Out of the Past: Orien Greene

Part 1: Summer of ‘05

The Boston Celtics entered the 2005-‘06 season with the winds of a misguided optimism at their backs.  The previous season – the team’s second under the executive direction of former Toronto Blue Jays infielder Danny Ainge and first with head coach Glenn Rivers, Ph.D on the sidelines  – had been a surprisingly successful one.  Though they had muddled along at a sub-.500 clip for the better part of their first 50 games, the Celtics had taken first place in the Atlantic Division, finishing with a record of 45-37.  It had been their best regular season campaign since 2002 (49-33), and second-best since 1993 (48-34).

Of course, the Division crown and attendant third-seed playoff entry did not mean that the Celtics were actually, you know, good or anything.  They had benefited from playing in a woeful Eastern Conference (collective winning percentage of .475 and average SRS[1] of -1.25, compared to the West’s .525 and +1.25) and a shambles of an Atlantic Division.  Four of the Atlantic’s five teams had averaged fewer points scored than allowed and finished the season with an SRS below zero.  The Celtics were the best of the bunch, though not by much; their average scoring differential of 0.9 and SRS of 0.34, while good for fourth- and fifth-best in the Conference, were 13th and 14th in the league at large.

The ’05 Celtics had been  a middling team surrounded by deadbeats and ne’er-do-wells.  The Division title was illusive; they got it because there was no one around to keep them from it.

At the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Mark Cuban popularized the idea of franchise building through staying off what Kevin Pritchard called “the mediocrity treadmill.”  As Cuban put it, “the worst position you can be in the NBA is to be mired in mediocrity.  Your best chance to rebuild is to get the next Blake Griffin in the draft.  You have to find that guy, and chances are you need a top-three pick.”[2]

Five years ahead of its insertion into the main, Danny Ainge seemed hip to the notion.  In only two years on the job, he had already made some controversial moves, dealing fan favorite Antoine Walker (plus Tony Delk) for Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, and Jiri Welsch, then shipping out Eric Williams and Tony Battie for Ricky “Get Buckets” Davis, who may just as easily have been nicknamed “Budddzzz,” and was heretofore most famous for deliberately bricking a wide open shot at his own basket so he could collect his own rebound and lock up his first career triple-double.

Moves like these were made with the long view in mind.  To Ainge, the Celtics, as constituted, had maxed out their capability.  Simply adding to their core of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker would amount to lateral movement at best.  The way toward improvement would be found through the agonizing process of the systematic dismantle and the grinding rebuild.

The fans, impatient and fickle as they are, weren’t quite sure what to make of all this.  More than anything, Ainge’s moves seemed destructive to the framework of a team that had made it as far as the sixth game of the Eastern Conference Finals only two years before he took over the steering wheel.

Now, Ainge would celebrate the Celtics’ second-best regular season finish in more than a decade (which was followed by a seven-game, first-round playoff knockout at the hands of a superior Indiana Pacers squad, by the way) by sign-and-trading Antoine Walker (who had been re-acquired mid-2005 for the Cs’ playoff push) for a pile of Stephen King paperbacks (or one guy who he would waive and another who wouldn’t make the 15-man roster, same difference) and some second round picks, and letting starting point guard Gary Payton (36 years old) walk to Miami.

On November 15, 2005, the Celtics’ record fell to 3-4 in the wake of a 115-100 loss to the Detroit Pistons.  They would stay below .500 for the rest of the season.  In January, they flipped Ricky, Mark Blount, The Tommyknockers, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon for Wally Szczerbiak and some guys.

They finished the season at 33-49 and missed the playoffs.  The following year, they dropped to 24-58 and these guys started to come out of the woodwork.  Someone even petitioned to have Ainge fired.  Petitions are kind of funny; they trick people into believing that their voices have power.

Of course, the treading of this rocky stretch of road was an unfortunate but necessary part of the Celtics’ long journey back to the land of milk and honey.  By the end of the 2007 season, Danny Ainge’s loser Celtics had acquired enough assets – a wily vet with a little something left in the tank, a mammoth expiring contract, and a gaggle of promising/capable players in the first few years of their careers – to swing the deals for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that would land the Celtics their first championship in more than 20 years.

Was this all part of the master plan, or just a hapless blunder into good luck?  It depends on what you already think of Danny Ainge.  Some prefer to view the Garnett trade as more an instance of fortune coming round with a smile on its face and a gift from an old friend rather than a sterling example of deal-making savvy or the concluding brushstroke on a years-in-the-making masterpiece.

The truth is, it was probably a little bit of both.  Ainge could not have reliably planned to acquire two future Hall-of-Famers with a little bit of prime left in them in the same season.  Nobody could; attempting to do so would amount to little more than a foolish gamble.

What Ainge did instead was ignore the win-loss record, shuck marginally impactful vets, gather assets, and wait for something to happen.  In this case, something did, and people ditched the brown paper bags, started showing up to the Garden in droves, began to trust in Danny and Doc (until, of course, they didn’t, but then they did again), and gleefully bore witness to a remarkable five-year stretch of excellent, often dominant, basketball.

Just as easily, something could not have happened and the Ainge era would have ended in smolder and ash.  Doc Rivers would have made his way back to the broadcast booth, Paul Pierce to the Lakers, and Causeway Street in January would be about the most bitter, desolate spot on the Earth this side of Queen Maud Land.

But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.  Let’s run it back to the Summer of ’05.  If there was one thing that folks seemed to agree on, it was that Danny Ainge had shown a knack for getting real value out of the mid-to-late first-round picks he had been saddled with over his first two seasons (for the unimpeachable guide to his performance, click here).  In 2003, he had landed Marcus Banks (who never amounted to much) and Kendrick Perkins (who absolutely did).  He followed that up in ’04 by pulling in a very nice haul of Al Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen (and also Justin Reed, who, if nothing else, had a very nice smile).

In 2005, the Boston Celtics held the 18th, 50th, and 53rd picks of the NBA Draft.  With #18, they selected high-flying high schooler Gerald Green.  With #50, they grabbed Providence forward Ryan “Nice Guy” Gomes.  With the 53rd pick of the 2005 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics selected Orien Greene from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Part 2: Orien Greene

“Orien Greene was de absolute uitblinker van EclipseJet MG Amsterdam.” –Someone at Amsterdambasketball.nl

We’re going to tell you something now that is so blatantly obvious that the act of putting it into print might feel like an open-handed slap to your intelligence: the further along a draft goes, the more it starts to resemble blindfolded dart-throwing as opposed to honest-to-goodness informed speculation.

In our “Unimpeachable Guide to Danny Ainge and the NBA Draft (2003-2011),” we talk about the rate at which teams’ returns diminish as the draft progresses.  Since 2003, picks made from spots one through five have been worth 29.8 win shares per pick.  That average drops off to 15.7 WS/pick in the six-to-ten range, then 8.3 in the 11-15 range.  By the time pick 53 rolls around, smack in the middle of the 51-55 range, teams are getting an average return of 1.0 WS/pick.

2005 was a good year for mid-to-late draft dart-throwers.  Nineteen of the 40 players chosen from pick 21 through 60 wound up out-producing the average return from the range that they were chosen, most by a significant margin.

If we’ve piqued your curiosity, then here’s a list of the Overachievers of 2005.  “EXP WS” is the average win shares generated by all players chosen from 2003-2011 in the five-pick range that the corresponding 2005 draftee was chosen in.

For context’s sake, the 2004 draft turned out eight players who have out-produced the average return of their pick range.  The 2006 draft turned out 10 such players; the 2007 draft, 11.  The 2003 draft, regarded today as one of the most loaded in NBA history, was comparable to 2005 in this regard, as it turned out 16 overachievers.

As you may have noticed, Orien Greene did not wind up on the list above.  His career would go more the way of Axel Hervelle and Dijon Thompson than Amir Johnson and Marcin Gortat.

Coming into the draft, though, Orien was regarded as a sort of hyper-upside pick.  According to one scouting report, he was “an extremely unique prospect…one of a kind in terms of the size, skills, athleticism, and [the] talent he [possessed] at his position.”  That position was point guard, and at 6’5” with long arms, speed to burn, and a pass-first mentality, one didn’t have to squint too hard to see a viable second-line player who could more-than-ably run an offense while causing havoc on the defensive end.

It was the defensive acumen that had shone through most brightly during his college career.  A two-time Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, he had the size and strength to match up with opposing wings and the agility to hang with the speediest points.  He was an aggressive defender, known for his “uncanny knack for anticipating steals and getting into passing lanes” and his “excellent” on-the-ball pressure.

At #53, Orien was a classic Ainge pick along the lines of Kendrick Perkins, Tony Allen, Leon Powe, and Avery Bradley: an accomplished defender with an offensive game that was more tools-based than skills-based, and would probably most generously be described as “still-developing.”  Though praised for his court vision and proclivity for attacking the basket, his jumper was shaky (career 41-percent shooter in college), his shot selection poor, and his carelessness with the ball (4.0 to 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio) borderline untenable.

For his part, Ainge had this to say about Orien:

He’s a kid who has underachieved a little bit in college because of injuries and some different things … But we think with his physical talents, being 6-5 and long and athletic and playing the point guard in college, he’s just a different player with a lot of potential; a tall, long point guard.  He’s a terrific player.  He can handle, he’s not a great shooter, but his shot isn’t bad.  He’s a guy who has played the point and has been a distributor.

Unpolished though he was, Orien was in the rotation from opening night, thanks to injuries that kept reserve guards Tony Allen and Marcus Banks sidelined through winter.  He got his first points of the season in the Celtics’ opening night overtime win against the Knicks, converting a fourth-quarter lay-in somewhere in the midst of his 10 minutes of floor action.

After averaging 8.2 minutes over nine of his team’s first 10 games – in which he turned in more rebounds (14) than turnovers (11), but more turnovers than points (9) – a minor hip injury to Delonte West thrust Orien into the starting lineup for a pair of late-November matchups with the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats.  Viewed in tandem, the two performances show a clean delineation between “Good” Orien and “Bad” Orien.  Against Atlanta, he scored 9 points off 3-4 from the field (including a pair of long twos) and 3-4 from the line while snaring 4 rebounds and  chipping in 3 assists over 25 minutes of action.  Two nights later against the Bobcats, however, he missed all four of his shots and offset his 4 assists with 4 turnovers in another 25 minutes of playing time.

As the weeks ticked by, events conspired to push Orien off the bench and on to the floor more and more.  Dan Dickau’s season-ending December injury and Marcus Banks’ general ineffectiveness and eventual January trade turned Orien into Delonte West’s primary backup.  He went from averaging 11.9 minutes per game up through Banks’ last run in a Celtic uniform to 19.1 from that point forward.  His per-game numbers ticked up only as much as one might expect with the extra playing time; maybe even a little less.  His 2.1 points, 1.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 0.6 steals increased to 4.3, 2.1, 1.8, and 1.4.

Orien returned to the starting lineup for one last three-game stint in early March, averaging 7.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists (and 3.3 turnovers), with 2.7 steals over 34.4 minutes against the Wizards, Sixers, and Bucks.  The Celtics went 2-1 over the stretch, which coincided with a spectacular run from Paul Pierce, who scored 30-points or more in 13 of 14 games (including eight straight), and submarined the Wizards and Sixers with late-clock heroics on back-to-back nights.

Against the Sixers, Orien turned in the one highlight from his rookie season that’s still in circulation: an impressive blow-by of Allen Iverson on his way to a one-handed slam over Andre Iguodala.

As a rookie, Orien had very much been the player that he was in college.  His shooter’s slash line ran at .395 FG/.225 3P/.662 FT.  Along with Chris Paul, he had led all players who qualified for the scoring title with 2.2 steals per 36 minutes.  He also finished fifth in the league with 3.2 turnovers per 36.  Apart from Eddy Curry, who averaged 0.4 assists to his 3.5 turnovers, all of the players above Orien (Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker) had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1 or better.  Orien came in at 3.8:3.3.

Though his season had ended on a high note – back-to-back games with career bests of 14 points each off a combined 10-16 from the floor and a total of 7 steals – the Celtics elected to waive Orien Greene on June 30, 2006, a year and two days after they had drafted him.  Two weeks later, he would land with the Indiana Pacers, who would deploy him for 6.2 minutes at a time in exactly half of their 82 regular season games.

The following season, he would make his way to the Sacramento Kings, where he would contribute a total of 6 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, and 7 turnovers over 61 minutes in 7 games before being waived once more.  In the years since, he has bounced from New Zealand to the Netherlands to the D-League to a 10-day contract with the New Jersey Nets, and then across the Pacific to Australia before landing back in the D-League.


In December of 2010, TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott published an out-of-the-blue profile detailing Orien’s efforts to shed an off-court reputation built from a catalog of unfortunate incidents – a failed drug test, a car wreck, a speeding incident – and earn his way back into the league.  In the piece, Orien described his current situation:

Teams don’t want to mess with me because of off-the-court stuff.  Not on the court…I just need get my life together, man.  Do all the right things.  Stay out the street, stay out of all the bulls—, excuse my French, but there ain’t no way I ain’t supposed to be in the league right now.  I’m making such-and-such dollars.  It ain’t about that, but ain’t no way I shouldn’t be playing with the best guys in this game.  I feel like I belong.

As Orien works to prove himself the “ex-knucklehead” that his personal trials have purportedly shaped him into, he also looks to prove that his on-court self is something more than what the scouting book shows: “Good size for a point guard… Tough defender… Lacks talent on the offensive end.”

[1] From Basketball-Reference: “Simple Rating System; a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average”

[2] There is some debate as to whether this is actually true, or just an idea that makes sense logically and has a catchy title

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