The Death Lineup could be mostly dead. The Hamptons Five lineup is, at the very least, on vacation. But long live the Splash Brothers.
Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors are on the goal line of a max deal worth $190 million over the next five years, according to The Athletic, with the expectation that an agreement will be in place soon after Sunday’s 3 p.m. PT start of free agency. By locking down Thompson, the Warriors would retain the longest-standing and most dangerous component of their dynasty. Never has the league seen a pair of shooters as prolific, efficient, and consistent as Thompson and Stephen Curry. With both stars locked up until the summer of 2022, when Curry is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency, the Warriors have ensured that they’ll keep their identity even as the league shifts around them.
The Warriors wasted no time getting a deal in place with Thompson, even though he’s expected to miss a large portion of next season rehabbing from the left-knee ACL tear he suffered in the NBA Finals. Giving a max deal to a guard who will be 30 in February and recovering from a significant knee injury might have given other organizations pause, but GM Bob Myers knows exactly what Thompson means to the Warriors, and more specifically, to Curry.
Thompson is a star in his own right—he’s probably the best 3-and-D wing we’ve ever seen—but he’s also a protection plan for Curry. Thompson’s ability to stymie the tougher backcourt assignment has preserved Curry for years, while his floor spacing has allowed him to play against, at the maximum, three help defenders instead of four. The beauty of the Thompson-Curry pairing is that it has never seemed redundant or like the overlap in their primary skill (shooting) diminished the other’s game. Every weakness of Curry’s is covered up by a strength of Thompson’s, and vice versa. They are perfectly balanced and incredibly overpowering, all at once.
This was never more evident than when Kevin Durant went down with a lower calf injury last postseason, and the Warriors quickly rebooted to their default factory setting without missing a beat.
“I think they are harder to guard” without Durant, Portland guard Seth Curry told reporters during the Western Conference finals. “They move around faster when he’s not out there. They’re definitely not a better team, but they’re harder to guard. Obviously, they play a different style of basketball when Steph and Klay are the focal points offensively.”
If Durant leaves in free agency, the Warriors won’t be able to cruise through the regular season with the same ease, even once Thompson is healthy. The rest of the team won’t be able to hand Durant multiple isolation possessions and rest away from the ball. They won’t be capable of hitting the same peak, either. And though it may be true that the Warriors can be more physically and mentally exhausting to guard with Curry and Thompson zipping around screens instead of Durant holding court, the sword cuts both ways. Without Durant, the Warriors would have to exert much more energy than they’ve grown accustomed to as of late.
They’ll be less effective over the long haul, any way you slice it. The trio of Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green has had an increasingly worse offensive rating when they took the floor without Durant (minus-3.0 in 2015-16, minus-6.4 in 2016-17, minus-6.6 in 2017-18). That’s to be expected—Durant is one of the best players in the league, and the Warriors’ star-heavy roster meant minimum signings and free-agent fliers replacing those stars when they sat. But the reason for re-upping Thompson was simple: When he, Curry, and Green were on the floor without Durant last season, the Warriors still posted an excellent offensive rating of 122.6 in 544 minutes (for context: The league-average offensive rating last season was 109.7).
Although it would have been fascinating to see what Thompson could have done as another team’s primary scorer—he ranked 37th in usage percentage (25.4) last season—he should be in line for more touches when he returns. Even if there’s rust to shake off, the mere threat of giving up an open look to a career 42 percent 3-point shooter should combat any junk defenses like the box-and-one, and allow the Curry-and-Green side-screen-and-short-roll the room it needs to breathe.
The Warriors will look familiar for the most part, but it will be interesting to see how “throwaway” possessions will be divvied up between Thompson and Curry. It wouldn’t be surprising for Thompson to go to a post-up game more often coming off his injury, especially if Durant and DeMarcus Cousins are no longer around to soak up some of those possessions. In the absence of transition opportunities—something only Mark Jackson would be excited about—Thompson’s backing down smaller guards could take some of the pressure off Curry and give Green a break from stirring the drink.
That being said, not much has to change for the Warriors to have success once Thompson is healthy. Western Conference contenders have been waiting for the better half of a decade for Golden State to fall off, but re-signing Thompson makes doing so a whole lot harder.