By Shane Young
In the Kevin Durant free agency meeting at The Hamptons, the Golden State Warriors’ death lineup envisioned how it would fit together. Klay Thompson, the secondary splash brother, knew his style didn’t require him to change offensively. He simply told Durant and Kerr that he wasn’t sacrificing shots to make the integration smooth, and everyone viewed it as a joke.
Since 2016-17, Thompson certainly hasn’t lowered his offensive volume. Last season, he took the same amount of shots per 36 minutes as he did during the 73-win year, with nearly identical efficiency. Since Kerr took over the Warriors, Thompson has always been between 18 and 19 shots per 36 minutes, which is optimal for Golden State’s explosive attack.
This season, we’re seeing Thompson’s most efficient start to any season. In the midst of turning the ball over on 16.9 percent of their possessions, the Warriors have needed his sizzling shooting to begin the year. Even when they’re slinging the ball across the court and getting torched in the turnover margin, Thompson’s shooting from deep has assuaged the damage.
Through 14 games, Thompson is shooting 47.7 percent from three-point range. After the first 14 games last season — when Durant was figuring out how to play within the Warriors’ free-flowing offense — Thompson only shot 34.9 percent from three. It wasn’t until December that he rediscovered his lethal touch and dropped 60 points in 29 minutes.
While 90 of his 107 three-point attempts have come off catch-and-shoot situations, he’s still shooting over 41 percent on off-the-dribble threes. A lot of them require just one dribble, as he patiently waits for a close-out, side dribbles, and re-balances his feet before shooting. He illustrates it here against the Spurs:
The Warriors run beautiful double-staggered pick-and-roll action, with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green forcing San Antonio to make decisions. Quickly breaking down the play, this is what we see:
- Green’s man, LaMarcus Aldridge, doesn’t see that it’s a double-staggered screen. He initially reads it as a simple pick-and-roll between Curry and Green, so he comes up to the perimeter to prevent an open Curry three.
- When Aldridge is hit by the second screen set by Zaza Pachulia, that brings Curry and Pachulia’s defenders all the way over to the right wing. Curry’s gravity brings a double team off these sets 100 percent of the time.
- Aldridge has just slammed into Pachulia’s screen, so he’s obviously late getting back into the paint.
- Draymond rolls down the lane, and the only Spurs defender available to rotate is Klay Thompson’s man, Danny Green. If he doesn’t rotate and help cut off Draymond, it’s an easy layup. The negative result, of course, is that one of the greatest shooters in NBA history is wide open.
Looking at the play again, how in the world did Draymond know exactly where Thompson would be? When he starts his roll to the rim, Thompson is still in the corner. This is the result of countless hours of practice, perfect chemistry, and cohesion. As soon as Draymond catches the pass from Curry, he makes a direct jump-pass to Thompson on the wing. The Spurs did a good job of recovering and closing out, but Thompson displayed his patience to pump-fake and get a cleaner, corner shot.
Since becoming a dynamic backcourt duo, Thompson and Curry have also destroyed teams in the halfcourt by another method: Using Curry, the guy that normally would be running routes and navigating through screens, as the off-ball screener himself.
Here, they create confusion for just a brief second while being guarded by Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler. Curry goes to set a pin-down on Thompson’s man (Butler), which is the perfect full-body contact screen you need. It opens a space for Thompson to do his signature side-step flare to the wing for an open three:
The communication between Butler and Teague is too slow, or just not there. They don’t switch it, so Thompson has a window to get into his shooting motion. As a screener, Curry may be smaller and skinnier than a lot of point guards, but his strength (especially in his legs) is always underrated. It allows him to be the perfect off-ball screener to trick a defense.
Thompson isn’t just a one-trick pony offensively, either.
It’s less than 20 games worth of a sample size, but Thompson is currently one of the only guards to shoot over 50 percent from two and 40 percent from three. His 54.2 percent from two is just as impressive as his perimeter stroke. As of now, 14 players are hitting both marks, and seven of them are guards.
Golden State opens easy opportunities for Thompson through dummy action, or fake screens. Inbound plays make it effortless for the Warriors, as he gets an open layup because San Antonio is petrified of him flaring to the perimeter:
Here, Kyle Anderson is glued to Thompson and he’s prepared for Green to set a screen for his shooter. Thompson could zip to the top of the key and receive the ball, but he uses the gravity to his advantage. He fakes to the perimeter, and then quickly cuts inside to catch Pachulia’s feed. This is all because defenses are paranoid Golden State will get off a good perimeter look.
Watch the clip again, and this time only focus on Curry. Watch where his eyes go. He knows what Thompson is going to do. Teams practice these situations all the time, and the Warriors are one step ahead — light years, even — when it comes to reading and reacting.
They have taken a simple lost art in basketball, known as the off-ball cut, and utilized it better than anyone in the league today. The Warriors and Spurs put a ton of focus into moving without the ball, which is why they are always in the bottom 10 of isolation usage, even with players such as Durant, Curry, and Kawhi Leonard as the centerpieces of their rosters.
The art and timing of this sequence between Thompson, David West, and Shaun Livingston is what all high school or AAU coaches should be showing their players:
You first notice Livingston looking in Thompson’s direction, realizing that he wants to cut to the lane. Instead of waiting and delivering the dime himself, Livingston diverts the attention to West in the post. Upon catching, West slings it to Thompson perfectly on time for a layup. The Warriors even have rookie Jordan Bell making these quick touch-passes on the low block. He’ll probably be mini-Draymond in a year or two.
Golden State has attempted 156 field goals off cut possessions, 51 more than the next highest team (New Orleans). They end 12 percent of their possessions with cuts, around the same percentage as they run pick-and-roll, spot-up, and have their shooters coming off screens:
An interesting development for Thompson so far this season is the mid-range attack. Since 2014-15, no more than 18.9 percent of his shot volume has come from 16-23 feet. This year, 22.7 percent of his shots have come from that distance. One could argue that’s not ideal, but it definitely adds to his offensive variety.
Plus, maybe it’s not surprising, but he’s shooting a career-high on those looks. Thompson is making 56.9 percent of his jumpers from that distance, a full 10 percentage points better than last year. Perhaps both the volume and efficiency on his mid-rangers gets dialed back with a larger sample, but it speaks to a larger point. Since defenders are doing a better job at closing out on him this year and running him off the three-point line, Thompson is doing more reading and reacting than ever before.
Most of his mid-rangers are just simple one-dribble pull-ups, with the gifts of his footwork and balance helping him get easy looks:
He’s so efficient from all spots on the floor, you’re more than comfortable with a few more mid-rangers sprinkled in the offense. In the last three years, the Warriors have increased their mid-range shot proportion, currently generating 14.1 percent of their points from that distance — the ninth-most in the league. For them, this is probably a healthy amount. In most cases, it’s best to keep a well-balanced attack rather than doubling down on one specific thing and becoming too predictable.
However, transition offense still remains king for the Warriors, particularly Thompson. A month into the season, 41 players have recorded at least 40 possessions in transition. Thompson ranks first in points per possession (1.49) and second in effective field goal percentage (77.3 percent):
Nearly 28 percent of his offensive possessions come in transition, which is nine percentage points higher than his proportion last season, and 11 percentage points higher than his 2014-15 proportion. They’re getting out on the break more than ever, and he’s letting it fly.
As a result of Thompson’s outburst from three and mid-range, there has to be one area that takes a significant hit.
So far, that has been his free throw opportunities.
After 14 games, he has only attempted 10 free throws. Last season, he attempted 29 free throws in the Warriors’ first 14 games. That’s a monumental drop.
His free throw attempt has plummeted from 15.8 percent last season to just 4.4 percent in this opening stretch. Usually when something this drastic happens, it’s because of a player coming off a lower body injury and becoming hesitant to drive the ball. For Thompson, who wasn’t recently injured, it can really be attributed to his shot selection. As easy as it would be for him to rack up points at the foul line, he is much more comfortable (and happier) taking jumpers.
Still, what’s astounding is that he’s averaging the same amount of drives per game as last season (3.5), and still not getting to the line. Whether it’s the lack of a generous whistle or just defenders not wanting to foul, Thompson is working for every bit of his points.
It’s early into the season, but if he gets to the line more and stays efficient from there, we’re probably looking at a new member of the 50-40-90 club. When the new Real Plus-Minus (RPM) ratings dropped this week, Thompson debuted at 13th overall in the league, and second among shooting guards.
The quiet and mellow Thompson is playing the best basketball of his seven-year career right now. It’s not shocking considering he’s almost 28, when the general prime of a player’s knowledge and understanding of the game kicks in.
With this hot shooting from all of Golden State’s main weapons, we may see more resting opportunities for players later in the season.