I don’t get any news when I say that Klay Thompson’s performance in the 2021-22 season wasn’t his best work, or anything close to it.
This is not at all to say it was bad. The beloved shooting ranger was still a key member of Golden State Warriors Championship winner Team. He was still a regular fixture in each of the 32 regular season games he appeared in, and in all 22 post-season competitions. He won the ESPY Athlete of the Year Back, and he was incredibly well deserved.
But after two and a half years on the sidelines, major lower-body surgery, and thousands of hours of rehab, it’s no surprise that Clay’s playing wasn’t on par with the performance that earned him five consecutive trips to the All-Star Team while running the dynasty. Dubs.
His efficiency took a hit, as he shot 38.5% from distance, marking the first time in his career that he failed to reach the 40% mark. His real shot percentage, usually sky-high, was comfortably below the league average. His defense was not up to what we expected.
But while those struggles might not have surprised you given what Thompson had to overcome, and the rust that built up along the way, there is something that might surprise you: Advanced stats still love it.
The all-encompassing advanced metric these days—which many front office analysts trust—is EPM (estimated plus minus). According to EPM, Clay ranked 40th in the league this year, and fourth over the Warriors, behind only Steve Curry (No. 4), second Gary Payton (No. 30) and Draymond Green (No. 36). And lest you think EPM is just a random jumble of numbers and players, there are five players right in front of it: Anthony Davis, Greene, Dender Eaton, Demar DeRozan and Marcus Smart. And here are the five right behind him: Derek White, Horford, Domantas Sabonis, Garen Jackson Jr. and Lamelo Ball.
Very good company.
Check out other advanced stats, and you’ll find plenty of them.
There are likely a lot of reasons why Thompson is going so well despite what looked like a relegation season. Most obviously, Thompson is an exceptional player and future Hall of Fame player – even when he’s not at his best, he’s still really good. It was also very clear that opposing teams weren’t buying that Clay was rusty – even on days he missed a shot after a missed shot, opponents sent several defenders in his path, trying to give him any space even when he was within 30 feet of the hoop. And they went through each screen trying to get his jumper out. Even when Curry was on the bench, you could see how open the offense was due to Thompson’s allure. This allowed the offense to function better when he was on the field, despite some percentages of shooting that weren’t very pleasant to look at.
Still, there is a reason why there is a disconnect between the advanced metrics and the public perception of Clay’s play. If he repeats the 2021-22 season next season, it will undoubtedly have a powerful impact on the team’s quest for repeat – but it won’t be seen in the same light in which he is used to seeing it.
So I’m curious: Will he return to the all-star level, wearing the festive jersey in February 2023?
There are two main reasons to believe that he will not. The first is that you can’t assume it will be able to rinse off all the rust by the time the season rolls around. He may never do that. The second is that the West is completely stacked.
Look at this list of names:
Cities of Karl Anthony
If Klay is the All-Star Team, a whopping 11 names on that list should be eliminated (assuming there are no alternatives to injury). And that doesn’t even include breakout seasons from nominees like Shay Gilgus-Alexander and Galen Green, or rising seasons from players like Domantas Sabonis and Russell Westbrook, or potential West Coast additions Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
But the reasons we think Thompson will make his sixth All-Star game are probably more clear. Namely if he is able to be a player like the 40th Most Valuable Player in the League despite being covered in rust and shooting poorly (for his worldwide prospects), imagine how good he might be after getting some of that rust off. Take a complete vacation without rehab, and take part in a bootcamp.
If you take the 2021-22 Thompson, bump his three-point shot by 41%, improve his defense just a bit, and you’ve got all-stars in your hands.
It may not happen. But then again…maybe for sure.