Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson Putting Stamp on Claim for NBA's Best Backcourt

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 3, 2014

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Over the summer, factions from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards started a debate about the NBA's best backcourt tandem.

The Golden State Warriors' dead-eye duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson look ready to end it.

Recent Evidence

Golden State's pair of guards have been chiefly responsible for the team's 3-0 start to the 2014-15 campaign.

A sloppy, halting, whistle-marred opener against the Sacramento Kings didn't exactly allow for the free-wheeling environment in which shooters like Curry and Thompson thrive. But in a sign of progress for both, they did damage at the foul line.

In the Dubs' 95-77 win, Curry and Thompson shot 19 free throws between them—a combined total they failed to reach in any contest last year. Those freebies helped Golden State's guards to 43 points on just 31 shots.

Against the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 1, they were even better.

Thompson erupted for a career-high 41 points, needing only 18 shots to get there. And he did it against childhood idol Kobe Bryant. The third quarter, in particular, was something to behold, as the two shooting guards traded buckets throughout the period, often on consecutive possessions.

November 1, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) during the second quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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That's nothing new for Bryant. But Thompson's readiness to compete, his obvious belief that he belonged in such a classic shooting-guard gunfight, was something new.

After the game, Bryant didn't laud his counterpart for standing up to him. He didn't patronize the young kid. He didn't shrug off the significance. Instead, he paid a compliment to Thompson's work ethic, something we all know Kobe values more than almost anything in a player.

"I can only judge Klay and what I know of him and what the people don’t see," Bryant told reporters. "He stays late at night. I was in the gym lifting weights by myself. Or at least I thought I was. He’s over in the corner lifting weights, too. I judge a player by that stuff."

Oh, and Curry chipped in with 31 points of his own on 19 field-goal attempts, adding 10 assists and five rebounds for good measure as the Dubs notched their second win of the 2014-15 season.

It was a statement game on a number of levels.

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 01:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after he threw a long down court assist to Klay Thompson #11 who made a three-point basket against the Los Angeles Lakers at ORACLE Arena on November 1, 2014 in Oakland, Cal
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Curry and Thompson affirmed their presence among the league's best guards, the Warriors rode their combined 72 points to a comfortable home win over an in-state rival and Thompson, in particular, justified the new four-year, $70 million extension he'd signed with the team just hours earlier.

The very next day, Thompson hit an impossible fading runner to put the Warriors ahead in the final seconds against the Portland Trail Blazers. Curry iced the game with four free throws, as the pair combined for 60 points.

Performance, financial boons and praise from an idol? No NBA backcourt has enjoyed a better start to the young season.

What's Changed?

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 1: Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors goes up for a shot against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 1, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
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How have Curry and Thompson gone from being part of the "best backcourt" discussion to the obvious answer?

Without taking anything away from Curry, who is simply one of the game's best players and rather easily its deadliest shooter, this is all about Thompson. Yes, Curry has shown an improving knack for finishing in traffic this season, and his ability to get to the foul line makes an already dangerous offensive force nearly unstoppable.

Curry has gone from great to a little greater.

Thompson, though, is a changed player in this young campaign.

His confidence is threatening to punch a hole in the roof of Oracle Arena after a strong showing at the FIBA Basketball World Cup this past summer. It's hard to know whether Thompson's evolving game begat his suddenly off-the-charts assertiveness or if it was the other way around. Either way, the Warriors will happily take this new multidimensional version.

No longer content to fire away from distance, Thompson is attacking off-balance defenders and forcing game-plan re-evaluations with his willingness to put the ball on the deck. Things like this have never happened before:

As much as anything, it's clear now that Thompson believes he is a star. He showed as much in his back-and-forth with Bryant.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

And conveniently for Curry and Thompson, some of typical threats to the backcourt throne are out of the discussion by default.

John Wall is missing Bradley Beal, the latter having broken his wrist in the preseason. Both Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson are ailing. Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler have each missed time early as well.

Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe haven't raced out to hot starts, and J.J. Redick has been positively awful in support of always productive teammate Chris Paul. On the year, Redick has converted just eight of his 33 attempts from the field.

Golden State's guards have been the league's best to this point, and it hasn't even been particularly close.

Betting Big

Curry and Thompson need to be this good for the Warriors' risky plans to pay off.

Thompson's extension means Golden State will be the only team in the NBA with five players slated to make at least $10 million next season, a level of financial commitment that will likely require some tough decisions to create flexibility.

Per Tim Kawakami of The San Jose Mercury News:

The Warriors might already be thinking about how to move either David Lee’s, Andre Iguodala’s or both deals in the near future, because if they don’t get rid of some of this long-term money, it’s going to make it very tough to re-sign Draymond Green next summer when he’s a restricted free agent and definitely make it almost impossible to add another key player after that.

Basically, the Warriors bet big on Thompson taking a major step forward when they refused to trade him for Kevin Love over the summer. And they doubled down by maxing him out.

So far, the wager is paying off.

Bigger tests loom ahead. Having the best backcourt in the league isn't something you definitively prove in the first week of the season against the flimsy perimeter defense of the Kings or Lakers. It's not even something made certain in a tough road win against Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews.

It's a title earned through sustained dominance, tons of wins, a top-four playoff seed and a deep postseason run.

The early returns certainly look favorable, but we'll see how Curry and Thompson adjust to opponents who'll view them as measuring sticks for their own progress. It's one thing to draw defensive focus as dangerous players—Curry and Thompson have dealt with that for a few years now.

It's quite another to weather the onslaught of every opponent's best effort, the "I'll show you" snarl coming from every hungry backcourt that craves a chance to knock off the duo wearing matching crowns.

Getting to the top was the easy part. Curry and Thompson now embark on the tougher task of staying there.