Four pressing questions facing Klay Thompson and Warriors ahead of sharpshooter’s return
Someday soon, the rich will get richer.
A whole lot richer.
After missing the 2019-20 season with a torn left ACL and the 2020-21 season with a torn right Achilles, it’s looking like Klay Thompson will make his highly anticipated return to the Warriors around Christmas. It was reported several months ago that the Warriors were targeting Christmas Day itself for the five-time All-Star’s return, but recent reporting indicates that it could come a game or two sooner.
Thompson seems to have confirmed those reports.
The Warriors already have one of the best records in the league this season without Thompson. It remains to be seen how he responds to missing two straight seasons with significant injuries, but he gives Golden State even more star power as it pursues another championship.
Just how good could the Warriors be with Thompson? That depends on a few factors.
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What can the Warriors expect from Klay Thompson offensively?
This is your reminder that Thompson is one of the greatest shooters we’ve ever seen.
For his career, Thompson is averaging 7.0 3-point attempts per game and converting them at a 41.9 percent clip. He already ranks 21st all-time in 3-pointers made and 13th in career 3-point percentage. Few players strike as much fear beyond the 3-point line as Thompson does. Even fewer run as hot as he does.
The bulk of Thompson’s 3-point attempts throughout his career have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, but he’s much more than a standstill shooter. Prior to his injury, he was the league’s leading scorer off of screens, peaking in 2018-19 with a career-best 7.3 points per game on those plays.
Sometimes a simple pindown is all Thompson needs to shake loose…
…but he’s one of the league’s more active players off-ball.
Like Stephen Curry, Thompson is a genius when it comes to manipulating screens to his advantage, and he wears teams down with his constant movement. There’s a reason why he was consistently among the league leaders in distance traveled on offense.
Thompson was also a prolific scorer in transition. He didn’t create all that much for himself in those situations — he didn’t need to with Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green pushing the pace — but he applied constant pressure by running the floor off of misses and turnovers.
It’s hard to imagine Thompson not being an excellent standstill shooter when he returns, but coming off of two lower leg injuries, it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue to do the things off-ball that made him so special.
Of course, Thompson is more than a 3-point shooter. He’s grown more comfortable exploiting the occasional mismatch in the post, and he’s more than capable of punishing teams for closing out on him too hard on the 3-point line with midrange pull-ups and drives to the basket.
Not that he was ever a big-time leaper, but Thompson had grown into one of the most efficient finishers around the basket for his position.
Again, it will be interesting to see how the injuries he’s suffered impact that part of his game.
“I anticipated coming back with not as much bounce, but I feel like I can get it back,” Thompson told reporters recently. “Luckily for me, my game isn’t predicated on jumping 12 feet high. … My game is based off skill, so I knew I could come back and still be really good.”
What can the Warriors expect from Klay Thompson defensively?
Thompson should be able to make an impact offensively off of the strength of his 3-point shooting alone. Defense is more of a question mark for him.
A one-time member of the All-Defensive Second Team, Thompson was one of the league’s better wing defenders before his injuries. Not only could he comfortably defend point guards, shooting guards and small forwards, but he often took on the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player.
Look at the list of players Thompson spent the most time matched up with during his last healthy season and you’ll see names like Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and James Harden.
Will Thompson still have the lateral quickness and athleticism to defend smaller guards? If the answer is no, he will be more limited to defending his position.
The good news for the Warriors is that they’re already the best defensive team in the league without Thompson. In his absence, Andrew Wiggins has taken on the role of being Golden State’s defensive stopper on the wing. Additionally, Curry has improved tremendously as a defender since Thompson last took the court and Green is still at the peak of his defensive powers, so much so that he’s the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year through the quarter mark of the season.
The Warriors would go up another level if Thompson is anything close to the defender he once was, but they won’t be as reliant on his versatility in his return.
Ultimately, as long as Thompson hasn’t fallen off to the point where he’s someone teams can pick on defensively, the Warriors should be fine.
How does Klay Thompson’s return impact the rotation?
Golden State’s starting lineup for all but one game this season has been Curry, Jordan Poole, Wiggins, Green and Kevon Looney.
Assuming the plan is for Thompson to return to the starting lineup, the most obvious candidate for him to replace is Poole.
As good as Poole has been this season, moving him to the bench would make him Golden State’s sixth man and give the Warriors another spark plug off the bench. Depending on what they need, Poole would still have a chance of closing games when head coach Steve Kerr goes smaller with Green at center.
In the 44 games Poole came off the bench in 2020-21, he averaged 10.5 points in 17.1 minutes on .429/.347/.872 shooting splits.
Thompson’s return will likely impact the minutes of other players on the roster. The Warriors run 11-deep right now, with the current starting five plus Gary Payton II, Damion Lee, Andre Iguodala, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. each receiving real minutes. Some have been in and out of the lineup with injuries, but Kerr will have some tough rotational decisions to make when they’re at full strength.
The No. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, James Wiseman figures to be a part of the rotation when he returns from injury as well.
Depth was an issue for the Warriors last season. This season, not so much.
How much better are the Warriors with Klay Thompson?
Based on the numbers, much, much better.
Since 2011-12, the Warriors have outscored opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions with Curry and Green on the court and Thompson on the bench, per PBP Stats. Pretty good, right? Well, with Curry, Thompson and Green on the court, the Warriors have outscored opponents by — wait for it — 17.0 points per 100 possessions.
The Warriors have posted an offensive rating of 120.2 and a defensive rating of 103.2 with the three of them in the lineup.
Perhaps they won’t return quite to that level of dominance, but Thompson should make the lives of Curry and Green easier by giving them even more space to work with on offense and another smart defender to work with on defense.
Add all the weapons around them that this Warriors team currently has and it’s scary to think about how good they could be.
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