It’s a battle between two of the NBA’s top shooting guards in this edition of “Who You Got?”, wherein the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler and the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson go head-to-head.
It’s a matchup inspired by my incessant quibbling over NBA 2K16’s player ratings. There, Thompson got the nod with an overall rating of 87, compared to Butler’s 86.
The difference is minuscule, and may not be wrong, but it still got me thinking.
Does Thompson’s three-point prowess make him a better option in today’s pace-and-space NBA? Do Butler’s rebounding and defensive abilities make him the more well-rounded player?
Those questions and more will be answered on the way to finding the answer to the overarching question in every installment of “Who You Got?”: Which of the two players do you start a team with if it’s only for this coming season?
Thompson and Butler were the first and fifth shooting guards taken in the 2011 NBA Draft. It took Butler a bit longer to get off the runway in the league, but these two are now at a similar cruising altitude among basketball’s elite wings:
As is generally the case in these debates, the surface numbers only provide the jumping-off point for this discussion. A more in-depth look at each facet of a shooting guard’s game is required to come to a conclusion.
Over the course of his career, Butler’s developed into a solid shooter, going from 18.2 percent from three-point range as a rookie to 37.8 percent last season. He was comfortably above league average from distance last season, but his competitor here obliterates it.
Thompson’s three-point percentage of 43.9 ranked fourth among players who qualified for the leaderboard, behind Kyle Korver (49.2), Eric Gordon (44.8) and Stephen Curry (44.3).
And Thompson showed the ability to be both a catch-and-shoot and pull-up threat, ranking in the top 10 in Effective Field Goal Percentage in both categories (minimum three attempts per game and 20 games played):
Butler is a solid shooter, but doesn’t space the floor like Thompson and likely never will. And just for good measure, let’s put a little exclamation on this segment:
Much like the last section, both players here are solid, but it’s a lot harder to find who has the edge in terms of defense.
Thompson has rightfully earned a reputation for being a stingy, versatile player who can slow down an opponent at multiple positions, but two separate metrics actually say he has an adverse impact on his team’s defense.
ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM) ranks Thompson 278th out of the 474 ranked players, with a DRPM of minus-0.72. Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) has Thompson pegged at minus-1.0 (198th out of the 267 players who qualified for the minutes leaderboard).
ESPN has yet to explain Real Plus-Minus, and Basketball-Reference’s explanation of Box Plus/Minus reads like a graduate-level math textbook. And being ranked so low in both would be a big problem for Thompson’s case, if not for the much easier to understand Defensive Rating (DefRtg).
When Thompson was on the floor, the Warriors allowed just 97.7 points per 100 possessions. When he was off, that number jumped to 99.1. It’s not a huge difference, but when you consider that Thompson spent the majority of his minutes against starters, the difference carries a bit more weight.
Furthermore, Thompson held both shooting guards and small forwards to Player Efficiency Ratings under the league average of 15 (11.1 and 12.1, respectively).
Butler, meanwhile, has the edge in the two catch-all metrics from ESPN and Basketball-Reference, but that doesn’t kill Thompson’s argument:
My personal bias leads me to favor DefRtg. It’s the clearest indicator and shows that Thompson’s team gets worse defensively when he sits, while Butler’s gets better. But that’s not entirely fair, since Thompson played with much better individual defenders (Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, just to name a few).
With everything else being fairly close, we can declare this section a tie, giving Thompson a 2-1 edge to this point.
Thompson may be the better pure shooter in this comparison, but there’s a lot more to playing on the offensive end.
With traditional positional designations fading further away every year, playmaking is becoming a more valuable skill for wings. Neither Thompson nor Butler is really known as a playmaker, but both are solid when they need to be:
|Advanced||Per 100 Possessions||Per 36 Minutes|
The big difference here is obviously turnovers. Thompson’s higher turnovers could partially be attributed to his higher usage rate, but the per-100-possessions numbers still show Butler did a better job of taking care of the ball.
With everything else basically even, Butler gets the slight nod in terms of playmaking ability.
To break down the rest of this duo’s offensive games, we look to Synergy’s “Play Type” numbers provided by NBA.com.
The percentiles are based on points per possession. For example, Butler’s 1.35 points per possession in transition puts him in the 89th percentile, meaning he’s better than 89 percent of players in that play type:
We can safely attach Thompson’s blistering score in spot-up situations to his previous win in the shooting category, but the rest of the table generally favors Butler. The Bulls wing is more of a threat in transition, in the post and on the boards.
For offensive ability beyond shooting, Butler has the advantage. That evens things up at 2-2.
The growing ambiguity of positions has forced players around Butler and Thompson’s size to adapt and do more things on the floor than they may have in the past.
Being able to switch defensively and guard at least four positions is the norm for a wing. Helping out on the boards is critical. A mismatch and opportunity to take a smaller player into the post may present itself multiple times each game. Having a 6’6″ or 6’7″ player who can run the point for stretches allows teams to play “big” small-ball.
Both Butler and Thompson do a lot of these things well enough to once again make it difficult to separate the two.
In the interest of breaking the 2-2 tie, we’ll look to more advanced metrics that endeavor to measure a player’s overall impact on a game.
With this matchup being so close, we can safely defer to these catch-all numbers as a deciding vote, more or less. Butler not only edges Thompson in the above Basketball-Reference measures, his overall Real Plus-Minus of 4.30 ranked 23rd. Thompson’s 3.64 ranked 3oth.
By a razor-thin margin, Butler takes this edition of “Who You Got?”.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.