A somewhat divisive figure in the blogosphere and the thousands of faux analysts on Twitter, Klay Thompson represented an easy whipping boy during the bad games and conversely, easily forgotten on the good days. Why? Because most fans don't give a crap about defense. This isn't to say Thompson played some Tony Allen-esque lockdown defense but his oft-horrid shooting nights overshadowed a full season of solid defense on what would usually be the opposing team's best player. But I think I'm immersing myself too quickly into the subject of Thompson's plight in his second season as a Golden State Warrior.
Like I did last time with Harrison Barnes, I believe it's important to arbitrarily set endpoints and fiddle with the fact that "numbers don't lie" but people damn sure do. So here we go!
Thompson's numbers didn't necessarily drop in a way that signals the dreaded sophomore slump, but it was more than enough to spark a maelstrom of complaints ranging from "He just doesn't play smart" or "The guy can't make a lay-up out there!" or the "Why's Mark Jackson have him in when he's 3-15?". Some are understandable but most of the criticisms came because of the warped expectations that come with a management and coaching's over-the-top love affair with its players—and from those still lusting over Monta Ellis' wave-a-red-handkerchief-in-front-of-a-bull-defense. That's why it was similarly odd when Thompson was on the trade market at the deadline for a one-legged player like Eric Gordon.
Every single statistic remained the same, except for minutes played per game (going up from 24.4 to 35.8) and field goal percentage (down from 44.3 percent to 42.2). A true shooting percentage of 53.5 percent is still average but the lack of playmaking ability , numerous boneheaded plays and a seeming unwillingness to reign in his shot selection alienated some. It all culminated early on in the season when Thompson forgot to foul Danilo Gallinari on a drive and then missed several big free throws in a loss to the Denver Nuggets.
There are two ways to look at Thompson's offensive issues: the first being the mental part of the game he can control (see the turnovers in the lane and the early pull-ups in the shot clock) and the things he can't (the lack of athleticism to separate from quick, strong defenders like Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs). Perhaps it's possible that he learns to finish at the rim (he shot 24.6 percent from 3-9 feet, according to Hoopdata), but it's also the lack of sheer athletic talent that manifests itself in a player like Barnes that is alarming when anybody rewatches the San Antonio series.
But for those worried about his shot selection?
That's what he can do, and that's what the coaching staff puts up with because of the chance he goes NOVA and wins a Conference Semifinal game all by his lonesome. That moment at 2:12? That's Stephen Curry's stunt double.
As for his defense? For a team that's lacked a lockdown, one-on-one defender for the past decade (unless you count Stephen Jackson as one). it was refreshing to see a player step up and hold his own against the opponent's best. According to 82games, Thompson held shooting guards to a 13.5 PER and small forwards to a 14.1 PER, both numbers below the league average rate of 15. To top if off, Thompson forced all opposing players to shoot at a 35.5 percent clip, 34 percent on isolations and 35.3 on pick-and-rolls, according to SynergySports. Compare that to Tony Allen's respective numbers at 34.2 percent from the field, 36.1 percent on isolations and 30.9 percent on pick-and-rolls. Anytime you can have a guy shoot over 40 percent from distance and provide near-elite defense? Unheard of around these parts.
But the evidence isn't always in the statistics. It seemed that every time the Warriors would need to get Stephen Curry a breather or to stem his ineffectiveness on the defensive end, they'd call upon Thompson, instead of a quicker guard in Jarrett Jack or a more athletic wing player like Harrison Barnes. Thompson was asked to guard players like Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker in the regular season and then switched off to Ty Lawson in the postseason series against the Denver Nuggets. Thompson did such an admirable job on these players I could have sworn his dad gave him a couple extra bucks at the end of the week (sorry, I couldn't help it).
Going forward, it's relatively easy and humanly instinctual to assume Thompson take another step forward in his third year in the NBA. With Andre Iguodala and another year of Harrison Barnes and even Kent Bazemore to carry more of a load, there isn't as much pressure for Thompson to play outside his comfort zone. While you want him to expand his game from just shooting spot-up threes and designed drives off screens on offense, it's plausible they curtail his role to expand Barnes and mesh in Iguodala's. There's no shame in becoming a lethal three-point threat, a solid defender and a sprinkling of playmaking on the other end. On a team with a tantalizing number and potential assortments of lineups, depth and playmakers, this is perhaps Thompson's easiest year—usage-wise—as an NBA player.
So-Cal native Klay Thompson told me today he likes No-Cal better than So-Cal. Ouch. What's next? Stop taking OUR water?! #DudeCanBall.— Jim Rome (@jimrome) July 24, 2013