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Appreciating Klay Thompson filling in the superstar shoes

With Steph Curry out (but not for much longer), Klay Thompson has filled his shoes as the Dubs’ no. 1 option.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Save for the fiasco against the Los Angeles Lakers out of the All-Star Break, this is probably the best result the Golden State Warriors could’ve hoped for with both Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins sidelined.

They’ve gone 5-1 overall after the ASB, including a 5-0 homestand — four of which were come-from-behind wins where they were down by double digits. Over this five-game stretch within the confines of Chase Center, the Warriors have had the best defense (100.6 defensive rating) and have outscored opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions — second in that stretch behind the red-hot Milwaukee Bucks.

Offense has been more of an adventure. They’ve *only* managed a 115.6 offensive rating, 14th over this five-game stretch. That’s understandable given the absences of both Curry and Wiggins, but they’ve been able to squeak by with just enough offense — buoyed by their stops on the other end — to end games with more points than their opponents.

It also massively helped that the Third-Quarter Warriors™ made a triumphant return after a season where several games were lost because of slow second-half starts. They’ve outscored opponents by a total of 36 points in the third quarter over the last five games, first over that stretch; they’ve also outscored opponents by a whopping 29.3 points per 100 possessions in third quarters of the last five games, which also tops the league over that stretch.

Again, their third-quarter offense hasn’t been spectacular, but their defense has been out of this world. They’ve limited opponents to a stingy 88.2 points per 100 possessions in the third quarter during the last five games; only the Minnesota Timberwolves (85.0) have posted a better defensive rating.

Their return to defensive competency has coincided with a marked return to more diversified defensive gameplans. We’ve all seen what this Warriors defense is capable of given the proper personnel, the correct schemes, and the tenacity and grit to execute them with verve.

But on offense, it’s been one man who has stood head and shoulders above all else: Klay Thompson.

Always considered a secondary star and complementary piece behind his fellow Splash Brother, there were doubts as to whether Thompson could carry the offensive load with Curry out. He’s not the kind of on-ball operator and creator that Curry is; the consensus has always been that the more Thompson put the ball on the floor, the less likely he would be effective as an offensive player.

But without Curry and Wiggins, the Warriors had no choice but to place the ball in Thompson’s hands and center most of their offense around him. Jordan Poole was another option, and while he projects to be a much better ball-handler and passer than Thompson, his decision making has teetered too often between two opposite ends of a spectrum: from spectacular to scream-at-him-for-making-a-bad-decision, and vice versa.

Thompson, on the other hand, possesses both seniority and experience over Poole. When push comes to shove, he has been the one counted on to not only create shots for himself; he’d be the one to create advantages, collapse defenses, and generate efficient looks for his teammates.

Even before Curry and Wiggins were sidelined, there were already flashes of Thompson’s ability to create for others, particularly from paint touches:

With him being the focal point of the offense, there’s been an increased emphasis on on-ball creation from him. He’s even shown that he can attack defenders who are at a positional disadvantage:

When the Houston Rockets switch the split action above, Thompson has Usman Garuba on him up top. He chooses to isolate and wait for his moment to pounce — and also has his sights on Garuba leading too far out with his right foot. Garuba’s unable to quickly flip his hips to keep himself in front of Thompson, which forces strong-side help from Daishen Nix. Thompson promptly kicks out to the open Ty Jerome for the three.

An ample understanding of basic help-defense principles has also fueled Thompson’s playmaking. Take this possession for example:

After faking his defender and driving, Thompson expects someone to come over and help on his drive (called “trapping the box”), while someone else behind the helper comes over to “sink” in on the helper’s man (called “helping the helper”). That leaves a window for him to kickout to Donte DiVincenzo, who lifts from the corner to give Thompson a better passing angle and to make Mike Conley’s closeout much longer and more difficult.

This theme of paint-touch playmaking continued during the Warriors’ riveting rally against the New Orleans Pelicans. With the Warriors battling to increase a one-point lead in clutch period — and knowing the Pelicans are switching everything — they go to the lowest-hanging fruit:

Thompson receives the ball and has Poole — who has CJ McCollum guarding him — set the guard-guard screen. This gets McCollum onto Thompson, who isolates and takes him off the dribble. The easily generated paint touch forces the defense to overreact, opening the kickout to Poole on the weak-side wing. Trey Murphy III is all by his lonesome, splitting the difference between Poole and DiVincenzo; he rotates toward Poole, who makes the extra pass to DiVincenzo for the wide-open three.

Of course, Thompson hasn’t just been passing and creating shots for his teammates in the mold of a primary playmaker; he’s been scoring like one too. Steve Kerr has made Thompson the focal point of his sets, whether it’s in the half court or in special situations such as baseline/sideline out-of-bounds (BLOB/SLOB) sets.

For example:

The beauty behind these sets is that much like how Curry-centered schemes aim not only to get him in a position to score but also to generate looks for his teammates off of his gravity, Thompson centered ones like “Diamond” above also make the defenses have to pick their poison: either lose track of Thompson and have him drill a three on your heads, or pay extra attention to him and leave someone else with an efficient look.

The “correct” poison is often the latter rather than the former. If defenses do lose track of Thompson, it serves as a double whammy: you give up three points while also letting him settle into a dangerous rhythm.

If Thompson gets into that rhythm, he’s more effective as an overall primary offensive player — and Kerr is more empowered to get the ball to his hands, have someone come over to set a screen, and hunt for the weakest defensive player on the opposing team.

We haven’t even talked about Thompson’s defense, which has been stellar considering his difficulties in terms of lateral movement. It’s somewhat understandable given his age and injury history that he will never really return to being a point-of-attack hound who uses an uncanny combination of size, length, and footspeed to make quick and shifty guards’ lives difficult.

At this point, he may be more suited to guarding wings and frontcourt players who provide less of a lateral challenge:

However, he’s had recent flashes of returning to form as a lockdown perimeter defender, one who could navigate screens without a hitch, move his feet and hips with speed and fundamental knowhow, and use his size to physically overwhelm assignments who are typically smaller than him:

Thompson’s been on a statistical tear over the last five games: 28.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. Over that period, he’s shooting 51.2% on twos, an incredible 50.9% on threes (on an extremely high volume of 11 attempts per game), and 94.4% from the free-throw line.

All of that translates to a scoring binge within the realm of hyper-efficiency: 68.8 TS%.

The Warriors have been outscoring opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions during Thompsons minutes on the floor over the past five games, including offensive rating (118.1) and defensive rating (99.2) marks that are equivalent of the best within their respective categories.

He’s up to an estimated plus-minus (EPM) mark of plus-2.5, second behind Curry’s plus-6.7, which is a testament to how valuable he’s been to the Warriors this season. He’s been forced to wear the superstar shoes on this team without Curry taking on the burden — and he’s done an incredible job filling in.

Now that Curry’s set to return on Sunday against the Lakers, Thompson can settle into his old secondary role — but with renewed purpose, vigor, and rhythm that only a star of his caliber can achieve.

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