Previous “Jump Ball” articles:
TALE OF THE TAPE
|KAWHI LEONARD||JIMMY BUTLER|
|San Antonio Spurs||Team||Chicago Bulls|
|SG, SF||Position (Y! Eligibility)||SG, SF|
|12th||9-Cat Rank (Total Value)||15th|
|6th||9-Cat Rank (Per Game)||8th|
|31.8||Minutes Per Game||38.7|
|21.4 (T-93rd)||Usage Rate (Rank)||20.6 (T-112th)|
THE CASE FOR KAWHI LEONARD
At 24-years old, entering his fifth NBA season, and with the financial security of a recently signed 5-year/$90 million deal, Kawhi Leonard is in what can only be described as the “sweet spot” of his career. The Spurs’ talented and versatile small forward saw a career-high 31.7 minutes per game in 2014 and used the extra floor time to post career-best averages in points (16.5), rebounds (7.2), assists (2.5), and steals (a league leading 2.3). Kawhi was featured on the scoring end far more than in seasons past, as evidenced by a spike in both field goal and free throw attempts – the 2014/2015 NBA Defensive Player of the Year became a legitimate offensive threat.
Detractors are likely to point towards two things when attempting to shoot down Leonard’s candidacy as a first round fantasy pick: 1) his inability to stay healthy, and 2) the deep and balanced Spurs roster being unsupportive of a “superstar” fantasy asset. Allow me a moment to quell any fears about those two things…
First, the injury angle – it’s true that Kawhi Leonard has never played even 70 games in an NBA season and has missed a combined 58 games over the last three seasons. Those are facts. Irrefutable. It’s also true, however, that his ailments have not been to his lower body and his feet, ankles and knees have remained mostly healthy throughout his career. His hand injuries don’t exactly weigh on my mind the same way that Derrick Rose’s knees or Brook Lopez’s feet do. Does durability deserve serious consideration when deciding who to pick? Absolutely. But in Kawhi’s case, his missed games feel more like bad luck than they do a “proneness” to injuries.
Second, when I look at the 2015/2016 San Antonio roster, I see a wealth of talent. What I don’t see is a whole lot of depth in the way that it actually matters to our purposes of valuing Kawhi Leonard. The majority of the Spurs rotation (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan) is on the wrong side of 30. Kawhi Leonard (24) and Danny Green (28) are really the only major contributors who won’t be at risk of minutes restrictions or “DNP-Rest” days during a championship-or-bust season in the Alamo City.
Kawhi Leonard was a first round value even when accounting for the 18 games he missed last year. If he can somehow figure out a way to play 75-80 games in 2015/2016, fantasy owners are going to see a nice return on their late-first/early-second round draft day investment.
THE CASE FOR JIMMY BUTLER
“First off, I think I am a point guard…I want some triple-doubles.” That quote came straight from Jimmy Butler just this past August. So let’s set the table here – we have a shooting guard who scores 20 points a game, produces 3.5 combined threes/steals/blocks, shoots 46% from the field and 83% from the stripe, and barely ever turns the ball over. This same individual now envisions himself as a lead guard who will handle the ball so much as to put himself in position to record double-digit assists multiple times throughout the upcoming season? For a fantasy owner, this smells like freshly baked cinnamon buns on Christmas morning.
If the numbers above don’t get your motor running, I submit to you this: Four. Four. Five. 4-4-5 is the number of games Jimmy Butler’s Chicago Bulls play during the fantasy playoffs this season. As fellow Razzball ink slinger, Slim, so eloquently put it in his outstanding schedule analysis piece “It’s. The. Return.”: those 13 games in three weeks are “da cream of da crop.” Opportunity – mostly in the form of minutes and games played – is huge in fantasy sports, with increased significance during the playoffs. So when you compare Butler’s 13 games to Kawhi Leonard’s 10 (3-4-3) with the money/trophy on the line, there is a considerable advantage in Jimmy’s favor.
Another boon to JB’s value could – and should – be the arrival of new head coach, Fred Hoiberg. Last year the Bulls were T-20th in pace and 10th in offensive efficiency under the guidance of Tom Thibodeau. That’s very middle-of-the-pack’ish and yet Butler was still able to post top-8 fantasy numbers on a per game basis. The defensive-minded Thibs is out, replaced by Hoiberg who oversaw the 24th (of 351 qualifying NCAA teams) fastest paced and 22nd most offensively efficient Iowa State Cyclones last year. With tremendous depth in the Bulls frontcourt (thus the ability to keep the bigs fresh), there is no reason to think that the rookie NBA head coach won’t look to push the pace in Chicago.
Add this all up and you have a versatile player who plays a ton of minutes, is looking to expand his offensive game, has an extremely favorable fantasy playoff schedule, and is going to be operating in a (presumably) more fantasy-friendly system. Jimmy Butler is what the kids today call “money in the bank.”
Let’s take a look at how these two players should stack up head-to-head for fantasy owners in 2015 looking to roster an elite dual-eligibility SG/SF near the 1st/2nd round turn (* denotes my projected category winner):
|KAWHI LEONARD||JIMMY BUTLER|
I must admit, when I started writing this piece I actually didn’t know who was going to emerge as the winner. I was excited to think that I’d write myself into a confident decision. And I did just that.
As a necessary disclaimer I should tell you that Kawhi Leonard is my favorite NBA player and I knew I had to set aside personal bias if there was to be any chance at objective analysis. And even though Kawhi is poised to take 5 of 9 categories head-to-head versus Jimmy Butler, it’s the Bulls’ fifth-year guard who gets my pick if I’m on the clock and these two are at the top of my queue.
Both guys have struggled to stay completely healthy and I believe that’s a bi-product of how hard they play on both ends of the court. I am a firm believer that trying to predict injuries is a fool’s errand and so I won’t attempt to do that here. If you want to suggest that both players are unlikely to play more than 75 games this season, I can’t make a very strong argument against it based on history. But for our purposes of comparing these two individuals, the health angle doesn’t carry much weight as neither has proven to be an iron man nor a china doll thus far in their respective careers.
I am swayed mostly by the fact that last year Jimmy Butler was able to post a top-15 total value season missing 17 games and ranking outside of the top-100 in usage rate. Put the ball in his hands slightly more often for, say, 72 games and you have a sure-fire first rounder. With a new coach in Chicago, I don’t see much chance that his offensive involvement doesn’t increase on a team that should be more efficient as an overall unit. Kawhi Leonard, for all the platitudes I can throw at him, just feels like he has a lower ceiling. That is an awkward thing to write seeing as he has proven first round potential, but for my fantasy team I want upside. And in 2015, that means I’m pulling the trigger on Jimmy Butler.
Agree/disagree? Who is your choice when you’re on the clock? Feedback is always welcome, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below or come find me in the Twitterverse at @moneyballmatty. Cheers!
H/T to the following sources for providing the stats & info that help build the foundation of this article: Basketball Reference, Basketball Monster, ESPN (Hollinger’s Stats), Team Rankings, and Rotoworld.