The Athletic

Klay Thompson is in a deep shooting crisis, creating a dilemma for the Warriors

Let’s start with the raw numbers. They tell an ugly early season story of Klay Thompson. He has fewer points (181) than shot attempts (185) in 12 games. It’s the epitome of extreme inefficiency in the NBA.

The advanced analytics community prefers true shot percentage as a metric. He balances the value of 3s, 2s and free throws to pump out a balanced number. If you have a true shooting percentage between 50 and 50, you are average. If it’s 60 and over, you’re efficient. If your name is Steph Curry – up to 459 points on 290 attempts in 14 games – you currently have an insane 70.1 true shooting percentage.

Thompson’s true shooting percentage is 47.1. Of the 164 players who have attempted at least 100 shots this season, this is the 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 struggling sophomore bench player for the Hornets. Hayes is the least effective offensive player in basketball.

This digital reality, absent from the team context, creates a problem for the Warriors. Smith, Bouknight and Hayes are not featured scorers. Thompson is. He’s taking 15.4 shots per game, second on the Warriors, ahead of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. When a player with a 25.1 utilization rate is this ineffective, it naturally leads to an attack.

But now, let’s add some team context and zoom in on the third quarter Wednesday night in Phoenix. Defensive stops have a way of generating the necessary momentum. The Warriors are currently one of the bottom five defenses in the NBA. They don’t have many stops on the road. So when they do, it’s all the more important to take advantage of it and build a run.

For years, so many of these runs were triggered by a Thompson 3 transition at the start of the clock. But Thompson is currently shooting 33% on 3s, second-lowest among the league’s 10 most voluminous shooters. Only Kelly Oubre Jr. – remember him? — has a lower current percentage of 3 points.

So here the Warriors are down in this third quarter, down 90-83, still in the game because Steph Curry is on his way to a 50-point night. They get a defensive save. Curry pushes the rebound in the frontcourt. The 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 catches and shoots 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 rushing miss created a staggering scrum as the Warriors scattered in transition. That left Curry keeping Deandre Ayton at the job. But Curry builds enough muscle against Ayton, and the Suns’ center settles for a long hook, which he misses. This is another rare defensive stop. Curry grabs another rebound and throws it to Thompson, wanting to generate some momentum.

But Thompson uses it as another opportunity to dial his own number and try to get in on the action. He walks in another long semi-contested 3 from deep right wing as Wiggins sits wide open in the right corner. Wiggins is 9 of 19 from the corner this season.

It’s worth watching Green’s reaction below. He has Payne on him again from under the hoop but sees Thompson shoot another 3 early before any kind of action materializes. It made Thompson 5 of 15. Green clearly has had enough. Energy to be redirected to defense was sucked out of his body. He returns. A fault is committed. Curry hits the ball in frustration and is hit with a technique.

After the Curry technique, Steve Kerr called time out. When the ESPN broadcast returned, a microphone from Kerr was heard pleading with his team to trust each other while Curry and Green still looked a bit steamed.

“It’s just a pick-up game 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 reiterated that line in his postgame comments to Phoenix reporters.

“To find it, we have to get everyone on board,” Kerr said. “Everyone has to be on the same page in terms of worrying about winning.”

Curry echoed a similar message.

“Focusing on the team, whatever that means to everyone,” Curry said. “We are 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 your body language. No matter how the sacrifice looks, it usually creates good vibes. You can feed on that. You can’t obsess over the stat sheet and how it looks, because that’s not how the game plays. You can’t indulge in what you want that night if you’re not focused on winning.

Curry didn’t name Thompson directly in this answer, and the words apply to several situations that populate the list. Individual priorities defined the struggles of these early season warriors. Preseason was all about contract chatter and punching. They tried to force-feed James Wiseman minutes in an attempt to get his career off the ground. There was a clear difference between Jordan Poole as a starter and a bench player. Rotation choices always feel like a decision between the core of the dynasty and the next era.

But Thompson’s struggles came into the spotlight on Wednesday night. The misses are piling up, and that ambitious, unsuccessful third-quarter streak seemed like the punch that sucked the Warriors’ life away.

“Klay continues to come down and try to get out of an early season slump every night,” Kerr told reporters in Phoenix. “He was pressing 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 Klay and help him get out of his own way. When he can overcome his frustration, the game will come to him. He will be fine and play at a very high level because he still has it. Clay still has it. We know everything Klay has done for this franchise and for the Bay Area. We are going to help him through this ordeal and he will get there.

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The Warriors quickly quit the Wiseman experience, removing him from the rotation as it negatively impacted the team’s immediate chances of winning. It’s the same reason Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody stay on the fringes of the rotation despite needing more reps for their development.

In an absent global historical context, the same could be said of Thompson until he emerged from his crisis. When the second most used player on your team is making 35% of their shots, the simplest response is to reduce usage and limit the negative impact. But the Warriors seem determined to let Thompson off the hook due to 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’s shots have always been the ones you wouldn’t tell anyone else to take because of his skill and the work he does,” Curry said. “He had slow starts before in the seasons. The most important thing – we say this to JP, say this to Klay, tell me this – you have to let the game come to you. Especially when the teams know that if you start throwing in, we’re hard to beat. They’re probably going to have a heightened sense of conscience at the start of the games because they’re scared of what Klay’s spike looks like. So let the game come to you. Have a little patience and trust the way we play as a team to create good shots. His presence there is a game-changer with both feet on the ground because he needs attention no matter what the numbers look like. It will come. Just trust him.

(Top photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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