Is Klay Thompson Critical to Warriors' Title Ceiling, or Is He Trade Bait?
The Golden State Warriors are officially out of real problems, which is probably why the questions surrounding Klay Thompson's future seem relatively pressing.
The Dubs have handled the big issues. They've got a terrific owner in Joe Lacob, solid balance sheets and more talent than they've had at any point in the past 25 years. So now the hot topic seems to be whether Golden State can get more value from its third-year guard on the court or in a trade that could, theoretically, put the team over the top.
A look at both sides of the discussion shows that the Dubs may soon have to make a decision on Thompson.
But ultimately, the fact that the issue is even up for debate proves that the Warriors are so beyond the worries of their perennial lottery days that even if they were to make the wrong move, they'd still be in fine shape going forward.
Why the Warriors Should Keep Thompson
Thompson is deadly from the perimeter and he defends three positions at a high level. So basically, he does everything that an ideal role-playing wing needs to do. If the Warriors genuinely believe themselves to be on the cusp of championship contention, then Thompson is the type of player that belongs on the roster.
Think of him like a less athletic, more offensively versatile Danny Green.
Critically, Thompson is also highly affordable. His rookie-scale contract will pay him just $2.3 million in 2013-14, and the Warriors retain total control over his fate all the way through the 2015-16 season when he hits restricted free agency. If they extend him next summer to a team-friendly deal, great. If not, they can simply match whatever offer sheet he signs on the open market.
Cost-controlled players on rookie deals like Thompson's are always hugely valuable. And when those players have already shown the ability to fill a significant role on a winning team—as Thompson has—keeping them around is pretty much a no-brainer.
Retaining Thompson at an affordable rate is going to be important in the near future, as the Warriors are most likely going to need to make another big acquisition in order to really make their championship pursuit a viable thing.
When Andrew Bogut's deal expires after this season, the Warriors will be able to go after a big-money player or re-sign the Aussie at the market rate precisely because Thompson's team-friendly contract ties up so little money.
On the floor, Thompson fits perfectly into Golden State's preferred offensive style—which is to say he can drill threes from anywhere. His presence on the weak side forces defenders to stay close to him, which opens up the middle of the floor for Stephen Curry to work the pick-and-roll with David Lee or Bogut.
But he's a bit more than a one-dimensional sniper from beyond the arc. According to Synergy (subscription required), Thompson was also an excellent cutter, a solid post-up scorer (despite limited use), an excellent marksman coming off of screens and, of course, an absolutely elite spot-up threat.
We've already mentioned Thompson's defensive chops, which, according to 82games.com, allowed him to hold opposing shooting guards to an average PER of 13.5 and small forwards to a figure of 14.1. Both ratings were better than the league average of 15.0.
But the more important part of Thompson's game on the defensive end was his marked improvement last season. Somewhat lost as a rookie, he worked to turn himself into a sound defender.
Thompson used his length to contain smaller guards especially well, most notably against Tony Parker in the Western Conference Semifinals. And throughout the year, he—and not the more athletic Harrison Barnes—handled the opposing team's best perimeter scorer.
Now that the Warriors have Andre Iguodala to throw at their opponents' most dangerous wings, Thompson should easily be able to shut down lesser matchups while also saving his legs.
Nothing was wrong with Thompson's stroke last season, so his small dip in perimeter accuracy could likely have been caused by a consistently heavier set of responsibilities on defense. Now that those worries will rest with Iguodala, Thompson could be in for a much bigger year as a scorer.
Thompson is already a very good player who should continue to improve. But his on-court value and affordable contract aren't the only reasons why Golden State should include him as a key piece of its championship chase.
There's also the fact that it would be almost impossible to get equal value for him in a trade. Other teams aren't going to part with the young, bruising power forward the Warriors would probably want in return. And if the deal expanded to include Lee or Bogut, suddenly Golden State would be faced with the reality of blowing up the team it had worked so hard to construct.
Where's the sense in that?
The truth is that Thompson, alone, wouldn't be enough to get a player who could put the Dubs over the top.
Perhaps the Warriors could use the trade exception they got in the Iguodala deal to bring back a big-money player. But a move like that would do real damage to the Warriors' manageable cap figure going forward.
Thompson is worth more to the Warriors' roster than he would be as a trade chip. In today's NBA, you don't give away elite shooters who can also defend. Especially when they're affordable and under team control for a long period of time.
Why the Warriors Should Trade Thompson
As valuable as Thompson is, his skills are hardly unique on the Warriors roster. Golden State already has a ton of wing talent, especially after spending big on Iguodala.
So it makes sense on some level to exchange Thompson for a player whose game would bring a new dimension to the team.
There has already been talk about whether or not Barnes should start ahead of Thompson, so the Warriors can't help but be aware of the glut of wing options they have on the roster. Besides, the decision between Barnes and Thompson might be close today, but it certainly won't be in a year or two.
Last season, Barnes struggled to find a role and had the predictable issues with consistency that come with any rookie. Despite all that, his true shooting percentage was still 52.6 percent, just a hair behind Thompson's mark of 53.3, according to NBA.com. And from the field, Barnes actually outshot Thompson overall.
Thompson could be the safer starter because he already has one elite attribute, but Barnes could easily become a much better player in every category besides three-point shooting as soon as this season. And in terms of raw scoring, Barnes' ability to get to the line (easily the weakest part of Thompson's offensive game) will almost certainly result in a distinct advantage in overall efficiency.
It's not totally fair to make a direct comparison between Thompson and Barnes. They're different players at different stages in their development.
But the fact is there's not enough room in the Dubs' future first unit for both of them.
Speaking of futures, Thompson may not have much improvement left in his. He's already 23 years old and lacks the athleticism to make huge strides in his offensive game. In other words, the version of Thompson that exists right now might be as good as it gets.
Barnes, on the other hand, is an athletic freak who still has no idea what to do with all of his talent. At 21, he's bigger, stronger and quicker than Thompson is—and there's no telling how much better he'll get. For each thing that Thompson does well right now, there's a sense that Barnes will soon do them all better.
There's nothing stopping the North Carolina product from becoming a shutdown wing defender, a foul-drawing magnet and a beastly rebounder at the small forward spot. He already gets to the line, rebounds and finishes at the rim far better than Thompson does.
And when you factor in Barnes' 36 percent stroke from three and incredible breakout as a small-ball 4 in the playoffs, it's pretty clear that his ceiling is miles higher than Thompson's.
If the Warriors are serious about chasing a title, maybe it makes sense to put their faith in Barnes, take a swing with a risky Thompson trade and hope for the best.
The Best Option: Hold Steady
Even though there's a very strong argument in favor of the Warriors going all in on Barnes and sending Thompson away, the truth is they're just not going to get enough value back to make a trade worth it. Thompson's contract is so manageable and his game so solid that there's really no reason to give him up.
And last I checked, NBA teams need more than five players to win a title. So no matter how the rotation shakes out, Thompson will be a big part of whatever the Warriors do in the near future.
Plus, what's the "worst" thing that could happen if Golden State retains Thompson? Barnes rapidly matures into a borderline All-Star, steals a starting job and relegates Thompson to the bench, giving the Warriors a fantastic three-and-D wing as their sixth man?
How is that possibly a bad thing?
For the betterment of the Warriors' present and future, Thompson should stay right where he is.
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