What's Up with Klay? Warriors Need Slumping Sharpshooter to Figure It Out ASAP

Erik Malinowski@@erikmalGolden State Warriors Lead WriterMay 25, 2017

May 14, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) celebrates after making a basket against the San Antonio Spurs during the third quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Spurs 113-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Klay Thompson had no idea he'd been left off this year's All-NBA selections until a reporter asked him last week how it felt. Not exactly the preferred way to find out.

A few minutes earlier, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (both named to the second team) had huddled together on the practice court, poring over a single sheet of paper with the names of all the players honored by the voters with All-NBA inclusion.

And as Thompson labored through an awkward, impromptu response—"Oh, nice. ... No, that's all right. ... It's no big deal"—Draymond Green (himself a third-team selection) was regaling a larger scrum of media about 25 feet away. As Thompson got up, Green, as gregarious and insightful as ever on this day, was still holding court.

It's been that kind of postseason for Thompson, who has largely been an afterthought, a fourth option since the regular season ended six weeks ago. Back then, he was a feared Splash Brother, an All-Star, one of the most lethal scorers on a historically great offense.

Now? Not so much.

"I feel like I'm playing well on both sides of the ball," Thompson said last week. "Obviously, you want the shot to go in more frequently, but that's basketball. Due for a few big games or whatever. But you can't get caught up in percentages, especially when you're winning. Just got to make winning plays and play hard and everything else will take care of itself."

But is it mechanics? "No, I feel good."

Still getting good looks? "Yeah, I do."

Any idea what's going on? "It's not a mystery, especially when you're undefeated. It would be a lot worse if we were losing."

With other athletes, you might chalk up this answer to misdirection, but it's not disingenuous coming from Thompson. He knows his shot attempts will come. He knows there's little he can do at this point, so late in the season.

And he knows that as long as the team is inching ever closer to its goal of avenging last June's epic NBA Finals collapse, the ends justify whatever struggles he may have to endure along the way.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Golden State Warriors were up 2-0 on the San Antonio Spurs when Thompson made those comments; they've remained undefeated since. With 12 wins through 12 playoff games, Golden State has done something no other team in the history of the NBA has accomplished.

But even if it feels somewhat reductive to harp on one player's problems amid all that success, it's still a vital exercise. Failure to highlight glaring shortcomings is something head coach Steve Kerr has repeatedly cited in relation to how last season ended. "It's really hard to point out to players—'We can't have these mistakes'—when you're setting an NBA record for wins," Kerr told Tim Kawakami on The TK Show podcast last June, a few days after the gutting Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Kerr was specifically referring to teamwide problems, like turnovers and stagnant offensive play, but if we're talking about weaknesses this year's Warriors are exhibiting, Thompson's rough play is about as clear-cut as any.

But how bad has he been?

Let's first look at per-game averages for Thompson through the regular season (78 games) compared to the playoffs (12 games):

 Regular seasonPlayoffs
Field-goal attempts17.613.9
Field goals8.35.3
Points22.314.4
Two-point percentage51.6%39.6%
Three-point percentage41.4%36.4%
True shooting59.2%48.5%
Usage rate26.1%20.9%

Some pretty ugly stuff here to unpack. If you're a Warriors fan, the most comforting number is that three-point percentage, which, while a ways off his career norms, is decent relative to your average NBA player.

Problem is, Thompson is not your average player. He's a superstar, and he's neither getting the ball like one nor capitalizing on the chances that are thrown his way. His usage and shots per game are both considerably lower, and that two-point percentage is inexplicably bad, especially for someone who is the beneficiary of a lot of weak-side cuts and high-efficiency shots at the rim.

Let's look closer at that two-point percentage in terms of shot distance:

 Regular seasonPlayoffs
0-3 feet66.4%59.1%
3-10 feet39.3%14.3%
10-16 feet47.4%39.1%
16 feet46.2%

38.1%

Anything down low appears to be a major issue for Thompson. But at the rim, he seems to be not that much worse than in the regular season, and he's been decent enough on long twos. But inside, with bigs patrolling the paint and the need for floaters and finger rolls requiring a deft shooter's touch, Thompson doesn't have his mojo right now.

Let's also break this down by time remaining in the shot clock because a rushed shooter means one who maybe isn't getting the best look. As you'll see, there's a clear line of demarcation between when you should want Thompson shooting his shot:

 Regular seasonPlayoffs
15-24 seconds (twos)56.7%50%
0-15 seconds (twos)48.1%35.2%
15-24 seconds (threes)43.8%25%
0-15 seconds (threes)39.2%50%

Now, there's some noise in here because of low playoff sample sizes and whatnot, but there's a picture that develops of a shooter who's caught in late shot-clock situations, maybe in iso or backing down another player, and then feeling like he has to throw up a shot.

But when the Warriors set something up for him along the perimeter in three-point territory, it's a different story, as Thompson, for all his playoff ills, has swished 15 of 30 threes with between zero and 15 seconds on the shot clock.

In other words, Thompson should stick to quick twos and late threes.

Still, in looking at the film from Game 4 in San Antonio, it's clear Thompson was out of rhythm, even in ideal situations. He missed an easy six-foot bank shot following an after-timeout play. He missed a couple of open catch-and-shoot threes, such as this look that we'll break down a bit further:

This two-on-four transition scoring chance encapsulates the kind of confident, arrogant basketball that Golden State has near-perfected over the past several seasons. Look at the gravity around Curry, with four defenders in his orbit. The pass to Thompson is perfect. He then lets the ball loose in stride. This is the kind of shot you want when you're up 15 because you have a safety net. The reason the Warriors have won so many games is because they so often make these shots and push 15-point leads to 18 before you can blink.

There's nothing the Spurs can do to stop this. Thompson needs only to hit the open three.

There was no defender near him on this one, but Patty Mills, a seven-inch height disparity notwithstanding, seemed to frustrate Thompson all evening whenever they did match up. Thompson played nearly six minutes of the fourth quarter and didn't attempt a single shot, a far cry from the player who swished a playoff-record 11 threes in Game 6 of last year's conference finals.

That player still exists, to be clear. Thompson scored 60 points in a game this season in fewer than 30 minutes of court time. And despite the addition of Durant, his scoring average went up (0.2 to 22.3). His two-point shooting was at a career-high level.

You could argue Thompson was better this season than ever before.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

That is what makes his play now so maddening, but there's little the Warriors can do. They will have nine full rest days until the Finals kick off at Oracle Arena on June 1. They can give him more shots, both in games and after every practice, with assistant coach Chris DeMarco. They can keep the mood loose and his confidence up. Thompson has been through (and emerged from) slumps before, even an extended one to start this season.

Eventually, Thompson will break out with one of his superlative performances. When that happens, Golden State will be all but unbeatable.

But the longer he keeps scuffling, the odds of another Warriors flameout come June increase ever so slightly. Even with Curry, Durant and Green at peak form, they would gladly accept one more vintage Thompson resurgence to close out this season in style.

                       

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

Erik Malinowski covers the Warriors for B/R. His book, Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @erikmal.

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