After a summer of snark about how the Golden State Warriors were foolish to not include Klay Thompson in a package for Kevin Love, and how a maximum value contract would be a laughable overpay for him (including more than a healthy dose from yours truly), Thompson has done about as much as could be possible in one week to demonstrate the opposite to be true. Rightfully named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the season opening games, Klay currently leads the NBA in scoring at 29.7 points per game.
Obviously, it is too early to declare his performances to this point to be the final word on him. Thompson will almost certainly come back to earth a little, but the question is, how much of any of this supernova-like first week is real improvement and how much is just a hot streak. Additionally, there are reasons to question whether any improvements in his output represent his own improvements as a player, or instead that he is simply being put in better positions on what has been a more functional Golden State offense thus far.
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With regards to this latter question, there is very little question that the Warriors offense has performed at a higher level to start this season under new coach Steve Kerr. As has been so well documented to the point that it perhaps no longer needs to be repeated, the Warriors finished a mere 12th in offensive efficiency in 2013/14, under previous head coach Mark Jackson, despite an abundance of offensive talent. The most obvious culprit was Jackson’s system relying far too much on isolations and hunting mismatches, and not focusing enough on taking advantage of the superior passing talent available by the Bay.
As evidence of this, Golden State completed the fewest passes in the league last season. Although it cannot be emphasised enough that simply completing passes is not much help to an offense – for example, the Bobcats, Bulls, Jazz and Bucks were all top five teams in number of passes per game in 2013/14, despite being poor offensive units overall – the Dubs were not an especially incisive passing team, ranking 22nd in the proportion of field goal attempts “potentially assisted” via SportVU tracking data. On top of the low number of potential assists was the fact that the Warriors had the largest gap in the league between shooting efficiency on assisted versus unassisted shot attempts:
This lack of setting up team mates was especially impactful for Thompson, who was assisted on 75.1% of his made field goals last season, far greater than the league average of 58.3%. In fact, Thompson was one of the very most dependant bulk scorers in the league. His off the dribble game left much to be desired, as his shooting effectiveness plummeted from 58% of the catch to 36.5% when taking threeor more dribbles. He was largely ineffective as a penetrator, averaging only 2.8 drives per game and shooting only 2.3 free throws per contest.
This season, the Warriors have in fact picked up their passing greatly. They are up to ninth in total passes, fifth in assist chances generated, and third in the percentage of their shots potentially assisted. At the same time, Golden State has been more effective in unassisted situations, having almost cut the gap in half.
Thompson appears to have benefited from one improvement and been something of a cause of the other. The increased ball movement has led to more situations where Thompson can attack a defender closing out, rather than having to work in the isolation post-ups which were favored for him last year. Without the great first step to be able to blow clean past from a standing start, it benefits Thompson greatly to have a defender slightly off-balance for him to be able to get past them. But even being placed in those more advantageous positions, there have been signs of improved skill with the ball in his hands, as indicated by the 4.7 drives and 7.7 free throw attempts that Klay is producing per game thus far this season. If there is one numerical comparison which illustrates the improved proficiency with which he has worked off the dribble, it is this: in 2013/14, 68.1% of Thompson’s makes at the rim were assisted. Thus far this season? 45.5%.
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While “creating one’s own shot” is a skill set which has to some degree fallen out of favor, as recognition has spread that for a majority of players the “own shot created” is usually a mediocre one, for a perimeter player to reach truly top level, possessing the ability to manufacture points on their own is an almost necessary skill. Now paid like a superstar, Thompson needs to expand his game to merit the increased responsibility that comes with such a large salary. And while it may only be through three games, Thompson has thus far responded. Furthermore, should it maintain over the rest of the season and into the playoffs, this is an ability that will serve both Thompson and the Warriors in good stead, as individual offensive ability is more valuable than ever in the playoffs with the higher level of competition and improved scouting.
Nonetheless, it is far too early to even think of Thompson’s possible playoff impact. It is still just three games, and these are tiny sample sizes. His 41 point explosion, it must also be remembered, was against the hapless Lakers. Additionally, a lot of this Warriors ball movement is happening with David Lee out, and with Shaun Livingston still working his way into shape after a toe injury. Perhaps as these players get integrated in the offense, Thompson does less simply because others have the ball more. Maybe the league catches on and adjusts to the additions to his game. Or maybe he is simply on a hot streak.
Still, it is hard not to get excited over 29.7 points per game. And plays like this are pretty exciting, too:
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