Six games into the 2022-23 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors were a middling 3-3. But more worrisome than their underwhelming start was the production of a player who has been one of their more consistent and dependable players over the past decade.
Shooting guard Klay Thompson, who just last season made his long awaited return from two separate career-threatening injuries and in his comeback helped the Warriors win the NBA title over the Boston Celtics, didn’t look the same.
“As much as I love Klay, he’s slipping,” the words of basketball Hall of Famer and commentator Charles Barkley during Inside the NBA’s postgame coverage of a Warriors blowout-loss to the Phoenix Suns on TNT early in the season.
Barkley’s words went viral, and while many were quick to defend Klay and his sluggish start to the season, his numbers were harder to defend.
Through the first month of the season, the four-time NBA Champion and five-time All-Star was averaging 12.3 points per game on 28.6% from three and 34.6% from the field overall.
Barkley added, “He’s not the same guy… I don’t think he’s done, I think he’s slowing down and it’s catching up with him.”
Following a deep playoff run that ended in a championship victory, the term ‘championship hangover’ is used often to explain a team or player’s uncharacteristic start to a season. But Klay’s early slump felt different.
Was this really just a slump, or was the now 34 year-old finally succumbing to the unfortunate physical reality of suffering a torn left ACL and torn right achilles within the span of 15 months, for a body that has now endured the rigors of playing over 800 games across 10 NBA seasons and eight playoff runs?
“It just hurt my heart hearing that… it’s hard to even put into words what I had to do to be the player I am today,” Klay’s response to Barkley’s comments a few days later after a bounceback victory over the Miami Heat.
Klay has accomplished a lot in this league, and while most Warriors talk centers around superstar point guard Stephen Curry, any basketball fan can see how valuable Klay has been to Golden State’s success.
“I’m gonna internalize it and it’s gonna be fuel for me to be even better… I’m just gonna keep going and I’m gonna have a great year. Bet on that.”
Flash forward to today, and Klay has done what the hardworking and humble star has always done: Let his play do the talking.
Since the New Year, Klay has averaged 25.9 points and 4.5 rebounds on a blistering 44.1% from three, with signature performances against the Atlanta Hawks (season-high 52 points with 10 made-threes), the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets (42 points and a season-high 12 made-threes in both games).
During the Rockets game, Klay set an NBA-record as the only player in NBA history to have multiple games of 12 or more three pointers made in a single season.
“I wanted to get that 12th (made three pointer) so bad, so that I can actually have one more record than Steph (Curry) for once.”
Klay has now brought his season averages up to 22.0 points per game on 40.8% shooting from three, both higher than his averages during the 2018-19 regular season, more appropriately referred to as ‘pre-injury Klay’.
Speaking of injuries, perhaps the most encouraging development for Warriors fans occurred during a 132-124 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers back in mid-February. That night, Klay had played in a set of back-to-back games (games that occur on consecutive days) for the first time since April 2019, months before he endured his first major injury.
Klay mentioned after the game that going forward, playing in back-to-backs will be the norm, “I’m just really excited to play back-to-backs from here on out.”
On the season, Klay has played in 51 of a possible 63 games. And while his running mate Curry has been out for a sizable portion of the season dealing with various injuries, Klay and fourth-year guard Jordan Poole have been one of the more potent backcourt duos in his absence.
Klay and Poole have averaged a combined 52.8 points, 7.8 assists, and 7.6 rebounds in 25 Curry-less games this season.
“I’m incredibly proud of him (Jordan Poole)… He’s such a great player,” said Klay after the Warriors beat the Clippers on March 2, a game where Poole scored 34 points and the Warriors improved to 8-3 on the year when he scores 30 or more.
The most recent news regarding Curry’s timetable to return could mean the Warriors will have the two-time MVP back sooner rather than later, potentially as soon as March 5 against the Los Angeles Lakers. NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted, “There’s optimism Golden State’s Steph Curry (left lower leg) will return sometime on next week’s three-game road trip.” (@wojespn)
Curry’s return would be huge, as the referred to three-game road trip pits the Warriors up against the Lakers, the Thunder, and the Memphis Grizzlies. Golden State is 7-23 on the road this season, and these games could have huge implications on playoff seeding, as the Warriors currently maintain only a half-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks for the fifth-seed.
While likely no one would argue that the Warriors are better off without Curry, it is possible that his absence provided Klay the opportunity to remind the rest of the NBA and media that he is still a star player with plenty left in the tank. An opportunity that allowed the sharpshooter to take on the role of number-one option on offense, but with forward Draymond Green’s recent absence, the role of a leader as well.
Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr praised Klay in a recent postgame interview, “Klay is really stepping up on the leadership front. He’s been more vocal, he’s encouraging the guys. I think he recognizes that he is much-needed in that role with all of our guys out.”
With the Warriors now 4-1 since the All-Star break, Poole playing as well as he’s played all season, Curry’s return now on the horizon, and Klay looking as confident and dangerous as he has since before his injuries, Golden State appears to be peaking at just the right time and the rest of the NBA should take notice.
All stats and standings information up to date as of March 3, 2023.