Before the new year kicked off and the Warriors were beat and beaten down by the Los Angeles Clippers in successive outings, I wrote a brief post detailing Klay Thompson’s struggles this season.  It was basic and quick, essentially noting that his poor shooting numbers and overall efficiency were being overlooked because of the awesome play of several of his teammates and that Golden State is one of the league’s biggest surprises.

We weren’t expecting regression from a player with Thompson’s rookie year trend, though, a thought best exemplified by a survey of general managers naming him the league’s breakout player for 2012-2013.  His production and the way he went about it changed drastically for the better after Monta Ellis was traded last March, and reports indicated he was a standout performer of the US Select Team that scrimmaged Team USA this summer.  Thompson was primed for a big sophomore season and everyone agreed.

But then the games tipped off, he got off to a subpar start, and that continued even as the Warriors started racking up the wins and the league’s collective eyebrow raised in the direction of The Bay.  The biggest takeaway from that quick little piece, though? Thompson – youth, skill, and reputation considered – was likely to get better as the basketball year wore on, and Golden State would be even better for it.

Don’t panic.  I’m not ready to take a definitive stance otherwise.  But there are some advanced statistics that present warning signs that Thompson’s improvement isn’t the near sure-thing I initially, and perhaps languidly, anticipated.  The minutiae of that sudden possibility is nearly endless (and depressing), but there’s a main conclusion gleaned from digging deep into the numbers: Thompson’s individual effectiveness is limited to when he’s on the floor without Steph Curry.

That’s a problem, and one that we wouldn’t have been able to see last season.  During Thompson’s major improvement post-Monta last spring, Curry was sidelined with those still-scary ankle problems.  Swigging that information from a glass half-full, it was easy to expect his play to be even better when on the court with a player of Curry’s caliber.  They seem a great fit on paper, both dead-eye shooters with infinite range and lightning quick releases, Curry’s point guard skills developing at a similar rate to Thompson’s own off-the-dribble game.

But being the alpha-dog versus a more complementary piece is a stark change, and one that was inevitable for Thompson in 2012-2013.  Golden State, frankly, was tanking last February and March, flanking their rookie shooting guard with replacement-level players or below to secure their top-seven selection in the draft.  So Thompson did as he pleased as the team’s main scorer and even playmaker, and the results were encouraging.  I profiled them before the season began and came away with a new admiration and excitement for not only his future play, but his current game, too.

But basketball isn’t simple arithmetic, plugging in different player combinations and getting the same individual and team sum every time.  That’s obvious, and we should have taken the context of Thompson’s mini-breakout last year into further consideration when assessing his prospects for this one.  But we (or I, at least) didn’t, and here we are – despite a 22-11 Golden State record – losing faith that he’ll eventually star for Golden State like most of us anticipated.

Why? Thompson with Curry and Thompson without Curry are different guys, and even basic statistics paint that clear picture.

  • Curry On: 16.0 PTS Per 36 MIN, 39.4% FG, 37.6% 3PT
  • Curry Off: 19.0 PTS Per 36 MIN, 46.3% FG, 51.7% 3PT
The sample size is small but there’s clearly a trend to be gleaned from the above – Thompson, for reasons only approximated, is a better and much more efficient offensive player when the Warriors dynamo lead-guard is riding the pine.  That’s not a good sign for Thompson or Golden State going forward, as Curry (along with David Lee) has quickly become the face of the team’s sudden rise to relevancy.
Just as bad, if not as surprising, is the Warriors overall effectiveness with Curry on the bench and Thompson on the court.  Golden State boasts an offensive efficiency of 106.5 and defensive efficiency of 102.4 when both sharpshooters play together, good for an impressive net rating of +4.1.  That all changes when Thompson becomes the backcourt’s focal point and Curry checks out, though, the numbers on offense falling steeply (99.8) and those on defense rising (104.3), too. That net rating of -4.3 is the near inverse of the one produced when Thompson and Curry play together, indicative of not just the latter’s value but also the former’s present inability to carry the team for minor stretches.
As always, there are caveats to these statistics.  We already touched on the small sample size – 131 minutes – of Thompson’s floor-time sans Curry this season, and who the quartet surrounding him consists of matters much, too.  And interestingly, Curry’s individual numbers when Thompson is on the bench take a similar tumble even as the overall team result remains impressive.
But the doldrums of January and February are for detailed analysis and extrospection, especially when even the smallest matters loom influential to a team’s spring aspirations.  So, will Thompson get better as the season crawls along? Perhaps – he certainly has the wealth of basketball skills to do so.  But the presence of arguably the Warriors most important player alongside him might very well prevent it, a realization worth monitoring as Golden State continues to pile up wins or not.
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Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.

One Response

  1. Norman S. Weinfeld

    Excellent and excellently written (how refreshing…) article. Hope you’re wrong though about Thompson.