The NBA is just weeks away from returning. With teams now practicing inside the Disney World bubble and the COVID-19 crisis raging in nearby communities, ethical and logistical questions about the viability of a resumption of play abound. Wiser more knowledgeable minds will address those concerns elsewhere. For the purposes of this column, we’ll focus on a far less pressing and substantive query.
Is Celtics center Daniel Theis the best German basketball player on earth?
Dirk Nowitzki held the mantle as Deutschland’s finest basketball export for the majority of the last two decades. Enough time has passed since his retirement to begin wondering to whom it will fall next, and heading into the NBA restart is as perfect a time as any to conduct our analysis. Aside from a few fringe competitors, all of the major contenders for the crown will be present for the seeding games and - barring totally unforeseen catastrophe - the start of the postseason.
Before we get to who those contenders are, let’s take a moment to define exactly what we’re looking for here. This is NOT an exercise in determining which living German basketball player has had the greatest career, but rather, in this very moment, which German basketball player contributes the most to winning basketball games.
A few honorable mentions before we dive in:
- Dirk Nowitzki - Yes, his retirement and decline below the level of everyone to be discussed in the following is the reason we’re having this conversation, but Dirk still deserves some recognition. He’s the best German basketball player in the history of time, and arguably the greatest international player ever. Nowitzki’s peak is so much higher than any of the current batch of Germany’s best ballers could conceivably achieve that he needs to be mentioned. It’s kind of like how we wonder if Michael Jordan could still embarrass his players on the Hornets.
- Paul Zipser - He played in the NBA so Zipser is worth considering, but not for long. He was terrible in his time with the Chicago Bulls, and doesn’t even appear to have ever averaged double digits in any season in his European career.
- The German National Team - Apologies to Andreas Obst, Robin Benzing, Joshiko Saibou, and the rest of the German national team, but we’re using time in the NBA as a cut off here.
- Up-and-Coming German Prospects - I’m no Fran Fraschilla and information about international prospects is hard to come by. We’ll wait for any German youngsters to prove themselves a bit more before adding them to this particular conversation.
Now on to our trio of contenders: Theis, Dennis Schröder, and Maxi Kleber. All three of the options here have proven to be reliable rotation players. Their games are varied, but their impact tends to be similar, modestly positive with occasional bursts of something more. We’ll dive into their specific styles, but let’s start off with a look at a few data points.
Data from the first chart comes courtesy of Basketball Reference, as do the advanced numbers in the second. On/off statistics were pulled from Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time. Real plus/minus is from ESPN.
Statistical analysis alone is rarely enough to determine a player’s value relative to his peers. Individual performance is influenced heavily by context, and statistics that attempt to adjust for things like luck, surrounding talent, etc. are flawed (though not useless). The need for additional grounding beyond what the numbers indicate is particularly necessary in cases such as this.
None of the Theis-Schröder-Kleber trio jumps out as demonstrably better than the others based on data alone (this isn’t like comparing Kemba Walker to Brand Wanamaker for example). So let’s dive into their respective styles of play a bit.
We’ll begin with the inspiration for this thought experiment. Theis has carved out a role for himself as the Celtics’ starting center. He’s exceptionally low usage on the offensive end, posting just a 13.7% usage rate, per Cleaning the Glass. Theis’ limited offensive workload is a strike against his overall value in a vacuum, but it’s a perfect fit for the situation he’s in.
Boston is loaded with offensive weapons. Every other member of the Celtics starting five is a drastically more menacing threat with the ball in their hands, and moving away from the ball for that matter. And just because Theis doesn’t soak up many possessions doesn’t mean he’s not providing value.
Theis is just good enough as a shooter to make defenses think twice about allowing him to fire uncontested from the three-point arc. He’s crafty as a roll man, using smart timing to weave in, and more frequently, out of traffic to either find creases to the hoop or clear space for his teammates. Theis isn’t a vertical threat like some of his pogo stick peers, but the craft and treachery with which he seals off would be defenders heading to the hoop on the roll has benefitted Boston substantially.
The dirty work Theis takes on offensively isn’t glamorous, but it matters. It greases the skids for his teammates, and allows him to function as a useful cog in a very potent Celtics offense. He takes on a more central role on the other end of the court.
Theis is a game individual defender. He’s willing to take shots to the chest and face against larger post behemoths. Generally speaking Theis is just stout enough to make posting him consistently an undesirable option. He’s prone to getting bullied by the Joel Embiid-type goliaths of the world, but there are only a handful of such players in the league, and Boston has an army of long, tenacious perimeter defenders that may do the best job of doubling and recovering of any unit in the NBA.
While he’s sufficient one-on-one, where Theis’ true value shines is defending the pick-and-roll. He’s got excellent timing in defending the ball handler and roll man simultaneously while the primary defender recovers, a task the Celtics ask him to execute often. Theis doesn’t quite have the athleticism or size to be a true nightmare defensively, but his instincts and positioning are exceptional, and Boston is incredibly stingy with him on the court.
Kleber’s game is astonishingly similar to Theis’. He too occupies a low-usage offensive role on a Dallas Mavericks team loaded with more talented scorers and facilitators. Kleber is a bit more explosive, which makes him a greater lob threat than Theis can claim to be, but he’s yet to master the dark arts of clearing space for others in the same way. Kleber is a significantly more dangerous from beyond the arc, cashing in on an impressive 37.4% of his attempts from deep this year.
Defensively Theis’ impact is more demonstrable, but Kleber is no slouch. He leverages his quickness and leaping ability to block shots with regularity and serve as a totally passable switch defender. Kleber and Theis are both tenacious in their efforts on the defensive end, though the former relies more on force of will, while the latter leans on guile.
The statistics suggest that Theis’ approach is more effective, though here it is hard to separate impact from context. The Celtics are loaded with exceptional defensive talent. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum are particularly disruptive forces. Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward are lesser commodities defensively, but both are willing to compete and are consistently in the right places.
Kleber - who is not only a member of an outfit with significantly less defensive talent, but also played primarily with the second unit this year - is not buoyed with the confidence that his teammates will be where they’re supposed to be in the manner that Theis is. Swapping the two players and assessing their impact would be a fascinating experiment.
There’s reason to believe Kleber could shine in Theis’ role with the Celtics. He’s a better athlete and shooter. Boston could experiment with some seriously interesting switch-everything lineups and maximize spacing for its abundance of off the dribble threats. It’s a tantalizing hypothetical.
We’re only able to assess what’s in front of us, however, and the evidence suggests that Theis is a more impactful player than Kleber. One step closer to the crown.
Schröder is a far different player than either Theis or Kleber. He’s having the best season of his career in Oklahoma City, and is a leading candidate in the Sixth Man of the Year race. Schröder frequently teams up with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to form a three-headed point guard monster that has been hugely effective. The pairing is strange given the positional redundancy, but it allows the Thunder to hide Schröder’s primary deficiency - playing defense - by simply assigning him to the least threatening perimeter opponent.
Offensively, Schröder is a challenge to corral. He’s lightning quick and uses an array of scoops and floaters to score by the basket when he scoots past defenders. Back off too far to account for his speed, and Schröder can knock down mid-rangers with relative aplomb. He’s never been a particularly good three-point shooter until this year, but as of the shutdown Schröder was knocking in 38% of his triples.
Add it all up and you get a highly effective offensive weapon off the bench. Schröder benefits mightily from spending time cooking opponents’ second units. Playing beside Paul and SGA means never having to be fully responsible for functioning as the team’s primary offensive engine (at least not for long), but if we’re giving credit to Theis for fitting into his context beautifully then we must do the same with Schröder.
Who is the better player really comes down to two who gets their team closer to a championship playing in their ideal context? For the purposes of this exercise we will assume both are.
Theis gets the nod here. Boston’s starting five is one of the best in the league, and he plays a critical role in making it hum on both ends of the court. Schröder puts up bigger offensive numbers, but his success comes in lower leverage moments against inferior competition. There’s plenty of utility for high-volume bench scorers, but there are also plenty of options to fill such a role, and Schröder as a starter isn’t a recipe for success. We’ve seen that movie enough times during his time in Atlanta to dismiss it.
That leaves us with Theis atop the hypothetical mountain, the best active German basketball player in the league today.