Let’s start with the raw numbers. They tell an ugly early-season Klay Thompson story. He has fewer points (181) than shot attempts (185) through 12 games. This is the epitome of extreme ineffectiveness in the NBA.
The advanced analytics community prefers true shooting percentage as a measurement. It balances the value of 3s, 2s and free throws to pump a balanced number. If you have a true shooting percentage in the mid to high 50s, you are average. If it’s 60 and above, you’re efficient. If your name is Steph Curry – up to 459 points on 290 attempts in 14 games – you now have an insane true shooting percentage of 70.1.
Thompson’s true shooting percentage is 47.1. Of the 164 players who have attempted at least 100 shots this season, that’s fourth-worst. Thompson only has a higher true shooting percentage than Jabari Smith Jr., James Bouknight and Killian Hayes. Smith is a struggling rookie. Bouknight is a floundering second-year bench player for the Hornets. Hayes is the least efficient offensive player in basketball.
That numerical fact, absent from team context, creates a problem for the Warriors. Smith, Bouknight and Hayes were not featured scorers. Thompson is. He takes 15.4 shots per game, second most on the Warriors, ahead of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. When a player with a usage rate of 25.1 is that ineffective, it naturally drags down an offense.
But now let’s add in the team context and zoom into the third quarter Wednesday night in Phoenix. Defensive stops have a way of generating needed momentum. The Warriors are currently a bottom-five NBA defense. They don’t get many road stops. So when they do that, it’s added importance to use and build a flow.
For years, so many of those runs have been sparked by a Thompson transition 3 early in the clock. But Thompson is now shooting 33 percent on 3s, the second lowest among the league’s 10 highest volume shooters. Only Kelly Oubre Jr. – Remember him? – has a lower current 3-point percentage.
Here, the Warriors are down 90-83 late in the third quarter, still in the game because Steph Curry is on his way to a 50-point night. They get a defensive stop. Curry pushes the rebound into the forecourt. One Suns defender is behind the play, creating a five-on-four opportunity. Poole is wide open on the left wing. Draymond Green has Cam Payne on him. There are several areas to attack and exploit.
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But Thompson just catches and fires with 19 on the shot clock as his teammates watch in a bit of exasperation. The miss drops Thompson to 5-of-14 on the night.
The rush miss created a mismatch push as the Warriors scrambled back in transition. That left Curry to watch Deandre Ayton in the post. But Curry muscles up enough against Ayton, and the Suns center settles for a long hook, which he misses. It is another rare defensive stop. Curry grabs another rebound and tosses it over to Thompson, wanting to generate momentum.
But Thompson is using it as another opportunity to dial his own number and try to get himself out. He strolls in another long, semi-contested 3 from the deep right wing as Wiggins sits wide open in the right corner. Wiggins is 9-of-19 from the corner this season.
It’s important to watch Green’s reaction below. He again has Paine on him under the belt but sees Thompson fire up another early-hour 3 before any type of action materializes. That made Thompson 5-of-15. Green has clearly had enough. The energy to scatter back on defense was sapped from his body. He goes back. A foul is committed. Curry punches the ball in frustration and is hit with a technical.
After the Curry technical, Steve Kerr called timeout. When the ESPN broadcast returned, a mix-up Kerr was heard asking his team to trust one another while Curry and Green still appeared a little steamed.
“It’s just a pickup game out there,” Kerr said. “At some point, there has to be a collective trust and competitiveness because everyone is just trying to do it on their own.”
Kerr repeated the pick line in his postgame comments to reporters in Phoenix.
“To figure it out, we have to get everybody on board,” Kerr said. “Everybody has to be on the same page in terms of just worrying about winning.”
Kerry echoed a similar message.
“Put the focus on the team, whatever that means for everybody,” Curry said. “We’re all built differently. We all see the game differently. But if your energy can be focused on the team, whether it’s vocally, whether it’s with your energy or body language. Whatever the sacrifice may look like, it usually creates Good vibes. You can use it. You can’t obsess over the stat sheet and how it looks, that’s not how the game is played. You can’t turn in whatever night you want if you’re not focused on winning.
Curry did not name Thompson directly in the response, and the words apply to several situations that populate the list. Individual priorities have defined the Warriors’ early season struggles. The preseason was all about contract talks and a punch. They tried to force feed James Wiseman minutes in an attempt to get his career off the ground. There was a stark difference between Jordan Poole as a starter and a bench player. The rotational choices always feel like a decision between the dynasty core and the next era.
But Thompson’s struggles entered a bigger spotlight on Wednesday night. The misses piled up and the ambitious and unsuccessful third quarter sequence seemed to be the good punch that shook the life of the Warriors.
“Klay continues to come down and try to shoot his way out of an early season slump every night,” Kerr told reporters in Phoenix. “He pressed tonight. The guy has a lot of weight on his shoulders with the injuries and where he feels like he is right now. We have to help Clay and help him get out of his way. When he can get through his frustration, the game will come to him. He’s going to be good and play at a really high level because he still has it. Klay still has it. We know how much Klay has done for this franchise and for the Bay Area. We will By helping him, and he will get there.”
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The Warriors pivoted out of the Wiseman experiment quickly, pulling him from the rotation because it was negatively impacting the team’s chance to win in the immediate future. It’s the same reason why Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody remain on the fringes of the rotation, even though they need more reps for their development.
In a world devoid of historical context, the same could be said of Thompson until he recovers from his slump. When the second-highest usage player on your team makes 35 percent of his shots, the easiest answer is to lower the usage and limit the negative impact. But the Warriors seem to be letting Thompson ride it out because of how often he’s proven himself in the past. The record books would list him as the second-best 3-point shooter in league history.
“Klay Thompson shots were always ones you wouldn’t tell anyone else to take because of his skill and the work he puts in,” Curry said. “He’s had slow starts earlier in the season. The biggest thing — we tell JP, tell Clay, tell yourself — you have to let the game come to you. Especially when teams know if you start going, we’re hard to beat. . They probably will have a heightened sense of awareness early in games because they are afraid of what the top clay looks like. So let the game come to you. Have a little patience and trust with how we play as a team creating good shots . His presence there changes the game with his two feet on the floor because he demands attention no matter what the numbers look like. It will come. Just trust it.”
(Top photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)