Warriors wise to value Thompson, but not at the expense of Love
Amid a surge of offseason movement and activity, one of this summer's most pivotal figures stands perfectly still. Klay Thompson, as has been the case for the last three years, is a Warrior. This is notable given the near-constant churn of discussion between Golden State and Minnesota regarding a potential deal for Kevin Love, in which Thompson would be a principal component. The Timberwolves demand his inclusion in equal measure to the Warriors' refusal, leaving those talks at a stalemate as both franchises continue to assess their options and priorities.
So enter the Cavaliers, Bulls and others into the Love sweepstakes, all because the line has been drawn at Thompson. Let's be clear: That decision is preposterous on its face. Love is firmly in the top 10 of NBA players. He is a monster rebounder and shot creator, loaded with the kind of tangential skills (three-point shooting, passing) that catalyze an offense. Why, then, would Golden State let Thompson – who has been only a nice supporting piece to this point – stand in the way of its acquisition of a superstar?
The answers to that question are varied and multifaceted, reflective of a Warriors front office divided on the subject. There are those who prize Thompson's potential, seeing the 24-year-old shooting guard as a long-term ambassador for the franchise and star in the making. There are those who fear Love's impending free agency, which could come as soon as 2015 if he gave Golden State no assurance of opting in for the final year of his deal. There are also those who simply appreciate Thompson's fit, particularly his chemistry with backcourt mate Stephen Curry.
All of these are reasonable and defensible viewpoints. Where the logic runs contrary is largely in matters of scale. Thompson may be improving, but it's highly unlikely that he will ever be as good as Love. Love's free agency, while alarming in theory, could be resolved before a trade or settled soon after. And his situation is somewhat balanced by Thompson's potential restricted free agency in 2015 if the 6-foot-7 sniper doesn't sign an extension this offseason. Golden State might be protected with the right of first refusal on Thompson's next deal, but it's not as if re-signing him (assuredly at the maximum salary allowed) will come without its own financial burden and opportunity costs.
The quality of Thompson's fit, though, may be where the discussion veers off the rails. There's a lot to like about the pairing of Thompson and Curry, who have enough artillery to barrage opponents from the perimeter. They were given a catchy nickname – "The Splash Brothers" – for this reason, despite the fact that Curry could find a brother in splash among any number of capable marksmen. Thompson, to be fair, is an excellent shooter. Curry, on the other hand, is so potent as to be an outlier. He breaks defensive schemes with the threat of his pull-up jumper, and yet Golden State still hovered around the league average last season in offensive efficiency. This was in part due to since-fired coach Mark Jackson's schematic and rotation issues, which could potentially be resolved under Steve Kerr. More fundamentally, though, the Warriors ached for the sort of shot creation that Thompson wasn't able to provide.
That's the rub in leaning so heavily on a shooter without much handle. Thompson hasn't shown much feel for navigating with the ball against a set defense, as so many of his drives end in tough jumpers or turnovers. Thompson's possessions generally run their course quickly, resulting in a total time of possession (via Sport VU) roughly equivalent to that of San Antonio's Marco Belinelli – a player in a much smaller role on a pass-happy team logging 10 fewer minutes a game. It would not be prudent at all for Thompson to dominate the ball when Curry is so much more capable. That Thompson can't, however – even for a few minutes at a time – is part of what holds back the Warriors' offense.
Curry needs creative help, which only makes the divide between Thompson and Love all the more glaring. Thompson had 75 percent of his field goals set up for him with an assist last season. Love led a limited roster to a top-10 offense, somehow more efficient than that of the Warriors. That said, the distinction between the two goes beyond numbers to a matter of class: Love is a broader threat and a more natural offensive fit alongside Curry, capable of elevating Golden State to magnificent heights. A simple pick-and-roll between the two stars would be enough to shatter defensive principles and send opponents into a mad scramble.
It's at such time that defense inevitably becomes part of this conversation. Love's flaws on D are well established and oft discussed – a staple of his characterization as a player. Love gives up early on his rotations, trots back in transition and struggles to protect the basket even when dialed in. Thompson, by contrast, is a dogged defender, scrapping his way around screens to keep as near to his mark as possible. His persistence is an asset, as Thompson manages to irritate opponents with his length even after falling behind the play:
In the context of the Warriors' backcourt, Thompson's work becomes all the more important. He's asked on a near-nightly basis to oppose the most dangerous guard, in many cases sliding over to defend the point so that Curry can be hidden on a lesser threat. As such, Thompson is often the first line of defense against the league's deepest position.
This is the case for many reasons, not least of which is that Thompson is far better at defending point guards than Curry. He's generally quick enough to prevent drives and contest shots, all while being better equipped to handle the physical toll of navigating an endless string of ball screens. Curry, on the other hand, can sometimes surrender favorable angles and tends to wear down with contact more quickly. To have Curry keep within his position on defense, then, puts at risk all that he offers on offense by extension. Thompson is, in a sense, the strategic fulcrum that helps keep the Warriors on balance.
That value is obvious. What Golden State faces now, though, is the assessment of Thompson's offerings against a promising alternative. There is no question that Thompson and Curry are a formidable pair. But how much is Thompson really worth? Is he so valuable that he could justify turning down a deal for Love (which would also unload the $30.5 million owed to David Lee over the next two seasons, offset somewhat by the likely acquisition of Kevin Martin's three remaining seasons)? Is it so perfect a fit that it would justify paying Thompson upwards of $15 million a season over the life of his next deal? Decisions like this one involve more than an understanding that Thompson is a good, two-way player. Such broad definition lends itself to argumentative warping, namely to the end of claiming that Thompson is a better situational defender than the evidence can support.
Thompson is the Warriors' most pragmatic defensive option against point guards. He is not, however, all that successful in the point guard matchups that matter most: those against other guard-dominant, playoff-caliber teams. Let's consider the lead guards of the West's premier contenders through the lens of their performance with Thompson on the floor (relative to their overall season averages):
Thompson did a better job than Curry would have and freed up Andre Iguodala to defend the best opposing wing. Yet if Thompson's defense of top point guards is such a crucial piece of his value (and by extension, the case against a deal for Love), shouldn't he be more successful in that role? There are certainly matchups that favor Thompson (Portland's Damian Lillard, for example, had a hell of a time doing much of anything against the Warriors' defense last season), but overall the point guards of Golden State's main playoff competition typically hit their averages or better with Thompson on the floor. In some sense, this corroborates the wide variety of defensive measures (whether rooted in the box score or adjustment of plus-minus) suggesting Thompson's defensive impact to be relatively minor.
Such cold statistical evaluation isn't entirely fair given the broader payoffs in having Thompson deal with difficult assignments rather than Curry, but it at least returns us to the kind of bottom-line calculus that needs to be considered. That Thompson can do some of what Curry cannot is clearly valuable. That he works within that niche to only muted defensive effect makes him less so, especially when cross-matching guards are more readily available than All-NBA power forwards. That's an unfortunate point of comparison, but as long as Love dangles as an attainable piece and Thompson stands as a stone wall to the completion of a deal, Thompson cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. The two are bound: Thompson, the two-way player, and Love, the star with the skill, rebounding volume and raw firepower to render that two-way status inconsequential.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.