Why Klay Thompson Could Thrive in Sixth Man Role for Golden State Warriors

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2013

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16: Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors looks on against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs on May 16, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Hidden among the Golden State Warriors' lofty goals for the 2013-14 season is a point of general managerial pride. Landing Andre Iguodala doesn't mean this roster has too much of a good thing, no matter how many good things are battling for minutes on the wing.

Of course, it's easier to balance so many good things when they're coming into the season with good attitudes. Warriors beat writer Marcus Thompson notes that third-year guard Klay Thompson is no exception on that front:

Klay Thompson said he's fine coming off the bench. Especially if he gets 37 minutes.

— Marcus Thompson (@gswscribe) October 7, 2013

He even has his eyes half-seriously set on Sixth Man of the Year honors.

The most cynical of us might think Golden State's other sharpshooter is just trying to keep pace with his peers in the "say the right thing" department. After an impressive rookie campaign, forward Harrison Barnes sounded like the quintessential team player in September (again according to Marcus Thompson):

I can imagine much worse problems. I feel confident about this team and where we can go. Regardless if I'm starting or coming off the bench, I think we have a chance to make a serious playoff push.

If you're familiar with the Warriors and what their locker room is all about, you'll know better than to put yourself in the company of cynics. After putting up a valiant effort against the San Antonio Spurs in last season's playoffs, winning a title is suddenly an urgent and achievable goal for head coach Mark Jackson's fearless young squad.

To that end, getting the rotation right won't be about massaging egos or campaigning for invitations to All-Star Weekend. It will be about putting guys like Thompson and Barnes in the best positions to succeed.

Though Thompson's credentials as a starter are beyond reproach, he may be better served picking up where Jarrett Jack left off as the bench unit's heart and soul. More importantly, the Warriors may be better off too.


Bench Leadership

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 26:  Klay Thompson #11 congratulates Jarrett Jack #2 of the Golden State Warriors after Jack made a basket during their game against the Denver Nuggets during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Positionally-speaking, Jarrett Jack—who signed a four-year pact with the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer—will be replaced by guards Kent Bazemore, Toney Douglas and Nemanja Nedovic. That's another way of saying Golden State still needs someone to take on his production and leadership.

The very things that make Thompson a legitimate starter also make him an optimal candidate to fill Jack's shoes. He's got one more year of NBA experience than Barnes, and his poise in big-game situations could fool you into believing he's been at this pro thing for much longer.

When the Spurs' defense began swarming a wounded Stephen Curry in Game 2 of last season's semifinals, Thompson picked up the slack to the tune of 34 points and 14 rebounds—all thanks to a nasty 8-of-9 shooting performance from beyond the arc.

His production trailed off for the remainder of the series, but only because he'd already forced San Antonio to show him the defensive respect previously reserved for Curry. He'd made his point, though: some veterans arrive sooner than others.

No one will confuse Thompson's quiet maturity with Jack's more demonstrative style. The almost-30-year-old point guard not only ran the offense and took his share of big shots, but served as an emotional spark plug for a largely inexperienced roster, someone Jackson described last season as, "a no-nonsense guy with a tremendous voice."  

Thompson may yet find a voice of his own soon enough, but there's plenty of NBA precedent—from Tim Duncan to Derrick Rose—that suggests confidence needn't be loud to become infectious. Should guys like Bazemore rise to the occasion this season, Thompson's presence on the bench could have a lot to do with it.


Making the Pieces Fit

When the Warriors are healthy, there are plenty of scoring options in the starting lineup. Setting aside Thompson and Barnes, the combined 2012-13 scoring output for Curry, Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut came out to an average of nearly 60 points per game. 

Paradoxical though it may seem, it makes more sense to round that lineup out with someone who doesn't need many touches—in this case, Barnes. If Thompson's once again going to average around 15 shots, his best chance comes alongside a Warriors bench that isn't nearly as potent as the starting lineup.

And make no mistake about it—the Warriors want Thompson taking as many shots as possible, especially when featured scorers like Curry and Lee get (or need) their breathers.

There's also no better way to allow Thompson the opportunity to explore the full range of his game, potentially developing improved off-the-dribble skills and maturing into a well-rounded facilitator. No matter how much he grows from one offseason to the next, there's no substitute for minutes in which that improvement is actually put on display.

You could go back and forth about what Thompson and Barnes contribute on the defensive end, but the most decisive variable has less to do with individual defense and more to do with ripple effects. Keeping Barnes in the starting lineup gives Golden State an undisputed forward to match up with 3s and—with some added strength—maybe even a few 4s.

In turn, that frees Iguodala to do what he does best, defending the other team's best scorer. Thanks to Iggy's superior versatility, that's just as likely to mean checking point guards as it is 2s or 3s. 

The ripples don't stop there, either. With Iguodala free to cause havoc in the backcourt, there's less pressure on Curry (and his fragile ankles) to keep up with the Russell Westbrooks and Tony Parkers of the world.

Even if you believe Thompson to be the better defender, it's hard to argue he's as well-equipped as Barnes to defend the forward positions, and all the more so after an offseason in which he's spent time practicing as a stretch-4.


Giving Stephen Curry His Space

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors brings the ball up the court against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs on May 16, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Important as it is to get Thompson his looks, it's Curry's offense that will ultimately determine Golden State's fate. That doesn't necessarily mean finding him more than the 17.8 field-goal attempts he averaged last season, but it does mean making the most of those attempts in at least two ways.

First, there's a strong case for maximizing Curry's ability to get his touches off the ball, operating more like a shooting guard than a true point. Though the vast majority of his field-goals from 19 feet in were unassisted last season according to NBA.com, the script flipped from the outside with nearly 60 percent of makes assisted 20-24 feet out and nearly 54 percent from 25-29 feet out.

Iggy's presence will make an immediate impact on account of a drive-and-kick ability that yielded 5.4 assists per game last season. But that doesn't make it any less imperative to reduce the expectation that Curry operate as distributor-in-chief for spot-up specialists like Thompson. 

That was part of the logic behind pairing Jack and Curry for so many key stretches last season. Sometimes Curry should be free to worry about his own offense and little else.

Second, to the extent Curry and Thompson enjoy much of their long-range success from the same spots on the floor, it reasons to maximize their time spent apart from one another. Both took at least 26 percent of their total 2012-13 field-goal attempts on the wing and behind the line.

Stephen Curry's 2012-13 shot distribution.
Stephen Curry's 2012-13 shot distribution.

Klay Thompson's 2012-13 shot distribution.
Klay Thompson's 2012-13 shot distribution.

It's not as if those are the only spots from which Curry and Thompson can score, and there's no doubt they were able to coexist pretty well on the floor last season. All the same, there's something to be said for carving out 10-15 minutes a game in which one or the other becomes the three-point assassin of choice.

The Warriors will only go as far as Curry and Thompson take them, and that may mean giving each the space (and spacing) to exclusively take the reins. With increased freedom to operate from positions of strength, chances are Golden State will too.