This piece is the first in a line of perhaps several addressing the Warriors, team fit and what Klay Thompson and Draymond Green’s can teach us about Lonzo Ball
Draymond Green in many ways is an unlikely success story. 2nd round pick. Undersized combo forward perhaps between positions. Seen as not athletic enough to excel at SF and too small to be a PF.
Yet there’s numerous reason why we should have expected Draymond Green to be a successful pro player of some kind. For one, the varied skill base at 6’6″ or 6’7″. Coming out of college, Green showed ability to dribble, create shots for himself and his teammates, make off the catch shots from distance, as well as to defend and rebound at a high level. And to go along with all these skills, there was his intelligence, energy level and competitiveness. Three areas where he would have ranked among the best, if not the best in his draft class.
Indeed, more often that not we underrate the role of intelligence as it affects a draft picks success. But that’s not what I’d like to address today. At least not head on.
Rather, I’d like to talk about switch-army knife offensive skills, value, and drafting for fit. Drafting for fit not in terms of a team’s current composition. But instead, drafting for fit in terms of drafting players with skills that would fit on virtually any team competing at the highest level (as the Warriors have done in recent years.)
I’m planning on writing a piece addressing the draft and their strategy. But the quick version is this:
Consider Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson. Jimmy Butler, the better defender and initiator and generally considered the more valuable player. At the very least, all the metrics say so. While Klay Thompson is a useful defender and the best three-point shooter in the game.
Now give the Warriors a choice of either. Who do they pick?
Considering their current roster, I bet you it’s Klay Thompson 10 out 10 times. And that’s true considering the rosters of any number of the leagues very best teams.
Give Cleveland the choice of Butler or Thompson? Thompson. The Houston Rockets? Thompson. The Toronto Raptors? Thompson. The Spurs? Still probably Thompson, though I suppose it’s possible they choose Butler. The Oklahoma City Thunder? Probably Thompson, though it’s a really tough decision.
It’s not because Thompson’s game is better in a vacuum. But, because of the way it fits and works with other pieces of the puzzle that every team needs, it just may be better suited to winning a championship.
Which is to say, given that both players add some defensive utility, the league’s best shooter may in many cases be more valuable than its seventh to eleventh best offensive initiator. Given the right team fit of course.
Another Way of Looking At This Problem
Consider the teams we’ve seen recently in the Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers. The Golden State Warriors. The Miami Heat. The San Antonio Spurs.
All of them featured at least one player who brought more overall value to the table than Jimmy Butler. If not two.
The Heat, with Lebron and Wade, even had two initiators who were better then than Butler currently is now. Arguably that was also the story for San Antonio (end-peak Tony Parker and Kawhi). And that’s now the situation we see with Golden State (Curry, Durant.)
Which should suggest to us this fact: Having an initiator in the class of Jimmy Butler doesn’t necessarily solve more offensive problems than having a two-way shooter in the class of Klay Thompson. In either case, your team will still be left looking for either an initiator equivalent to the level of Jimmy Butler. Or with any hope an even better one. (No, this doesn’t mean I think the Bulls should trade Butler.)
But What’s Perhaps Better On Offense Than The Game’s Best Off-Ball Shooter?
Note, I’m not saying better than the game’s best perimeter initiator. Curry, Lebron, Westbrook, Harden, Paul. Those are the players for which every team is searching.
Of course, in such a situation, after your team has found that player there might be a piece even more valuable than the league’s best off-the-ball shooter: We’re talking about the Jack-Of-All-Trades. The Offensive Multi-Tool. The Swiss-Army Knife.
Which is to say, the player who can do everything (score, shoot from distance, dribble, pass, create), but perhaps not in Russell Westbrook or Lebron-size doses.
The league really only has one such player right now, Draymond Green. Though it’s true, of course, Steph Curry, Lebron James and Chris Paul could perhaps be such a player if for some weird reason, their teams needed them to behave in such a manner. But since they don’t, there’s only one. Who might give new meaning to being the Highlander.
There can be only one.
I Love Tables or One Reason Why Draymond Green Is Awesome
If we look at the table below, showing us these player’s 2015-16 ORPM, at least at the time the table was made last summer, and the ratio of ORPM to Usage, we can see why Draymond Green is potentially so unique and so valuable.
1) Here we see the a list of many of the league’s best offensive players. And while the list is certainly much the same this year, we should take time to acknowledge that such lists are not static. Some players have improved, like Jimmy Butler. While others have taken a step back.
2) Still this is a good place to start, since this data set lays out the point pretty clearly, even if we might surmise that a player like Klay Thompson might be underrated by RPM and other advanced metrics.
3) The Ratio of ORPM to Usage Percentage is like a proxy of value per possession. I multiplied by 10 here just because it makes the relationships easier to understand. But the first point is that most of the player’s who bring lots of value per possession are high Usage Initiators. Curry, Paul, Westbrook, James, Lowry, Durant, Harden, Lillard. Even Kawhi Leonard. These guys are all 25%+ and many of them are using 30%+ of their team’s possessions.
And this is a class of players nearly 1.5 or 2 times more valuable per possession than the next group of players. Which should tell us everything about why a Top 5 offensive player is dramatically different from a guy somewhere between 10 and 20.
4) There is one notable exception on last year’s list. Draymond Green, who at the time this table was made was more valuable on a per possession basis than regular season Lebron James, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Durant and the 2015-16 version of James Harden. And I’d wager he’d be in a similar place today if he were still shooting near 40% from three.
Sub 20% Usage. But every possession Green uses is basically as valuable as a possession used by Curry. Last year’s best offensive player during the regular season by a not insignificant amount.
5) Why is that valuable? Beyond the obvious reason. Particularly because most player can only create offensive value by Using Possessions. There are some, like Klay Thompson or Kevin Love or Channing Frye, who create some additional value by stretching the floor, even when the ball is not in their hands.
But mostly we have the best high Usage Initiators, who create a ton of value per possession, both by scoring and creating easy opportunities for others. We have high Usage shooters, like Klay Thompson, who create most of their value by finishing possessions. We have a few hybrids like Kawhi Leonard and Khris Middleton, who have some passing ability, but do most of their damage by scoring the basketball.
Then we have Draymond Green. Who in some ways, though neither they nor their games resemble each other, is the closest thing the NBA has right now to a player like John Stockton. Someone who really does make his teammates better without having to use possessions to do so. (Note: I am not comparing style but effect. And even then, I would be remiss not to note that Stockton’s effect was indeed much greater.)
6) To spell it out more clearly. If most players need to use possessions to be valuable, then teams need a guy like Draymond Green to run at tip-top functionality. Since using possessions is ultimately a zero-sum game, it’s the very presence of a guy who can bring value without using possessions who can allow shooters, who have to use them, to be more valuable. The more shots such player’s get, the more valuable they are.
7) Now what I’m going to propose for Lonzo Ball, that even in the case that he isn’t a primary initiator, there’s a good chance that he’s something of a cross between Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. At least if he does indeed shoot the basketball from distance in the pros, like he’s shooting it in college. But perhaps an amped up version of that player.
Let’s Look at a Similar Metric For College Players
Here is a table showing us each player’s current OBPM, Assist Percentage, Usage Rating and a Metric I’ve titled Team Fit Rating, though that’s perhaps an imprecise moniker. What it aims to do is really to do the same thing we’ve done above, to find players who can potentially bring tons of value without using tons of possessions. And it should not surprise us, almost no such players seem to exist.
The formula for Team Fit Rating is as follows:
(OBPM divided by Usage Percentage) Multiplied by (Assist Percentage over Usage)
I added the last bit as an attempt to weed out most of the low Usage Players from the top of the data set. You know, the ones without ball skills that will likely never become the kind of players we are seeking:
1) Now we should remember that this list is fluid, as the season is still in session. Though beyond that, there’s still some unpacking to do. Adjustments perhaps for height and position. Draymond Green’s, Ethan Happ’s or even Isaiah Wilkins (who I really like as a player, but is perhaps aided here inordinately by low Usage) scores at Power Forward are perhaps quite exceptional for instance. Suggesting perhaps that is Happ ever does find a jump shot, he might have a real future as a play-making Power Forward. (If not, he’s probably just not athletic enough to score consistently and efficiently against NBA length, though every once in a while players like Happ surprise us.) Perhaps Juwan Morgan as well, if he can play up.
2) Keeping that fact in mind, I think the scores of basically every other player on this list suggests that they are likely going to have to use Possessions to bring big value. Though there are some error bars as far as a Freshman like Jayson Tatum goes.
3) That also doesn’t mean these players can’t be hugely valuable. I’m thinking of course of Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith, Jr. and Josh Jackson in particular. These are the kinds of initiators we could one day imagine discussing along with other Top 10 or 15 players. But fitting these types of players with other stars is not always the easiest thing to do. Since most star players use quite a lot more possessions than a player like Draymond Green or even Kawhi.
4) It’s not a comparison I’ve seen, perhaps because their styles are slightly dissimilar, but Fultz’s shoot-pass mix does remind me of a guy like Gilbert Arenas.
5) Now let’s address the guys at top of this list, and it’ll become obvious in short order why Ball is unique. First, let’s address Mikal Bridges, who really is not all that close to Ball. (He’s basically as close to Monte Morris as he is to Lonzo Ball. Not to mention five or six other players. Whereas Ball is way above everyone almost alone, except for Ish Wainwright, who we will get to in a second.
6) Still Bridges appearance here perhaps shows perhaps why he is not like other low Usage players. I’ve designed a formula specifically to get rid most of the low Usage players who can game the system, just by not shooting a lot and scoring efficiently. But Bridges passes the ball well enough to get around that fix.
Still, even if Bridges one day does happen to become a talented offensive player, it’s unlikely that he’s the kind that provides so much impact without using possessions. Shooting 75.5% on Two-Pointers is just very likely unsustainable at the NBA level, no matter how few or how many of them Bridges takes.
7) Now, Ish Wainwright. Since he’s at the top of this list. However, he’s only on this list because he’s a decent passer who doesn’t shoot. Which is to say, he’s found a way to game the system. (At least the system I’ve created.)
8) Still, Wainwright’s inclusion is interesting. Just because he shot threes somewhat successfully before this year and has a huge body at 6’5″. He’d be a 2nd round flyer or undrafted guy, but Wainwright has enough skills to potentially surprise as an off-the-ball player in the right system. Being a part of one excellent and one absolutely elite defense in college is no joke. You almost have to be doing something right on that end.
Wainwright is not only strong (looks like 240 lbs and 6’5″ might be underselling it), with long arms (almost 7’2″ wingspan) but moves well and understands the progression of the play, able to keep an eye on both his individual defensive responsibility and understand how it fits within the context of the team.
Wainwright’s also a very good passer. The original version of this post titled him “decent enough”but that vastly understates his touch and understanding of which play is the right play. He’s just one of those guys who knows how to play basketball. Really understands the game. Plus he’s a decent enough dribbler. So if he can make shots from distance, he could really make sense in an NBA offense.
Though the real exciting play for Wainwright, considering his width, wingspan and movement skills, might be as small-ball 4. He’s probably a little shorter than Draymond Green. But if there’s any semblance of a jump shot (and the free throw percentage this year: 85% and career 3-pt percentage: 35% hint there might be a possibility) he might be the best bet to make plays off the screen, if paired with the right initiator. And that’s a scenario, though this type of player is always a long-shot, where Wainwright really could add lots of value to his team’s offense without using tons of possessions.
And if not, there’s always the NFL.
Another low Usage guy. A guy who probably won’t get a real chance. And of course, for several reasons, not the best bet to make. But if Wainwright can somehow stick at 4 against NBA guys, he becomes potentially one of the most interesting guys in the draft. He’s smart on the basketball court. I like to bet on smart. Plus, from what little information I have, he seems genuinely caring and thoughtful person off of it.
9) They aren’t particularly close to Ball, but two Kansas guards on this list are interesting. For one, it tells us how well Kansas plays together. For two, that despite whatever flaws these players have, their chances might be slightly underrated. They are good college basketball players. Really good. There’s a reason why Kansas wins, and right now it starts with those two guys. And of course Josh Jackson.
10) Jevon Carter too. As he’s one of several players in this draft who seem to be skirting the Patrick Beverley continuum, of shortish off-ball players with some ball skills who might be able to guard PG successfully. Frank Ntilikina being the most highly regarded. But there’s also Carter, Donovan Mitchell and the best shooter among the college trio, Khryi Thomas of Creighton. (Thomas gave Josh Hart some trouble in the loss vs. Villanova.)
It’s a role that’s perhaps going to become even more in vogue in the future as we see more and Points enter the league who are suspect defenders at the Point-of-Attack. (Right now, I’m between somewhat skeptical and downright world-weary about Fultz, Ball, Monk, Tatum and Smith, Jr. at Point-of-Attack. And about two or three of them off-ball as well.)
11) They are also rated well below Lonzo Ball. Seemingly minute differences actually signify quite a bit of a gap in terms of the way a player supposedly accrues value for his team. And given the chain-link sequences passing that Lonzo Ball’s style seems to spur, it’s also quite likely that much of the value he’s generating is given as credit to his teammates rather than to himself.
One piece of evidence is that we see TJ Leaf and Bryce Alford both with OBPMs over 7. In addition to that, Holiday was perhaps just below the lower threshold to make this list, and not quite good enough as a prospect for me to look him up specifically.
12) Here’s another bit of evidence:
Not everyone improved. Isaac Hamilton is a bit worse on offense. As is Thomas Welsh, at least statistically. But look at the improvements from Alford and Holiday and in limited minutes Gyorgy Goloman. Jesus.
And while some of that can be credited to the player, a lot of that is simply how easy Lonzo Ball makes the game for his teammates.
Now also, don’t forget to add another two 8+ BPM players in Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.
There’s a reason UCLA has jumped from 116th in ORtg last year to 1st this year. Up 15 points. From 107 to 122.2. And part of it is TJ Leaf. But most of it is Ball.
13) One more thing about this “Fit Rating” metric, besides that it could really use a better name. Given a cursory glance at the entire Sports-Reference database, which goes back to 2009 for such statistics, Lonzo Ball has by far the best rating of any player who doesn’t just game the system through low Usage. (Ish Wainwright or Micah Mason.) The only season I could find that was close was last year’s season by Denzel Valentine, which would score .69. And Denzel Valentine not only was several years older and more experienced, he never came close to producing the kind of offensive value Ball is currently producing in either his Freshman or Sophomore seasons. When he had a similar slightly below 20% Usage Rate.
Lonzo Ball is just a very rare player right now. The kind that can add value to a team even when he doesn’t finish possessions. And as long as his shot holds up, I’d find it very surprising if this doesn’t remain a part of Ball’s game at the next level. Almost irregardless of the position Ball ends up playing. Be it at point or off-ball or some hybrid of both (which seems likely given his strengths).
More often that not, players as smart as Ball figure out a way to solve the problems the NBA presents. Whether it be because they lack a seemingly necessary skill (as was the case with Jason Kidd, in terms of shooting from the mid-range and outside) or a position (as was the case with Draymond Green) or didn’t possess prerequisite athletic ability (as was the case with Love).
There are a number of other examples. Regardless of their issues, they find a way to add value on the court. To contribute towards wins.
Bill Walton is often hyberbolic. However, when he speaks of Lonzo Ball, perhaps it’s best to take him at his word. Let’s not consider Lonzo Ball a Point Guard. Let’s consider him a basketball player. As long as his future team is able to put quality players around him, which is the first rule of competing for a championship, it seems pretty likely that Ball finds a way to make his skills make sense within whatever context he finds himself.