, in the post, forcing a tough, contested shot—and a miss. When Murray got stuck in the corner, holding the ball on a possession that seemed to be going nowhere, Green gave him an outlet near the block and then went to work to bait a foul with the shot clock ticking down. How many players in the league—starter, reserve, whatever—could do all of those things? That’s always been the allure of Green’s game, though at some of his previous stops it was only that: a charming idea of the player he could be. His game still ebbs and flows, but it’s anchored now by everything he’s learned on his career-long tour through the inner workings of pro basketball.

“When you’re young and you start moving around the league, the only mindset is trying to fit in and just trying to do what’s right to stay put,” Green says. “And then when you think you’ve done enough to stay put but it still doesn’t work, then it’s a mental game. For me, it was about not allowing all the movement and what teams aren’t doing to affect me.” It was about being, in Green’s words, a little more selfish. Playing on his own terms. Being true to his game. “Sometimes it’s good to be aggressive for yourself,” Green says. “And that’s what I did.”

Green isn’t putting up incredible numbers or even hitting shots at a very high clip for the Nuggets in these playoffs. But the lineups he’s helping to anchor are winning. And they’re winning in part because defenses don’t have any better idea of what to do with Green than many of his previous teams did. Now, Green and the Nuggets are three wins away from the NBA title—which would be the first for the franchise, and the first for Green. His only other trip to the Finals came in 2018, when he and the Cavs fell short. But everything about this run is different. Green is less of a hired gun and more of a grounding presence. He’s five years older—and wiser, sure, but also just older, with fewer chances to get back to this stage.

“I think at a certain point,” Green says, “you appreciate it a little bit more. I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna play.”

But if Green does eventually total more teammates than any player has before, what a testament that would be to his pure, undeniable playability. Green has found real staying power in the league—and a place within six degrees of all of NBA history—through a skill set that had something to offer any team. A player who can do as many things as Green is never useless. Particularly when, in addition to that breadth of ability, Green now brings an invaluable perspective to the locker room. Superstars respect him, and lobby for their teams to sign him. Coaches can’t help but play him. Teams have had their doubts about Green in some form or fashion for a decade and a half, but none could keep him off the floor. Sometimes a player learns how much they’re wanted through a five-year supermax; sometimes they learn from the fact that, no matter how many teams and deals and cities pass by, the game won’t let them go.

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