"Great players are willing to give up their own personal achievement for the achievement of the group. It enhances everybody." - Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
When I decided to write this article I wanted to find a way to taper people's expectations of this year's Golden State Warriors. It's highly unlikely the Warriors will have the same success in the regular season as they did last year despite the upgrade in talent. An adjustment period will be required and logic dictates that somebody will see a decrease in their box score numbers; that person will have to step out of the limelight and make way for the newest Warrior Kevin Durant, sacrificing part of their own legacy, their own stardom.
Or will they?
For most people Klay Thompson is the most obvious candidate when it comes to sacrificing some shots to make room for Kevin Durant. Predicting how this season will turn out for Thompson and the Warriors is essentially impossible. There are so many variables to consider and on top of it all, the truth of the matter is we have never seen a team like this before. But that won't stop me from trying to analyze how Thompson will fit with this new Warriors team or if he can fit at all.
"There's only one ball." That's the argument you might have seen floating around social media and various media outlets. You can have as many superstars as you want, but they can't all have the ball in their hands. On the surface it seems like fair criticism, but does it hold up to more in depth scrutiny? I have compiled a table to compare and contrast the usage percentage of individual players in other "super teams" (I also included OKC last season out of curiosity). I have tried to stick with modern teams as the way the game is played has changed so much over the last couple of decades.
For those not familiar with usage percentage, it is the percentage of a team's plays that an individual player "uses" while he is on the floor. So the higher the percentage the more of your team's possessions you "used."
As you can see the usage of last year's Warriors (+KD) versus 2012 Miami aren't too dissimilar. Some people might say LeBron James turned Chris Bosh into a spot up shooter. True or not, it isn't really relevant as Thompson is one of the best spot up shooters in the league. If he were to be relegated to becoming a 3&D player he might become the best 3&D player ever. Curry's USG% was actually below 30% in 2015. He averaged a little under 24 points per game that year.
Based solely on the usage it appears as if Thompson might have to sacrifice a little; however, this is dependent on whether Curry's USG% remains as high as it was last year or whether it regresses back to less than 30% like it was in 2015 when he won his first MVP award.
We shouldn't rush to any conclusions as USG% is only one statistic and doesn't come close to painting the full picture.
On paper this Warriors team is arguably the most talented ever assembled. However it's not just the talent level that separates them from other super teams; it's the way that they play. The emphasis on ball movement is something that Steve Kerr has implemented, which helped to change the culture in Golden State. I'm a big believer that team work nearly always trumps individual talent. So what if you have the team work and the individual talent?
When Miami formed their super team in 2010 it took nearly a full season for the teammates to adjust to each other and learn how to properly play together but even then were they moving the ball the way the Warriors do? Or were they a group of amazingly talented players who played mostly as individuals offensively instead of one cohesive unit? Continuing with the comparison to the 2012 Heat, let's take a look at the difference in assist numbers. Starting with each teams average in assists per game.
Pretty self explanatory right? The difference in assist numbers is staggering. Even with the commonly accepted notion of LeBron James making his teammates better and always looking to make the smart play Miami didn't move the ball around nearly as much as Golden State did. That being said you can't really fault the Miami approach as it resulted in two championships over a four year period.
Regardless, let's go even further and take a look at the percentage of made field goals that were assisted on versus unassisted for each team. First the Warriors:
And now 2012 Miami Heat:
As you can see in comparison to Miami the vast majority of the Warriors made shots were assisted on. So it should be unsurprising that the Warriors also led the league last season in points created through assists. Unfortunately, we can't compare this statistic against the 2012 Heat because stats.nba.com only records this statistic as far back as 2013. What we do know is that the Warriors created an average of 70 points per game through assists, more than any other team in the last three years.
So what does this mean for Thompson? Essentially ball movement is always favored in these scenarios; when you have this much offensive talent on the floor it's hard to keep everyone happy. Make no mistake, even the most humble of superstars has an ego of sorts; you don't make it as a top five player at your position in the NBA without one.
When everyone is getting a chance to touch the ball, it not only keeps the players happy, but it also keeps the defense guessing. Now I know what the more shrewd fan is thinking right now; even with the emphasis on ball movement, there's only so many shots to go around. Right?
Well that leads us to the other big difference between the super team of Miami in 2012 and the new Golden State super team: The Warriors are significantly more efficient scorers.
The chart above shows the individual players TS%. If you're not already familiar with True Shooting percentage (TS%), it is simply a measure of a players two point field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage all rolled into one.
As the chart clearly shows, the Warriors are all very efficient players. Part of this is due to their own individual talent, obviously, but make no mistake, the system that Kerr has implemented has played a big part as well. It's very feasible that the numbers would be closer in a system more akin to what Miami were using in 2012. The gap in scoring efficiency between the Warriors and the 2012 Miami Heat is significant for two reasons:
1. It is normal for a player to see a drop in efficiency the higher their USG% becomes. That's what should happen. Players with a lower usage tend to be more efficient. So if the Warriors are already more efficient than their 2012 Heat counterparts, despite having a higher USG% for the most part, then how will they compare once the Warriors USG% dips? Is it possible for them to become more efficient? The answer for Curry and Durant is probably no but for Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who knows?
2. Kevin Durant was incredibly efficient last year, despite the fact he was playing in a system that relied heavily on isolation plays and high screen pick and rolls. The ball movement in OKC wasn't terrible, but it wasn't what most would class as "elite." So does Durant need to have the same usage to have the same impact on the game? Can he afford to have a lower usage due to the fact he's so efficient and is now playing in a system where he won't have to handle the bulk of the scoring?
Looking beyond the statistics and it's hard not to acknowledge Klay Thompson's unselfish personality. Off the court Thompson has never appeared to be the type to seek out the limelight and has already shown a willingness to sacrifice recently stating "I'm not going to judge my performance of numbers or anything. If we get wins, it really doesn't matter, man. It's all good."
Thompson isn't a rhythm shooter who needs a dribble or two before swishing shots from twenty five feet or more, nor is he a volume shooter who requires an abundance of shot attempts to have real impact on the game. You could say the same for Curry and Durant as well; the reason the ball moves so well and will continue to move well is because the players trust each other to make the shot. They're not concerned about getting their own numbers up and are quite happy to feed the hot hand and go with whatever is working at the time.
Just look at Klay Thompson's record setting 37 point quarter. As soon as he had the hot hand, everyone was trying to get the ball to him, even his MVP teammate Stephen Curry. It's worth remembering that Thompson is also an adept scorer off the ball; he doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective. In fact, none of the Warriors key players do. Unlike LeBron James who is at his best when the ball is in his hands and he's running the show, making all of the decisions for his teammates, the Warriors have a whole roster of players who are competent decision makers.
When looking at the player movement the Warriors have, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where the amount of open shots Thompson gets next season doesn't increase. Take a look at the following examples of the Warriors' ball movement and the types of open looks they were creating for wing players.
The first clip is just a brilliant example of the selflessness displayed by this Warriors team, passing up good shots for great shots. We can expect to see more of this next season. Curry, Thompson and Green all pass up shots in this clip, in the end it is Leandro Barbosa who shoots. How many teams have three all star players that would pass up a shot they know they could make for Leandro Barbosa? The trust between the Warriors players is what allows them to succeed in a system like this.
In these next two clips we see some simple pick and roll action. Curry, Thompson and Durant are all adept at finishing at the rim, which means if they drive, there's a good chance the defense will collapse in on them and leave one of the wing players wide open. Last year it was Harrison Barnes who was left open for the most part, so let's bare in mind that during a Curry-Green pick and roll, it will probably be Thompson, Durant and Iguodala open in the corners or on the wing.
For this next one, take note of the ball movement and off the ball screening that the Warriors use to create this opportunity. But also note that when Curry receives the pass on the cut he draws an extra defender with him (Green's), while Iguodala's defender (left wing) inexplicably decides to try and help as well with a failed block attempt. This action resulted in FOUR defenders collapsing into the paint. In fact the only one that "stays home" and sticks to his man is defending Shaun Livingston, who is usually a non-threat from the three point line. In the end, Curry dumps the ball to Ezeli, who finishes with the nasty dunk. But what if Curry had kicked it back out to the perimeter?
So imagine now that the same play happens while the new and improved "Death lineup 2.0" is on the floor. You could feasibly have a wide open Durant at the top of the arc, a wide open Thompson on the wing, and a wide open Iguodala in the corner.
And for my last example we get to see part of the weave action Warriors like to run. As the defense runs through a couple screens and tries to keep track of who has the ball, again take note of a few things:
First of all, Livingston's defender (left corner) wanders into the paint to help, which in part created this open look. As I alluded to earlier, Livingston is not a good three point shooter (although he did make this shot), so the defense sagging off is arguably the proper thing to do in this situation.
However, the defense couldn't afford to do that with the new death lineup on the floor because that wouldn't be Livingston in the corner; it would be Stephen Curry. So if that defender doesn't sag off to cut off Green's drive to the basket, what would have happened? Well, Porzingis would have reached for the steal after Thompson had passed it to Green behind his back. This would have allowed Green to blow by Porzingis and he would have either had a wide open layup or a wide open Curry in the corner (depending on whether or not the defender helps).
Defenses were already gravitating towards Curry. Just having Curry on the floor standing thirty feet from the basket would push most defenses to breaking point. Now these same defenses have to find a way to defend Curry as well as defend Kevin Durant.
If you're Klay Thompson then, having two of the top three players in the world on your team, one of the best play making power forwards in the league ,and a simplistic but also beautiful read and react offense (with some triangle elements thrown in), can only lead to more wide open shots for you. An open three for Klay Thompson is the equivalent to a shot from within 10 feet for most players. That's not me exaggerating for effect. For example, last season Kyrie Irving shot 38% on shots between 5-9ft from the rim. Thompson shot 42.7% on shots from 24ft or further.
Thompson's game for the most part has been quiet, calm, and captivating. Often viewed as a little introverted due to his seemingly laid back approach to games however you shouldn't be fooled. Beneath the surface lurks a competitive fire that will scorch the hardwood given the opportunity. We've seen it many times before, but nothing stands out more for me than the 37 point quarter (an NBA record) that I alluded to earlier.
With Coach Kerr's system already in place and the Warriors having already won two conference titles and an NBA championship in the last two years, the idea of Kevin Durant joining always seemed to be that Durant would fit them as opposed to the Warriors fitting around him.
Durant wouldn't have chosen to sign with Golden State if he didn't think he could fit the system. With that in mind it seems as if Thompson won't have to change his approach to the game at all. It is after all the same system as the last two years... with a significant upgrade in star power.
No matter how optimistic the statistics make it look the truth of the matter is the Warriors just added a man who is arguably one of the best scorers of all time to a team that already had a player who boasts the greatest scoring season ever. There's a high probability that Thompson will get less shots than he did before, but don't forget that a lot of the shots he does get will be more open now than they ever were before. He might not average twenty two points per game like he did last year; it might be close to seventeen or eighteen.
So yes the argument of "there's only one ball" is true. But the Warriors now have a lot of new ways to put that ball in the basket and the opponent doesn't have enough players on the floor to double team everyone. I don't know exactly how much Thompson will have to sacrifice or Green or anyone else for that matter. Only time will tell. But what I do know is I'm ecstatic that I'll have the chance to see it play out.
Like Kareem said the truly great players are "willing to give up their own personal achievement for the achievement of the group".
And there's few teammates as great as these Golden State Warriors.