Recently Charles Barkley made some noise which might have sent chills up the spines of Golden State fans. He said that the Warriors' two guards, Klay Thopson and Stephen Curry, "Can't Play Together." Matt Steinmetz threw fuel on the fire, writing, last week, that:
"The main reason I believe that Curry could have a better backcourt partner than Thompson is because Curry is such a great shooter that it would probably be more advantageous for the Warriors to pair him with more of a playmaker."
There's a certain seductive logic to this. Curry may well go down in history as the best shooter in the history of the league. Don't you want that guy shooting a lot? Meanwhle Klay, who at times last year looked like he might develop decent handling skills, is currently demonstrating one of the league's worst turnover percentages on drives.
The whole concept is somewhat scary. After all, if the team traded Monta in part to find a better backcourt partner, and now Klay isn't that partner, is the problem Curry's peculiar skill set? Will the team have to risk a talent-losing trade for Klay, who's value may already be declining after a strong rookie season, in order to get the most out of Curry?
Before giving my answer to that question, it's important to point out that the answer to this question shouldn't depend on our losing streak, or on the fact that Klay has had a disappointing sophomore season. While Klay has clearly improved his on-ball defense, his scoring efficiency is down and he often seems lost with the ball the moment he has to do anything other than catch and shoot. Offensively his game has slipped, and while that may be little other than statistical noise, we would have expected a 23-year-old player to improve. That makes the gap seem like an ominous omen.
Klay needs to improve. He needs to cut down on his errors, and finish better at the rim. But that's not the same thing as saying he's a bad partner, stylistically, for Curry.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The Warriors offense this year has thrived on space. Rather than operate, like the Baron Davis-led Warriors did, on the basis of drives and kicks, the Warriors offense operates by spreading the floor with deadly shooters to create space for big men to operate inside.
The effectiveness of this shouldn't be in doubt, given that the team ranks 12th in ORTG despite Klay's underperformance and the absence of Brandon Rush, who was expected to be a significant contributor on that end of the floor.
The biggest problem for the Curry-Thompson backcourt is that other teams can press Curry, making him uncomfortable and prone to error as a ball-handler. He's still learning how to decisively break double teams, and it remains to be seen if he'll learn how to do that consistently.
The team's response to opponent's pressing Curry has been to bring in Jarret Jack. This allows Curry to move off-ball and run off screens. However, Klay is still useful in these situations, because running off screens is one of the things Klay does particularly well - in fact running both Curry and Klay off screens has been the hallmark of the Warrior's highly effective and oft-discussed "horns" set.
Jack's injury, however, has thrown that strategy into disarray, highlighting Klay's limitations. He's not creative with the ball. The team has occasionally run Harrison Barnes as the point in the horns set, but it's not particularly effective because he's not yet decisive enough with his passing. (This is totally to be expected from a 20-year-old wing).
So Barkley and Steinmetz are correct that the team needs to find someone else who can handle the ball when teams make a point of getting the ball out of Curry's hands. The question is, why does that person have to be Klay?
Andrew Bogut, for example, has demonstrated a remarkable ability to find cutters from the high post - despite very little floor time and even less practice time with his new teammates. Barnes is clearly being groomed to get more comfortable with the ball in his hands, making decisions.
And both of those situations are helped, not hurt, by heaving a second deadly three-point shooting on the opposite side. Bogut with the ball on the high post, Curry coming off a Barnes screen on the strongside, with Lee screening for Thompson on the weakside, should be almost unstoppable when the team gets it down. Keeping the ball out of Curry's hands requires constant attention, and that will open up looks for the other players - focus too much on the guy coming off the screen, and you give up an easy look to the screener, as we saw with the game-winner at Miami.
(Because Barnes is still not consistent with all of his responsibilities when the first look isn't there - again, he's 20 years old! - there's plenty of room for improvement here, as well).
Furthermore, the fact that other teams are willing to work so hard to get the ball out of Curry's hands suggests trading Klay for more of a ballhandler would be making their job easier. They want the ball out of Curry's hands, and that should tell us something. Why would the team make a trade with the primarily objective of chaning our offense in a way that our opponents want us to change our offense?
Curry is a unique player, and therefore it's easy for analysts to fall back on too-simple tropes about how to use him. "He's a great shooter, he must be a shooting guard." But he's too effective with the ball in his hands (for example, on pick-and-rolls with Lee) to move him off-ball full time. To make trades with that goal would only turn one of the most fascinating players in the league into just another shooter, and Curry's simply too good for that.
Klay Thompson needs to improve. Since he's only 23, however, there's plenty of time for him to deliver on his promise. It would be a huge mistake, therefore, for the team to trade for a more ball-dominant, less-talented player, just because that player is more of a passer. We don't need it.
I try to avoid arguing with Hall-Of-Famers too often, but in this case Charles Barkley is dead wrong.