- Steph Curry and Kevin Durant get most of the credit, but Klay Thompson might be the most valuable Warrior of all. Here's why the shooting guard was built for the superteam era.
In the summer of 2016, the Warriors made good on an unprecedented opportunity. An artificial spike in the salary cap left even the best teams in the league with the potential to create max-level cap room. Golden State had eyes for Kevin Durant, whose free agency was, in itself, a monumental event within the league. Realistically, Golden State had but this one actionable opportunity to make use of its space; even if the Warriors hadn’t spent a penny that summer, the imminent free agency of Stephen Curry (then among the league’s most underpaid players) and Andre Iguodala would have swallowed Golden State’s newfound flexibility whole. As such, the timing had aligned perfectly for the Warriors to offer Durant something that no other team could.
The appeal was obvious. But it was because Curry was so underpaid that the Warriors could logistically afford to add Durant to a team that already had three All-NBA players. It was because of Draymond Green’s playing style that Golden State became the unstoppable ball movers that they did, which in turn spoke to Durant's sensibilities. And it was through Klay Thompson, perhaps above all, that the entire arrangement made sense. That so much thought went into how Curry and Durant would coexist as teammates hints at why Thompson has been such a perfect fit for these Warriors: no matter the talent around him, Thompson’s comfort—and success—can be fairly assumed.
Stars are often glorified for the ways in which their games scale upward. Russell Westbrook, in the wake of Durant’s departure, took his superstar production to outlandish new extremes. James Harden made a legitimate MVP case by assuming even more creative responsibility than he had previously—quite a feat for a player who had already averaged 29 points per game. Thompson, by contrast, has shown the virtue of scaling down. There is no other team in the league for whom Thompson would be the fourth-best player. It is not a criticism to say that he is underutilized; the Warriors themselves won a title and mounted the winningest season in NBA history with Thompson playing a larger role. Still he found his footing once Durant arrived, all with an ease rare among players of his caliber.
Thompson was made for the superteam era. The focus of his game locks him into a healthy, streamlined role. No player to average 20 points per game last season held the ball less or saw it less often, according to NBA.com. What Thompson does with those touches is incredible; without ever dribbling the ball, Thompson flashes around screens to create shots that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Some shooters are made to be passive participants in the offense. What elevates Thompson is his activity. There is nothing in the league more dangerous than a shooter on the move, and Thompson works to make that danger ever present in the minds of his opponents.
It’s a wonder that he never stops. Even when the ball doesn’t find him (as is inevitable on a team with this much firepower), Thompson still runs. Even when his shot isn’t falling, Thompson still pursues his openings as if it were. And no matter the course of Thompson’s offense in general, he commits fully to checking the most dangerous opposing guards. Basketball is fraught with very human complications. One aspect of the game—and all its rhythms and frustrations—cannot help but bleed through into others. Thompson weathers it in persistence. There is an unrelenting quality to Thompson’s work that stabilizes everything around him. Teammates know that when Thompson will inevitably clear into open space, and that when he does, the defense will fret. Fellow defenders can rely on the fact that even when Thompson is run into a screen, he will recover back into the play to badger the ball handler from behind. These are somehow givens for a star scorer underserved by his role.
The importance of Thompson’s disposition cannot be oversold. His possesses the kind of cool that can save the Warriors’ season one night and blend seamlessly into the fabric of the team the next. Thompson is the sort who could average five fewer shots per game in this year’s playoffs than last without raising the slightest stink. The structure of a basketball team relies on concession; what each player can do is only as important as what they choose not to. The players making the biggest concessions, however, aren’t usually this good.
Thompson is one of the best players in the league, the fourth-best player on his own team, and a clearly prideful person. The perceived slights of everyday life tend to be amplified for those in industries as visible as professional sports, but not for Thompson. He is perpetually unmoved—part of the reason why the Warriors are as much a marvel of personality as they are of talent. What makes their dynamic work is Thompson’s greatest gift: his acceptance of both the player he is and the player he’s asked to be.