Sad doesn’t come to mind when digesting Klay Thompson’s vulnerable interview. It’s understandable, for sure, after watching Thompson miss all three of his 3s, a couple of them cringingly off the mark.
But “sad,” submitting humbly, should be reserved for the former stars who way overdrafted their talent accounts. Sad was 46-year-old Roy Jones getting KOed in Russia by Enzo Maccarinelli. Sad was 48-year-old Jose Canseco hitting .194 for the Worcester Tornados in the Can-Am League. Thompson is nowhere near that level of “shouldn’t be out there.”
Nonetheless, his tone, the way disappointment dangled from his words, and the bewilderment over his current futility, certainly suggested an internal reckoning was happening. Thompson sounded like an all-time great standing among the rubble of his pedestal. It felt like a watershed moment for the Golden State Warriors legend.
“Yeah, you kidding me?” Thompson said Monday after he sat the final 7:19 of the Warriors’ win over the Brooklyn Nets. “To go from one of the best players … it’s hard for anybody. I’ll be honest with you: It’s really hard.”
Sad? Not really. It might even be the most encouraging sign at this stage of his journey — if this gets Thompson to adjust in the way he needs.
Klay Thompson said it’s hard to not close: “Yeah, you kidding me? To go from one of the best players…It’s hard for anybody.”
Klay credited the young guys.
Draymond from off camera (to reporters): “I didn’t close Game 5 of the Finals. Who the f*** cares?” pic.twitter.com/CzYNX4vulw
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 6, 2024
Thompson isn’t done. The All-NBA guard he’s been trying to conjure may be gone. That breath-taker, that moment-maker, who could bail out the Warriors and destroy the will of his foes at his whim, has perhaps taken his final bow. If he had hopes of the Warriors’ inking him to one last massive contract, that’s probably got less of a chance than one of his off-balance contested 3s.
But Thompson’s value is hardly exhausted. A plus player exists in there. Finding him may just require Thompson to end his pursuit of the version of himself to which he clings with desperation. We’ve seen that plus player, recently and enough to be certain of his existence.
We’ve also seen the desperation. In his shot selection. In his demeanor when things aren’t going so well. In his reacting to a decent performance as if he somehow failed himself.
Thompson didn’t play a decidedly bad game Monday in Brooklyn. He wasn’t spectacular. His shot wasn’t falling. But six rebounds, three assists and two steals in 30 minutes isn’t terrible. It wasn’t good enough for automatic crunch time minutes. But he’s certainly played worse games.
As he said, though, that this is part of his story now is hard to swallow. Strip away the fame, the money, that his career is playing a sport, and any other reason that prevents seeing Thompson as a man transitioning to the next stage of his life. What will be revealed is the man and what he’s grappling with right now.
Imagine having your prime hijacked. Imagine spending three years working to get back to your highest level only to learn it’s now too high. Imagine looking for yourself in the mirror and not finding the you that you remember.
These are the harsh realities of star athletes. Their mortality produces crash landings that aren’t softened by piles of cash. We’ve been watching an all-time great claw with everything he has to get that level back. Now we’re watching, in real-time, an all-time great wrestle with the inevitability of the end of that greatness.
Thompson, who despite his lovable aloofness has a history of being refreshingly tangible, isn’t hiding this part either. Not that he could if he wanted. This is who he is, working his way through every stage, riding with every ebb and flow. Emotions are his cuff links.
No doubt, his reaction Monday wasn’t just about that one game, but the slump he’s in. Thompson is shooting 35.6 percent from the field over his last eight games, including 24 of 80 from 3-point range (30 percent).
He still ties his value directly to his shooting. So it makes sense he’s down right now. But that’s why a change in mindset is important.
Thompson has for sure earned the grace and space to work this out. To make this transformation. Mold a new Klay. But Thompson has to funeralize the version of himself he wants so desperately to still be alive. Because a really good player awaits on the other side of that closure. Contentment resides in the best of what he can offer at 34, following two major injuries, being good enough. It’s a different version, one not so dominant, yet more sustainable and still effective.
Thompson just has to get there. That he’s a solidified Hall of Famer, that he’s won four championships, that his name will have a ring to it for ages, must become the reason he can get there. To this point, it’s the reason he hasn’t.
There is no shame in this process being difficult. Stephen Curry is looking so good at nearly 36 because he started preparing for a possible decline years ago. Russell Westbrook has found rejuvenation in reinvention. Mike Conley Jr. is a 36-year-old starting point guard for Minnesota as it vies for the top seed in the West because he was flexible in his play style.
Michael Jordan developed the fade-away jumper. Paul Pierce turned the elbows of the paint into his office. Players do what Thompson needs to do.
He would be right back in business if he limited himself to clean looks from 3, developed an automatic midrange jumper from a few trusty spots on the floor, manufactured a higher free-throw rate and continued growing as a passer and leader.
Thompson has looked good when he controls his thirst for the jaw-dropping. There’s plenty of evidence in this season alone he can still be an important player for the Warriors. He will go off from time to time, but it will most often not look like it once did. Still, his size, his shooting, his competitiveness, his experience, his ability to catch fire on occasion — winning teams can benefit from all of that. The Warriors can benefit. As long as his head is in the right space.
Thompson must be calculated and diligent about how he can be effective at this stage of his career. Coach Steve Kerr has to be more insistent and diligent about putting Thompson in the right positions, even micromanaging his role in the offense, and recognize the nights he doesn’t have it — as Kerr did Monday. Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy has to configure the roster to alleviate some pressure for Thompson to be an All-NBA player.
This takes nothing away from what he’s accomplished. It makes it no less impressive he’s made it even to this level after what he’s been through. And it would be no less sweet if they win again with him in a reimagined role.
All of this would be fine. It is fine. This is part of managing the final years of legends. What remains of the journey will include more nights when Thompson doesn’t have it, where Kerr might have to go another direction. And it shouldn’t be an indictment of any kind. These champions deserve the right to be accommodated as long as they’re willing.
Everybody involved should understand what’s going on, prepare for it and adjust accordingly. That includes Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson embracing the future. We’re seeing them do it with Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski. Adapt and survive.
A pivot is needed now, not a pasture. There is something beautiful about them going through this, too, together. Certainly, nothing sad about it.
Warriors outlast the Nets — with Klay Thompson watching from the bench
(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)