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Klay Thompson's Return Comes Just in Time for Warriors

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2022

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, and guard Klay Thompson warm up before an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat in San Francisco, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

With a battered Stephen Curry searching for his stroke and the Golden State Warriors floundering on offense, the end of Klay Thompson's two-year hiatus isn't just a feel-good story anymore.

It's become a tale of salvation.

The Warriors will, of course, rejoice over the mere fact that Thompson is going to take the floor after the five-time All-Star spent nearly 1,000 days rehabbing a pair of brutal, career-altering injuries. As The Athletic's Tim Kawakami noted, "a lot of Warriors people get emotional talking about the anticipation" of Thompson's return. 

Tears will be shed during introductions at Chase Center when Thompson is announced as a starter on Sunday, but what the Dubs really need is a return of the raindrops. Golden State's offense has run dry lately, and its pursuit of a championship depends on Thompson bringing back the splash.

The Warriors scored 178 points across their last two games, losses to the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans. That's their lowest two-contest total since December of that forgettable, possibly cursed 2019-20 season in which Curry logged just five games and Thompson didn't play at all.

Curry missed the New Orleans loss due to a thigh bruise suffered against the Mavs, but he was already struggling to a historic extent. The all-time three-point champ shot 3-of-17 against the Miami Heat on Jan. 3 and 5-of-24 in that defeat at Dallas. His 2-of-19 effort from deep in those two games felt like a glitch, but it may as well have been a cry for help.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Stephen Curry is 8-41 (20%) from the floor in his last 2 games. It's the worst FG pct in a 2-game span in his career including playoffs (min. 20 FGA). https://t.co/kheCEiSktF

Despite improved depth that had observers fawning over Golden State's remade roster, opponents' game plans haven't changed. They still blanket Curry with multiple defenders, clutching and grabbing him off the ball, trying everything within and without the rules to wear him down. Recent results suggest the tactics are working.

The Warriors have slid all the way to 14th in offensive rating on the season and are 25th over the last two weeks. That has everything to do with Curry, 33, fighting to survive against nonstop defensive assaults and a steady diet of difficult looks.

"I haven't [had a worse stretch]," he told Anthony Slater of The Athletic. "Over the course of the last 10 to 15ish (games). Usually there is mechanics I can focus on. But now it's dealing with [swarming] defenses and dealing with the shots I'm going to get."

The Warriors' need for Thompson shows up in areas beyond Curry's swoon. Golden State is second-to-last in turnover rate, a product of an offense that has to burn a lot of calories to generate quality looks. Sure, the Dubs' "Cuisinart" scheme—a constantly whirling mix of screens, slips, cuts and on-the-fly reads—can look like basketball art. But it's also a lot of work. As defenses deny Curry touches, induce fatigue and force the machine to keep spinning, mistakes arise.

Assuming his programming hasn't changed in two years of downtime, Klay can uncomplicate the offense. Who better than the guy who needed 11 dribbles to score 60 points to simplify things? If Thompson has daylight, the ball is going up, and any attempt he takes is almost, by definition, a good one. His worst accuracy rate on catch-and-shoot threes since NBA.com started tracking the data in 2013-14 was 40.5 percent on 6.1 attempts per game in 2018-19.

There's no need for further probing, screening or high-risk passes with a sniper like that ready to end possessions with a lasered-in trey. Throughout his career, Thompson's minutes have consistently coincided with the Warriors posting higher effective field-goal percentages and lower turnover rates.

Gary Payton II has been a revelation, and Curry's relentless off-ball movement is a sight to behold. But if it's Thompson in Payton's spot here, he's drilling this open corner three, saving Curry some effort in the process. Worst case, he'd command enough attention to get Steph an easier look than the one he ultimately converts.

Rob Perez @WorldWideWob

A MENACE https://t.co/bINIQrONeV

The threat of Thompson's quick-trigger marksmanship makes it harder for opponents to sell out on Curry. Steph's gravity is unparalleled, but Thompson is with him in that rare class of shooters who defenders can never leave unattended. With Klay back, opponents can't put two bodies on a ball-handling Curry without consequence. Forget those janky box-and-one looks entirely.

There's a reason Curry has shot the ball better from deep with Thompson on the floor in seven of their eight seasons together. Klay prevents gimmick coverages from working, allowing his two-time MVP teammate to work against slightly more honest and equitable schemes.

Now for the tough talk: At 33, Curry might not even really be in a slump. His cold shooting (which included a shocking number of close-range bricks against Dallas) may owe to total exhaustion. And why shouldn't we expect this sort of breakdown from a player enduring nightly rugby scrums? Curry may be the best-conditioned athlete in the NBA, but even he has a breaking point. 

Thompson can be the fixer.

It's no great revelation to say a team and its headline star benefit with the addition of more surrounding talent. But the Warriors' specific circumstances have only deepened their need for Klay's help. They came into the season with plenty of questions beyond Thompson's health. But a handful of player-development success stories and home runs in free agency (plus a reinvigorated Draymond Green) have them in the contender class.

So Thompson's impact takes on new meaning. He's the potential elevator from "very good" to "great," the perfect supplement to an offense that needs another top-line threat and a defense that is already the best in the league.

To compete with the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns (who overtook the Warriors for the top spot in the West on Thursday), Thompson need not perform like the superstar who averaged 26.0 points and shot 24-of-41 from deep in the 2019 Finals before the ACL tear that altered his career. But he'd better come pretty darn close.

Thompson, who's never shied away from taking a big shot, will return to a pressure-packed, do-or-die, save-a-title-chance scenario. Doesn't that feel right?

Curry and the Warriors have never missed Klay this badly. On Sunday, finally, they won't have to miss him at all.

             

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Jan. 8. Salary info via Spotrac.

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