The confetti had barely settled on the Toronto Raptors’ championship celebration before another stunning injury report hit their NBA Finals opponents, the Golden State Warriors, like a punch to the stomach:
The news about Klay Thompson came mere days after the late-night revelation that teammate Kevin Durant would miss the entire 2019-20 NBA season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Taken together, both injuries cast uncertainty over the Warriors’ long-term future — and further complicate a free-agency summer that already had promised to be one of the wildest ever.
One-half of the Splash Brothers (with Stephen Curry), Thompson has been a founding member of this Warriors dynasty. He was drafted just two years after Curry — we don’t talk about that Ekpe Udoh pick sandwiched in between — and a year ahead of Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, part of the masterful series of selections that laid the foundation for Golden State’s subsequent dominance. Since the Warrior dynasty’s first championship in 2014-15, Thompson ranks fifth on the team in both Value Over Replacement Player and Win Shares in the playoffs (behind Curry, Green, Durant and Andre Iguodala).
Does that sound low? There’s a case to be made that the advanced metrics might perennially underrate Thompson on defense, where his reputation — he was named to the All-Defensive second team this season — vastly outstrips his statistical indicators. And although Thompson’s durability does factor into metrics such as VORP and Win Shares, he has played in 615 of 640 possible regular-season games (96 percent) in his career, providing a welcome sense of stability for a team all too familiar with injuries to stars.
Certainly Thompson should get credit for the way his contract has enabled the Warriors to build their superteam around him. Thompson has often spoken about his love for playing in the Bay Area, and he’s pondered taking pay cuts to stay with the franchise. He was paid a comparatively modest $69 million these past four seasons as the Warriors won four straight conference championships and two titles (years when our CARMELO projections pegged his actual worth at $117 million).
However, Thompson is due to become a free agent this summer, as part of a star-studded class that was also supposed to include his fellow Warrior Durant.1 Because Thompson missed out on All-NBA recognition this season (it’s difficult to call it a “snub” given his good-but-not-great metrics), he won’t qualify for the NBA’s “supermax” category of extensions — which means the most he can make is about $190 million over five years if he re-signs with Golden State, or $141 over four years if he signs elsewhere. (By comparison, Curry re-signed for five years and $201 million two summers ago.)
The timetable on recovering from ACL tears starts as low as seven months, but it generally requires nine months to a year before returning to the court. So Thompson probably will miss most (if not all) of the 2019-20 season with his injury, just like Durant. But in the wake of Durant’s injury, we already have seen reports that teams wouldn’t hesitate to sign KD to a maximum deal despite the uncertainty around his health. Thompson isn’t at the same level of franchise-altering stardom as Durant, but he is one year younger, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see rival teams take a similar approach to his free agency this summer.
On the one hand, Thompson’s injury is a bad omen for a player whose game is built on a tremendous amount of high-stress activity. According to Second Spectrum data compiled by ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, no player in the NBA has run a greater distance over the past five seasons (including the playoffs) than the 1,267 miles Thompson covered. On the other hand, though, Thompson is a historically great shooter with one of the quickest releases the game has ever seen, so his skills figure to age well even if the injury costs him some athleticism.
If the Warriors do part ways with both Thompson and Durant this summer, it’s worth wondering where the losses will leave a team that, not very long ago, looked like the most dominating force in the history of the NBA. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, a Golden State team without Klay, KD and a few other notable players who may depart has the potential to become just the fifth defending NBA Finalist ever to return less than half of its scoring from the previous season. (Thompson and Durant combined to score 3,707 of Golden State’s 9,650 points this season, or 38.4 percent, but the Warriors also have eight other players who aren’t under contract for 2019-20.) What happened to the other teams on the list?2 You don’t wanna know.3
The Warriors probably won’t fall quite so far; before the Thompson news, betting markets opened with Golden State as favorites to win the 2019-20 NBA championship, as the defending-champ Raptors dropped into a tie with the Houston Rockets for the fifth-best odds (behind the Warriors, Lakers, Bucks and Clippers). But those numbers are already destined to change with the reports about Thompson, so it’s just a question of how far Golden State falls — particularly relative to its two Western Conference challengers in Los Angeles, both of whom have designs on the summer’s top trade and free-agent targets. Will the Warriors not even be favored to win the West next year? That remains to be seen. But the severity of Thompson’s injury tacked another depressing note onto the end of Golden State’s season, and it adds another layer of uncertainty to the team’s future as a dynasty.