Don’t be fooled by the "Splash Brothers" nickname. The fraternal moniker makes it seem as though Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are perfectly complementary, as though theirs is a bond the Golden State Warriors will suffer for losing, that they will live to regret even dangling Thompson in a trade for Kevin Love.
The on-court relationship between the guards is complicated, if not fraught. While it’s true Thompson helps Curry by defending the league’s better point guards, the dynamic on offense trends toward frustration.
First, let's praise what’s good about Thompson. He’s an excellent 3-point shooter with one of the quickest releases in basketball. He’s also a good post-up player who can punish smaller defenders. On defense, he’s physical on the ball, and he made Chris Paul look human over a seven-game playoff series.
Thompson is not, however, an untouchable asset for Golden State. He is coveted by teams because he seems like a prototypical "shooting guard." He’s of the right size and, well, he shoots. For whatever reason, we’re still dividing players into five semi-arbitrary categories, which works in Thompson’s favor. "Shooting guard" is a weak position, and Thompson does the thing that’s in the position’s description. Perhaps if the second-smallest player on the floor was called a "rebounding guard," Thompson wouldn’t be such a hot commodity. Fortunately for Thompson's bank account, history went a different direction.
While Thompson is an excellent 3-point shooter, there are holes in his offensive game. If the second-smallest player was called a "passing guard," "athletic guard," “dribbling guard" or "foul-drawing guard," these holes would be more apparent.
Per the passing, Thompson has a bad habit of looking Curry off when his backcourt mate is wide open. The Splash Brother relationship flows only in one direction: Curry feeding Thompson. It’s not a reciprocal relationship in the way a pick-and-roll between Love and Curry would be.
It’s not just an open Curry who gets ignored -- Thompson was 56th among shooting guards in assist percentage last season. This helps explain how a player who is scoring 18.6 points per game registers as only 23rd among shooting guards in PER.
It’d be wrong to call Thompson a selfish player because who knows what he sees in the adrenaline-driven chaos of an NBA game? It’s easier for the observer to wring hands over his tendency to look off open shooters on the strong side than it is to actually make those passes in a game.
At the same time, he’s deficient in areas in which other guards are strong. Another one of those areas is his handle, which is too weak for the amount of forays he takes into the teeth of opposing defenses. A player can improve at dribbling, as we’ve seen with Paul George and Kevin Durant. Minnesota Timberwolves fans can at least take solace in that if Thompson is traded to their team.
As for Thompson’s defense, we have a debate between the stats and the eye test. Warriors coaches from last season were emphatic in their support of his defense, some even feeling that Andre Iguodala drew first-team all-defense status from a lot of Thompson’s work.
On film, Thompson did a fantastic job of forcing guards away from the middle of the court and executing Golden State’s scheme. He sticks to the game plan, doesn’t freelance and doggedly pursues his mark. We just don’t see any of that reflected in the numbers, in which Thompson is a negative in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
What to make of this stats-versus-film discrepancy? My thinking is that defense is hard to quantify, lineup data is noisy and Thompson might have some flaws that aren’t so glaring on film. He lacks the explosive athleticism to haunt passing lanes in the way Iguodala does. It’s easy to see Thompson sticking to his man, harder to see a lack of scaring teams from throwing certain passes.
Thompson also racks up fouls, 4.1 per 100 possessions this season and last season. It’s easy to see Thompson defending his guy physically but harder to see the wages of how all those fouls hurt the team's defense.
It’s also possible that Golden State’s strategy of hiding Curry wasn’t the best approach. It spared its superstar the fouls and fatigue that come with handling opposing point guards, but Curry often wound up guarding far larger players. Though Curry was defending limited talents, in some cases, the height advantage made up for that.
On balance, Thompson is probably a good defender and, were Love not an option, the Warriors would be happy to move forward with him. On the balance sheet, though, this is trickier. Thompson is still on his rookie contract and is eligible for a qualifying offer in 2015. With Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Curry and Iguodala all making eight figures per season moving forward, there just isn’t much room for Thompson. This is why trading Thompson (and Lee) for Love makes sense for Golden State: The Warriors get a superstar in exchange for two guys who will be commanding an unsustainably large amount of money. Thompson is due a big payday, and Lee has one of those pre-2011 collective bargaining agreement deals that will have him making more than $15 million in 2016.
The Warriors also have another concern beyond the money: They need to keep Curry in the Bay Area. The ugliness surrounding Mark Jackson’s ouster put pressure on the franchise.
They were a "fun" team on the rise, free to fling 3s that easily lofted over low expectations. The Jackson firing changed things, upsetting a superstar who’s already playing at a discounted rate and sending a message that 51 wins isn’t good enough.
Golden State was comically dependent on its point guard last season. With Curry in the game, the Warriors posted a 109.7 offensive rating. When he sat, they posted a 93.8 rating. The former would qualify a team for the league's best offense, and the latter would qualify a team for the league’s worst.
In the playoffs, Curry suffers the game-plan scrutiny that Derrick Rose once did. Teams are free to fixate on him since there’s no other dynamic offensive option.
This wouldn’t be the case with Love in Golden State. Not only can Love get his own shot, but he’d afford the Warriors the "four-out" spacing with which Curry thrives.
Since teams must respect Curry’s off-the-dribble 3-point shot, they have to guard his pick-and-rolls a bit differently. When there are four 3-point shooters on the floor, Curry gets teams in situations in which not a single defender is in the paint. A Love-Curry pick-and-roll would shatter a lot of defensive schemes. And with uncommonly sharp shooting for a power forward, Love complements Curry in a way Thompson can't.
These are some large stakes. Either Golden State gets that perfect superstar to align with Curry and allay his concerns, or they're stuck worrying about what he'll do when his contract is up in 2017. Suddenly, the feel-good Warriors are like a lot of big-market teams: pressured to make a splash so as to placate their franchise player.
To make that splash, they must be willing to sacrifice one of the Splash Brothers.