Do Not Overcoach It (Klay Thompson Edition)

Klay Thompson averaged 20 points a quarter last night. He finished the third quarter with 60 points on an absolutely incendiary 21/33 shooting, including 8/14 from beyond the arc. He had only played 29 minutes to that point.

But his night was over. Steve Kerr, Thompson’s coach, benched him for the fourth quarter, presumably knowing that his team was both comfortably ahead and not in a position to risk injury to any of its Big Four. But Kerr also benched him because he is apparently an ahistorical killjoy who hates fans.

To put Thompson’s binge into proper perspective, it is worth noting that NBA players have scored 60+ points 56 times in league history. If Wilt Chamberlain’s 32 times having done it are dropped, that number drops to 24 times. By the time that list’s other big men have been excised, there were only nine guards to have ever scored 60+ points in a game before Thompson’s night last night: Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas (60), Tracy McGrady (62), Jerry West (63), George Gervin (63), Pete Maravich (68), Michael Jordan (69, nice), David Thompson (73), and Kobe Bryant (81).  To put Thompson’s scoring into additional perspective, Tom Haberstroh observed* that before last night’s supernova, Larry Bird’s 43 points represented the league’s scoring record in an equivalent number of played minutes.

Because Thompson had 60 points after three quarters, and because he was shooting absurdly well, it seems reasonable to believe that he had a legitimate shot at doing (considerably) more in a wide-open fourth quarter against an Indiana Pacers team that had, with all due respect, simply given upon on being competitive.

Projection is a fool’s game given the vagaries of sport. But if he had been given even half a quarter’s worth of run, Thompson might have passed McGrady, West, Gervin. If he was still hot, he might have snuck by Maravich and Jordan too. Scoring 70+ points turns Thompson – already one of the game’s greatest ever shooters – into an absolute legend. Only five players have ever scored 70+: David Robinson, Elgin Baylor, Thompson, Bryant, and Chamberlain.

And nobody anywhere is advocating that Thompson deserved the Robinson treatment. Robinson’s 71-point binge came on the day’s final season in a blatant attempt to win the 1994 scoring title, and featured a fourth quarter in which the Spurs were instructed to intentionally foul the Clippers so that Robinson could get a few more shots.

What Kerr did was deprive not only Thompson of his opportunity for immortality but deprive the game’s fans of an opportunity to witness history. It can be easily argued that Kerr does not receive a paycheck to concern himself with either – and that would be a very fair response – but on the other hand, come on. This would not have been Ricky Davis shooting on his own basket to get a triple-double; this was a player’s opportunity to approach the precipice of his own potential withering away on the bench instead.

There is obviously no fixing it now. What is done, as they say, is done. But be aware that it is unlikely that we will ever see Thompson do again what he just did. It is an absurdly rare event that factors come together in precisely the way that they did against last night, and rarer still that they involve a player in a position to fully maximize them.

*Thanks to @CK_MacLeod for providing Haberstroh’s tweet.

 

The Golden State Warriors Are Great…But?

On the NBA’s Opening Night, the Golden State Warriors rolled out their Death Star, a starting lineup packed as tightly as any in imaginable memory.

  • Steph Curry: last year’s MVP, greatest shooter of all time
  • Klay Thompson: top-five shooter of all time
  • Draymond Green a leatherman of a player whose proficiency for the game is matched only by his proficiency for kicking other men in the gentlemen’s region
  • Zaza Pachulia: because they needed a fourth guy
  • Kevin Durant: a top-three player in the league that the team signed in the offseason.

That team then proceeded, because turnabout is always fair play, to get kicked very hard in its gentlemen region by the San Antonio Spurs. For a few hours, everybody got to wonder if maybe the team’s Death Star was fully operational. Then the team won 16 of its next 17 games, pushing its record to an awesome 16-2, although that number still seems underwhelming after last year’s 24-0 start. All was right with the world.

But then the Warriors lost again last night. The team sits at 16-3. Everything is still right with the world – the Warriors are the best team in the league! – but…

If somebody went looking for dings in the armor, it might be worth starting with the quality of that record. The Warriors’ 16 wins have come against teams with a 133-168 (.441) record. The Warriors’ 3 losses have come against teams with a 37-21 (.637) record. Golden State has played, at best, a middlingly difficult schedule. Their best win might be one over the Toronto Raptors in a game that saw the Canadian franchise win three of four quarters.

The bigger looming issue is one of health. The Warriors have been remarkably resilient these last two-and-a-half years, with Curry, Thompson, and Green rarely missing time. But we know what happens when any of them do, having witnessed what their absences can cause. Curry went down in the third game of the playoffs last year, returned quickly, but played injured, and the 73-9 regular-season Warriors promptly lost 5 of 12 games (before rallying against the Thunder). Green got himself suspended for the Finals’ fifth game and his absence was enough to breath life into the teetering Cavaliers.

The stanch against injury has always been the Warriors’ bench, itself a fierce unit capable of exceedingly competent basketball. Andre Igoudala, Shaun Livingston, Mareese Speights, Brandon Rush, Leandro Barbosa, and Festus Ezeli averaged 38 points-per-game last season. Between them, they were often able to fill the gaps.

But the offseason saw the Warriors sink everything into Kevin Durant. Although he too has battled significant injuries, including terrifying ones that affected his feet, Durant is Durant, a monstrous apparition known by some as the Slim Reaper. Getting him was a no-brainer, the obvious thought being that adding the fourth (Durant) to the Warriors’ big three (Curry, Thompson, and Green) would make them virtually unstoppable.

Every strategy has its cost, and what the Warriors gave up to get Durant was its more competent bench. Scoring by the team’s top-six bench players is off 10 points per game, with Igoudala, Livingston, Ian Clark, the 10,000-year-old reanimated corpse of David West, JaVale McGee (?!?), and Kevon Looney averaging less than 28 points per game, thus setting the team up to pay a potentially higher price were one of its big four to get injured.

That then is the extent of the nail that the league’s other 29 teams have to hang their hat on: the Warriors having faced a weak schedule and having performed (relatively) badly against its more competitive teams, and a bench that is less impressive than it used to be.

Although that isn’t much, it is something, and it might be slightly more than the league expected to have going for it at the start of the season.