This is my Wednesday column on the Warriors. WARNING — this is a basketball column. 49ers’ fans — feel free to skip this.
OAKLAND – Klay Thompson is the key variable to the Warriors’ season. Thompson will determine how far the Warriors go.
The Warriors finished sixth in the Western Conference last season and lost to the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. This offseason, General Manager Bob Myers added a few bench players, fired Mark Jackson and replaced him with Steve Kerr, a rookie head coach.
Who knows why, but some experts expect the Warriors to be a championship contender this season. Sports Illustrated picked the team to finish fourth in the West, Adrian Wojnarowski chose Golden State to win the West and Marc Spears picked them to beat the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
Kerr can’t be the reason. He never has coached a game, never in his life. He’s learning on the job. Don’t count on Kerr outcoaching masters like Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich in the playoffs any time soon.
Thompson has to be the reason behind this Warriors-optimism.
Every contending team has at least two All-Stars. The Spurs have Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. The Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The Rockets have James Harden and Dwight Howard. The Blazers have Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Warriors have one All-Star – Stephen Curry.
David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala are complementary players now. Lee and Iguodala are 30. Bogut is 29. None of them is getting better.
Iguodala is a defensive specialist who has knee tendinitis. He couldn’t guard J.J. Reddick in the playoffs last season. Reddick is one of the slowest guards in the basketball.
Bogut also is a defensive specialist. He shot 34 percent from the free throw line last season. He gets hurt every year.
Lee is a good third banana. No team will win the Finals with him as the second banana. He’s not THAT good. The best power forwards shut him down. He’s a shaky defender. And then there’s that hamstring he pulled during the preseason.
Thompson was a rotten banana in the playoffs last season. He shot worse than 40 percent in four-of-seven games against the Clippers. The Warriors could have traded Thompson in the offseason for Kevin Love, a 26-year-old three-time All-Star, but decided not to.
Thompson is a 24-year-old zero-time All-Star entering the fourth season of his career. Two Warriors greats – Curry and Chris Mullin – became top-level players during their fourth seasons. Curry averaged 22.9 points per game and Mullin averaged 26.5. Time for Thompson to become the top-level player the Warriors believe he can be.
He already is a top-level defender and shooter. Listen to Kerr, one of the greatest shooters ever, talk about Thompson’s stroke Tuesday after practice. “Klay is just boom, boom. He catches it at his forehead and it’s gone. And at 6-7, it’s almost impossible to challenge it. No wasted motion. No wasted effort. Just catch and let it go with perfect form.”
But Thompson has weaknesses. I wanted to ask Thompson how he improved this offseason, but he left the practice facility early Tuesday afternoon. Dentist appointment.
So I asked Kerr and Curry about Thompson. Both Kerry and Curry had clear visions of what Thompson’s next step should be.
Kerr said, “I think just understanding that the game can be easier for him than it has been. In other words, getting better shots. I think the last couple of years he has been great, but he has taken difficult shots. And I told him a couple weeks ago – I think we were in Kansas City – that he should think about being a 50-40-90 player.”
That means shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the foul line. Only six players in NBA history have accomplished that. Thompson almost did it in the preseason. He shot 51-50-88.
“He’s got all the potential in the world,” Kerr said. “If you’re that big and strong, you’re going get enough layups and dunks in transition to shoot 50 percent.”
Before this preseason, Thompson never had come close to shooting 50 percent. His career shooting percentage in the regular season is 43.5, and in the playoffs it’s 42.6. He tends to take long, tough shots instead of driving to the basket for layups and getting fouled. He averaged only 2.3 free throw attempts last season, pretty passive. If he averages six free throw attempts this season, he can boost his scoring average to 23 points per game no sweat.
Thompson needs to improve his passing, too. He’s a ball hog, dished out just 2.2 assists per game last season. Curry says that’s changing. “He’s been able to put the ball on the floor and make plays. The defense is sending a lot of pressure to him on catch-and-shoot situations and he seems to have been able to read the defenses better. Obviously he takes some tough shots because he’s capable of making them. But in certain situations where he’s double-teamed he’s able to find the open man, get it to him however he can.
“He’s just becoming more confident and comfortable. As you go through your career that comes out.”
For the Warriors’ sake, it needs to come out now.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.