Golden State Warriors: Is Klay Thompson the League’s Best Shooting Guard?


When asked, Klay Thompson pegged himself as the NBA’s best shooting guard. His defense? Well, the Golden State Warriors are 26-1 and are well on their way to breaking numerous records many previously believed to be untouchable.

But extreme team success does not always mean insane individual talent at all positions, and vice versa. There are numerous future Hall of Famers that are nowhere near experiencing the type of success Thompson has enjoyed with the Warriors over the past two seasons.

While more than Golden State’s historic start supports Thompson’s campaign as the league’s greatest shooting guard, there certainly are others deserving consideration.

I will argue that the two players most deserving of the title — besides Thompson — are Houston’s James Harden and Chicago’s Jimmy Butler. The debate can easily get muddled and confusing when too many players are involved, so for the sake of sanity, I will leave it with those three. There are other players deserving of recognition — such as Toronto’s Demar Derozan — but it’s fair concede that the best shooting guard in the NBA is indeed one of the aforementioned three.

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Harden is widely respected as one of the league’s best offensive weapons. He’s coming off a phenomenal 2014-2015 campaign, in which he was an All-Star, a member of the All-NBA First Team, and the MVP-runner up. In addition to his individual accolades, Harden lead the Rockets to their first Western Conference Finals appearance since the 1995-1996 season only to lose, interestingly enough, to Thompson’s Warriors.

Harden’s average points and rebounds per game are up from last season, while his assists have dipped slightly. Harden leads the league in turnovers — as he did last season — but ranks seventh in the league and first amongst shooting guards in PER (player efficiency rating) at 24.9.

Harden receives most of his criticism on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, Harden improved his defense as he recorded career-highs in both defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus. This season, however, Harden’s defensive statistics are down to near career-lows. That, in addition to problems within the organization, has led Houston to a 14-14 record.

Butler — a stout defender who has steadily improved his offensive game — is coming off a campaign that earned him the Most Improved Player Award. While Butler was not selected to any All-NBA teams, he did receive the third-most votes of any shooting guard behind Harden and Thompson (both Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook made the second team, leaving one less spot for shooting guards). Amongst Chicago players averaging 15 minutes or more per game, Butler trails only Pau Gasol in PER at 20.8. Butler trails Harden by more than four points in PER, but some of that can be attributed to their respective usage percentages. Of Bulls that have seen time in more than ten games, Butler trails Derrick Rose, Gasol, and Aaron Brooks in usage with 24 percent.

In comparison, Harden is used in a whopping 32.9 percent of Houston’s plays. The Rocket with the next highest usage rate is Donatas Motiejunas — who has played in only eight games — with 24.5 percent. (Side note: Dwight Howard comes in sixth with an 18.5 usage percentage. No wonder he’s reportedly unhappy in Houston.)

Harden’s high usage percentage is not a knock against him as a player. In fact, some argue that high usage percentages are not coincidences. Stars typically have the highest usage percentages because, well, they are simply better than their teammates. Nonetheless, the difference in touches between Harden and Butler can explain the large difference between the two guards in certain straightforward statistics, such as points per game.

In contrast to Harden, Butler’s selling point is his defense. He’s a two-time member of the NBA All-Defensive Team (both second team honors). Butler’s career-worst defensive box plus/minus (0.4 in his rookie season) would rank as Harden’s second-best score. There is no denying Butler’s defensive supremacy, much like Harden’s offensive supremacy.

Thompson’s 2014-2015 season was undoubtedly his best. He was selected to the All-Star Game as a reserve and finished averaging 21.7 points per game while shooting almost 44 percent from beyond the arc.

Dealing with back issues early in the year, Thompson has shot the ball much better as of late. He has been a different player in December. Before the calendar changed to the last month of the year, Thompson averaged 16.3 points on 45.4 percent shooting. In seven games during the month of December, Thompson is scoring 27 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting. The sample size is small, but it’s hard to deny the negative impact Thompson’s back had on his ability to shoot from the field.

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Despite the rough first month of the season, Thompson is seventh in the league in true shooting percentage at 61.2 percent. By comparison Harden and Butler come in at 57.4 and 56.3 percent, respectively.

Of course, Thompson benefits from playing alongside Stephen Curry. Neither Harden nor Butler play with anyone even remotely close to matching Curry’s offensive prowess. With defenses honing in on Curry, Thompson is the beneficiary of open looks. However, with Curry shooting more than ever before — and for good reason — Thompson is having to make do with less than last season (his usage percentage is down by nearly four percent).

And he’s doing an excellent job. While his scoring (19.3 points per game) and the volume of his shots are down this season, he’s shooting better across the board. His overall field goal, true shooting, and effective field goal percentages all have increased.

A case can be made for any of these three players — and even for those that I excluded. What makes determining a player’s worth so difficult is the fact that these players play on different teams that feature wildly different styles. How would Thompson fare in a Houston-type offense where he was used much more than anyone else? How would Harden adapt to playing behind someone like Curry? How would Butler’s game change if he was relied on to do more of the scoring? No one knows.

Is Thompson the league’s best shooting guard? Probably not.

But him believing he’s the cream of the crop is much better than the alternative.

All statistics used are accurate as of December 21, 2015 per

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