What Klay Thompson’s Return Means for the Phoenix Suns and the West

Phoenix Suns, Klay Thompson (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns, Klay Thompson (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

Swimming laps around almost every other Western Conference team, the Phoenix Suns are certainly enjoying this first half of the 2021-22 NBA season. But last night, the Golden State Warriors dropped a great white shark into the pool, one with a mini-afro and the number 11 carved onto its dorsal fin.

Making his triumphant return, Klay Thompson finally suited back up for the Warriors yesterday, dropping 17 points on a tough Cleveland Cavaliers team. After tearing his ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals and then rupturing his achilles right before last season tipped off, this prodigal splash brother was missed on the court for 941 straight days.

Being such an important player to the league for the latter part of the past decade, his return was widely celebrated by those from the Bay area—and far beyond it.

Although Thompson struggled a bit from an efficiency standpoint against the Cavs, shooting 7-18 from the field, he remains a future Hall of Famer, certain to improve after getting a few more games under his belt. In doing that, he promises to give the Warriors a substantial boost and consequently shake up the league as we move toward the All-Star break.

From a general standpoint, Thompson’s return obviously threatens Phoenix’s hold on the West. For his career, he averages 19.5 points per game, shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three. Golden State already resembles a top-10 team in offensive rating, and adding an undisputed top-three all-time shooter in Thompson only makes them more dangerous.

But under more specific terms, Thompson poises to hurt the Suns mainly with his spacing amidst Golden State’s complex and fast-moving offense.

Phoenix’s best defensive effort vs the Warriors surely came during their first matchup this season. It gave way to their only win thus far against the golden boys, and consequently deserves another look with regard to how Thompson might impact any head-to-head games down the line.

During that late November game, lock-down defense on shooters more than anything led to the win. Thanks to agile defenders Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and Jae Crowder, the Suns kept the pressure on Golden State’s shooters even after getting their desired switches.

That defensive effort from the Suns forced the Warriors into a tough night with their self-created shots from deep, shooting 25.0 percent on pull-up threes. That figure stands far off from their season mark at 36.8 percent, illustrating how Phoenix’s defense impacts Golden State at its best.

But with Thompson back, his spacing will make those shots less featured in their offense, rendering this strength for the Suns almost useless.

With Thompson as an omnipresent threat from beyond the arc, he will stretch the Suns defense out even with all their versatile defenders, allowing the Warriors to find more catch-and-shoot opportunities from three.

On catch-and-shoot attempts this year, Golden State already ranks top three in percentage, and now will now be able to flex those muscles more often against Phoenix. Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavalier, and Houston Rocket fans likely still have nightmares about the Warriors of old and their 3-point shooting blitzes, and now the Suns will need to run around crazy to try and deal with it all the same.

Although more difficult to quantify, Thompson’s return also adds more fire to an already top-ranking Warriors defense. Based on last night, Thompson’s lateral quickness seems to have survived his past injuries. He did well to stick with his defensive assignments and his hands stayed active, even helping him to come away with a blocked shot.

But primarily against the Suns, Thompson carries the potential to bother Devin Booker along the wing. We all know how much Booker improved since the last time he lined up against Thompson, but history still nods in Thompson’s favor when looking at these two head-to-head.

Booker’s field goal, and especially 3-point percentage, are all lower during games against Thompson/Golden State compared to his averages from his rookie year to the 2018-19 season. The same goes for his free-throw attempts per game, and his turnovers increased as well.

Thompson also stands taller than Booker and carries a longer wingspan. With those dimensions, he gives Book an entirely different look than the stingy Gary Payton II, but one still quite difficult to deal with.

Locking down Booker remains a painstaking chore, and an almost impossible one to complete, but the Warriors now possess another potential stopper for him, which still makes things difficult no matter how you look at it.

To be clear though, all this remains speculation. On the other hand, today’s Phoenix team as a whole looks far different than the one Thompson last saw, which grants the Suns the element of surprise. With Bridges and Ayton having taken the largest leaps since Thompson last took the floor, those two have the best chance to take him by storm.

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But either way, the final regular season matchup already feels exciting to think about with it being less than two months away. The Warriors do hold a single game advantage in that series though, and now have their shark fully healed as well.