“Two-way player” has become the rage in the NBA, and for good reason. Having a guy who can only impact one end of the court means that on the other end, you’re playing four-on-five. And that puts any team at a disadvantage. But who are the players who have an impact on both ends of the court?
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. I’ll look at the best two-way players here, and in the next piece I’ll view those who don’t perform on either end or are lopsided.
To determine the best and worst, I turned to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. There are a few reasons I used it.
- It has equal values for both offense (ORPM) and defense (DRPM).
- It’s one of the better (if not best) adjusted plus-minus stats.
- It doesn’t just consider box score stats, but it does include them in its formula.
- It has players separated into five positions. The reason for that will become evident later.
All that said, like any metric, there are going to be some odd results. And there’s the standard reminder that it’s an estimate of how a player performs with the team and in the system he’s in. It’s not definitive that he’d have the same numbers on a different team. These are contextual. But for what we’re going, it’s about the best we have.
Here’s a chart of every player in the league’s ORPM and DRPM:
The lines indicate quintiles. The players in the top, right box are ostensibly the best two-way players in the league. But we can fine tune that and make it more accurate by adjusting for positions because there’s quite a bit of variability. Here’s the cut-off for the top quintile of each.
Notice how different the center position is from the point guard? That’s because one is the defensive anchor, and the other is the offensive general. Ergo, just lumping all the positions together can be misleading.
Using those quintiles, let’s take a look at each of the five positions.
Rather than “rank” the players in some ambiguous way, I’ll just show you the chart for the guys who are in the “box” for each position and discuss the results.
First, here are the point guards with ORPM on top and DRPM on the bottom:
There are a few things of note here, the first of which is that Stephen Curry’s MVP is very much validated by his play on both ends of the court. In fact, he had the second-best ORPM (to Russell Westbrook, 7.99) and second-best DRPM (to Ricky Rubio) in the league.
Chris Paul is deservedly up there, but based on this, it appears his defense might be slightly overrated. He was only 14th out of the 93 listed point guards. That’s still exceptional, but perhaps not meritorious of All-Defensive First Team.
It’s not a surprise for John Wall to be up there. His defensive improvement has been consistent for two years now. Kyle Lowry maintains his standing as one of the most under-regarded players in the game. Eric Bledsoe vindicates his rising-star status.
But perhaps the biggest surprise here is seeing Jrue Holiday on the list. Fantasy players take note. With Alvin Gentry’s uptempo system in place, look for him to climb even more. A good sleeper pick for you there.
The selection of shooting guards is larger. There are a couple of notable things. The rise of the “3-and-D” wing is justified as most of the guys in the group fall in that category to some degree. Danny Green is an elite defender and shooter, and no 2 had a better ORPM and DRPM than him.
I don’t know why ESPN listed Mike Dunleavy as a shooting guard, but I left all such assignments alone. It does indicate, though, that the Bulls are set with their wings, as both he and Butler are among the elite two-way players. Dunleavy isn’t a great on-ball defender, but his team defense is highly undervalued.
Butler is a bit sandbagged here. His box score numbers are better than the others, and he almost exclusively guards the other team’s best attacker every game. He gets the nod for best two-way player at his position.
Khris Middleton and Bradley Beal look to be players on the rise. Beal’s defense might be underrated by some fans, but he’s emerging as one of the better stoppers at his position in the league. Wesley Matthews‘s contract might be a bit of a reach, but not an overwhelming one as his placement as a guy who impacts both ends of the court is certainly validated here.
Perhaps the most notable thing, though, is the name not on the list: Klay Thompson. The omission isn’t accidental. He was only 46th in DRPM.
If you forgot that LeBron James is the best player in the world, here’s a subtle reminder. James, by far, was the best offensive small forward last year, and contrary to social media wisdom, was still elite defensively.
Kevin Durant probably would be up there if he hadn’t been injured as much as he was. And in his limited play, Durant established that he’s more than just a scorer.
Over near Durant is a result that many might find surprising. Gordon Hayward posted very similar ratings. Now, that’s partly because of Durant’s injuries, but still. Hayward probably deserves a little more credit than he gets. He’s probably the fourth- or fifth-best two-way small forward in the league, depending on what happens with Paul George and whether you consider Draymond Green one.
Speaking of Green, ESPN called him a small forward. He had the best DRPM of any player in the league, but Defensive Player of the Year winner Kawhi Leonard wasn’t far behind. Both make the list as two-way players. Leonard probably has more potential to expand offensively and become an MVP-caliber guy.
And old man Matt Barnes making the list makes me wonder why everyone is so eager to trade him away. He still gives plenty on both ends of the court.
Here we find some intriguing results, not the least of which is how much Anthony Davis towers above the rest at his position. No one was remotely close to him offensively, and the only power forward with a better DRPM was Tim Duncan, who plays for a substantially better defensive team.
Paul Millsap is the only other power forward here with both an ORPM and a DRPM over 2.0, making a good argument for him as the second-best two-way 4 in the league. Zach Randolph is there, with numbers as solid as his frame.
But the highlight here seems to be the trio of youngsters, Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and Cody Zeller. Which of the three is the future second-best power forward in the league? (Let’s face it, this generation belongs to the Brow). My money is on Mirotic.
Finally, we come to the centers, where we find the most bizarre results.
On the positive side, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan are both elite players. But in a bit of a surprise, Cousins’s DRPM came in higher, and Jordan’s ORPM was higher. That probably has a lot to do with Jordan being a far more efficient scorer (71.0 percent to 46.7 percent) from the field.
Zaza Pachulia is the most “peculia’” (sorry, I had to do it) result in this exercise. If you’re a Mavericks fan, there’s a morsel of hope for you.
Perhaps the most notable thing of all this is that less than 20 percent of the 5s in the league finished with a positive ORPM. While some bemoan this as a lack of talent at the position, it’s more indicative of the fact that the rule changes that opened up the game have made it more difficult for bigs to impact the game at the rim.
So, based on all that, the All-Two-Way Team would have Curry at the point, Butler at the 2, James at small forward, Davis as the power forward and, thinking of fit, Jordan at the 5. Coming off the bench would be Paul, Green, Leonard, Millsap and Cousins.
Frankly, it’s hard to know whether it’d be harder to score on that team or keep them from scoring.