Are Golden State Warriors Right in Seeing Klay Thompson as Indispensable?

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Are Golden State Warriors Right in Seeing Klay Thompson as Indispensable?
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The two sides of the Klay Thompson-for-Kevin Love debate perfectly represent the dichotomy between those with an analytics approach to the game and those who watch basketball.

Love is a statistical freak. He is one of the top rebounders in the NBA (he averaged 12.5 boards last season), he dishes out a ton of assists for a big man (4.4 per game last year), and he knocks down threes at a rate very few players his size ever have (2.5 per game, at 37.6 percent).

The Minnesota Timberwolves power forward got to the line 8.2 times a night last year, where he shot 82.1 percent. He also averaged 26.1 points per game.

These stats combine to create a player efficiency rating (PER) of 26.9—third-best in the NBA after Kevin Durant and LeBron James—but they do more than that. They capture people's imagination. They suggest limitless possibilities due to seemingly endless versatility.

How can someone be such a dominant rebounder and outside shooter? How can a big man finish fourth in the league in scoring while also leading all power forwards in assists?

Steve Yeater/Associated Press

How can the Golden State Warriors refuse to give up Thompson—a guy whose combined points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game are fewer than Love's points alone—in exchange for Love, even if they have to throw in David Lee, and maybe even Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green? Why hasn't this happened yet?

One big reason is that Love's numbers are incredibly deceiving. Another important factor is that Lee, Barnes and Green are all highly valuable players as well. But more on that later.

The No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 reasons that Golden State has not and will not trade Thompson for Love have everything to do with Thompson.

Statistically, Thompson is a solid scorer with one obvious strength. He scored 18.4 points per game last year, sixth-best among NBA shooting guards. He also hit 2.8 threes a night at a 41.7 percent clip, numbers bested only by one other player, his teammate Stephen Curry.

However, Thompson does not post a high PER. He does not load the box score with rebounds, steals, blocks or assists. On paper, Thompson is a one-dimensional scorer. A shooting specialist. A glorified role player.

On the court, where basketball is actually played, Thompson is so much more. 

He is an offensive weapon. The stats may say he's the second-best three-point shooter in the league, but that doesn't come close to sufficiently describing the impact Thompson's shooting has on the game.

He is a threat to knock down a three every second he is on the court. No, that is not a hyperbolic statement meant to give an abstract idea of Thompson's shooting prowess, one that could be made simply by looking at his stats. Rather, it is an understanding that one can only acquire by watching him play.

He can hit threes from 30 feet out. He can hit from the corner, the wing and the top of the arc. He can catch the ball facing away from the basket, turn, fire and hit all in one motion. He can weave through off-ball screens and tangle up defenders to get open at any moment. He can run to a spot in transition that Curry, Andre Iguodala or another fast-break starter knows he'll be at; receive a pass; and rail a triple before the defense can catch up.

He can dribble into a three. He can shoot threes over defenders due to his 6'7" frame. He can shoot threes with hands right in his face. He can shoot threes in the fourth quarter with time winding down and with the weight of the game's outcome on his shoulders.

Even absurd numbers like 433 triples hit at a 41 percent rate over the past two seasons look tame in comparison to the actual impact that Thompson's shooting has on a basketball game.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

He doesn't just shoot threes, either. He is an excellent high-post player, a knockdown mid-range shooter and is improving as a driver and finisher.

While he still needs work in that final aspect of his scoring repertoire to become an All-Star, the rapid growth he displayed in that area last season points to him making that leap as soon as this upcoming year. He made huge strides as a ball-handler and as a creator on the pick-and-roll this past season as well.

He is only 24. He possesses an incredible work ethic and has all the physical tools to become an all-around offensive monster.

Then there's his defense. If you want to dismiss these projected offensive improvements as ways of inflating Thompson's worth, look only to his progression as a defender to realize that these projections make sense.

When Thompson came into the league, he was a poor defender. He had the potential to be a great one—height, length, sneaky athleticism, competitiveness and work ethic—but he wasn't there.

Three years later, Thompson is one of the better perimeter defenders in the entire association.

He absolutely stifles opposing point guards. He might not be as quick as they are, but he combines superior length and decent quickness to keep them in front of him. With so many great shooting point guards in the NBA today, taking away the drive is not sufficient, but that's where Thompson really shines—he eats airspace for dinner.

He might come off as mild mannered, but Thompson is a nasty basketball player. He gets in his guy's face. He pushes him around. He makes ball-handlers extremely uncomfortable. He gets so close that, yes, he does get beaten off the dribble at times, but he has the ability to recover with his long, efficient strides, relentless physicality and terrific wingspan. He is a tremendous shot-blocker from behind.

Lance Murphey/Associated Press

That is still only scratching the surface of Thompson's defense. He plays this terrific brand of on-ball defense against virtually every team's best backcourt player. The Portland Trail Blazers are in town? Thompson is guarding Damian Lillard. The Warriors are playing the Houston Rockets? Thompson is on James Harden.

He not only guards the gauntlet of Western Conference backcourt studs night in and night out, but he does so for over 35 minutes a night.

And every night.

In three NBA seasons, Thompson has missed exactly one game—and it was for his grandfather's funeral. He has played more minutes than all but six players over the past two years, while guarding elite players effectively enough for the Warriors to be the best defensive team in the Western Conference last season.

Somehow, he still found the energy to hit over 223 threes at a 42 percent clip.

Back to that one game Thompson missed, though. If, while watching him for 81 games last season, you somehow missed everything he brings to the Warriors, re-watching that March 14 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers should do the trick.

Cleveland's backcourt, which was led by Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack, scored 49 combined points. But it wasn't the sheer scoring output that did it. They controlled the game. They were calm and dominant. The Warriors had no answer.

The guards shot 20-of-38 from the field and 7-of-12 from deep. They all dished out four assists.

Like Thompson's game, the numbers don't do the situation justice. His absence was obvious; the Warriors' entire defensive structure collapsed. They missed him offensively, too.

There's one more key element to Thompson's game, and it is as important as his offense and defense combined.

That's because it is his offense and defense combined.

It's one thing to be able to impact the game the way Thompson does offensively. It's another to leave a defensive stamp on the action as he does nightly. When a player does both, however, he's really doing so much more.

The reason for this is simple: You can only have five players on the court at once.

The NBA is full of specialists. There are defensive stoppers like Tony Allen, Patrick Beverley and Thabo Sefolosha. There are offensive specialists like Kevin Martin, Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith.

Notice how all of the players listed above have been used either as sixth men or as the guy who subs out for a sixth man. This is no coincidence; players who play defense extremely well and offense poorly need scorers to back them up. The inverse is true for for scorers who can't guard.

Pairing players like this works fairly well. The Rockets did so with Beverley and Jeremy Lin. The Memphis Grizzlies spelled Tony Allen with Courtney Lee. A good coach knows when he needs defense and when he needs offense. He will play his stopper and his scorer with the right players to cover up their respective weaknesses. It can be done.

There's a limit to the success of these pairings, though. No matter what, the Grizzlies offense will suffer with Allen on the floor. Defenses can sag off him, hide their weakest defender, put additional pressure elsewhere and adjust their lineups accordingly.

With Lee at shooting guard, Memphis will have a weak link defensively. Opponents can post him up, get into the lane, wreak havoc on the bigs and force the Grizzlies to take him out of the game or hide him, thus forcing key players like Mike Conley to guard bigger, faster wings.

With Thompson, the Warriors do not have that problem. On the contrary, having a two-way player creates all kinds of options for Golden State and problems for its opponents.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Thompson's defense allows the Warriors to hide Curry defensively. This minimizes the negative impact of Curry's mediocre defense, while allowing him to conserve energy and stay out of foul trouble.

On the other end, Curry still has a great offensive partner.

This sounds like an obvious point, yet two-way players are still not valued as they should be. Thompson's two-way game and the simultaneous advantages it creates are one of the biggest reasons why Golden State's starting lineup had the best plus-minus rating in the NBA last season.

It may seem on the surface that Thompson is simply one small part of a fantastic unit, but he led the team in minutes played, guarded the toughest guys on defense and was the second option offensively after Curry.

If you have always thought of Thompson as a nice complementary guy more than a vital core piece of a winning team, then this analysis may sound over-the-top. However, the fact remains that Jerry West and Steve Kerr—particularly West, the team's top adviser—see Thompson this way.

If they didn't, he'd be in Minnesota by now.

If you've been confused up to this point about why he isn't already there, this is why. He's arguably the best two-way shooting guard in the game right now, and his particular value to the Warriors is even higher than that might suggest.

For a three-year NBA veteran, Thompson has a phenomenal attitude. He's got the confidence to shine in big games and late-game situations, but he also has the humbleness to take a back seat to Curry in Golden State's backcourt.

Curry and Monta Ellis could not coexist due to Ellis' desire to be "the guy." The Splash Brothers not only coexist but have unreal chemistry on and off the court, and Curry has made very clear his desire to keep Thompson in Oakland.

In a May interview with Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle, Curry spoke about the subject candidly:

It’s huge. I love playing with him. He makes me better, and I try to make him better. How much better he’s gotten since Day 1 is kind of scary. He’s such a great two-way player, and he isn’t anywhere close to hitting his ceiling. I definitely want to continue to have him as my backcourt mate, keep pushing and growing together and not waste a nickname.

Owner Joe Lacob fired head coach Mark Jackson shortly after the Warriors were eliminated from the postseason. He did this despite Curry's vocal support for the coach, and in doing so destroyed much of the trust and respect that Curry had previously shown in the organization.

Taking away another person close to Curry and believed by Curry to be essential to the team's success would be a terrible decision at this point.

In fact, ripping Thompson away from Curry would be far more detrimental than firing Jackson. Young men with the kind of work ethic that the Splash Brothers possess should be able to play for Kerr close to as passionately as they played for Jackson. But on-court chemistry is mysterious, and often elusive. Curry and Thompson have it, as do Iguodala and Thompson, Curry and Lee, Iguodala and Lee, and so forth.

Therein lies the greatest flaw of the Kevin Love-to-Warriors argument.

There is a belief that Love and Curry would be a "match made in heaven," that the Warriors offense would be so incredibly fluid due to how perfectly the two complement each other and the rest of the roster. This is probably true; there is reason to get excited about the possibility of a Curry-Love pick-and-roll due to Love's ability to knock down outside shots.

However, Curry and Lee have already proven that they run a fantastic pick-and-roll. Curry and Thompson have already proven that they play like actual brothers on the court, always knowing where the other one will be.

Love is certainly immensely talented and could fit into any system, but it would be virtually impossible to improve on the chemistry that Curry, Thompson and Lee have built over the past three seasons (four seasons for Curry and Lee).

That brings up another issue with giving up Thompson—it would cost the Warriors Lee, too.

No one would argue that Lee is as good a power forward as Love, but he isn't all that much worse, either.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Advanced-stat lovers that really love Love have to at least kind of love Lee.

He scores often and efficiently; gets to the line; rebounds extremely well; and posts excellent PERs, plus-minuses and win-share totals.

Some like to cite Lee's numbers as being inflated, but they certainly are not nearly as inflated as those of Love.

That isn't a knock on Love—I personally believe neither player chases stats—but it is to say that Lee gets his in a winning system. While Love can put up absurd combinations of points, rebounds, assists, three-pointers and anything else he wants to throw in there, the value of his impact is capped at his team's level of success.

If Love came to Golden State, for example, he would not put up the same kinds of numbers. Just as Chris Bosh stopped putting up ridiculous numbers when he went to Miami in 2010. Now, virtually everybody will tell you that Love is a far better player than Bosh, and they'll point to a bunch of stats—both basic and advanced—to try and prove it.

But only one of those two has shown that he is capable of stepping back and doing all the little things that are required to win in the NBA. Lee has shown many of those same abilities.

The point being, the Warriors do not consider Love a tremendous upgrade over Lee. They would swap the two for each other in a heartbeat, but giving up Thompson as well makes the deal absurd.

The Warriors do not know, nor do they claim to know, how good Thompson will be in his prime. There is a very good chance that he'll be a perennial All-Star and the best 2-guard in the NBA.

There is also a chance that he'll make modest improvements and simply continue to be one of the league's best two-way wings, the Warriors' main defensive stopper and the perfect partner to Curry in the backcourt.

Considering the height of his ceiling, how good he already is, his unreal dependability and the additional pieces that would have to be moved along with him, the Warriors are completely right in refusing to part with Thompson.

 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN.com and NBA.com

 


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