There’s only so much one can write about what’s wrong with the Golden State Warriors this season. It feels as if I’ve cycled through every fault, every flaw, and every hindrance that has prevented this team from reaching preseason projections.
That said, I’m choosing to approach this specific game — another loss against the Los Angeles Clippers, one where some of the usual faults reared their ugly heads (half-court offense, defense, size, and fouling) — through a different, somewhat more positive lens. One bright spot stood out in this latest loss — a seismic development, given that little has been bright about him so far this season.
Klay Thompson is currently having his worst statistical season. Going into the game against the Clippers, the numbers haven’t lived up to his stature on the team — both from a role perspective and a contract perspective.
Averaging 16-4-2 while shooting 47.2% on twos, 36.4% (on track to be a career low) on 8.0 three-point attempts per game, and 55.5% True Shooting isn’t exactly how the Warriors envisioned Thompson’s production heading into the season. It surely isn’t how he envisioned his season going, given that his preseason preparation was more extensive compared to last year, where the mental block of having suffered an Achilles tear prevented him from playing pick-up games.
Two things can be true of Thompson: He’s not exactly surpassing or even matching the value of his current contract, one that is set to pay him $43.2 million this season before it expires. But at the same time — with how this roster is built and how their offense works — he remains a crucial piece of their overall machinery.
Even while benched to end the game against the Phoenix Suns, Thompson was still included in the starting lineup against the Clippers, albeit with different personnel surrounding him. In place of the slumping Andrew Wiggins and the suspended Draymond Green, Brandin Podziemski and Jonathan Kuminga were slotted in, along with the other usual suspects in Steph Curry and Kevon Looney.
From a practical standpoint, it made sense to choose to bench Wiggins instead of Thompson. With the team improving by 17 points per 100 possessions with Wiggins on the bench (from a minus-8.70 on the floor to a plus-8.45 off the floor), it couldn’t be ignored how damaging their once-dependable wing has become to several of their lineups.
Furthermore — for several reasons both known and unknown — Thompson just seems to do much better without Wiggins next to him:
One known reason: Wiggins shooting a career-low 26.4% on threes — including a combined 17-of-59 (28.8%) on threes deemed “open” or “wide open” — has virtually removed tons of shooting and spacing equity in lineups that already employ two non-shooting bigs (such as a Looney-Green frontcourt or a Looney-Kuminga frontcourt like the one against the Clippers). Playing two non-shooters is already a tricky proposition; adding another virtual non-shooter to the equation has been outright damaging.
Once Wiggins was benched in favor of a backcourt of Curry and Podziemski, Thompson suddenly saw more space in front of him — and it was evident as early as the first possession of the game:
It’s a nifty set to begin the game: “Horns Flare” disguised with an initial “zipper” cut by Curry. Thompson comes over to set the guard-guard ballscreen, after which he comes off the flare screen set by Looney. With Ivica Zubac in deep drop coverage, Thompson has an open look after he gets Terance Mann up in the air.
But more importantly, having Podziemski on the strong-side corner one pass away — instead of Wiggins — assures that Kawhi Leonard doesn’t rotate off of the corner to contest Thompson’s shot.
While it may be true that the Clippers’ base drop coverage did allow the opportunity for Thompson to get easier looks than he has had in games past where defenses opted to play higher, more aggressive coverages against him — another Zubac drop coverage possession against a “Grenade” dribble hand-off (DHO) action for Thompson below, for example:
Thompson must also be commended for having improved shot selection for a majority of the game against the Clippers. Most of his attempts were within the flow of the offense — if the look was created for him to get open, he would take the shot in rhythm and with sound mechanics.
Similar to how the “Grenade” DHO worked for Thompson in the possession above, a baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) set forces the defense to pinch in against Curry — leaving Thompson’s defender on an island against Looney (with Zubac dropping again) and Thompson on another quick-hitting handoff action:
Thompson had a couple of these pressure-release-valve threes, created by Curry drives, paint touches, and other methods of drawing multiple defenders to himself. Thompson has always thrived in the role of being that one poison defenses choose to leave open; at this point of his career, that role is becoming more crucial for him to accept and play:
If Thompson keeps hitting these threes — especially when coming around handoffs and pindowns off the ball, a role he has played much better compared to being an on-ball creator — defenses will be compelled to keep playing aggressive coverages against him.
Which will open up opportunities to make the easy pass and create easier decision-making windows for someone who needs his reads to be simplified:
If this is the start of an uptick in Thompson’s production — and an uptick in his numbers — the Warriors can build off of it and hopefully rattle off a string of victories, while providing Curry the secondary scoring help he has needed all season long.
Kerr has indicated that he will keep Wiggins on the bench and maintain the adjustment of starting Podziemski and Kuminga. If it has the effect of providing Thompson all the breathing room he needs — with the results looking similar to his performance against the Clippers — it may be a consequential adjustment.
But at the end of the day, such adjustments need to result in wins; silver linings either don’t help achieve them — or whose pay off comes at a time where it may be too little, too late.