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How Injuries Have Affected Klay Thompson’s Game—and the Warriors’ Title Hopes

Two years off have taken a toll on the Golden State All-Star. Can the Warriors still win a championship with this version of Klay?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two months have passed since Klay Thompson made his triumphant return from the two major leg surgeries that kept him out for two consecutive full seasons. And the early results have been—like his team’s play over that same period—uneven.

The first and most important statistic when analyzing the five-time All-Star’s return is his 16.5 points per game. Simply, no player in NBA history has ever managed to accomplish quite what Thompson has this season. This chart shows the highest scorers who returned after two or more missed seasons for any reason, but the previous high scorer after missing two full seasons specifically due to injury was Bill Walton, who tallied 14.1 points per game for the 1982-83 San Diego Clippers.

Highest Scorers Returning to the NBA After Two-Plus Missed Seasons

Player Season PPG Reason for Missed Seasons
Player Season PPG Reason for Missed Seasons
Michael Jordan 2001-02 22.9 Retirement
Paul Arizin 1954-55 21.0 Military service
Klay Thompson 2021-22 16.5 Injury
Mitchell Wiggins 1989-90 15.5 Drug suspension
Magic Johnson 1995-96 14.6 Retirement
Bill Walton 1982-83 14.1 Injury
Jordan Crawford 2016-17 14.1 Chinese league/D-League
Carl Braun 1952-53 14.0 Military service
Terry Dischinger 1967-68 13.1 Military service
Gerald Green 2011-12 12.9 Russian league
Minimum 10 games played. Players who bounced from the NBA to the ABA and back are not included.

Yet the difference between Thompson and his Hall of Fame peers is that his team is in the thick of a title race. Golden State is currently in the no. 3 spot in the West, with the league’s second-best point differential. But the tottering Warriors—just 14-15 in their last 29 games—probably can’t make it back to the Finals without Thompson. And through 19 games, it’s unclear just how close he is to helping like he did during the team’s dynastic run.

The broad contours of Thompson’s game remain the same as before his injury, at least on offense: He is an elite shooter who doesn’t need the ball much to score, and works best as a complementary guard next to Steph Curry. This season, Thompson is leaning even more on his greatest strength than ever before. He’s hoisting 3s at an unprecedented pace, with an apparent desire to make up for lost time.

This is also the first season of his career in which Thompson is taking more than half his shots from 3-point range—and that’s not necessarily a change for the worse. On the contrary, he probably didn’t take enough 3s, relative to his talent level, before returning to the court. Over the last three seasons before his injuries, Thompson ranked 10th in the NBA in 3-point percentage, sinking 42 percent of his 3s (minimum 1,000 total shots, at least 100 of them coming from distance). But he ranked just 65th in 3-point attempt rate, next to players like Cedi Osman, Brook Lopez, and Stanley Johnson.

The increased volume hasn’t produced better results: Thompson is down to 37 percent from distance this season, and—thanks to struggles from 2-point range as well—it’s the first of his career in which his effective field goal percentage is worse than the league average. Some rust is perfectly understandable after so much time away—even for a player with one of the most gorgeous, repeatable shooting strokes in league history.

But something’s changed with that form this season: Thompson has lost a small but consistent amount of arc on his 3-pointers. In both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, Thompson averaged around 46 degrees of arc on his 3-point attempts, but this season, he’s down to 44.1 degrees, according to Second Spectrum. (The optimal angle is 45 degrees.) Thompson’s seven games in his previous two full seasons plus this year with the lowest arc angle on his 3s have all come this season. Against the Lakers last weekend, his average arc angle was just 41.8 degrees—more than 4 degrees below his pre-injury baseline.

This graph shows the rolling average of Thompson’s arc angle across five-game segments. It’s striking how out of place this season’s figures look.

A mere 2 degrees doesn’t seem like a lot, but for a player known for his picture-perfect form, with such a pristine track record before this season, any deviation from the norm catches the eye. And because this shift both comes after a long injury hiatus and coincides with a prolonged shooting slump, it stands out as a possible, partial explanation for Thompson’s early struggles.

In any case, Thompson has changed stylistically too. In his career before this season, Thompson made catch-and-shoot 3s at a 44 percent clip; this season, that’s down to 36 percent, while his pull-up accuracy remains high. And while catch-and-shoot tries still form the majority of his attempts, Thompson is now taking a career-high rate of pull-up 3s.

In addition to more self-created shots, Thompson is creating more for others, with a career-high assist rate. His increased on-ball activity shows up all over his tracking data; he’s generating more touches, dribbles, and drives this season than in his last healthy seasons, per Second Spectrum.

Klay Thompson’s Increased On-Ball Activity

Statistic 2017-18 2018-19 2021-22
Statistic 2017-18 2018-19 2021-22
Assist Rate 11.2% 10.5% 19.2%
Touches Per 100 Possessions 35.0 36.1 42.1
Dribbles Per Touch 1.4 1.3 1.7
Drives Per 100 Possessions 5.0 6.4 10.6

Draymond Green’s absence may be contributing to Thompson’s change in approach, as Green has historically played a major playmaking role when Thompson takes the floor without Curry. But the duo has played just seven seconds together this season because of Green’s calf and back injuries, likely forcing Thompson to create more for himself. Even that’s not a full explanation, however: Thompson has been more active on the ball than he was in previous seasons when Green was off the court.

Yet other portions of Thompson’s early results also suggest concerns about his athleticism, which matters regardless of his teammates. Thompson’s “max speed” in previous seasons was in the 28-29 feet-per-second range, according to Second Spectrum tracking. This season, it’s down to 24.7 feet per second.

And while Thompson generated tremendous excitement when he dunked over two Cavaliers in his first game back …

… he hasn’t dunked since. Dunks have never been a big part of his game—his career high in a season, per Basketball-Reference, is just 24—but he’s getting to the rim at a career-low rate overall, which adds another data point to the argument that he has lost some burst.

The drop-off is noticeable on the defensive end too. Curry’s Warriors are arguably the only team since Isiah Thomas’s Pistons more than 30 years ago to win a championship with a small guard as its best player, in large part because Thompson could handle the best opposing perimeter player while maintaining his offensive production.

Thompson now occupies a different role. BBall Index gives players a “matchup difficulty” score from 0 to 100, with 100 signifying the toughest defensive assignments. Thompson’s score never ranked below 92.6 before his injuries—but it’s fallen to 42.6 this season.

Here’s what that means in practice: In 2018-19, the players Thompson guarded most often were the likes of Buddy Hield, Damian Lillard, and Donovan Mitchell—some of the best scorers in the league. This season, Thompson’s most common assignments are secondary guards like Eric Gordon, Josh Giddey, and Desmond Bane—dynamic players still, but not their teams’ primary offensive threats.

Now, the Warriors use Andrew Wiggins (97.7 matchup difficulty score) as the main defender on perimeter stars, along with defensive savant Gary Payton II (99.2). Thompson is treated less like a two-way star and much more like fellow offense-first guards Curry (13.3) and Jordan Poole (25.7).

Of course, it’s not remotely a surprise that this edition of Thompson—in his age-31 season, coming off two major surgeries—wouldn’t be as bright a star as the 29-year-old, fully healthy version who last took an NBA court in the 2019 Finals. Kevin Durant’s seamless return from an Achilles tear to MVP-level play is the exception, not the norm.

Even in his current form, Thompson can help a roster in need of secondary scoring beyond Curry. Even in a slump, Thompson remains an above-average 3-point shooter and, advanced stats uniformly say, an above-average overall offensive player this season.

And even if his 3-point percentage remains at 37 instead of rising to his usual 40s, opposing defenses still have to respect his shot. Often, the gravity a feared shooter generates is just as important as his actual shot-making, as it bends the defense to open up other, more advantageous areas of the court. Consider this play in the Warriors’ recent loss to Dallas, when defenders stick so close to Thompson and Curry that they inadvertently leave the paint wide open for a Kevon Looney dunk.

It’s not as if Thompson is displacing better players with his return to the lineup, either. Though his return has cut into some of the minutes for Poole, a similar player with better numbers this season, he’s mostly taking time away from fringier rotation players like Juan Toscano-Anderson, Chris Chiozza, and Damion Lee.

Warriors Minutes Per Game With and Without Klay Thompson

Player Without Klay With Klay Difference
Player Without Klay With Klay Difference
Jonathan Kuminga 11.4 21.2 +9.7
Moses Moody 6.9 9.1 +2.2
Kevon Looney 20.7 22.9 +2.2
Stephen Curry 34.5 35.6 +1.0
Andrew Wiggins 31.6 32.4 +0.8
Otto Porter Jr. 19.7 20.3 +0.5
Andre Iguodala 16.7 16.6 -0.1
Gary Payton II 17.5 15.8 -1.7
Nemanja Bjelica 14.8 12.1 -2.6
Jordan Poole 30.0 25.8 -4.2
Juan Toscano-Anderson 15.5 10.3 -5.2
Chris Chiozza 9.2 2.4 -6.8
Damion Lee 21.7 13.6 -8.0
Includes games in which a player dressed but did not play

To be fair, ​​there are other factors involved in the Warriors’ recent distribution of minutes, namely Green’s extended absence, which at this point has become the darkening cloud looming over the Warriors’ season. Green still hasn’t played since Thompson’s first game, and the Warriors are 28-6 when Green plays versus 15-16 when he doesn’t. They need Green’s playmaking, defense, and versatility to hum like they did during their half-decade-long hegemony atop the league, and like they did earlier this season.

Yet they also need Thompson to complete the star triumvirate and reclaim their power; the Warriors built their dynasty, even before signing Durant, on the back of that trio’s synergy. Curry was the MVP, Green the defensive stalwart, but Thompson elevated the roster—made it more unguardable, more audacious, more thrillingly entertaining and beloved among fans—with his perfect complementary skill set. Even an older, compromised Thompson can regain some of that vibe. But the Warriors won’t truly feel like the Warriors again, or become title favorites, until he’s fully back, too.