Our collective enjoyment of sports depends on our ability to take the human body for granted. It’s assumed that within every step of a perfectly executed offense, countless other flesh-and-bone choreographies will fire off within the bodies of players themselves; every stride of every cut is its own complex, quick-twitch system, with every muscle ordered into position by its own synaptic point guard. Even players take it on faith that every flap of tendon will work exactly as it should, that they will be able to bend and turn and absorb contact. Until, as Klay Thompson felt in the midst of a workout on Wednesday, some simple mechanism—and basic assumption—gives out.
Thompson, 17 months removed from the ACL tear in his left knee that pulled him off the floor in the NBA Finals, has torn his right Achilles tendon and is expected to miss the entire upcoming season. This is a compromising injury that threatens even a player’s most basic movements. Some who have suffered the injury were able find their game again following extended rehabilitation. That’s the hope for former Warrior Kevin Durant, who ruptured his Achilles the game before Thompson tore his ACL but did not play last season, even in the bubble. There are no guarantees where this particular injury is concerned; 39 percent of NBA players who tear their Achilles never play another game.
That would be a shocking and heartbreaking outcome for Thompson, given his age (30) and the reported expectation that he will make a full recovery. But the mere possibility cuts to the core of what makes a player’s career—and a team’s hopes for contention—so fragile. As recently as 2019, Klay was as close to a sure thing as you could find in modern sports: highly driven, zero maintenance, and impeccably durable. He missed just 25 total games in his first eight years in the NBA. Now Thompson will sit out a second straight season in the prime of his career, while enduring the well of frustration that follows when a person is denied something as fundamental as movement. Golden State will have to dramatically alter its plans for competitive renewal, drawn up under the assumption that both Thompson and Stephen Curry would be back on the court to steady the franchise after one of its worst seasons.
When Durant left the Warriors over a year ago, there was optimism both internally and externally that a core that won a title without Durant could pivot quickly to contend again. To this point, Golden State hasn’t even had the chance to try. That in itself is a kind of validation for the ambition that led the Warriors to pursue KD in the first place. The suddenness of this kind of injury is a reminder that even all-time-great teams can’t get bashful. The closing of a title window is almost always closer than it appears. Dwyane Wade lost half a step and it collapsed a mini-dynasty in Miami. A pulled hammy snapped Houston’s hopes of beating the Warriors, of competing for a championship, and it seems, of retaining James Harden. It can all go so quickly and so casually that even the members of the team might not realize for months that their entire outlook had changed. Who could know what’s on the horizon now for the Warriors? The view from the Chase Center is thick with fog.
Despite that uncertainty, Golden State has opted to push forward boldly and expensively. Just hours after the announcement of Thompson’s injury, the Warriors reportedly closed in on a deal to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr., former Sun and brief Thunder, a well-compensated weatherman. According to ESPN capologist Bobby Marks, the immense luxury tax costs of fitting Oubre into Golden State’s soon-to-expire trade exception (on top of the $14.4 million he’s owed) could cost the Warriors upward of $80 million. (Tilman Fertitta, the governor of a Rockets team that has systematically limboed under the luxury tax line in seasons past, retweeted and then deleted that running tab for … emphasis?) The ink isn’t completely dry on those calculations just yet, but clearly the Warriors—and team governor Joe Lacob, in particular—have no interest in another season of toiling irrelevance. Without any cap space whatsoever, Golden State paid top dollar to bring in the best reasonable replacement under the circumstances.
That word—“replacement”—can only be used loosely here. Oubre is a decent shooter and an energetic defender stepping in for an all-time marksman and a championship-certified stopper. But something had to be done, if for no other reason than Curry will likely be 33 years old before Thompson plays another game. There is no time to bide; even if this season feels like a closing window, the Warriors owe it to their Hall-of-Fame core to pry it open as best they can or, in case of emergency, smash their way through.
James Wiseman, the sledgehammer center the Warriors selected with the no. 2 pick in this week’s draft, could be of some help in that area. There is at least some pearl of good fortune in the fact that Golden State decided to use the pick to draft a foundational talent rather than trade it away to fill out a lineup that no longer exists. This season’s Warriors may be forced to tilt further in Wiseman’s direction than they anticipated. Curry hasn’t been one for the blunt force of high-usage basketball, though perhaps he could be persuaded to play for greater volume under the circumstances. Regardless, nothing good would come from a brilliant playmaker like Draymond Green forcing up shots, or from Andrew Wiggins falling back on old habits when Golden State very much needs him to evolve. Wiseman’s touch and finishing ability introduces a new conduit for the offense, or at least builds off one the Warriors have previously used to elevate lesser talents.
Still, the burdens of the Warriors will likely fall to Steph, if not to score than to shape possessions. It’s through that power that Golden State still has a chance—though to accomplish what depends on variables upon variables, stacked atop one another to stand tall but wobbly. What the Warriors will miss most about Thompson isn’t his shooting, but his stability. It bolstered Golden State’s entire operation to know it could lean on 40 minutes of top-notch wing play whenever needed. Steve Kerr never had to search for who would check the most dangerous opposing guards; it was always implied. Shooting can be streaky, but the threat of Thompson flying around a screen was one of the Warriors’ great constants. If a defender lunged at Thompson as he sprung open, they were merely responding appropriately to one of the best shooters in the world.
Golden State doesn’t just lose some 20 points a game, but the ever-escalating threat level of Klay and Steph working in concert. Now Green, as the team’s second-best player, might not have the luxury of scoring six points in a win. There probably won’t be the option to work around Wiggins if he drifts off into space, or to go away from Wiseman if a moment gets too big for the rookie. The last great Warriors team was moved by excess: another star, another record, another title. This one, without Thompson, will be moved by survival.