OAKLAND, Calif. — Humans need oxygen, plants need sunlight, and NBA shooters need space to breathe. A cushion from a defender allows a player to do his job successfully: It gives him time to turn and face the basket, bend his knees to develop rhythm and square his feet.
Then there’s Klay Thompson, who often does none of these things yet still hits threes at a better-than-40-percent clip and strikes fear in just about every NBA defense. “You ever had someone walk right up on you and talk a few inches away from your face?” asked Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser. “That’s Klay. It’s like he doesn’t mind not having space when he shoots.”
Any number of things would correctly explain why the Warriors, who open their season tonight, are on the cusp of becoming a dynasty. Two-time MVP Stephen Curry is a game-breaking playmaker capable of bringing defenses to their knees in a way we’ve never seen. Pair his skill set with that of Kevin Durant, and you have a legitimate title contender. None of that even speaks to the defensive presence and edge Golden State often gets from Draymond Green.
Yet Thompson’s quick-trigger attempts from deep might be the best barometer of success for the Warriors. Golden State won 95 percent of its games last season (going 43-2) when the swingman hit at least 40 percent of his shots from 3-point range, but the Warriors won just 69 percent (23-10) when Thompson connected on less than 40 percent.
Guarding the 6-foot-7 Thompson is like a formal job interview: If you merely show up on time, rather than getting there a little early, it often means you’ve arrived too late. And God forbid you actually show up a little late — you might as well turn around and go home. Part of this is because Thompson is such a talented, pure shooter, but it’s also because he gets the ball out of his hands faster than any player in the NBA and can connect on his jumpers without having to dip his knees to generate a rhythm.
While Houston coach Mike D’Antoni has his Seven Seconds or Less strategy, Thompson has established his own version of hot potato this past season, in which he launched a total of 302 catch-and-shoot triples within 0.79 seconds of touching the ball, according to an analysis run by STATS SportVu at FiveThirtyEight’s request. The next-closest player, C.J. Miles, had just 192. What’s more, Thompson hits the quick-trigger triples at nearly the same clip, 43.4 percent, as when he takes his time and composes himself. When told of these numbers, Thompson put it best: “Sheesh.”
The Warriors’ offense already has a cheat code of sorts because of how thin they spread defenses with their shooting, but they also get a ton of mileage out of the threat Thompson poses aside from his 22 points per game. Thompson’s star teammates find far more openings when playing alongside him because defenders know they can’t step too far away from the lethal shooter. That gives the two former MVPs on the roster true single coverage as opposed to double-teams. Curry and Durant each took advantage and shot nearly 50 and 57 percent from the field, respectively, when playing together alongside Thompson, per NBA Wowy. Watch here as the Clippers lose track of Durant while trying desperately to account for each member of the Warriors’ three leading scorers. The threat of Thompson’s jumper helps create an easy bucket underneath.
Unsurprisingly, Curry and Durant’s field-goal percentage numbers fell to 46 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in their almost 400 minutes without Thompson.
In turn, the other Warriors are engaging in near-perpetual motion to help spring Thompson free. Many of his jumpers stem from the Warriors’ unusual network of screens and picks — with the stars often setting improvisational back screens for role players and guards springing free big men. Still, Golden State works hardest to get Thompson open: He had a whopping 516 separate plays in which they brought him off a screen — a figure that led the NBA by a country mile. For context, Thompson got more shot attempts following a screen than 20 different teams in 2016-17, according to Synergy Sports.
His role this past season was a far cry from what it was just four seasons ago, before Steve Kerr took over as coach, when the young Warriors utilized a much different style of offense. Back then, their attack was heavily rooted in stagnant 1-on-1 plays as opposed to the free-flowing system they currently run to perfection. In the course of one year, Golden State went from being dead-last in the NBA with 246.6 passes thrown per game in 2013-14 to seventh in the league with 315.9 passes per night in 2014-15 under Kerr.
Under former coach Mark Jackson, Thompson got a steady diet of entry passes on the block and finished the 2013-14 season with an eye-popping 130 post-ups — the fifth-highest total among NBA guards that year, according to Synergy Sports. As jarring as that number sounds, consider this: Thompson has only posted up 137 times total in the three seasons since then.
“I knew I wanted to install plenty of movement, and it just so happened that Klay turned himself into Reggie Miller and Rip Hamilton,” Kerr told me this week, citing two of the more elite shooters off screens in modern times. “To me, Klay’s the best guy in the league now at moving without the ball. It just comes natural to him, and it made him a natural fit with our offense.”
One of Thompson’s best skills is his ability to score in bunches without possessing the ball all that much. These outbursts have become his trademark since his heroic 41-point, 11 3-pointer performance two seasons ago when the defending champion Warriors were on the cusp of postseason elimination in Oklahoma City. Among those averaging 20 points per game last season, Thompson tied with Brook Lopez for the league lead in lowest time of possession per game, at just 1.6 minutes, while the Warriors guard averaged the highest points-per-touch average. “This is a gunslinger that’s spitting out the ball before anyone can even get to him,” said Fraser, the Warriors assistant.
Thompson told me that he’s made it a point since the age of 15 — when he attended a shooting camp and watched renowned shooting instructor Dave Hopla drill dozens of jumpers — to unload the ball faster.
“[Hopla] said, ‘It doesn’t matter where your feet are as long as your shoulders are squared,’ ” Thompson said. “That’s really resonated with me ever since I was a kid. So now, every time I just try to get a good shot off and make sure my shoulders are square toward the rim, even if my feet are in an awkward place. If I’ve got a good base, and I can get some lift, that’s all I need.”
Thompson’s uncanny ability to find the basket while barely able to see it — he tested this notion by taking, and making, triples in a Sports Science lab with the lights turned off — simply confirmed what many already knew about him: He can make the sorts of shots others wouldn’t even dream of taking.
Asked about having a teammate of that stature, Durant smiled. “That’s the great part about it. I don’t have to play against that no more,” he said. “You can’t relax for a split second, or he’s gonna get a shot off.”
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