By John Krolik
Special to The Examiner
It’s time to take stock of what we’ve seen from Klay Thompson after his first games of action in over two years. ‘
Thompson was out with some very serious injuries, and it’s probably going to take a while for him to find his true form. Fortunately for the Warriors, they’re still in a comfortable place near the top of the Western Conference standings. That means they have the time to let Klay get back into shape at his own pace and won’t need to push him too hard in the regular season. All they’re hoping for is for Thompson to be at 100% come playoff time, and they have the luxury of making that their top priority. So with that being said, take these for what they are – initial reactions to the first steps of what will be a long journey.
First off, Draymond Green has been on the bench for Klay’s first two games. It can be argued that nobody helps Thompson as much as Green. Klay is famously dribble-averse among the league’s elite players. On the night he scored 60 points, he only took 11 dribbles. And Draymond is, of course, the team’s primary playmaker.
When Draymond is in the game, the Warriors’ offense looks like something you’d see from a football team running the West Coast Offense. Green holds the ball in his hands, patiently surveying the defense as his four teammates, especially Steph Curry and Thompson, run around screens, make cuts and curls and try to get open so they can be rewarded with a pass from Draymond when they do get some space.
With Draymond out, the Warriors run something more akin to what the rest of the league does, which in football terms could be described as something more like a triple-option attack. Scorers have to double as playmakers, and the best way to get a teammate open is to cause the defense to react to the threat of the ballhandler scoring, especially at the basket. That doesn’t suit Klay’s strengths.
In 2018-19, Klay’s last full season on the floor, Green assisted him 115 times, which is more than any other Warrior. He threw 105 assists to Steph that season and 98 to Kevin Durant. What’s really interesting is that he only passed the ball to Klay 529 times and passed to Curry and Durant 1,282 times and 842 times, respectively. That means that Klay was much more likely to turn a given pass from Draymond into a basket than either of his MVP teammates. The only player who assisted Klay more than Draymond in ‘18-19 was Kevin Durant, who did it 120 times.
Put simply, Klay is a player who is at his best when he finds open space, gets a pass from a teammate and immediately catches and shoots. With Kevin Durant gone for good and Draymond currently out, he hasn’t been able to play that game. In 2018-19, 74.6% of Klay’s two-point baskets came off of assists. Through his first two games of this season, only 28.6% of his two-point baskets have been assisted. That’s definitely hurt his overall effectiveness, especially in his first game, when he went just 1-5 on shots outside of the paint and inside of the three-point line. (He was 2-4 on those shots against Memphis on Tuesday.)
So Thompson, even discounting any possible issues with health or rust, hasn’t been able to play the type of game that has made him a five-time All-Star and three-time champion. However, that’s not entirely bad news. If Klay can add more scoring off the dribble to his game, which he’s slowly done throughout his career, it would add an exciting new wrinkle to the Warrior offense. Klay’s certainly shown some impressive flashes with the ball in his hands through his first two games. Just ask Lamar Stevens, who found himself on the wrong end of one of the most impressive dunks of Klay’s entire career early on in the first game back.
Thompson also had a beautiful (if less violent) drive against Memphis, where he beat his man with a hesitation dribble on the perimeter, attacked the paint and finished after switching the ball from his left to his right in mid-air, which is, again, not the type of move we associate with the typically ground-bound Thompson.
Thompson also showed a lot of comfort operating in the mid-range against the Grizzlies. He used his size to set himself up with some looks on fadeaways and step-backs from right around the free-throw line. He also looked extremely comfortable finding cutters. Klay turning himself into a “three-level” scorer, a player who can score at the rim, from mid-range and behind the arc, would be a fairly big deal for the Warriors, especially in the playoffs.
Mid-range jumpers are generally anathema to modern NBA offenses, and for good reason. But in the playoffs, when defenses get better, passes are tougher to make, rotations are quicker, and open looks from the basket and from beyond the arc get tougher to come by. That’s when it certainly helps to have a guy you can count on to create a good mid-range look, especially late in the shot clock. Durant, along with everything else he did, often found himself playing the role of “safety valve” and saving what would have been a lost possession with a turnaround jumper over a defender too small to contest it. That worked pretty well for the Warriors. If Klay is indeed mixing a bit of KD into his game, that’s a promising development.
It’s far too early to make any definitive judgments on Thompson just yet, especially with Draymond sitting out. But he’s definitely shown some promising signs in his first two games back. And, of course, his jump shot still looks as pretty as ever.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.