I am not breaking news when I say that Klay Thompson’s performance in the 2021-22 season was not his best work, or anything close to it.
That doesn’t mean it was bad at all. The much-loved shooting guard was still a key member of the Golden State Warriors championship-winning team. He was still a starter in each of the 32 regular-season games in which he appeared, and in all 22 postseason games. He won an ESPY for Comeback Athlete of the Year, and it was incredibly well deserved.
But after two and a half years on the sidelines, two major lower-body surgeries and thousands of hours of rehab, it’s not surprising that Klay’s game didn’t line up with the feat that saw him make five consecutive All-Star Game trips during the dynastic run of the Dubs.
His efficiency was severely dented as he shot 38.5% from a distance, failing 40% for the first time in his career. His real shooting rate, normally sky-high, was well below the league average. And his defense was not at the level we are used to.
But while those struggles may not have surprised you, given what Thompson had to overcome and the rust he collected along the way, here’s something that will probably surprise you: The advanced stats still loved him.
The go-to all-encompassing advanced metric these days — trusted by many a front office analyst — is EPM (Estimated Plus-Minus). And according to EPM, Klay was ranked No. 40 in the league this year and fourth on the Warriors, behind only Steph Curry (No. 4), Gary Payton II (No. 30) and Draymond Green (No. 36). And so as not to think that EPM is just a random mishmash of numbers and players, here are the five players directly in front of him: Anthony Davis, Green, Deandre Ayton, DeMar DeRozan and Marcus Smart. And here are the five directly behind him: Derrick White, Al Horford, Domantas Sabonis, Jaren Jackson Jr. and LaMelo Ball.
Pretty good company.
Check out other advanced stats and you’ll find much of the same.
There are probably many reasons why Thompson scored so well, despite what seemed like an off season. Most obviously, Thompson is an exceptional player and a future Hall of Famer – even if he’s not at his best, he’s still very good. It was also very clear that opponents didn’t believe Klay was rusty – even on the days when he scored miss shot after miss shot, opponents sent multiple defenders his way, trying not to give him space, even if he was 10 yards from the ring was removed, and went over every screen trying to take his jersey. Even when Curry was on the couch, you could see how much the attack was opened by Thompson’s gravity. As a result, the offense functioned much better when he was on the field, despite some shooting percentages that weren’t too fun to watch.
Still, there’s a reason there’s a discrepancy between the advanced statistics and the public perception of Klay’s play. If he repeats his 2021-22 season next season, he will no doubt have a major impact on the team’s quest to repeat, but he will not be viewed in the same light he used to be viewed.
So I’m curious: Will he return to All-Star form and don the party jersey in February 2023?
There are two main reasons to think he won’t. The first is that you can’t count on it to wash away all the rust by the time the season starts. He never can. And the second is that the West is absolutely stacked.
Look at this list of names:
If Klay is the All-Star team, a whopping 11 names should be left out of that list (assuming there are no injury substitutes). Not to mention the breakthrough seasons of candidates like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Green, the resurgent seasons of players like Domantas Sabonis and Russell Westbrook, or possible West Coast additions from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
But the reasons for thinking Thompson will make his sixth All-Star Game may be even more prominent. Namely, if he was able to be something like the 40th most valuable player in the league despite being covered in rust and shooting poorly (relative to his expectations around the world), imagine how well he would after shaking off some of that rust, having a full off season with no rehab, and participating in a training camp.
If you take Thompson 2021-22, increase his three-point shot to 41% and improve his defense a little bit, and you’ve got an All-Star on your hands.
It might not happen. But again…it certainly could.