Taking stock of best of best two-way players in NBA today
Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, John Wall standout from rest on this list
Earlier this month, Michael Jordan called Kawhi Leonard “the best two-way player in the game right now.”
It’s hard to argue with one of two players (Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon) to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Leonard is a two-time Kia DPOY and finished third in voting last season, while also ranking in the top 10 in usage rate and scoring.
It’s easier to quantify a player’s offensive contributions than his impact on defense. But through a combination of numbers and film, we can come up with a somewhat subjective list of the league’s best “two-way” players.
The top tier
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard’s usage rate of 31.2 percent ranked seventh among the 282 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season and was the highest for any San Antonio Spurs player in the last eight seasons. He’s taken on a larger role in the San Antonio offense every year and the last two have been his most efficient in regard to both true shooting percentage and assist/turnover ratio.
His assists are still rather low for a primary playmaker. He accounted for only 21 percent of the Spurs’ assists while he was on the floor, the second lowest rate among the top 14 guys in usage rate. So he still has another step or two to take offensively.
The Spurs were, interestingly, 8.0 points better defensively with Leonard off the floor than they were with him on the floor last season. But according to SportVU, he ranked third (among the 345 players who played at least 40 games) in suppressing the scoring of the player he was guarding, allowing 5.1 fewer points per 36 minutes than would be expected. He’s one of the most disruptive defenders we’ve seen in a long time and a perennial DPOY candidate.
Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
The Clippers were 20.2 points per 100 possessions better with Paul on the floor (plus-14.9) than they were with him off the floor (minus-5.3). That was, by a pretty wide margin, the biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential among players who played at least 1,000 minutes last season. And the difference was big on both ends of the floor.
Paul’s differential was big on both ends of the floor. The 11.5 more points per 100 possessions that the Clippers’ offense scored with Paul on the floor was the fourth biggest on-off-court OffRtg differential and the 8.8 fewer points per 100 possessions that they allowed was the second biggest DefRtg differential.
He has ranked in the top five in steals per game in each of the 10 seasons in which he’s been qualified, leading the league six times. He ranks third all-time in assists per game and has become one of the league’s best shooters off the dribble. Last season, he ranked third in effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers among 89 players who attempted at least 200.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Wall isn’t the off-the-dribble shooter that Paul is. Among those 89 players who attempted at least 200 pull-up jumpers last season, Wall ranked 73rd in effective field goal percentage on those shots. But he’s a terror on the break and is one of the best passers in the game. He ranks sixth all-time (second behind Paul among active players) in assists per game and was one of three players (James Harden and LeBron James were the others) who broke the previous record for most assists on corner 3-pointers in a single season.
The next tier
Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
Butler ranked just below Wall on pull-up effective field goal percentage at a rough 40.4 percent, but the Bulls were still 6.4 points per 100 possessions better offensively with him on the floor. His true shooting percentage (a career-high 58.6 percent) was well above the league average (55.2 percent), because he had the league’s fifth highest free throw rate (FTA/FGA) among players who took at least 500 shots from the field, getting to the line 54 times for every 100 shots from the field, and ranked in the top 20 in free throw percentage.
The Bulls were also 3.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Butler on the floor. He ranked fifth in the league in steals and sixth in deflections per game. After ranking 26th on that end of the floor last season, the Wolves need his defense more than they need his offense.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Durant’s offensive greatness is clear. Last season, he was one of the league’s best shooters from almost every area of the floor …
- He shot 78.2 percent in the restricted area, the best mark among 128 players with at least 200 attempts there.
- He shot 51.5 percent on non-restricted-area paint shots, the fifth best mark among 102 players who took at least 100 of those.
- He shot 47.5 percent from mid-range, the eighth best mark among 70 players who attempted at least 200 mid-range shots.
- His 37.5 percent from 3-point range ranked only 53rd among 135 players who took at least 200 3-pointers, but his 42.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers ranked 16th among 82 players who attempted at least 200 of those. His overall 3-point percentage was hurt by his 26 percent on pull-ups.
Defense? It’s not consistent, but Durant’s ability to keep stay in front of James and use his length at the rim was critical in the Warriors winning the championship. Like James, Durant has the ability to make a real impact on that end of the floor when he’s locked in.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Green is the reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year, a versatile defender who can both switch onto guards and protect the rim. He not only led the league in steals, but also ranked second in rim protection among players that defended at least five shots at the rim per game in 40 or more games.
The Warriors allowed 99.3 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor last season, giving him the lowest on-court DefRtg among 222 players who averaged at least 20 minutes in 40 or more games. With him off the floor, they allowed 104.1.
Green had a poor shooting season last year, but remained an important piece of the No. 1 offense in the league. His 7.0 assists per game led the Warriors, who registered the highest assist rate (assisting on 70.5 percent of their buckets) of the last 13 years. He’s an ideal complement to the shooting that the Warriors have on the perimeter.
If some of these other guys are a 10 on offense and a 7 on defense, Green is the opposite.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
James’ defense, particularly in the regular season, has slipped over the last few years. His defensive activity could be measured by how many steals and blocks he records per 36 minutes, and that number was a career-low 1.75 last season.
But James still has incredible instincts, as well as the size and athleticism to erase mistakes as quickly as anybody in the league. During the 2016 Olympics, as the U.S. National Team’s defense allowed 117 points per 100 possessions over its last three pool-play games, a staffer revealed that the team missed James more on that end of the floor than on offense.
When he’s engaged, he’s a difference-maker. His steals plus blocks per 36 was 2.81 in the 2017 playoffs, not his highest mark for any postseason (3.33 in 2016 was his highest), but still higher than the number he’s registered in any regular season.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
On the Cavs’ first possession of The Finals, Thompson was switched onto Kevin Love in the post. Thompson held his spot, got into Love’s space, and forced an ugly shot from the left wing. At other times during the series, Thompson was able to successfully switch onto James and Kyrie Irving.
Thompson isn’t much of a creator on offense. The only Warrior with a lower assist rate was JaVale McGee and 84 percent of his own buckets were assisted. But he’s one of the best shooters in NBA history (he ranks 12th all-time in 3-point percentage) and is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league today.
Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz) and DeAndre Jordan (LA Clippers)
Even with the 3-point revolution in full bloom, you don’t have to be able to shoot from beyond five feet to be an effective center on the offensive end of the floor. If you can set a good screen, roll to the basket, catch and finish, you can be an important part of today’s pace-and-space style, able to take advantage of the space that shooters create or allow them to take advantage of the attention that you draw.
Jordan is more effective at that than Gobert, who’s the more effective rim protector. Both of these guys make a positive impact on both ends of the floor, especially with the new Hack-a-Shaq rules that went into effect last year and reduce the negative impact of Jordan’s poor free throw shooting.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Gasol’s defensive value comes with positioning and IQ more than athleticism. Yet he still ranked as a top-10 rim protector for the second straight year. And in addition to defending those shots, he helped suppress them. Last season, opponents took 29 percent of their shots from the restricted area with Gasol on the floor and 32 percent of their shots from the restricted area with him off the floor.
He isn’t a very efficient scorer for a center, but he shot 39 percent from 3-point range in his first season of shooting 3-pointers and had the highest assist rate among the top 10 centers in usage rate last season.
Getting there …
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo’s jumper still needs work. He shot 30.9 percent from outside the paint, the 11th worst mark among 215 players who took at least 200 shots from the outside (Green was one of the 10 players who shot worse). With his length, he led the league with 282 combined steals and blocks.
The tools are all there, the work ethic is there, and we can expect the winner of the Most Improved Player award to take another step forward this season.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
After four straight seasons in the bottom 10, the Pelicans ranked ninth defensively last season. And they were 7.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Davis on the floor than they were with him on the bench. Davis has always had the length and athleticism, but this was the first time that he was really able to make an impact on that end of the floor.
Davis is a solid shooter between the restricted area and the 3-point line, but it would help if he took more than 31.7 percent of his shots (a number below the league average) from the restricted area. He could also be more willing of a passer. He had the third lowest assist rate (7.3 per 100 possessions used) among the top 50 guys in usage rate last season.
It will be fascinating to see how the full-time presence of DeMarcus Cousins affects Davis’ development, because he can still get better on both ends of the floor.
The next big thing
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid led the league with 4.72 steals plus blocks per 36 minutes. On offense, turnovers were a problem, but he was an above-average 3-point shooter as a 22-year-old, seven-foot rookie.
The Sixers were 2.2 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 9.0 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Embiid on the floor than they were with him off the floor. He was a plus-67 for a team that lost 54 games. If he’s healthy this year, it’s not unfathomable that the Sixers could be fighting for a playoff spot.
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