In the NBA, it’s rare for players to change their games in any noticeable way. Maybe a rookie improves as he learns the intricacies of a defense, or a graybeard develops a more floor-bound style when he can’t fly anymore, but most players in or near their prime are like politicians – they talk about change, but they hardly ever make it happen.
Twelve years into his career, Dwight Howard still can’t shoot free throws. Carmelo Anthony continues his jab-stepping isolation game despite nine years of coaches imploring him to move the ball. James Harden doesn’t defend. Ricky Rubio can’t hit a jumper. None of these things are likely to change significantly, because by the time a player is established in the league, usually he has already become whatever he is going to be.
Some of this is from a lack of effort or an unwillingness to adapt, but not all of it. It’s just hard to revise the style that you’ve been playing all your life or add a new, NBA-quality skill, which is what makes the transformation of Klay Thompson, the Warriors’ rapidly improving shooting guard, all the more impressive.
During his first three years in the league Thompson was a shooter, an extraordinary one – he was a 41 percent three-point shooter entering this season -- but essentially just a shooter. But in the first four games of the season, all Warrior (4-0) wins, the fruits of his offseason labor have been evident. He takes the ball to the basket now, often and with authority, an added dimension that makes him perhaps the most difficult two-guard in the league to defend, at least among those not named Kobe Bryant.
Thompson loves the surprised look on defenders faces when they crowd him to take away his jump shot, and he puts the ball on the floor to go by them. “Happens every game, so far,” he says. “I have a better first step than people give me credit for.” Apparently the news of his this new wrinkle has not traveled fully around the league, because he has been punishing the unprepared. If you’ve been having a better week than Thompson’s, congratulations on hitting the PowerBall and dating Scarlett Johansson, because that’s about the only way anyone could top his last several days.
He signed a four-year, $70 million contract extension on Friday, then, as if he wanted to show the Warriors a return on their investment immediately, he dropped 41 points on the Lakers and his childhood idol, Bryant, on Saturday. He followed that by hitting a clutch, go-ahead shot on a driving floater in a 95-90 win over the Blazers on Sunday. That was enough to earn him Player of the Week honors in the Western Conference, but he added 19 points in the Warriors’ 121-104 win over the Clippers Wednesday night for good measure. Thompson, 24, is averaging 25 points per game and shooting an average of 6.3 free throws, up from his career average of 1.8 during his first three seasons. That’s the clearest sign that he’s not settling strictly for jumpers.
“At the end of last season, I went home knowing that’s what I wanted to get better at,” Thompson says. “I worked on it playing with Team USA over the summer, in scrimmages, in one-on-one workouts, just all the time.” He worked until driving past defenders became almost as instinctive to him as catching and shooting, with new coach Steve Kerr’s observation that he needed to be greedy always in the back of his mind. “Not greedy in the sense of looking for more shots,” Thompson says. “Greedy in the sense of getting into the lane more, getting easier shots. It’s early, but it’s working.”
Opponents would agree. “First of all, he’s huge,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the 6-foot-7, 205-pound Thompson. “He’s not your typical two-guard size. And now he’s putting the ball on the floor, he’s posting up. Klay has the whole package. It was a little easier a couple of years ago when you could just try to take away his shot. But now he’s getting to the basket, and he likes to go left instead of right, which is unusual for a right-handed player. He’s just hard to guard. And he makes a lot of money.”
That $70 million, and the Warriors’ unwillingness to include him in a deal for Kevin Love during the offseason, demonstrates Golden State’s confidence that Thompson is on the verge of a breakthrough, and so far, it appears they were dead-on. He and his Splash Brother partner, Steph Curry, form the best all-around backcourt in the league, and the Warriors look like they’re ready to crack the league’s elite. They barely even needed Thompson’s efficient contribution of 19 points on 13 shots to pound on the Clippers on Wednesday, when they lead by as much as 29 points before coasting to the finish.
It would be foolish to make too much of any early season win, but beating the Clippers carried some extra satisfaction for the Warriors, who fell to them in a contentious seven-game series last spring. The animosity between the two teams is real, and Rivers was surprisingly angry about the way his team was blown out. “What we found out is they’re way better than us right now,” he said. “If this was a playoff series, we would lose in four games, and it would be a destruction. They’re tougher. They play harder.”
The gap between the two teams surely won’t be that wide for long, in what figures to be a tight, season-long battle for the Pacific Division. But chalk up round one to the newly versatile Thompson and the Warriors, a player and a team transformed.