Sure, Butler is better now, but it’s surprising how lopsided their careers turn out to be.
This go-round, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler find themselves at odds. The two clearly have no argument about who’s had the better career considering Melo’s 12 All-Star selections and three Olympic gold medals versus Butler, who has only made three All-Star appearances and owns one gold medal.
But, it is also no argument that every team in the NBA would rather have Butler right now over Carmelo. Butler is on the way up (he made the Third Team All NBA this season behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard) while Anthony seems to be on the way down (he hasn’t been named to an All NBA team since 2013).
This probably has some to do with the fact that Melo is edging out of his prime at age 33 while Butler is hitting his physical peak at 27. But, it is also arguable that Butler has had a better career in his six seasons in Chicago than Carmelo has had in 14 between Denver and New York. That seems like a crazy statement, but statistically it is not.
We’ll compare the two offensively and defensively in the previous four seasons, their age 27 seasons, and over their careers so as to eliminate any potential for recency bias.
Let’s start on the defensive end where it becomes quickly apparent that Butler is miles ahead. Butler has been named to the Second Team All Defense three times in six seasons. Anthony has never made an All Defensive Team.
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Butler is a great on ball defender who can guard multiple positions due to his tweener size of 6‘7, his athleticism, and his strength. Anthony has an inch on Butler, but also has 20 extra pounds. He’s slower and has never really tried hard on the defensive end. Butler does, and often does so against the opponent’s best player.
The Marquette man averages 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks per game for his career and averaged 1.8 steals over the past four seasons. He’s been top five in steals twice over that span. Anthony has never been in the Top 20, and never averaged more than 1.3 per.
Anthony has averaged a steal and 0.5 blocks per game over the past four seasons, and up until his age 27 season, he averaged 1.1 steals and the same 0.5 blocks per contest.
Anthony has never posted a positive defensive box plus/minus and has never posted a defensive win shares number greater than three. Butler has twice eclipsed that win share threshold and has never posted a negative DBPM.
It is totally obvious both statistically and by the eye test that Butler is a better defender.
Now this category is where things get intriguing because Anthony is considered to be one of the game’s greatest one-on-one scorers while Butler has some flaws in his offensive game (notably his three-point shooting).
However, since Butler has come into the league, he has had an undoubtedly better offensive game than Anthony.
Last season, Butler scored more points per game than Anthony, though their per 36 minutes and per 100 possessions numbers were almost identical. Butler also shot a better percentage from the field, from three, and from the line while dishing out more rebounds and assists per game, per 36 and per 100, on less shots.
By adding in the higher assist average with better percentages on fewer attempts, it should come as no shock that Butler had better advanced stats on the offensive side last year. But the difference between the two was staggering.
Butler’s offensive rating of 123 dwarfed Melo’s 108, while the Bull’s wingman also crushed Anthony in offensive win shares and offensive box plus/minus. Even Butler’s free throw rate (the number of free throws per field goal attempted) was 28 percentage points higher than Anthony’s!
The difference last season was that Butler scored in a variety of different ways, whereas the aging Melo opted for almost exclusively jump shots, which, to be fair, is something that he has traditionally been very good at. Nearly two-thirds of Anthony’s shot attempts per NBAsavant were jump shots; Butler shot those almost 40 percent of the time. Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Additionally, Butler was much better in the clutch (the last five minutes and overtime wherein the margin of victory is five points or less). Butler scored more on better percentages across the board—including a 20 percentage point disparity in free throw percentages—while posting a +/- of +1.1 according to NBA.com. Anthony was a -0.1. However, it’s logically clear that Butler should have been superior last season, even when faced against one of the best at his craft. But, over the last four seasons and up to their age 27 seasons, the two were about as equally disparate.
Since 2014, Carmelo scored about four more points per game on 5.4 more attempts. The two shot basically the same percentages and their average assists are within one dime of each other (favoring Butler). And, until their age 27 seasons, Melo scored nearly 10 points per game more while shooting better from the floor and creating as many assists.
However, the glacial difference between the two reveals itself, unsurprisingly, in the advanced numbers for it is here that unweighted, counting statistics fail to capture the whole picture.
Anthony put up slightly better numbers in the “up-to-age-27” category,” yet he also played three more seasons in the NBA during that time frame. He was 19 when he entered the association. Butler was 22.
Butler’s offensive rating in his age 27 season was 11 units better than Anthony’s. Butler’s offensive win shares were only eight less than Anthony’s and Butler’s offensive box plus/minus was actually almost one unit higher than the former Syracuse phenom. And, over the last four seasons, you can see a similar trend.
Amazingly, despite Anthony having eight more seasons under his belt, Butler has posted a better career offensive box plus/minus than the future Hall-of Famer.
It would therefore appear that Butler has, over his six-year career, been better offensively than Anthony.
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You could argue that Anthony was more talented on the offensive end, and indeed in his prime he probably was. But the data suggests that Butler either plays harder, less selfishly, or both. The end result is that he affects his team more positively offensively and WAY more positively defensively than Anthony ever has.
In two small polls I took, public perception sided with Butler, slightly reinforcing the pure, hard numbers.
On Twitter, 73% of respondents picked Butler when asked who the player was.
Settle an argument for me. Who the better player?— Mac Trammell (@Mac_Trammell) May 21, 2017
And in the SQ NBA writer’s GroupMe, all 13 respondents chose Butler.
Neither of these are large sample sizes, and it is possible that there was overlap in the two polls. The phrasing of the question also made it unclear whether the debate was about Melo and Butler now as opposed to their whole career. Certainly, neither poll should be considered fool-proof. But is is notable that the overwhelming majority who picked Butler. He is the sensible pick now, and over the span of the two player’s careers.
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