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Klay Thompson: Finals X-Factor Or Superfluous Superstar?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Klay Thompson has struggled in the 2017 playoffs, but the Warriors are 12-0. Do they need Klay to play at a superstar level to beat the Cavs?

While the Golden State Warriors have romped to a perfect 12-0 start en route to the Finals, one usual contributor has been relatively silent: Klay Thompson. The lesser Splash Brother has been one of the few Warriors not to join in on the fun, statistically speaking, but it has not hurt the team in any appreciable way. He has not been himself in these playoffs, averaging well below his season numbers, but his shooting woes do not appear to be bothering him too much: 

   

Thompson says all the right, team-friendly things here, and he is right. If the team is destroying opponents, who cares if he is a bit off? Warriors’ legend Rick Barry cares, for one. He is concerned about Klay’s shooting, perhaps because he knows that Golden State will need to be firing on all cylinders to beat LeBron’s Cavaliers.

One of the more consistent offensive threats in the last few seasons, Thompson has been a shadow of himself on the road to the 2017 Finals. He has seen a downtick in almost every offensive category through 12 games: points per game (22.3 to 14.4), field goal percentage (46.8% to 38.3%), 3-point percentage (41.4% to 36.4%), field goal attempts (17.6 to 13.9), and the list goes on. These numbers tell the story for Klay, and advanced stats have not been any kinder.  

Through 12 games, Thompson has been half (or less) the man he used to be. Namely, his PER has decreased from 19.5 in the 2016 playoffs to 8.4 in these playoffs. His true shooting percentage has plunged more than ten percent, down from 58.8% to 48.5%. For the first time in his playoff career, he has a negative number of offensive win shares (-0.4) and according to advanced stats he contributes nothing above a replacement player, with a 0.0 VORP.   

But the true question is does it really matter? Has Thompson really slowed the Warriors at all, or are his struggles just an inconvenience to the basketball juggernaut that is Golden State? Despite his poor individual numbers, the team is still better with Thompson on the court. The Warriors still posted a +16.3 differential in the playoffs, significantly better than most of the teams in the postseason, and a respectable +2.7 better than the Cavaliers’ differential.  

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Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

However, a player’s importance cannot be fully understood by looking at his box score. In 413 playoff minutes with Klay on the floor, GSW’s offensive rating is 4.6 points higher, and their opponents’ offensive rating is 5.0 points lower.  

While Klay is struggling with his shot, he is still doing the little things to help his team win. When he is on the court, Golden State has a higher effective field goal percentage (59.1% to 52.5%) and assist percentage (65.4% to 62.4%). However, these numbers might be skewed, as Thompson spends the majority of his minutes with the starters.  

But to give credit to Thompson, he is not letting his poor shooting affect his famously staunch defense. On that end of the court, Klay is posting the second highest steal percentage (1.4%) and second most defensive win shares (0.7) of his playoff career. Even if he is not putting the “3” in his “3 and D” guy mantra, his individual defense alone is enough to give him major minutes.

   

Also worth noting are the matchups that Thompson is faced with night in and night out. He often guards the best offensive guards or small forwards that the opponents have to offer. He spent major minutes guarding Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who make up most of the Portland Trail Blazers’ offensive output. He’s also guarded Gordon Hayward and Kawhi Leonard in these playoffs, and will most likely see the lion’s share of minutes against Kyrie Irving. With opponents like these, the defensive stats that Klay posts are impressive, regardless of his faltering offense.  

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Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The bottom line here is this: Golden State is so overwhelmingly talented that it can win series with subpar performances from Thompson on the offensive end, despite him being the second best player on their 2015 championship-winning squad. Golden State fans call it the beauty of the team while the rest of the league calls it unfair, but the trio of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green can do the heavy lifting most nights. Thompson can struggle; GSW still has three of the best players on the planet in their starting five.  

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Photo: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Neglecting Thompson, the trio of Curry, Green and Durant combined for a monstrous 16.0 VORP during the regular season. If this were NBA 2K, that’s like saying these three would post better numbers on their own than a team of replacement-level players. With teammates like these, Klay’s contributions are welcome, but not vital to the Warriors’ success. With his defense, Thompson can be comfortable acting as an elite ‘glue guy’ for Golden State. But do not count on his complacency; Klay will certainly be trying to find his shooting stroke before Game 1 on Thursday. 

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Emily Greitzer.

SQuiz
How many times has Klay Thompson been named to an All-NBA team? (HINT: Including his rookie season)
Created 5/30/17
  1. Once
  2. Twice
  3. Three Times
  4. Four Times

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