Let’s start with the raw numbers. They tell an ugly Klay Thompson story from the early season. He has fewer points (181) than shots (185) in 12 games. It is the epitome of extreme inefficiency in the NBA.
The advanced analytics community prefers true shooting percentage as a measurement. Balances 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 are average. If it’s 60 and above, you’re efficient. If your name is Steph Curry — up for 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 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 struggling second-year player on the Hornets’ bench. Hayes is the least effective offensive player in basketball.
That numerical reality, the absence of team context, creates a problem for the Warriors. Smith, Bouknight and Hayes are not outstanding scorers. It’s Thompson. He scores 15.4 shots per game, second most on the Warriors, ahead of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. When a player with a 25.1 usage rate is so ineffective, it naturally drags down the offense.
But now let’s add some 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 the bottom fifth NBA defense. They don’t get in the way much. So when they do, there’s added importance to take advantage and build a run.
For years, many of those runs were sparked by Thompson’s transition 3 early in the clock. But Thompson is currently shooting 33 percent on 3s, the second-lowest among the league’s top 10 shooters. Only Kelly Oubre Jr. remembers him? — has a lower current percentage than 3 points.
So here are the Warriors trailing in that third quarter, down 90-83, still in the game as Steph Curry is on his way to a 50-point night. They stop on defense. Curry pushes a jumper into the frontcourt. One Suns defenseman gets behind the play, creating a five-on-four opportunity. Pool 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 shoots with 19 on the shot clock as his teammates look on in a bit of exasperation. The miss drops Thompson to 5-of-14 on the night.
A rushing turnover created a mismatch when the Warriors scattered in transition. That left Curry guarding Deandre Ayton in the post. But Curry has enough muscle against Ayton, and the Suns center goes for a long hook, which he misses. It is another rare defense station. Curry grabs another rebound and throws it to Thompson, looking to pick up the pace.
But Thompson uses it as another opportunity to call his number and try to get going. He goes in for another long, semi-competitive 3 from deep on the 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 has Payne on him again under the hoop, but sees Thompson shoot another early 3 before any kind of action materializes. That made Thompson 5-of-15. Green had clearly had enough. The energy to return to defense was drained from his body. He goes back. A foul has been committed. Curry hits the ball in frustration and gets a technical foul.
After the Curry technical, Steve Kerr called a timeout. When ESPN’s broadcast returned, Kerr was heard on the mic imploring his team to trust each other, while Curry and Green still looked a little fired up.
“It’s just a pick-up game,” Kerr said. “At some point there has to be collective trust and competitiveness because everyone is trying to do it alone.”
Kerr repeated that line in his postgame comments to reporters in Phoenix.
“To find him, we have to get everyone on board,” Kerr said. “Everybody has to be on the same page in terms of just worrying about winning.”
Curry echoed a similar message.
“Focus on the team, whatever that means for everybody,” Curry said. “We are 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 your energy or your body language. Whatever the victim looks like, it usually creates good vibes. You can feed off of it. You can’t obsess over stats and how it looks because that’s not how the game is played. You can’t kind of want what you might want that night if you’re not focused on winning.”
Curry didn’t directly name Thompson in that response, and the words apply to several situations that populate the list. Individual priorities have defined these Warriors’ early season struggles. The preseason was all about contract talk and kicking. They tried to force James Wiseman minutes in an attempt to elevate his career. There was a big difference between Jordan Poole as a starter and a bench player. Rotational picks always seem like a decision between the core of a dynasty and the next era.
But Thompson’s struggles took center stage Wednesday night. The misses are piling up and that ambitious and botched third quarter sequence seemed to be the gobbler that sucked the life out of the Warriors.
“Klay continues to come down and try to get out of an early season slump every night,” Kerr told reporters in Phoenix. “Tonight he applied pressure. The guy has a lot of weight on his shoulders because of the injuries and where he feels right now. We have to help Klay and help him get out of the way. Once he can get past his frustration, the game will come to him. He will be good and 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 the Bay Area. We’re going to help him get through it and he’ll get there.”
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The Warriors quickly moved on from Wiseman’s experiment, pulling him from the rotation because it negatively affected the team’s chance to win right away. It’s the same reason why Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody remain on the fringes of the rotation despite needing more reps for their development.
In a world historical context, the same could be said for Thompson until he recovers from his slump. When another player on your team is maxing out on 35 percent of his shots, the easiest answer is to cut back and limit the negative impact. But the Warriors seem intent on letting Thompson ride out because of how often he’s proven himself in the past. The record books show this as the second leading 3-point shooter in league history.
“Klay Thompson’s shots have always been ones you wouldn’t tell anyone else to take because of his skills and the work he puts in,” Curry said. “He has had slow starts in seasons before. The biggest thing — we tell JP this, tell Klay this, tell yourself this — you have to let the game come to you. Especially when teams know if you get going, we’re hard to beat. They will likely have a heightened sense of awareness in early games because they fear what Klay looks like at his peak. So let the game come to you. Have some patience and trust in how we play as a team creating good shots. His presence there changes the game with two feet on the floor because he demands attention regardless of what the numbers look like. They will come. Just believe.”
(Top photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)