Shortly before the 2020 NBA draft on Wednesday night, news broke that Klay Thompson had sustained a “lower-leg injury” during a pickup game with a few other NBA players in Los Angeles. No information other than that was released at the time, but you could tell from the way basketball reporters were talking about it that it was a very serious injury.
Yesterday, after some tests, it was confirmed to be a torn Achilles for Klay, sidelining him for the whole 2021 NBA season and probably the beginning of the 2022 season assuming the NBA gets back to a normal schedule (late-October to mid-June). We probably won’t see Klay Thompson play until calendar year 2022. Given that the last time he was on the floor in an NBA game was Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, it will likely equate to two-and-a-half years without him playing in an NBA game.
He missed the entire 2020 season with a torn ACL, and now will miss the 2021 season with a torn Achilles. The injuries were in different legs.
Obviously this is a major setback for the Warriors’ 2021 title hopes. They were expecting Klay to come back at full strength and to basically have their entire roster healthy and ready to go. Curry also missed most of last year with various injuries, only playing in 5 of the Warriors’ 65 games. Draymond Green played 43 of 65 possible games.
With Kevin Durant leaving for Brooklyn and Klay out for the season, 2020 was like a hangover for the Warriors after 5 straight Finals trips and three NBA Championships. But it was widely viewed as a temporary pause in the Warriors run of dominance. Everyone expected the Warriors to be back in 2021, even with KD gone. After all, the core of Curry, Klay and Draymond won 73 games in 2016 and went to back-to-back Finals before KD’s arrival. And now they have Andrew Wiggins, who despite being considered a disappointment by many NBA fans, still managed 21.8ppg last season and averages 19.7 for his career. Say what you want about him, but the guy can get buckets. Most teams would be thrilled to have him as a third or fourth option on offense–even as a second-option.
But now, with Klay out, I just don’t see Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins being able to lead this team to a championship. Draymond Green is still a good player, but he’s never been known as an offensive force. He’s more of a facilitator on offense and his value is primarily on the defensive end. The offensive load is largely going to be on Steph and Wiggins’ shoulders.
SportsLine was projecting the 2021 Warriors to win 41.8 games (on a 72-game schedule), now they’re projecting 34.4 wins, meaning they don’t even see the Warriors being above .500. Prior to the Klay injury, William Hill had the Warriors +1000 to win the title, now they’re +2000. Vegas clearly sees the loss of Klay Thompson as a massive blow to the Warriors. Being under .500 in the West generally is not enough to make the playoffs, even.
Yet, when you look at Andrew Wiggins’ production compared to Klay Thompson’s, at first glance it would seem like Wiggins should be able to replicate Klay’s numbers.
Klay averages 19.5ppg for his career, Wiggins averages 19.7. Klay averages 16 field goal attempts per game for his career, Wiggins averages 16.5. In terms of size, Klay goes about 6′ 7″ and 215lbs, while Wiggins is listed at 6′ 7″ and 197lbs.
So Wiggins should be able to replace Klay’s scoring on offense. But Klay’s true value is in his efficiency, his defense and how perfectly he fits into the Warriors’ system.
- Efficiency: Klay Thompson is a career 41.9% three point shooter, Wiggins is 33.2% from three for his career. Thompson has a career eFG of 55.1%, Wiggins is at 47.7%. The Warriors’ system is built around guys who can hit a lot of threes, and Wiggins will simply not be able to replicate Klay’s three point shooting accuracy and efficiency.
- Defense: it’s hard to quantify defense, but virtually everyone regards Klay Thompson as one of the better wing defenders in the NBA. He’s only made one All Defense team in his career (2019) but it’s still more than Wiggins has made. Not only is he the Warriors’ primary defender, regularly taking the man who brings the ball up the court and handling the other teams’ top offensive threat, but he’s versatile and can also switch on to basically anyone else including bigs. Wiggins has consistently been knocked for not being a great defender, and while he’s said to be improving since joining the Warriors, he’s just not on Klay’s level defensively.
- Fit: Klay Thompson is one of the few guys in the league that can drop 50 and hardly dribble the ball. He is not an iso-ball player; he just gets open and knocks down threes. He would fit perfectly on virtually every other team and every other superstar in the league. Because he’s so efficient and plays so well off the ball, he’s never going to waste possessions and take opportunities away from other guys on his team. He’s basically like an extension of Steph Curry: if Curry can’t get a good look, Klay will find a way to get open, catch a pass and knock down a three. The Warriors’ system is reliant on passing and finding the open man, and Klay is a perfect fit for it. He passes well, gets open and knocks down threes like few other players in the history of the league.
But here’s the real problem, and it has a lot to do with how well Klay works in the Warriors system: it’s not about whether Wiggins can adequately replace Klay Thompson’s scoring production. It’s about the fact that the Warriors will not have both guys on the floor.
I think the Warriors would’ve been pretty damn good with both guys on the floor. While Wiggins is way more ball-dominant on offense, that’s perfectly fine for Klay. Again, Klay is basically the ultimate complimentary player on offense. He can score without taking shots and possessions away from the other main scoring options on his team: as we know, Curry, KD and Klay were all able to thrive in that offense. In 2015 and 2016 (before KD), Klay averaged 21.9ppg. From 2017-2019 (with KD on the team), Klay averaged 21.3ppg. He can produce whether he’s the 2nd option or the 3rd option on offense. Doesn’t matter.
Point is, I believe both Wiggins and Klay would’ve been able to get theirs on offense this season while sacrificing little to nothing. Klay averages 20+ppg no matter what.
So the Warriors were going to be able to roll out Curry who will likely score 27-28ppg this year, then Wiggins who will be in the 21-23ppg range, and then Klay who would’ve averaged 21ppg. The only team in the league last season to have three 20+ppg scorers was Boston (Tatum, Kemba, Jaylen Brown). Klay Thompson would’ve enabled the Warriors to have potentially the highest-scoring trio in the league (other than probably the Nets if they get Harden) because he scores so efficiently.
Now the Warriors’ third option on offense will be Kelly Oubre, a good, underrated player but nowhere near the level of Klay Thompson.
The point I’m making here is that Klay Thompson only adds value to a team. He’s good on defense, and he does not need to have the ball a lot to score. He’s really the ultimate complimentary player in the league, and without him the Warriors are significantly worse.
So if this season is likely doomed in Golden State, will they be able to return to dominance when Klay comes back?
I doubt it.
By the time he comes back in 2022, Steph Curry will be on the cusp of 34. Draymond will be 32. And Klay himself will be 32 with a repaired Achilles.
Now, I don’t think the Achilles will affect Klay too much because he’s a pure shooter, but he will probably never be the same defender again.
We’ve always believed the Splash Brothers would age gracefully, because shooters tend to have better longevity than any other players. I mean, Ray Allen played until he was 38. Kyle Korver is still playing and he’s 38 (Fun fact: the only three guys left in the league from the 2003 draft class are LeBron, Melo and Kyle Korver).
But even if you age gracefully, it doesn’t mean you’re going to remain dominant. The 2022 Warriors main three are just not going to be the same guys they were during their run of dominance from 2015-2019. Deterioration is inevitable. You can’t expect everyone to age like LeBron has and remain the top player in the league at the age of 35 (in fact LeBron turns 36 in a little over a month).
Plus, while it sucks to say because it’s not his fault, Klay’s contract is a big-time albatross on the Warriors’ salary cap. They signed him to a five-year max deal after the 2019 season, and he’s going to make $35 million this season. Paying $35 million for a guy who’s not playing and might never be the same again hurts, especially since the league salary cap is expected to go down due to lost revenues caused by the pandemic. The Warriors already have $130 million committed to Curry, Klay, Draymond and Wiggins for the 2021 season. Golden State will really be limited in their ability to add talent. However, the NBA did recently ease up the luxury tax rules, and Warriors owner Joe Lacob has never shied away from writing luxury tax checks in order to compete for championships.
NBA fans will be watching Kevin Durant closely to see how he looks coming back from a torn Achilles. If he looks like the same player he was in 2019, that’s would be encouraging for Klay.
Still, regardless of how well Klay’s recovery goes, he, Curry and Draymond will all be over 30 by the time they’re all on the court together again. I just don’t see them ever being able to dominate the league the way they used to again.