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Do The Warriors Have A Klay Thompson Problem?

Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Steph Curry have been through the crucible of the NBA playoffs. They rank sixth, eighth and 10th respectively among active players in total playoff minutes — largely because they are about to play in their sixth Finals together. In the big picture, the three remain dominant together, with the Warriors outscoring opponents when the three share the floor during these playoffs by 61 points. Their winning percentage as a team in the playoffs has surpassed their mark in the regular season. But as great as the Warriors have been, there is latent performance still dormant; they can be better in the Finals than they have been to this point. And much of that potential lies within Thompson’s play.

Strong though they have been overall, the Warriors have not been a better team with Thompson on the floor. In fact, the Warriors have a net rating over 11 points higher with him off the floor than on, and the Warriors’ other stars have been better with him on the bench.

Curry and Green have been better without Thompson

Lineup net ratings with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson on and off the court during the 2021-22 regular season and playoffs

Players on Players off Minutes Net Rating
Curry • Green Thompson 875 13.37
Curry • Green • Thompson 320 9.38
Thompson Curry • Green 349 1.66

Source: PBP Stats

Strangely, Thompson has been individually phenomenal, especially considering that he’s playing his first playoff basketball since 2019 because of a torn ACL and a torn Achilles tendon. His scoring is above his career playoff average, and his effective field-goal percentage is at a career high. Per Second Spectrum, he has been Golden State’s second-most-efficient isolation player in the playoffs1 and is setting a career high in playoff isolation efficiency since 2013-14, the beginning of the player tracking era. He was Golden State’s most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler in the regular season.2 Shooting 39.9 percent from deep, he has been Golden State’s most accurate 3-point shooter in the playoffs.3 His decision making has been excellent; he’s averaging his second-lowest seconds per touch and second-fewest dribbles per touch in a postseason since 2013-14. At the same time, the Warriors are scoring the highest points per chance on a possession featuring a Thompson touch of any postseason since 2013-14. From a bird’s-eye view, he has been vintage Klay Thompson.

But that success hasn’t translated to team success during his minutes — even in the areas in which Thompson is most impactful. Golden State is shooting more accurately with Thompson off the court, hitting 40.9 percent of 3-pointers with him sitting and only 37.0 percent with him playing, according to PBP Stats. They have made 79.5 percent of their shots at the rim with him sitting versus 69.6 percent with him playing.

Some of the gap between Thompson’s play and his impact is likely due to the inherently high variance of 3-point shooting, with Curry hitting 47.1 percent of his threes with Thompson on the bench and 35.5 percent with him playing — despite the quality of those looks being practically the same, per Second Spectrum. There’s little difference between these shots beyond the outcome (and whether Thompson was on the floor).

Similarly, while Thompson has the worst defensive on/off rating among Warriors rotation players, it’s arguable whether that’s entirely his fault. Per Cleaning the Glass, opponents are more likely to take shots from the midrange — the lowest-yield range of the court — with Thompson on the floor than with any other Golden State player. But while playoff opponents have taken more midrange shots with Thompson playing, they’ve also made those shots at a greater clip. (Which is despite his excellent defense on midrange attempts, holding opponents well below their expected field-goal percentage.) As one of Golden State’s primary pick-and-roll defenders, he’s contained the ball well; among 30 players to have defended 70 drives or more during these playoffs, Thompson has yielded the 10th-lowest blowby percentage. Thompson’s defensive process has been solid, even if the results have been iffy. 

Some of the Warriors’ numerical discrepancies with and without Thompson tie into his replacement off the bench. Players don’t play or sit in a vacuum, and Thompson has a star-level contributor coming off the bench at his position in Jordan Poole. 

Poole and Thompson have shared the floor for 340 of Thompson’s 562 total minutes, and the Warriors have outscored opponents by only 10 points in those minutes, 18th out of 20 two-man Warriors’ units with at least 100 playoff minutes. Thompson doesn’t average a huge rate of touches per 100 possessions, ninth among 11 Warriors with at least 100 playoff touches, per Second Spectrum. But Poole and Andrew Wiggins see among the largest drop-offs on the team in their touches per 100 possessions when sharing the court with Thompson. When Thompson is not on the court, however, a Golden State possession is most efficient when Wiggins touches the ball, followed by when Poole touches it.4 Despite Thompson’s success, then, fewer touches for Wiggins and Poole is a net loss.

Thompson also seems to have lost a step physically since his injuries. While actionable athleticism for a guard or a big might be quickness or vertical leap, for Thompson it has largely been stamina and change of speed. This postseason, he’s run shorter distances per game than during any of his postseasons in the player tracking era. His load per 100 possessions — roughly defined as an average measurement of work, or force, created by the sum of all body speed changes in a given moment — while decelerating on offense has never been lower, which is the critical moment when he jets into jumpers. Similarly on defense, he has never had as low a load per 100 possessions while decelerating or accelerating.

A signature Thompson play was the relocation triple, or a 3-point shot preceded by movement from the shooter. This shot relied on Thompson’s physical superpower of keeping his balance and hips facing the rim when decelerating violently. Though he has led the NBA in frequency of playoff relocation triples since 2013-14, this postseason has been his worst over that same time period in terms of accuracy, with Thompson shooting 30.56 percent on such shots. The Warriors are 30-8 (.789 win percentage) since 2013-14 in playoff games in which Thompson has made multiple relocation triples, better than their record of 62-28 (0.689) in all other playoff games over that stretch. This postseason, Thompson has reached that benchmark in only three games, and the Warriors are 2-1 in those games. 

Will Thompson be able to improve on his play to this point? Despite his scoring output and efficiency, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric rates Thompson as the 29th-most-effective player in the playoffs among the 30 who have played at least 400 minutes. His defense ranks the worst among those 30 and Thompson’s playoff career since 2013-14. If Thompson grades so poorly despite scoring so much and so efficiently, it’s difficult to envision what more he could do to unlock the Warriors. It’s unlikely that he can get more from his body if he hasn’t been able to to this point; Thompson relocation triples likely aren’t sprinting (and decelerating) through that door.

To that point, the Warriors could squeeze more impact — if less scoring — from Thompson by funneling some of his touches to Wiggins and Poole when they share the court. Wiggins has already taken Thompson’s former role as primary wing defender, per BBall-Index, and the Warriors’ defense has been significantly better with both on the floor rather than Thompson alone. At the same time, the Warriors likely hope that some variance swings their way during Thompson’s minutes. Curry could shoot better alongside Thompson. Similarly, the Boston Celtics may well miss difficult midrange shots when he’s on the court, unlike Golden State’s prior opponents. This postseason the Celtics have taken the second-fewest share of shots from the midrange; the Warriors wouldn’t complain if the Celtics took a higher share of midrange attempts during Thompson’s minutes.

That Thompson has played so many playoff minutes ought to work in Golden State’s favor. Thompson, Curry and Green have played 2,970 playoff minutes together, meaning Golden State has experience in adapting to changing situations in the playoffs. The Warriors have yet to solve the Thompson puzzle this postseason, but they’ve reached the Finals regardless. And if any team can change the impact of a star like Thompson while maintaining his individual output, it is the Warriors. There ought to be solutions even to mysterious problems like a star playing well yet still dragging down his team.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among players with at least 40 such actions used.

  2. Among players with at least 40 such actions used.

  3. Among players with at least two attempts per game.

  4. Among players with at least 100 touches.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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