Let’s begin with the raw numbers. They tell an ugly early-season Klay Thompson story. He has fewer points (181) than shot attempts (185) through 12 games. That’s the epitome of extreme inefficiency in the NBA.
The advanced analytic community prefers true shooting percentage as a measurement. It balances out the value of 3s, 2s and free throws to pump out a balanced number. If you have a true shooting percentage in the mid to high 50s, you’re average. If it’s 60 and beyond, you’re efficient. If your name is Steph Curry — up to 459 points on 290 attempts in 14 games — you currently have an insane true shooting percentage of 70.1.
Thompson’s true shooting percentage is 47.1. Of the 164 players who have attempted at least 100 shots this season, that’s the fourth worst. Thompson only has a higher true shooting percentage than Jabari Smith Jr., James Bouknight and Killian Hayes. Smith is a struggling rookie. Bouknight is a floundering second-year bench player for the Hornets. Hayes is the least efficient offensive player in basketball.
That numeric reality, absent of team context, creates a problem for the Warriors. Smith, Bouknight and Hayes aren’t featured scorers. Thompson’s. He’s taking 15.4 shots per game, second most on the Warriors, ahead of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. When a player with a usage rate of 25.1 is that inefficient, it naturally drags down an offense.
But now let’s add in the team context and zoom in on the third quarter Wednesday night in Phoenix. Defensive stops have a way of generating needed momentum. The Warriors are currently a bottom five NBA defense. They don’t get many road stops. So when they do, there’s added importance to take advantage and build a run.
For years, so many of those runs have been sparked by a Thompson transition 3 early in the clock. But Thompson is currently shooting 33 percent on 3s, the second lowest among the league’s 10 highest volume shooters. Only Kelly Oubre Jr. — remember him? — has a lower current 3-point percentage.
So here the Warriors are late in that third quarter, down 90-83, still in the game because Steph Curry is on his way to a 50-point night. They get a defensive stop. Curry pushes the rebound into the front court. One Suns defender is behind the play, creating a five-on-four opportunity. Poole is wide open on the left wing. Draymond Green has Cam Payne on him. There are several areas to attack and exploit.
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But Thompson just catches and fires with 19 on the shot clock as his teammates watch in a bit of exasperation. The miss drops Thompson to 5-of-14 on the night.
The rushed miss created a mismatch scramble as the Warriors scattered back in transition. It left Curry guarding Deandre Ayton in the post. But Curry muscles up enough against Ayton, and the Suns center settles for a long hook, which he misses. It’s another rare defensive stop. Curry grabs another rebound and tosses it over to Thompson, wanting to generate pace.
But Thompson uses it as another opportunity to dial up his own number and try to get himself going. He strolls into another long, semi-contested 3 from the deep right wing as Wiggins sits wide open in the right corner. Wiggins is 9-of-19 from the corner this season.
It’s important to watch Green’s reaction below. He again has Payne on him under the hoop but sees Thompson fire up another early-clock 3 before any type of action materializes. This made Thompson 5-of-15. Green’s clearly had enough. The energy to scatter back on defense has been sucked from his body. Hey walks back. A foul is committed. Curry punches the ball in frustration and is hit with a technical.
After the Curry technical, Steve Kerr called timeout. When the ESPN broadcast returned, a mic’d up Kerr was heard imploring his team to trust one another while Curry and Green still appeared a little steamed.
“It’s just a pick up game out there,” Kerr said. “At some point, there has to be a collective trust and competitiveness because everyone is just trying to do it on their own.”
Kerr reiterated that pick-up line in his postgame comments to reporters in Phoenix.
“In order to find it, we have to get everyone on board,” Kerr said. “Everyone has to be on the same page in terms of just worrying about winning.”
Curry echoed a similar message.
“Put the focus on the team, whatever that means for everybody,” Curry said. “We’re all built differently. We all see the game differently. But if your energy can be focused on the team, whether it’s vocally, whether it’s with your energy or body language. Whatever the sacrifice might look like, that usually creates good vibes. You can feed off that. You can’t obsess on the stat sheet and what it looks like because that’s not how the game is played. You can’t kind of will yourself into whatever that night is you might want if you’re not focused on winning.”
Curry didn’t name Thompson directly in that answer, and the words do apply to several situations populating the roster. Individual priorities have defined these early season Warriors’ struggles. The preseason was all about contract chatter and a punch. They tried to force feed James Wiseman minutes in an attempt to get his career off the ground. There’s been a stark difference between Jordan Poole as a starter and bench player. The rotational choices always feel like a decision between the dynasty core and the next era.
But Thompson’s struggles entered a larger spotlight on Wednesday night. The misses are piling up and that ambitious and unsuccessful third quarter sequence seemed to be the gutpunch that sucked the life out of the Warriors.
“Klay continues to come down and try to shoot his way out of an early season slump every night,” Kerr told reporters in Phoenix. “He was pressing tonight. The guy has a lot of weight on his shoulders with the injuries and where he feels like he is right now. We have to help Klay and help him get out of his own way. When he can get through his frustration, the game will come to him. He will be fine and will play at a really high level because he still has it. Klay still has it. We know how much Klay has done for this franchise and for the Bay Area. We will help him through it, and he will get there.”
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The Warriors pivoted out of the Wiseman experiment quickly, pulling him from the rotation because it was negatively impacting the team’s chance to win in the immediate. That’s the same reason Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody remain on the fringe of the rotation despite needing more reps for their development.
In a world absent historical context, the same could be said of Thompson until he busts out of his slump. When the second-highest usage player on your team is making 35 percent of his shots, the easiest answer is to lower the usage and limit the negative impact. But the Warriors appear intent on letting Thompson ride it out because of how often he’s proven himself in the past. The record books would indicate this is the second-best 3-point shooter in league history.
“Klay Thompson shots have always been ones you wouldn’t tell anyone else to take because of his skill set and the work he puts in,” Curry said. “He’s had slow starts before in seasons. The biggest thing — we tell JP this, tell Klay this, tell myself this — you have to let the game come to you. Especially when teams know if you start to get going, we’re tough to beat. They’re probably going to have a heightened sense of awareness early in games because they’re afraid of what peak Klay looks like. So let the game come to you. Have a little bit of patience and trust with how we play as a team creating good shots. His presence out there changes the game with his two feet on the floor because he requires attention no matter what the numbers look like. It’s gonna come. Just trust it.”
(Top photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)