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Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Warriors rest future on feats of Klay

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Kevin Love has finally been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a Midwest exchange that, on the face of things, shouldn’t turn stomachs in California. That’s not how the social media age works, though. We know of unconsummated trade talks between the Warriors and Timberwolves and understand that Golden State getting Love was indeed feasible. So this is how a Minnesota player’s move to Cleveland has the potential to haunt fans in the Bay Area, possibly for a decade or more. Everybody saw the path Golden State took when the road forked before it.

The Warriors are finally good enough that one extra piece could make them a real contender. Now, fans are more disappointed than if Golden State had never bothered to try in the first place. The pain of coming up just short of greatness has the potential to burn more acutely than years of prior mediocrity, even though the alternate reality, the one where the Warriors aren’t good enough to even make getting Love a possibility, is a bleaker picture of a more sickly franchise -- something resembling the Chris Cohan era.

Kevin Love, Klay Thompson
Instead of trading for Kevin Love, the Warriors are counting on Klay Thompson to take a leap forward.
Love reportedly did have interest in joining the Warriors but couldn’t and didn’t promise to stay beyond the year left on his contract. The Warriors did have interest in getting Love but couldn’t bring themselves to part with Klay Thompson. There were many components to the potential deal, but this is the reductive summary: Golden State could have gotten Love had it been willing to part with Thompson before the draft. But after LeBron James chose Cleveland, the Warriors' reluctance to part with Thompson became a moot point, as the Wolves decided they preferred Andrew Wiggins anyway. There was a window for a while, and LeBron closed it.

The Warriors' decision to refuse that window is the source of some confusion around the league. Why couldn’t they part with a rotation player for an All-Star, especially when said rotation player is up for a big contract extension in a year? Love would have been an ideal complement to Stephen Curry on offense, given how both players give teams fits in the pick-and-roll. How could keeping Thompson be worth it?

If the Warriors indeed erred in keeping Thompson, his likability could be partly to blame. It’s easy to forget that workplace drudgery exists behind the exciting, televised game, and the people making decisions must deal with the personalities attached to the talent. Thompson is regarded as the epitome of a good soldier. If he was anything less, he might be buying winter clothes right now.

Love can be viewed as a cantankerous teammate; apparently even Ricky Rubio has had his gripes. Las Vegas Summer League practically doubled as a whisper campaign against the All-Star power forward, perhaps driven by teams attempting to depress his trade value.

In contrast, it’s difficult to uncover complaints about Thompson, who committed to Team USA and made its 12-man roster. Even though last season’s Golden State coaching staff was engulfed in internecine warfare, feuding sides could always agree on their shooting guard. Coaches just love Klay. Mike Krzyzewski is the latest such example.

While the shooting slumps frustrate fans, coaches mostly rave about his work ethic and low-maintenance manner. Thompson plays with a blank expression that can read as apathy, but he is reputed to have an uncommon competitive streak, especially on the defensive end. He is known to keep obsessive track of the impact his defense has on opponents’ offensive stats. Further endearing him to some coaches, he cares little for credit or attention. I’ve personally seen Warriors officials stop Thompson from sneaking out of the building after big scoring performances. He either dreads postgame interviews or is wholly apathetic toward them.

Last season, Thompson was trusted with the toughest defensive assignments, tasked nightly with forcing ball handlers from the middle of the floor. The Warriors coaches believed him to be a better defender than Andre Iguodala, who made the All-Defense first team, even though the on-court/off-court numbers strongly sided with Iguodala.

How Golden State planned its future has much to do with these coaches who no longer work there. Last season’s coaching situation was such a bloody mess that Warriors management isn’t sure of what it has with this current roster. Specifically, it isn't sure of how good Thompson and Harrison Barnes (who was also dangled in talks) are. But there’s an internal expectation that both players are better than what they have shown and will demonstrate that going forward.

Management believes the coaching staff that loved Thompson so much didn’t do enough for him offensively. The Warriors were last in the league in passes per game -- a stat Jerry West likes to derisively cite. Golden State is optimistic that next season will be different. Steve Kerr, another coach who happens to be a big fan of Thompson's, sweeps in with talk of Spurs-style motion offense and triangle-spacing principles.

Plays were almost never called for Thompson last season, but he would sometimes end up with the ball in isolation situations simply because the defense had thwarted the action. Critics would point to Thompson's lack of playmaking and pedestrian true shooting mark. His supporters at Warriors HQ would cite a situation that wasn’t conducive to his catch-and-shoot skill set. The Hawks revolve much of their offense around Kyle Korver. The Warriors weren’t nearly that intentional about using Thompson.

While there is a perception that certain pro-Thompson forces won out within the organization, the Warriors insist that final decision-making rests with majority owner Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers. Myers makes the ultimate recommendation, and Lacob holds veto power. The Warriors debate such matters with their other core basketball operations people (assistant GM Travis Schlenk, assistant GM Kirk Lacob, West and Kerr), but this is by design. This is part of what management considers its "internal due diligence," a process of many voices informing the final choice. Myers has the technical authority to ignore these perspectives but trends toward courting many opinions.

Steve Kerr
New coach Steve Kerr and the Warriors front office see ways to open up Thompson's offensive game.
Is this a chaotic “too many chefs” problem or simply an open-minded organization that favors inquiry over ego? It really depends on how successful you deem the decisions.

What's curious about Golden State’s wisdom-of-crowds approach is it produced a different result from what a majority of NBA observers (including yours truly) would have advocated. In our ESPN Forecast polling, the Warriors would have roughly tripled their title chances with a Love acquisition.

It’s not like Lacob is apathetic at the prospect of winning a championship. He’s a maniacal presence on the sideline of every home game. He’s laying the groundwork for a stadium in San Francisco. He has every incentive to triple Golden State’s title chances, if such a thing is possible.

“Only we know all the details of such discussions that may or may not have occurred,” Lacob wrote in an email discussing the trade. “And, if it even needs to be said, nobody wants to win as badly as we want to win. We have invested our money, our time, our reputations.”

Fair or not, those reputations are in the hands of Klay Thompson, the good soldier. If he fails to markedly improve and Love thrives in the spotlight, this summer will be viewed as a disaster.

It wouldn’t be that way in a bygone era. We never would have known of this almost-deal, or at least wouldn’t have cared so much. This is the new reality, though. By doing nothing at all, the Warriors have made a big, risky trade for their own player.