Some things never change, especially if you’re one of the greatest shooters of all time.
For Klay Thompson — fresh off of two lower-leg injuries and two years of being away from playing any sort of meaningful basketball — it would’ve been understandable if he showed any sort of decline.
If Thompson wasn’t the perpetual off-ball mover and chaos generator he once was, it would’ve been understandable. Just by being parked on the weak side and nailing his man to that end of the floor would do wonders for everyone else. It would eliminate an extra defender from the primary action and would prevent additional help defense.
The Warriors would’ve been happy with a Thompson who was operating at approximately 80% of his full pre-injury powers. As long as he still had that sweet shooting stroke and pure jumper that is arguably the closest to being the quintessential textbook and perfect jumper in history, it would do wonders for an offense that started hot, but is currently scuffling and nosediving toward mediocrity.
In five games this season — a small sample size, mind you — Thompson is averaging 15.2 points on 38/36/100 shooting splits. The efficiency hasn’t been there: 51.5% True Shooting, several percentage points below league average.
His shot from beyond the arc is just slightly above league average — understandable for someone who has yet to get his full legs underneath him. He’s attempted more threes (36) than twos (33). He’s shooting only 39.4% on twos — most of which seem to consist of mid-range jumpers, which are also highly dependent on his legs regaining their strength and energy.
The Detroit Pistons aren’t a perfect barometer of how Thompson will fare against much better competition. The Pistons — 23rd in defensive efficiency — are one of the worst defensive teams in the league. This provided an opportunity for Thompson and the Warriors to reestablish good habits and regain momentum on offense, one that for the last 24 games has ranked 26th in offensive rating (108.1).
Thompson did his part by having his best scoring performance of the season so far: 21 points on 13 shots (3-of-5 on twos, 3-of-8 on threes), a perfect 6-of-6 on free throws, and 67.1% True Shooting, while also tallying four assists.
One example of the Pistons’ subpar defense: opting to play a zone against a lineup that has Thompson (a career 41.9% three-point shooter), Stephen Curry (career 43.0% shooter), and Andrew Wiggins (42.3% shooter this season) all on the floor together.
The possession above is where the value of Thompson as a floor spacer was sorely missed. Miscommunication by the Pistons in terms of shifting the zone on the weak side — helped by Gary Payton II cutting through and relocating to the other side of the floor — allows Thompson all the room he needs for what amounts to a practice jumper.
Spot-up shooting has been the base expectation from Thompson. The true measure of his recovery on offense has been his ability to shoot while moving — especially around down screens — and his ability to move off the ball and react favorably to how defenders are guarding him.
Thompson still hasn’t fully regained his conditioning. Fatigue still affects his legs visibly, which was manifested through some of his shots falling short and hitting front iron. But legs and conditioning are easily fixable with more minutes and reps. We’re seeing some of that wind coming back to him; his legs are becoming more active and spry, the lift on his jumpers getting closer to what it was before.
This particular jumper, out of a sideline out-of-bounds play involving staggered screens at the nail, is promising.
Thompson makes the shot above look easy, but it belies the degree of difficulty. He catches the ball after running around the staggered screens at the nail, and releases the shot while drifting to his left. Few mortals — let alone mortals fresh off of rehabbing two lower-leg injuries — are capable of doing this.
Small-sample-size theater incoming: Thompson has managed to score a measly 0.889 points per possession around screens on 23 shot attempts, a far cry from his 1.052 PPP during the 2018-19 season and 1.098 PPP during the 2017-18 season, per Synergy. Not ideal, but far from being a cause of concern, nor is it representative of what he’ll look like as the rest of the season plays out.
Meanwhile, as Thompson continues to ramp up the minutes and shooting reps, the Warriors continue to look for ways to get him open for looks. One particular example has been through designed sets that aim to place a defender on an island against Thompson and a screening partner.
The set above is contingent on the ball handler being able to draw attention to himself around an on-ball screen: Curry in the first clip, and Jordan Poole in the second clip. Placing Thompson as the first screener in double drag alignments allows him and Kevon Looney to operate in an off-ball two-man game of sorts.
Isolating a lone defender against such an action has, so far, served as the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of getting Thompson comfortable looks.
While he’s slowly capturing his shooting rhythm, Thompson’s forays toward the rim have been more of a mixed bag. Rim pressure has never been his forte — Thompson has never strayed above 22% in terms of rim frequency for his career — but he is a capable finisher, with a career high finishing rate of 69% at the rim and a career-low of 59%.
On limited attempts (nine), he has made only three shots at the rim this season. Some have been through the typical manner through which Thompson gets his rim attempts: layups off of off-ball movement and cutting. Here are two against the Pistons that get him to the rim for easy layups:
When Curry sets a back screen for Thompson in the first clip above, it’s almost unfair. Stick to Curry momentarily — as Cory Joseph does above — and Thompson garners a commanding position under the rim.
The same principle applies when top-locking Thompson in order to prevent him from using staggered screens. The Warriors’ staple “Motion Strong” set — staggered down screens for a man in the corner — allows Thompson to simply cut backdoor for the layup when Cade Cunningham overplays him.
Trying to score at the rim as a traditional on-ball shot creator has been more of an adventure. Putting the ball on the floor and trying to create shots for himself up close — while previously unusual for Thompson, whose self-creation has typically come on post-ups or short mid-range jumpers — is becoming more of a common sight.
To be fair to Thompson, he’s not solely seeking layups on his drives. He makes the right plays, drawing attention to himself and dropping off passes to rollers or roamers in the dunker spot, or even kicking it out to shooters.
This isn’t the kind of offensive manipulation Thompson is used to — he usually manipulates defenders while being off the ball — but he’s showing flashes of being a playmaker and creator as the ball handler.
It remains to be seen if Thompson will have as many on-ball reps once Draymond Green returns. Green’s absence may have necessitated Thompson being a playmaker and shot creator; with Green there to direct the offense, Thompson being off the ball will become the more prudent choice, as it was during the heyday of the dynasty.
Thompson has seen an uptick in his minutes allotment. Whereas he was limited to 20 minutes during his first three outings, he was allowed close to 23 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and ended up playing slightly above 22 minutes against the Pistons, which would’ve been more had the game not been a blowout.
The ramp up is slow and steady, and so has Thompson’s return to his past form. The glimpses are most certainly there; until the easing-in process has finished and he reaches a point where he is comfortable playing 30-plus minutes once again, such glimpses are enough to portend what he can be when the kid gloves are finally removed.