Right now, finding fault with the Warriors feels tantamount to whining about the damaged toes of Michelangelo's David. They’ve been fantastic through five games, historically great even. At the same time, while this team may be great, it isn’t perfect. As winning often does, it’s obscured some flaws -- most notably, Klay Thompson's slow start.
If not for Stephen Curry's historic scoring barrage, if not for the plus-20.8 point differential, we might be talking about Thompson. Simply put, he hasn’t been himself to start the season.
This is in stark contrast to how last season unfolded, when Thompson started off incandescent from preseason on. He had worked hard over the summer, and it showed in his array of moves and smoother handle. Steve Kerr was brought in to replace Mark Jackson, and Kerr’s motion offense helped launch Thompson into a whole new echelon. His 37-point quarter against the Sacramento Kings heralded his arrival as a legitimate star alongside Curry, and his All-Star selection further validated that status.
Through five games this season, Thompson is shooting 29.4 percent on 3s and claiming a 13.3 player efficiency rating (PER). It’s only five games, but the drop-off hasn’t looked like a simple matter of missing shots. Plagued by early season “back stiffness,” Thompson looks far from fluid as he handles the rock. Last year, his improved handle and quick decisions marked an evolution in his game. To start this season, he’s fallen back on a Mark Jackson-era approach of settling for post-ups and long 2-pointers. Last season, Thompson averaged 4.8 drives per game, according to NBA SportVu player tracking. So far this season, he’s averaging 1.8 drives.
You could see the hindered mobility in the Clippers game Wednesday, when Thompson attempted to take J.J. Redick off the dribble. Redick stoned the drives, forcing Thompson into difficult shots. Thompson also hasn’t been getting free for 3-pointers either, averaging a mere 3.5 deep attempts per game so far (last season, he averaged 7.1). Some of those numbers are skewed by Thompson only averaging 27.4 minutes, but that number reflects that something is amiss. The minutes might reflect that his back isn’t wholly right.
It might be a continuation of last season’s trend, when Thompson experienced a production dip in the playoffs, where his PER fell from 20.8 to 14.8. At media day, Andre Iguodala assessed that Thompson “wore down” last season.
“For Klay, I feel like he had his first three months last year were awesome. Then as the season went on I think he wore down a little bit, mentally more than anything. So each year as he gets older, he’s going to be more mature. He’s going to understand the game a little bit. He’s going to understand the game easier for himself so he doesn’t burn out once February, March comes around,” Iguodala said.
Thompson disagreed with the statement, rebutting, “Yeah, I don’t think I wore down, to be honest. I thought I was great and very fresh throughout the whole year. Each year I’ve learned how to train better and pace myself even more and not kill myself in the first few months of the season, knowing that you’ve got to stay as healthy as possible because you plan on playing until June again.”
The Warriors have to hope that this is so, that Thompson is in the early phases of a crescendo. The offense is too dependent on Curry right now. It’s fun, but not sustainable. The Warriors thrived last season in part because they moved the ball and didn’t rely on Curry to do everything. They need Thompson to eventually show up for this offense to remain elite. It’s hard to care about this kind of thing as the wins continue to stack up, but it’s a note of concern amid a lot of other positive information. Golden State is killing the league right now, but they’ve been doing it without their second All-Star. To maintain this high level play deep into the season, they'll need him back.