This was a tale of two games for Klay Thompson, and for the Golden State Warriors as a consequence. Against the Orlando Magic, he was forced to guard Aaron Afflalo and Josh Reddick, and got lit up like Burning Man. The Magic attacked him so relentlessly that Gary St. Jean was forced to comment at half time: “They’re going straight at Thompson and feeling good about it.”
The result was not just big games from Afflalo and Reddick, but as I noted in the comments to the last thread, big games from Big Baby and Vucevic as well. The Warriors bigs were pulled out of the lane on the pick and roll, and forced to scramble all over the court giving help. The lane was wide open to the Orlando front line.
Thompson’s mismatch also cost him on the offensive end. He was in foul trouble right from the get-go, and there’s a good possibility chasing Reddick around screens all night contributed to his 3 for 12 shooting. By forcing Thompson to match up against smaller, quicker players, the Magic rendered him ineffective on both ends of the court.
In last night’s Detroit game, we saw a completely different Klay Thompson. Not Klay Thompson the overmatched shooting guard, but Klay Thompson the completely dominant small forward.
Thompson was matched up with Kyle Singler, the 6-8″ rookie SF out of Duke. (The Pistons’ “guard”, Tayshaun Prince, was cross-matched against Harrison Barnes.) And lo and behold, Thompson looked quick and athletic by comparison. He got anywhere on the court he wanted, and had a marvelous floor game. On the defensive end, I won’t go so far as to say that he shut Singler down, but he had absolutely no trouble staying in front of him.
And lo and behold, the Warriors’ front line — who some feel were physically dominated by the Magic — were freed of their help responsibilities, and thus able to concentrate on shutting down the Pistons’ leading scorer, Greg Monroe (9 points).
What a difference a game can make. And what a difference playing Klay Thompson at his best position can make.
I have been harping on the fact that Klay Thompson is not a two-guard since before he played a single game for the Warriors. You may not have believed me up until now, but in watching the last two games, you have all the evidence you need to understand it for yourself.
There are some teams in the NBA that will allow the Warriors to get away with playing Thompson at the two. But against many teams, like the Magic, he’s simply a liability at that position. A losing player.
Which is a real shame, because I have become convinced that Klay Thompson can become a great player. And when I say great, I mean a potential Hall of Famer. But only if he gets to play at his natural position, at small forward.
Think I’m crazy? I’m definitely early and way out on a limb on this call, but I like it that way. I was early and way out on a limb on BWright, Curry, Lee, Udoh, Rush and Ezeli as well. Let’s see how my judgement plays out this time.
I’ve gotten to watch quite a bit of Thompson at small forward this season. Not just in this Pistons game, but in the fourth quarter of most games this season, when Jackson has been going with a Curry/Jack backcourt and shifting Thompson to the three. (There are several reasons that lineup has been so successful for the Warriors this season, but the chief reason is that it gets a quicker defender in at the two, and shifts Thompson to the position where he belongs.) And what I have seen has simply astonished me.
When being played at the small forward, Klay Thompson is a basketball genius. It goes way beyond his shotmaking, which is all-world in itself.
Off the ball, he glides around the court, always to the right spot, always with perfect timing, always with deadly purpose.
With the ball in his hands, he’s a triple threat. He has a great handle, going both right and left. He has a good first step that gets him around most opposing small forwards. He has the ability not just to find his teammates, but to create for his teammates off the drive. He sees the whole floor. He has fabulous instincts. He’s a great passer. A playmaker. He makes his teammates better.
When you combine this with his ability to defend a little and rebound a little at the small forward position, you have a completely dominant, winning basketball player. A potential championship player.
I have searched my mind, and come up with this list of great small forwards that I think the 6-7″ 205 lb. Klay Thompson will be compared to when he’s in his prime:
- Bobby Gross 6’6″ 200 lbs.
- Bill Bradley 6’5″ 205 lbs.
- Chris Mullin 6-6″ 200 lbs.
- Rick Barry 6-7″ 205 lbs.
This list is notable first of all for the player I’ve left off it: Reggie Miller, 6-7″ 185 lbs., the player with whom I’ve most often seen Thompson compared. When you take away the outside shooting, I don’t think Thompson and Miller are at all alike. At 185 lbs., Miller was only capable of guarding twos (and he did that poorly). At 205 lbs. (and growing), Thompson is only capable of guarding threes. But most importantly, Klay Thompson is a complete basketball player, a playmaker, while Miller was a one-dimensional scorer.
So let’s talk about the guys actually on the list. Thompson is a much better player than the role player Bobby Gross, but they share many attributes in common. Gross was beloved by his teammates for his headiness and playmaking ability. He was always in the right spot, always making the best basketball play. And many observers felt that when it counted most, when his Portland Trailblazers met the ballyhooed Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals, Gross outplayed Julius Erving and was instrumental in the Blazers winning the title.
Bill Bradley was an intellectual on the court, a fabulous playmaker as well as a shotmaker. He was so unselfish that although he was such a prolific scorer in college that he was considered the undisputed best college player of his era, he was willing to settle for a 16 pts./game average on a fabulously talented Knicks team. His unselfishness permeated his team, which was renowned for always finding the open man.
Chris Mullin we all know and love. He averaged 25 pts. 6 rbs and 5 assists during the Run TMC era. Could Thompson achieve those stats playing at small forward? The Warriors’ current system would make that impossible, but I truly believe Thompson might have been able to do it playing for Don Nelson on that team. Thompson can shoot like Mullin, get himself open like Mullin, pass like Mullin. One thing Thompson lacks is Mullin’s great game around the basket. But Thompson is far more athletic than Mullin was, potentially a much better defender, and more of a threat to drive.
Thompson also jumps much better, and knows how to defensive rebound. The question has always been, will he? I think he will. He’s up to 4 a game this season, playing more than half of the time out of position at shooting guard.
I hesitated at including the great Rick Barry on this list. It is unfair to both Thompson and Barry to compare them at this point. For one thing, Barry was a better athlete than Thompson. And his talents were just so supreme. Is Thompson capable of averaging 30 points for a season? 6 rebounds and 6 assists? Averaging 40 points in an NBA Finals? That’s a little hard to imagine, even for someone as high on Thompson as I am.
The reasons I include Barry are these: First of all, his size. It’s notable when making the argument that Thompson is a small forward, that he is absolutely identical in size to Rick Barry, isn’t it? Secondly, while Thompson is not as good an athlete as Barry was, he is a better athlete than all of the other players on my list. He’s somewhere in between. And third, like Rick Barry, Thompson shows signs of basketball genius, of becoming a complete basketball player with an incredible floor game.
Rick Barry is the player that Klay Thompson should set before him, should model himself after. Because if he does, who knows what he could achieve? His ceiling is incredibly high. Hall of Fame high, in my completely immodest opinion.
The Harrison Barnes Problem: Here we come to the elephant in the room. I’m sure you’re all wondering how Barnes fits into my analysis of Klay Thompson’s proper role on the Warriors. And I’m sure that Barnes wonders that himself, as he glumly sits on the bench watching Thompson play small forward in fourth quarters.
The Brand might someday turn out to be a fine player. But the fact of the matter is that he is currently standing in the way of Klay Thompson becoming a great player. And he is standing in the way of the Warriors becoming a great team, that can defend on the wings as well as light it up offensively.
The Warriors need to move Harrison Barnes. Preferably for the defensive two-guard they so desperately need now that Brandon Rush has gone down to injury. It is not sensible to assume that Rush will return to his past athleticism and defensive prowess, especially by next season. And besides, the Warriors clearly need help at two-guard NOW, this season. Does Joe Lacob still intend to compete this season, or does he already have his finger on the tank button?
Joe Lacob has already wasted three years of Stephen Curry’s and David Lee’s prime. Will he waste several years of Klay Thompson’s prime as well, attempting to shoehorn him into the shooting guard position? Stay tuned.
Coming Attractions: I have a lot of other things I’m dying to write about, but not enough time to get to at the moment. So I’ll leave you with this teaser of coming installments:
Stephen Curry’s “emergence” as a point guard. David Lee as the “White Chris Webber.” The state of The Brand’s development. The great Festus Ezeli. The great Jim Barnett on the Warriors’ fast break, or lack thereof. The deplorable Bob Fitzgerald on Draymond Green as a three-point shooter.
And, of course, the Bogut fiasco.
There’s a lot of fascinating stuff to talk about right now. But this season I’m going to pace myself, like the Warriors running upcourt.