'A season of evolution': What Klay's sixth-man role means for the Warriors

WHEN THE Golden State Warriors celebrated inside the home locker room following Stephen Curry’s latest heroics, Klay Thompson sat alone at his locker with a towel draped over his head.

It was Feb. 10, and Curry had just hit a last-second, game-winning 3-pointer to send the Chase Center crowd into a frenzy and secure a 113-112 win against the Phoenix Suns. It put the Warriors back at .500 for the first time since December.

Thompson’s performance — 2 of 10 shooting (1 of 7 from deep) in 24 minutes — had been the latest in a string of poor performances for the five-time All-Star. When a teammate tried to comfort him after the game, Thompson whipped his phone at his locker in frustration.

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It’s been a tough season for the 34-year-old guard. His 42.1% field goal percentage is the lowest since his rookie year in 2011-12. He’s averaging 17.2 points per game, his fewest since his second season.

Thompson’s struggles culminated on Feb. 15, when coach Steve Kerr brought Thompson off the bench against the Utah Jazz. It was the first time since his rookie year that he wouldn’t start, a place in the Warriors lineup he had held for 727 games.

But in his debut as a reserve, Thompson provided a massive lift in the third quarter. He hit four of his seven 3s in the frame to help the Warriors pull away.

“You can do two things,” Thompson said after the 129-107 win, “You can pout or you can go out there and respond.”

Thursday’s road matchup with the New York Knicks will be Thompson’s sixth game as Golden State’s sixth man, a role that was once unfathomable to the four-time champion and future Hall of Famer. But there had been signs all season that a change was needed to get him and the Warriors’ season on track.

In 10th place in the Western Conference and 4.5 games behind sixth place — and avoiding the play-in tournament — the Warriors have relied on a starting lineup that includes standout rookie Brandin Podziemski and rising third-year forward Jonathan Kuminga.

Adding them to a starting lineup that includes Curry, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green has revitalized the Warriors, who were 12th in the West at the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Thompson’s new role, which, despite a few early challenges, has also helped Golden State climb back into the playoff race.

“This is really about finding the best version of our team,” Kerr told ESPN. “[It’s] been this big experimental phase … That experimental phase is not easy.”

THOMPSON INITIALLY DIDN’T take the news well. Kerr told ESPN that Thompson yelled at him and some of the assistants. Later, he came back to apologize to the coaches.

“It was not an easy conversation,” Kerr said. “This is maybe the hardest part about getting further away from our prime. It’s just, after 12 years [of Thompson starting], it wasn’t easy

“And still moving forward, it’s not going to be easy. But I told him, ‘If you really embrace it, you can help your team win.'”

Kerr said the timing of the discussion ahead of the All-Star break would help Thompson process the news — a decision that he agreed with.

“Just not watching basketball, not watching sports,” Thompson told ESPN. “It was having a complete reset, a huge mental reset. It helped so much.”

Thompson spent his All-Star break in Southern California with his parents, siblings and nephew, while also having time on the water.

“Just being able to still be out there playing with these guys, that in itself is amazing,” Thompson said of his time spent reflecting over the break. “It’s been a season of evolution.”

After over a decade as a starter for the Warriors, Klay Thompson has now been coming off the bench. EPA/WILL OLIVER

This season, Thompson has been candid about his on-court struggles. In a 124-123 defeat to the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 28, he had 20 points but failed to score in the fourth quarter.

When asked after the game if the team needed lineup adjustments, Thompson sharply retorted, “What, are you going to bench me?”

There were also his remarks after the 109-98 win on Feb. 5 over the Brooklyn Nets, during which Kerr had rookie guard Gui Santos finish out the game over Thompson.

“I feel great physically … Mentally, probably a little different story. But such is life,” Thompson told reporters at his locker after the game, only for Draymond Green to chime from across the room about being benched late in an NBA Finals game, stating, “So who f—ing cares?”

These moments were less about frustrations with the team and more about his own level of play, according to a source close to Thompson.

“He feels like he’s letting everyone down,” the source told ESPN. “He doesn’t want to be a drain. He wants to help. He wants to feel valuable.”



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THOMPSON’S MOVE TO the bench has helped him remind the league he remains a dangerous 3-point threat. He has connected on 45% of his 3-pointers in his first five games as a reserve after shooting just 27% on 3s in the previous nine games.

“The thought of him coming off the bench as our flame thrower, it’s a pretty powerful weapon,” Kerr said.

Thompson’s bench shooting aside, Kerr has said he likes the way Podziemski “connects the game” and compliments the starting lineup with Curry, Green, Wiggins and Kuminga. Among the 70 five-man lineups in the league to play at least 100 minutes this season, the Warriors starters rank third in net efficiency (plus-21.6).

With Thompson in the lineup instead of Podziemski, the efficiency rating remains solid but drops to plus-10.2, which ranks 17th leaguewide.

“Now we’re leaning on these young guys, which is also great,” Thompson said. “It’s very hard to sustain the elite level that we play. Therefore, you’ve got to rely on your team as a whole.”

Friday, March 1
Mavericks at Celtics, 7:30 p.m.
Bucks at Bulls, 10 p.m.

Saturday, March 2
Nuggets at Lakers, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Kings at Clippers, 9:30 p.m.

Sunday, March 3
76ers at Mavericks, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Warriors at Celtics, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Knicks at Cavaliers, 7 p.m.
Thunder at Suns, 9:30 p.m.

All times Eastern

But there have also been false starts for Thompson. In the Feb. 22 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the first game back from the All-Star break, Thompson had a season-low three points. In Sunday’s 119-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets, he had 23 first-half points but went scoreless in the second half.

Nonetheless, Thompson has led the team in scoring in three of his five games off the bench — including Tuesday’s 123-112 win over the Washington Wizards. He has also found connectivity within the second unit, most notably veteran center and three-time champion Kevon Looney. Thompson has shot 12 of 15 from the field, including 9 of 10 on 3-pointers, when coming off an on-ball screen set by Looney, per Second Spectrum tracking.

With guard Chris Paul back in action after missing six weeks due to a hand injury, Kerr will now have to re-integrate another future Hall of Famer into the Warriors’ second unit.

“Trying to mix and match the groups to find the right groups is hard,” Kerr said. “It’s not always clear for me or our staff who we should play because we’ve got a lot of guys who are at similar levels and they all deserve to play.”

ONE DAY BEFORE the NBA trade deadline, Thompson stood in the center of a group of reporters in the visitors’ locker room after a 127-104 road win over the Philadelphia 76ers where he said he wanted to remain with the only NBA team he’s ever played for.

Thompson, who makes $43 million this season, is set to become a free agent this summer for the first time in his career. Negotiations over an extension began last summer, but no agreement was made. A league source told ESPN that those talks never got to the point where different dollar amounts were being thrown around; instead, a range was presented to Thompson.

There’s an understanding that a maximum contract — Thompson is eligible for a four-year, $223 million extension — is unrealistic. A league source told ESPN that money and his lineup status are not driving forces for Thompson, and he remains open to a shorter-term deal.


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On Wednesday, Kerr officially signed a two-year extension, aligning him with the two years left on Curry’s contract. Getting Thompson a deal that would also align him with those two would be a viable option, the league source added.

The Warriors are trying to avoid a costly summer. Team owner Joe Lacob has said he wants to position the team to avoid paying the luxury tax next season — which means getting underneath the projected $172 million salary cap. The team could decline Paul’s option for next season, which would save $30 million while making him an unrestricted free agent.

Thompson’s fate hinges on how the organization approaches these contract conversations and how much they want to keep the dynasty core together, similar to what Kerr said about his new deal.

“We have an era that’s winding down and another that’s coming. We’re trying to make them merge and make the most of that,” Kerr told reporters after officializing his deal.

But much like his new role on the court, Thompson has accepted that the final phase of his Hall of Fame career could look different from now on.

“Whether I’m wearing a Dubs uniform or another uniform, I’m going to be myself,” Thompson said after that game in Philadelphia. “I’m going to be KT.”

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