Can Klay Thompson still make a splash on a Western Conference contender? Dallas is betting on it

When we think of Klay Thompson’s 13-year tenure with the Golden State Warriors — which came to an end on Monday when he agreed to a three-year, $50 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks as part of a three-team deal — we’ll think of the moments when he burned so white-hot that he threatened to reduce the entire gym to cinders. Like his NBA-record 37-point quarter against the Kings:

Or the time he scored 60 points in three quarters — on 11 dribbles — against the Pacers:

Or the NBA-record 14 3-pointers against the Bulls:

Or Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals, when he made 11 3s and scored 41 points on the road in Oklahoma City to keep the Warriors’ season alive and forged the legend of Game 6 Klay:

Or Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, when he had 30 points in 31 minutes in less than three quarters as Golden State tried to stave off elimination at the hands of the Toronto Raptors before landing hard after a fast-break dunk and foul by Danny Green, immediately grabbing his left knee, and needing help to get off the court and back toward the Warriors’ locker room … only to turn around, walk back onto the floor on what we’d later learn was a torn ACL, make his free throws and try to get back on defense before Steve Kerr took him out:

That night at Oracle wasn’t the end of the line for Thompson. But it was the beginning of his end as a Warrior.

Surgery to repair that torn left ACL cost Thompson the entire 2019-20 season. A ruptured Achilles tendon during a preseason workout cost him the entire 2020-21 campaign. He’d return midway through the 2021-22 season, after 941 days away, and would start all 22 playoff games as Golden State’s dynastic core made that remarkable run to the 2022 title. But while the magic returned in flashes — 54 in Atlanta, two 12-triple performances in a three-week span — it couldn’t sustain, the hot hand proving ever more elusive, that which once seemed effortless now looking ever more effortful.

Thompson shot 25% from the floor over the final four games of the Warriors’ loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 2023 playoffs, including 3 for 19 in Game 6, once his reputation-making crucible. He struggled to stay in front of opposing wings, having understandably but clearly lost multiple steps from his All-Defensive Team days, relegating him to spending more time this season defending power forwards than guards. (His most frequent defensive matchups, according to NBA Advanced Stats: Jalen Williams, Aaron Gordon, Harrison Barnes and Kevin Durant.)

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 16: Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson #11 looks up at the score in the third quarter of their NBA play-in tournament game against the Sacramento Kings at the Golden One Center in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

He also struggled to stay above 40% from the field through the first half of a chaotic season in Golden State, leading Kerr to eventually (briefly) move the five-time All-Star, four-time champion and two-time All-NBA selection to the bench for the first time since his rookie season. Thompson watched as Brandin Podziemski — one of several perimeter players the Warriors drafted with an eye toward replacing Klay as Stephen Curry’s entrenched running buddy — took the floor for the opening tip. Then Thompson checked into the game at the 7:12 mark of the first quarter … and proceeded to score a season-high 35 points in 28 minutes.

Golden State caught a rhythm midway through the season, going 28-15 with the NBA’s fifth-best net rating after Draymond Green returned from his second suspension. But given both the strength of the Western Conference and the depth of the hole out of which they were trying to climb, the Warriors couldn’t escape the play-in tournament, where the longtime little brother Kings were ready to drum them out of the postseason, with Thompson — author of so many glorious games in massive moments — missing all 10 shots he took.

This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper. With a scoreless farewell and “close to no communication” for weeks. With a pair of second-round picks and a trade exception; with a promise to retire Thompson’s jersey … once he’s done wearing another team’s.

“You can do two things,” Thompson told reporters after his 35-point performance off the bench back in February. “You can pout, or you can go out there and respond.”

Thompson’s response to the frustrations he felt at both his inability to return to his old form and the Warriors’ seeming unwillingness to treat (and pay) him like the player he once was? Linking up with the defending Western Conference champions, who will pay the 34-year-old like the player he is — a deal that’ll start at about 11% of the salary cap — to be the player he is.

Which, to be clear, is someone who has made more 3-pointers than anybody but Steph over the last two seasons, and who still combines long-distance volume and accuracy at a level that 95% of the NBA can’t touch.

Thompson has shot 39% or better on above-the-break 3s in every season of his career, and 40% or better from the corners in all but his 2021-22 comeback campaign. He has finished first or second in the NBA in catch-and-shoot triples eight times in the last 11 seasons — including last year. Now, he’ll be spotting up while Luka Dončić (who tops the NBA in assists leading to 3-pointers over the last five seasons, according to PBP Stats) and Kyrie Irving (50th on that list) run pick-and-rolls, waiting to rain fire after they’ve collapsed the defense and kicked the ball back out.

While Thompson isn’t the same kind of All-Star scoring threat he was in his prime, he’s still a much more dangerous option on those sorts of catch-and-shoot looks than the likes of P.J. Washington, Derrick Jones Jr., Josh Green, Dante Exum and Maxi Kleber — the players the Boston Celtics helped off of to neuter the Mavericks’ offense in the NBA Finals. (Fellow new arrivals Quentin Grimes, who shot 37.9% from 3-point range in parts of three seasons with the Knicks before being traded to the Pistons last February, and Naji Marshall, who shot a career-high 42% from the corners in New Orleans last season, could help on that front, too.)

Bring help off Thompson to load up on Luka and Kyrie, and you’re inviting one of the greatest shooters in NBA history to torch you. Stick tight to him, and suddenly the driving, passing and rolling lanes for the Mavs’ top guns and finishers become wider than ever. Hell, stick tight to him and he still might light your ass up: Klay made more 3-pointers against “tight” coverage (meaning there was a defender within 2 to 4 feet of him when he let it go) than any other player in the league last season, and shot 39.5% on those attempts.

Thompson could help unlock other sorts of looks for the Mavericks, too — including some pathways to points that might not require the guy who led the league in scoring and finished second in usage rate, time of possession and touches per game to do quite so much of everything.

One pitfall of relying so heavily on Luka and Kyrie to create off of a live dribble: Even if they’re cooking, the offense can sometimes bog down a bit. (Look no further than the Finals, when the Celtics’ switching grinded the Mavs to a halt, with Dallas averaging 43 fewer passes per game than it had during the regular season — and scoring 10 fewer points per 100 possessions than it had during the regular season.) Thompson introduces a burst of kineticism into the proceedings with the kind of constant off-ball movement — he traveled more miles on offense last season than any member of the Mavericks, and at a higher average speed on offense than any Mav save Exum — that demands defensive attention all over the floor.

That can pay dividends in shots for Thompson himself …

… and it can also create clean looks for others:

It’s not hard to envision Thompson popping loose behind off-ball screens set by Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II, or Thompson leveraging the attention he draws to serve up even more alley-oop lobs to the Mavericks’ big men. Nor is it hard to envision Irving, who logged more screen assists last season than he had since his final season in Cleveland alongside LeBron James, partnering with Thompson in some of the kind of guard-guard screening actions with which Klay and Steph tied defenses in knots for more than a decade.

As smooth as the offensive fit seems, though, there will still be plenty of rough patches to iron out. Will the shot-selection struggles that at times submarined Klay last season rear their ugly head again? Or will Thompson be more content playing a more circumscribed role as a newcomer to someone else’s team than he was on one where he (rightly) felt a greater sense of ownership? If/when Thompson’s jumper suffers a cold snap like he did early last season, will he be able to contribute enough elsewhere — as a cutter, as a complementary playmaker, etc. — to make up for it?

Also: the defense. You’d suspect Thompson would slot into the starting small forward spot vacated by Jones Jr. — especially considering the notion of coming off the bench behind Podziemski should he return to Golden State seemed to be a non-starter. It’s worth wondering, though, what kind of impact that swap would have on a Mavericks team that surged late last season largely on the strength of a defense that started clamping people down once DJJ got inserted into the starting five.

If Thompson again has trouble staying in front of quicker wings, will the job fall to Washington? What downstream effects might that have? And if the defense that ranked among the league’s best over the final three-plus months starts sprinkling leaks, might head coach Jason Kidd find himself following in Kerr’s footsteps and thinking about moving Marshall into the starting five and Thompson to the second unit? Would such a rebalancing cause the same level of friction in Dallas as it did in the Bay? And, perhaps most importantly: Given how excellent Jones was in the role Kidd found for him — and how his versatility and Green’s physicality helped unlock the best version of last year’s Finals squad — will this larger rebalancing result in a better version of the Mavericks, period?

Dallas’ braintrust is betting that it will: that swapping out Jones, Green and Tim Hardaway Jr. for Thompson, Marshall and Grimes will prove enough of a collective shooting and movement upgrade — and, with it, enough of a lift for Luka and Kyrie — that the offensive gains will outweigh any defensive slippage. (Slippage that might be cleaned up considerably by Lively, an absolute monster as a rookie, stepping into an even larger role in Year 2.)

If they’re right, the Mavs might have enough depth, versatility and firepower to make a serious play for a repeat run at the top of the West — to give Thompson a shot at joining the five-timers’ club to which he desperately wants entry, and maybe at authoring some more moments to remember. To drown out that whimper, and go out with a few more bangs.