The Better Two-Way Player: Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson

During the 2016 Finals, ESPN’s Mark Jackson asserted that Klay Thompson is the best two-way player in the NBA.  Jackson has a history of making bold statements which incite serious debate, like when he called Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson the greatest shooting backcourt in league history.  But was his latest assertion about Klay Thompson another accurate bold claim or whimsical?  After all, there’s a pretty good two-way player down in San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard.  And Leonard just so happens to be coming off his finest offensive season to date and his second consecutive DPOY award.  On the surface, when comparing Klay Thompson to Kawhi Leonard, it seems like Jackson’s assertion is utterly preposterous.  Nonetheless, Jackson’s brazen statements have been proven correct before.  So is he right? Only the numbers can tell the entire story.

Let’s start by dissecting both players’ offensive game.  Thompson and Leonard are gifted offensive players that exhibit a diverse offensive game.  Thompson operates primarily on the perimeter, canning treys in transition and within the flow of the Warriors offense.  To that end, Thompson shot 42.5% from three last year.  But Thompson is no one-trick pony.  When presented with the opportunity, he is very proficient at driving to the basket and exploiting smaller two guards down in the post.  For his efforts, Thompson shot an excellent 51% from two last season.

Leonard is also a brilliant offensive talent.  His game differs from Thompson in that he relies more on midrange jumpers and post ups to generate offense.  Leonard’s incredible offensive improvement has led to the Spurs calling for more Leonard isolations down on the block or in the 15-23 foot shot area.   And Leonard has delivered, as he shot 52.8% from two last year. Moreover, like Thompson, Leonard is an outstanding three point shooter.

Last season, Leonard shot 44.3% from three, which happens to be better than Thompson’s.  Nevertheless, to deem Kawhi Leonard as a better shooter than Klay Thompson is completely misguided, as Thompson’s lower three point percentage is a result of him taking more threes per game than Leonard.  Further, Leonard’s three point shot is not nearly as pure as Thompson’s beautiful stroke, but with more guidance from Spurs’ shooting guru Chip Engelland, Leonard might get there some day.

These peripheral offensive stats depict Leonard and Thompson as similar offensive forces, but digging into some more advanced stats illustrate Leonard as the superior offensive player.  To wit, Leonard posted a 5.5 Offensive Box Plus/Minus Rating last season, good for ninth in the league, and an 8.3 Offensive Wins Shares, which was seventh in the league.  By comparison, Thompson generated a 2.9 Offensive Box Plus/Minus Rating and 5.4 Offensive Wins Shares.   These advanced offensive stats demonstrate that Kawhi Leonard is a more impactful offensive player than Klay Thompson, even though their point production and shooting percentages are nearly identical.

It is on the defensive side, however, where Leonard wrestles the title of better two-way player from Klay Thompson.   Starting with two traditional defensive stats, steals and blocks, we see that Leonard has a slight edge over Thompson.  Leonard outpaced Thompson in both by notching 1.8 SPG and snagging 1.0 BPG, compared to 1.1 SPG and 0.9 BPG for Thompson.

However, for these two elite defenders, traditional stats do not contextualize their defensive prowess.   It is after the inspection of advanced defensive measurements that we see Leonard is the far superior defender.  To that end, Leonard yielded 5.5 Defensive Wins Shares, compared to 2.6 for Thompson.  Additionally, Leonard had a superior Defensive  Box Plus/Minus rating of 2.8 to Klay Thompson’s paltry -2.2.

It’s also worth noting that Leonard is often tasked with stopping the other team’s best player, regardless if he’s a wing or a guard.  Thompson is not usually asked to display his defensive versatility, as that burden falls upon Andre Iguodala.

Nonetheless, Thompson still admirably defends some of the two guards in the league.  But plain and simple: Kawhi Leonard does it better.

So sorry Mark Jackson, it looks like you got this one quite wrong.

Kawhi Leonard is widely accepted as a top five player in this league.  The same can’t be said about Klay Thompson. In Jackson’s defense, the media and writers alike were scratching their heads at his proclamation that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were the best shooting backcourt in history.  Jackson certainly looks like a prophet now.   Will he be proven right again?  At least for the moment, Jackson looks like a fool because the numbers do not lie.


photo via llananba