OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's the question that has lingered over the Golden State Warriors all season, the one that clouds their future as they play for a third consecutive NBA title: Where will Kevin Durant be playing next season?
The two-time reigning Finals MVP who joined the Warriors following their defeat in the 2016 NBA Finals is expected to be the most sought-after free agent this summer. Durant has faced questions and speculation about his future home all season, as he has declined to commit to staying with the Warriors while also not saying that he's committed to finding a new home either.
So while that question will go unanswered, there's another question looming for the Warriors that far fewer people are asking.
Where will Klay Thompson be playing next season?
Like Durant, Thompson will become a free agent in July. Like Durant, Thompson will get a max contract. And like Durant, Thompson will be pitched on the appeal of being a first option, to break out of Stephen Curry's shadow, and to prove himself up to a new challenge.
So why aren't the Warriors sweating Thompson's future like they are with Durant?
"The media, I think, give him a little bit of a break as far as over-speculating and throwing him into the fire because he hasn't really fueled it -- at all," said Warriors center Andrew Bogut, who has been Thompson's teammate for five seasons over his two stints with the Warriors. "You've never heard him say anything bad about wanting to leave here or going to another team or being the No. 1 option. You've never even heard that off the record. Some players say the right thing publicly but have different feelings [in private]. He completely wants to be here and he gets it that this is a very rare situation."
Thompson was drafted by the Warriors with the 11th overall pick in 2011. He played all 66 games as a rookie, starting 29, but Golden State went just 23-43 in the lockout-shortened season, with Curry missing more than half of it due to ankle injuries. But a season later, Curry and Thompson started 78 games together, beginning one of the NBA's great partnerships, one that Thompson shows no signs of wanting to break up.
Thompson has been open about the fact he wants to stay with the Warriors for years to come. However, league sources told ESPN's Zach Lowe earlier this season that Thompson has no plans to take a discount, despite the massive sneaker endorsement deal he signed with Anta. Thompson could sign a five-year, $188 million deal this summer -- and if he makes an All-NBA team, he'd be eligible for a supermax deal that would pay him $221 million.
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Chatter surrounding the All-Star swingman's future has played out largely under the radar -- exactly the way he wants it. When asked recently why it has meant so much to produce and stay with the Warriors in the future, Thompson gave the type of simple and understated response that has defined his tenure in the Bay.
"I think it's just the only thing I've known professionally," Thompson told ESPN. "I saw the dark days and now I've seen the glory days. And it's cool to see the process. You appreciate the work it takes to get there. It's simple. I just appreciate how long it took to get to the mountaintop, the work it did, and just seeing how -- empower people in the community and really build this fan base to something special."
Thompson spends most of his nights prior to games at Oracle Arena sitting in front of his locker reading a newspaper. Most nights after games he pleads with Warriors public relations czar Raymond Ridder to not make him go up to the podium and go through the process of speaking to reporters. It's not that Thompson doesn't have anything to say -- he has become arguably the best quote on a team full of future Hall of Famers when he's actually engaged -- but the 29-year-old has no desire to be in the spotlight.
"It's super rare," Draymond Green told ESPN. "Especially in the day and age of social media. In this league, so many dudes just want attention. It's kind of sickening. Just want attention. Don't even do much for it but just want attention. It's rare to have a guy that don't want any. ... It's a new age with dudes. Klay just happen to not be one of them."
As much as the Warriors love Thompson for his laid-back attitude -- exemplified by his off-day dip in the Pacific Ocean before their Game 4 win over the Clippers during the Western Conference first-round series -- they also recognize how important he is to their success on the court.
Over the past three seasons, Thompson has been seen as the Warriors' third, and sometimes fourth, option on a team with two former MVPs in Durant and Curry and a nightly triple-double threat in Green. In that span, Golden State is 107-25 when Thompson scores at least 20 points. That .811 win percentage is nearly 70 points higher than the team's overall success rate in the regular season. The win percentage when Thompson makes at least five 3-pointers (as he has done 47 times in that span), is even higher: .915. By comparison, the Warriors have won 83 percent of their games in which Curry has made five or more 3-pointers over the past three seasons.
That is the Thompson who has largely been absent from the Warriors' playoff series against the Rockets, and the one they'll need to reemerge as the series shifts back to Oakland tied 2-2. Thompson has averaged just 15.4 PPG during the first four games of this series, and is shooting just 39 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc.
Still, Thompson remains the only Warrior to have played in each of the team's playoff games during this run, starting all 112 of them, since 2013. Only LeBron James has appeared in more playoff games in that time.
His recent slump has given light to the fact that as a free-agent target, Thompson is perceived to be a level below Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving this summer. He also brings with him less mystery, at least according to the ESPN Forecast panel. When polled earlier this season about where this year's top free agents will land this summer, 91.7 percent of the experts projected Thompson's return to the Warriors. By comparison, none of the other top targets -- Durant, Leonard, Irving and Anthony Davis -- were given better than a 53 percent shot of returning to their current teams.
Part of the reason for that confidence in Thompson remaining a Warrior is his ability to fit in with the group as it changes around him. Only he, Curry, Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have been with the Warriors for each of the past five seasons. Livingston has a team option for next season, and Green and Iguodala can become free agents in 2020, so locking up Thompson to a long-term deal this summer would go a long way toward providing organizational stability.
"I think Klay sort of ties it all together in a lot of ways," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. "There's not one person in this organization who would ever question Klay's agenda or motives. He's just Klay. He just wants to win; he wants to shoot, he wants to play. So that kind of personality is important when you have a lot of emotional swings within a season. Because you need people like Klay who are just easy-going and fun to be around. No B.S."
Even if Warriors owner Joe Lacob wanted to right now, he couldn't come out and say "We plan to offer Klay a max contract"; that's against league protocol. But the reason both the Warriors and Thompson have been so confident about getting an extension done is the respect built up between the two parties over close to a decade. The simple fact is that the Warriors love Thompson and Thompson loves being a Warrior.
Players, coaches, executives all appreciate him for who he is. In the star-studded world of this iteration of the Warriors' dynasty, Thompson's ability to adapt to any situation sets him apart. Especially considering that after all the success Thompson has earned during the Warriors' run, he has the ammunition to fire back on all the critics who doubted his game. Instead, the people who stood in his corner are able to have the last laugh.
Former Warriors coach Mark Jackson was ridiculed six years ago for saying that Thompson and Curry were the "greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game." Six years later, Jackson looks like a prophet and takes "great pride" in his belief in Thompson's maturation.
"I know the work ethic," Jackson said. "I know where he comes from, and he still doesn't get the credit he deserves. Incredible basketball player. I was just actually talking to Kerr about it -- zero maintenance. And I'm just as proud [about] the person he is."
When Kerr arrived on the scene in 2014, reports indicated that the Warriors were in discussions to send Thompson to Minnesota as part of a deal to acquire Kevin Love. Some experts at the time suggested it was the only way to put the franchise over the top. However, the Warriors chose to keep their backcourt intact, thanks in part to then-consultant Jerry West, who strongly discouraged the trade. Ultimately, the Warriors, led by West and Kerr, came around to the belief that Thompson could be a cornerstone for the future, a decision that continues to pay dividends every day.
"I wouldn't use the term validation," Kerr said when asked about that decision five years ago. "I know when I got here and hired my coaching staff and we watched tape it was pretty easy to see: 'This guy's an amazing two-way player.' ... So when we got here it was like, 'This is a no-brainer.' It wasn't a no-brainer to people who had been here because they had seen the flaws with the team and they were trying to take the next step. But ultimately Bob [Myers] came to the same conclusion that we did, which was it's tough to trade a two-way guy. The playoffs are all about two-way [players].
"He's been amazing, an integral part of three championships," Kerr continued. "And just a rock, an absolute rock as a foundational piece for our franchise."
West is now with the LA Clippers, one of the teams that would potentially like to pry Thompson away from Golden State this summer. Not only does the team have the cap space necessary to do so, but Thompson was born in Los Angeles, where his father won multiple championships with the Lakers in the 1980s. However, despite the lack of chatter around him this season, the Warriors aren't about to let Thompson go without a fight.
"I know that everybody -- coaches, management, ownership -- everybody wants Klay back," Kerr said. "I think the feeling is just, Klay wants to be here, we want Klay."