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A Tale Of Two Warriors' Swingmen

One of the more interesting developments for the Golden State Warriors thus far has to be the in-season changing of fortunes for swingmen Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. While we do not have enough information (visual, data, or both) to fully explain what is going on with either, there are a few things that we can ascertain which can be useful in the process.

The positive steps that Thompson took toward the end of last season make the early struggles more surprising, but also may shed some light on what has happened. In the later stages of 2011-12, Thompson took on more of a playmaking role as the rest of the players on the team ended up on the injured list. I wrote at the time that it would be hard to make evaluations during Tank Mode because of differences in team composition and that may be part of the problem here.

Even though a higher proportion of his looks are assisted (generally a good sign of a successful look, with some exceptions) and he is shooting more close shots and less jumpers compared to last season, Thompon's shooting numbers are dramatically worse across the board. One of the more useful figures for a guy like him is eFG%, which is simply standard field goal percentage with an adjustment for made threes since they are worth more points. That measure helps Thompson more than most since he makes deep shots. Compared to last season, Thompson had shot nearly 13 percent worse on jumpers and 11 percent worse on closer shots (layups, dunks, etc).

Unfortunately, there are no clear explanations for why this has happened. However, shot selection could be playing a meaningful part. There have been a series of situations this year where Thompson has had a quality look that was a little deeper than would be best and he has taken the shot because he was open. While this works fine if the shots go in, it poses a bigger problem when they do not, particularly when he had time to do something else. One of the more notable changes in Thompson's looks so far this year comes in the form of when he shoots rather than what kind of attempt it is.

Last season, Thompson had 36 percent of his shots come in the first ten seconds of the shot clock and 63 percent in the first fifteen seconds. In 2012-13, the first ten seconds has rocketed up to 46 percent (nearly half) of his attempts and the total of the first fifteen has gone up to 69 percent of his total. On some teams, shooting early in the clock can be a very good thing- think of the seven seconds or less Suns teams. However, Klay has shot almost 9 percent worse in the first ten seconds than he did a year ago, a pedestrian eFG% of .473. By comparison, this trails Richard Jefferson by 10 percent, Harrison Barnes by 18 percent, and James Harden (who Thompson wanted to model some of the new tweaks in his game after) by 7 percent. This may seem like a relatively small difference but a downshift in efficiency coupled with an increase in how many of those looks he takes can play a big factor.

However, the numbers only tell part of the story here. The issue with Thompson early in the shot clock centers more on the idea that he could be generating better looks for the team than the fact that he has made less of those looks. Some of this has to come from coaching. Mark Jackson’s verbiage on shot selection this season stands out as being looser than in his first season. As such, it feels unlikely that he and the staff spend enough time explaining the problems of poor shot choices early in the clock to players like Thompson that need that coaching. Furthermore, the lack of cohesive offensive sets that show an understanding of what looks a player should have makes it even harder for guys to break slumps. Teams like the Spurs continue to do an excellent job making sure that players have offensive opportunities that mesh with their strengths while minimizing or masking their weaknesses. The Warriors have not done much of that so far this season and it has led to performance below expectations for both Thompson and David Lee, the two players on the Warriors with the weakest offensive judgement.

On the other hand, Harrison Barnes has largely benefitted from the lack of direction over the past two weeks. As someone who has tracked Barnes since his time as an elite high school prospect, he has had two major problems: elite talent but the game of a complementary player and the perception that he was an elite talent with the game of a primary player. To say that a different way, Harrison possesses some of the best physical tools of any guy at his position but does not have the type of game to be the best player on a good team. The gap between what people thought he would be and what he was ended up hurting his draft stock since many expected him to carry North Carolina both with (and especially without) Kendall Marshall, though that silly drop may have helped his career since it put him in a better overall situation. On the Warriors, Barnes can be the straw that stirs the drink when necessary but is never required to do so thanks to the presence of Stephen Curry and presumably Bogut. That ability works incredibly well with a PG who can produce as an off-the-ball shooter the way Steph has his entire career. By shifting the playmaking duties around within the starting trio for stretches, it should keep defenses honest and give everyone better spacing and looks throughout games.

As a draft prospect, one of the more interesting things that Harrison could do was create for himself and others off the dribble. He was a worse than expected set shooter last year at UNC, a negative that should not hurt Golden State too badly even if it continues. Since he shot in the mid-70’s on free throws in college, it seems possible that he will improve his set shot as well. The biggest remaining question with Barnes as a prospect was his motor, which has been shockingly good thus far as a pro. His rebounding continues to be better than expected and he has shown both effort and results on the boards. Getting a better sense of how to defend at the NBA level could also help keep Harrison engaged in the game and contributing even when his offense falls a little by the wayside as long as he keeps up the effort on the glass.  That same mentality could benefit Klay as well since it seems like his defense perks up when his offense is flowing  and the same when it goes south, which can be a problem for a team looking for consistency.

What makes the young Golden State swingmen so interesting long-term is that their strengths feed together relatively well. While neither one of them will be the #1 option on a quality team unless they make some major strides, both Barnes and Thompson have the ability to take over a game on the offensive end if everything is going their way. At this point, Thompson needs to learn how to be a useful cog in the offense when his shot is not falling while also developing the judgement necessary to give himself more makeable looks. The rest of the team, particularly Stephen Curry, must gain a better understanding of where to get his teammates the ball in order to give the team the best chance at success possession by possession. Luckily, these issues are correctable with time and attention, two things the Warriors and their fans must exhibit as the team moves forward.

[Small update: Thompson had a much, much better game against the Nets on Wednesday, including improved shot selection. Very positive signs.]

 

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