The Complicated Return of Klay Thompson

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A little less than a year ago Klay Thompson was supposed to return to action for the first time since tearing his ACL in game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. But just hours before the 2020 NBA draft took place, and about a month before the 2020-21 NBA season was set to begin, it was reported that Thompson had unfortunately tore his achilles during a workout in Southern California.

Many speculate it’ll be late December or early January when he finally returns which would be over a full year from when the injury occurred, and that just about adds up with what Klay Thompson said via Instagram Live about a month back but there’s no set date. “I mean, the Achilles is like a 12-month recovery phase. But I also have to factor in my left knee because I don’t want to come back and be half myself, you know what I’m saying? Recovery is going, though. It’s slow. The Achilles is tedious,” said Thompson.

I think a more cautious approach, like Thompson is taking, is probably the right one in this situation. I’m no doctor but rehabbing ACL and achilles injuries in back to back seasons has to be pretty brutal for one mentally, and the Warriors saw firsthand the domino effect of major injuries like that with DeMarcus Cousins in 2019. The Warriors need Thompson back, but most importantly they need him to be effective when he does return and I think the more time he’s given to recover the greater the chances of him being productive and being able to stay on the court are.

How Will the Achilles Injury Effect His Play?

Historically speaking, an achilles tear for an NBA player is pretty much the beginning of the end. On the flip side of that, the good news is that we have seen some players in more recent history that have comeback and continued to have successful NBA careers. Kevin Durant is the first and obvious one that comes to mind but Rudy Gay and Wes Matthews are also examples that stand as hope for Warriors fans as Klay Thompson returns to the floor this upcoming season.

Recent Cases Are Encouraging but Not Without Concerns

In the cases of Rudy Gay and Wes Matthews both have had several productive seasons based on their numbers but one thing to keep in mind is that they both had some struggles in their first season coming back from achilles surgery. Gay saw a significant drop in his 3-point percentage (-5.8%) in his first season back and Matthews had the most inefficient season of his career up to that point in his first season back.

One big difference between these two respective cases is that Matthews didn’t see much of a change in his role pre vs post injury, while Gay saw his role significantly reduced as his minutes dropped from 33.8 per game before the injury to 21.6 per game in the season following the achilles tear. And while Gay did see a drop in his 3-point percentage his field goal percentage was actually a career high at that point in time at 47.1%.

Two players is an extremely small sample size to say the least, but the amount of minutes Thompson plays when he gets back is something to keep an eye on and it may directly correlate with his efficiency. Because of Matthews role as a 3 and D player, I think he’s a good example to look at for what to expect when Thompson returns. Thompson is obviously much more talented and accomplished but it’s a reasonable comparison in this context.

Matthews saw a drop in his overall efficiency but his 3-point percentage stayed right around the same range pre vs post injury. In the 2014-15 season in which Matthews tore his achilles, he shot just a hair under 39% from long range and in the two seasons after the injury he shot 36% and 36.3%. Now yes, that is a drop in his percentage but that’s not a significant drop, and not to mention he was playing with a less talented team following the injury which could have had something to do with it. And 36% is still fairly effective.

The most recent case is Kevin Durant and his results last season weren’t perfect but they were immensely encouraging to say the least.

One thing that sticks out in Durant’s case is that he sat out 552 days before returning to NBA action. Rudy Gay was out 9 months. Wes Matthews was out just 7 months. Klay Thompson will more than likely be out more than a full calendar year, which should theoretically work in his favor. But even Durant’s first season post-injury wasn’t without its ups and downs.

Sure, he saw career highs in both field goal and 3-point percentage- I mean 53.7% from the field and 45% from beyond the arc is positively absurd to begin with… but doing that fresh off a torn achilles? That sounds like it’s straight out of a Hollywood script- but he also played just 35 regular season games last season. That’s not even quite half of last year’s shortened schedule.

So what does all of this really mean in relation to Klay Thompson?

It seems that an achilles injury may not be quite as devastating as it once was.

But the thing is, every player is different. You never really know how a player is going to produce following a major injury until they actually get back out on the court. We saw how DeMarcus Cousins’ injuries (ACL, achilles, quadriceps) derailed his career. Mario Chalmers is a recent example of a player whose career was ended by an achilles injury. Which is not to say that Thompson will follow Cousins’ and Chalmers’ paths, or the paths of Durant, Matthews, and Gay for that matter, but it goes to show there’s no rhyme or reason to this. It’s unpredictable at best.

But with that being said, it’s certainly not unreasonable to believe that Thompson can come back and be a productive player for the Warriors. Whether or not he can get back to his pre-injury self is a much more complicated question, although I don’t believe it’s out of the realm of possibilities.

Transitioning Klay Thompson Back Into the Lineup

The Warriors lack of proven, quality depth at the shooting guard position makes me a bit worried about how many minutes Thompson will be asked to play when he returns. Not to mention the Warriors ceiling for the upcoming season depends on how productive Thompson is when he gets back.

The Warriors have Jordan Poole, Damion Lee, Mychal Mulder, and Moses Moody holding down the fort at shooting guard until Thompson returns. This group of guys is mostly underwhelming and although I’m extremely high on the future of both Poole and Moody, the Warriors will definitely be eager to get Thompson back into the lineup.

It’s a tough situation because the Warriors obviously want to win now. Klay Thompson obviously wants to win now. But does he have enough gas in his tank to get the job done?

This most likely isn’t a situation where they’ll just throw Thompson right into the fire and play him 30+ minutes a game right away (although the Nets took that approach with Durant). He’ll more than likely be eased back into the lineup with some sort of minutes restriction and possibly coming off the bench to begin. But come March and the Warriors are playing for playoff seeding? I know that Thompson won’t be happy on a minutes restriction and it may be difficult for Steve Kerr to manage not overplaying Thompson while also winning ball games.

Considering the amount of time Thompson is projected to have missed when he eventually does return around the New Year, the transition may be easier than I suspect but I’d still like to see a relatively cautious approach with his minutes in the first month or so. A cautious approach would definitely be frustrating to extent as a fan but if it helps keep him fresh for a playoff run that might just be what’s best for all involved.

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