The Warriors own one of the NBA’s best records, have the league’s best defensive rating and are led by the front-runners for MVP (Stephen Curry) and Defensive Player of the Year (Draymond Green). They’ve won two out of three against the Western Conference champion Suns, routed the Nets in Brooklyn and just beat the Jazz in Utah without Green. Bob Myers’ offseason moves replenished Golden State’s roster depth, and the Dubs are once again running circles around the competition in Steve Kerr’s system.
The Warriors are championship-caliber again. And yet, they will add to their roster riches on Sunday, when Klay Thompson will play his first game in 2 1/2 years in what will be a very emotional scene at Chase Center in San Francisco, where tickets for the Splash Brothers reunion were going for as much as $14,000.
Thompson’s rehab from a torn ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals and a torn Achilles during a November 2020 pickup game has been well-documented. He has tracked his progress on his very revealing and entertaining Instagram account. It’s been a very long road back. But what kind of Klay are the Warriors getting?
Expectations should be tempered. Kerr has already said Thompson will be gradually worked into Golden State’s flow with a 15-20 minutes restriction and a game’s rest during back-to-backs. From all indications, the shot is still there. With teams continuing to send multiple bodies toward Curry, Thompson will benefit from the space, just like anyone on the floor with Curry, and get to take wide-open catch-and-shoot 3s.
The question is whether Thompson can replicate his defensive prowess before the injuries — or even if Kerr will ask him to do so during the regular season. Thompson often guarded the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer, but that responsibility has since been handed to Andrew Wiggins, whose two-way play has the Warriors actively promoting his All-Star candidacy. (Gary Payton II, one of the team's best stories of the season, has emerged as a defensive stopper as well.)
Golden State has the luxury to not place that big of a burden on Thompson. The Warriors can continue to be as painstaking with his buildup as they have been with his prolonged rehab, because they’re back to being focused on the games that really count — the ones played in late April, May and June.
It would be unrealistic to think Thompson, after two devastating leg injuries, can get back to the player he was the last time he suited up for an NBA game. That was June 13, 2019, in Game 6 of the Finals against Toronto. Thompson aggressively attacked the rim in that series and was as explosive off the dribble as he had ever been. He tore his ACL on a fast-break dunk attempt and foul by Danny Green, who was merely trying block the shot.
The big challenge for the Warriors braintrust will be keeping Thompson content with continuing to take baby steps forward. The dynasty has been successfully revived to make another title run. Golden State, barring a catastrophic injury (you know who I’m talking about), will be one of the West’s top seeds. Slowly building Thompson’s conditioning to 30-plus minutes in time for the postseason is the goal. Also, Kerr will have one more weapon (a career 42-percent shooter from 3) in a deep arsenal to deploy — and rest — in order to keep everyone fresh.
The Warriors will still be susceptible to mobile and effective bigs like Deandre Ayton and Rudy Gobert in the playoffs, but Thompson's return won't make Golden State any fun to face in a seven-game series for any postseason opponent. (Seven-footer James Wiseman, the 2020 No. 2 pick, is nearing a return as well.)
“He’s extremely excited and anxious to be back out there,” Green said of Thompson. “I think you all are feeling the same way. We’re feeling the same way. This fan base is feeling the same way. And most importantly, the world of basketball is feeling the same exact way.
“Everybody is looking forward to Klay Thompson being back out there on the floor.”
Everybody but Warriors opponents.
Records and statistics are through Jan. 4
The Top 10
1. Golden State Warriors (29-7, Last ranking: 2): Psst. Did you know Stephen Curry is shooting only 42.7 percent from the field and just 39.3 percent on 3s (both career lows, not counting his five-game 2019-20 season)?
2. Phoenix Suns (29-8, LR: 1): They have a new and unlikely fan favorite in Bismack Biyombo.
3. Chicago Bulls (25-10, LR: 5): DeMar DeRozan has gone from being knocked for his inability and willingness to shoot 3-pointers to making historic, buzzer-beating 3s in back-to-back Bulls victories.
5. Brooklyn Nets (23-12, LR: 3): Kyrie Irving playing only road games is still better than not having him play at all.
6. Milwaukee Bucks (25-14, LR: 8): Jrue Holiday is getting much-deserved All-Star buzz after averaging 21.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.8 steals in December.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (25-14, LR: 7): The Allen Iverson comparison is getting more real with every devastating performance by Ja Morant, who has elevated himself to MVP consideration as the frontman of Taylor Jenkins’ gritty squad.
8. Miami Heat (23-15, LR: 9): Kyle has been on fire since joining the Heat. Lowry? No, Kyle Guy, who has averaged 12.7 points and shot 50 percent on 3-pointers since signing a 10-day contract.
9t. Philadelphia 76ers (20-16, LR: Not ranked): As Ben Simmons continues to wait to be traded, the Sixers reportedly are still holding out hope to land Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal.
9t. Cleveland Cavaliers (21-17, LR: 6): Evan Mobley, with his growing role in the Cavs’ surprising success, seems to be setting himself apart in the Rookie of the Year race.
FALLING DOWN: Denver Nuggets (18-17, LR: 10t), Los Angeles Clippers (19-19, LR: 10t).
The Bottom Five
Our two-week break didn’t change much. The same teams occupy the cellar.
30. Orlando Magic (7-31, Last ranking: 29): Franz Wager was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month after averaging 19.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists in December. Said Wagner: “It’s more like a team recognition for me.”
28t. Houston Rockets (10-28, LR: 27): It’s been a rocky start to 2022 with the suspensions of Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood.
28t. Detroit Pistons (7-28, LR: 30): They’re seeing progress from No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, whose numbers have increased each month including a scoring average that’s climbed from 14.6 in November to 17.9 in December to 19.0 in January.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-23, LR: 28): Josh Giddey, who made history as the youngest NBA player ever to record a triple-double, earned a second straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month award.
26. New Orleans Pelicans (13-25, LR: 26): Zion Williamson, whose rehab from a foot injury is ongoing, acknowledged that it’s been “a very difficult process.”
MOVING UP: None.