Klay Thompson: Adjusting to Adjustments


Klay Thompson.  Maybe you’ve heard his name once or twice this season. The budding 25-year old star garnered an inordinate amount of attention last summer when his name was mentioned as a potential trade match for current Cleveland Cavaliers’ third wheel Kevin Love.

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As it turns out, the media fueled soap opera off-season, which was capped off with a gold medal for team USA, was simply a prelude to Klay’s coming out party.  Klay’s emergence as Chef Stephen Curry’s running mate has been well documented.  Klay is averaging career highs in virtually every meaningful statistic, including: PTS, FG%, 3P%, FT, FT%, AST, STL and BLK.

A key to Thompson’s success has been a willingness to attack the basket with regularity, an element of his game that was absent in previous seasons.  Klay has scored 27.6% of his points in the paint this season, up from 23.5% last season.  He’s also reaching the charity stripe at an increased rate, shooting 3.4 FT per game, over a full FT higher than last seasons mark of 2.3.

Couple Klay’s new-found attacking mentality with an obvious propensity for splashing, and the result is a complete scoring guard who serves as a perfect complement to Curry. More importantly, the Warriors have managed to parlay Klay’s across the board increase in percentages into a massive increase to their winning percentage, vindicating a Warriors’ brass that had been heavily ridiculed for the trade that never was.

Although the first half of March has seen Klay return to the level that earned him multiple Western Conference Player of the Week titles, he had been recently muddled in a tough stretch.  This prolonged “slump” has also been well documented.  Klay’s post All-Star shooting percentage of 43.8 is down 3.3% from his pre-All-Star game numbers.

Mar 11, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) shoots a three point basket against Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) during the third period at Oracle Arena. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Detroit Pistons 105-98. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Still, shooters go through cold streaks.  This universal truth doesn’t require any profound analysis.  Whether the cause of this recent “slump” is a high number of road games or simply general fatigue, fans can rejoice in another absolute certainty.  Shooters of Klay’s quality don’t stay cold for long.

However, Klay’s recent struggles in another area are potentially more concerning for the long-term success of the Warriors, yet have seemingly flown under the radar.

You see basketball, like most sports, is a game of adjustments.  Some of these adjustments are made in-game, while others are made over the course of months, or seasons.  One adjustment that Klay has recently struggled against is an aggressive double team that defenses have begun to employ off the high pick-and-roll, a play that the Warriors run for both Curry and Klay with great frequency.

Klay has recently struggled with the aggressive double-team that defenses have begun to employ against him.

As most fans are certainly aware, defenses have long since been employing this tactic against Steph.  In fact, his inability to effectively punish teams for the strategy has plagued the Warriors during recent playoff runs.

Mar 9, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates a play with guard Klay Thompson against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Warriors defeated the Suns 98-80. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the keys to Steph’s ascension from star to MVP candidate has been his ability to make teams pay for aggressive double teams.  As a result, Steph’s assist to turnover ratio, which had steadily climbed from 1.91 to 2.27 over the past 4 seasons, has taken a large jump to 2.5 this season.

A similar byproduct of Klay’s emergence this season has been an increase in the amount of double teams he’s seen, which has resulted in turnovers.  In February, Klay’s turnovers per game jumped to 2.5, up .4 from his season mark of 2.1.  Additionally, his AST/TO ratio for that same month was a meager 1.19, a significant drop from his season ratio of 1.44.

This ratio fell so dramatically because while the turnovers have risen, the assists have gone the other way.  In January and February, Klay posted his lowest two Assist totals of the season, 2.4 and 2.9 per, respectively.

Although Klay’s turnover rate improved thus far through the handful of March contests, his 2.8 assists per game is still below the season average.

What does this mean?  It means that Klay has improved his ability to quickly recognize the double team and get the ball out of his hands, limiting costly turnovers, but he has thus far failed to punish defenses.  The Warriors need Klay to attack out of the high pick and roll, as well as iso-wing situations.  Further evidence of a reduced attacking mentality is a FT rate that has dipped to 2.9 attempts in 14 post all-star contests.

Mar 2, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) controls the ball during the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

If you were forced to compile a list of “weaknesses” for the Warriors, a legitimate third scoring option would rank near the top.  During the playoffs, where defensive intensity and schemes are ramped up, opposing defenses will surely employ a two-pronged strategy to slowing down the Warriors potent offense.

Step 1: don’t let Curry beat us.

Step 2: don’t let Klay beat us.

Letting teams take the ball out of Klay’s hands isn’t an acceptable outcome. Over the past few seasons, Steph has learned to punish teams who aggressively double-team him.  Through either quick recognition and ball movement, or splitting the double team with confident, decisive moves, Steph has turned a personal weakness into a valuable strength.  However, these adjustments didn’t happen overnight.  It took the head Chef years before he developed the defensive recognition necessary to fully punish an overly aggressive defense.

Can Klay make similar adjustments on the fly when it really matters?

Mar 14, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) dribbles past New York Knicks forward Lance Thomas (42) in the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Knicks 125-94. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

As deep and multi faceted as the Warriors are, the possibility of a deep playoff run is entirely foreclosed without All-Star level production from both Steph and Klay.  Simply limiting turnovers when faced with aggressive double teams likely won’t be enough to navigate the looming Western Conference playoff gauntlet.  Klay must attack and punish teams who attempt to get the ball out of his hands.

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An oft-overlooked trait of Klay’s game is an unwavering confidence, as well as the ability to continually make improvements and adjustments in relative short order.  An attacking mentality has, in part, led to Klay’s emergence this season.  But teams have, and are sure to continue making adjustments.

Will Klay continue to make adjustments and attack when faced with unique and challenging defensive schemes?  The answer to this question might very well decide the fate of the Warriors’ post season.

Next: Klay Thompson’s Injury and his Potential Replacements