The NBA was a very different place when Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals. Kawhi Leonard was on the soon-to-be champion Raptors, Anthony Davis was on the Pelicans, Kyrie Irving a Celtic, Kevin Durant a Warrior. Golden State was in their fifth consecutive Finals. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant had not yet appeared in an NBA game. There were no health and safety protocols and the idea of games being played in a Bubble at Disney World would have sounded like a bad joke. And now, after a long and presumably difficult rehab process, Thompson has returned to the court after missing two full seasons. He is being greeted like a long-lost friend, the buddy you’ve been dying to reconnect with and are now sharing a meal together at a local restaurant you used to frequent back before you both moved away from your hometown.
Klay Thompson seems like a cool guy. Not cool in the way that Ja Morant and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are, a way that seems almost inaccessible to the average fan. However, Thompson seems to embody the vibe that many NBA fans like to believe that they would have themselves… if only they were an athletically brilliant multi-millionaire. If I tried to wear what Shai does or acted with the bravado that Morant does, I would come across as a fool. However, many fans can imagine hanging out on a boat with their dog, pontificating on Instagram Live. As Steve Kerr said in 2017, “He just wants to play hoop[s] and have fun, play with his dog.” I’m more of a cat person myself, but I can understand those simple desires much more than ones revolving around building a brand and some sort of small personal empire. There’s an accessibility and ease that draws many fans in. It’s a fiction of course, one projected on to him. None of us have any idea if we would actually get along with the guy, but it feels kind of plausible even if, deep down, one can acknowledge that it’s fairly unlikely. Though I would like to ask him if he’s ever seen The Seventh Seal.
It has only been two-and-a-half years since he last suited up, yet his presence nevertheless feels like a dispatch from a simpler time. Not necessarily a better one, but at least different, seemingly more innocent. There is no Golden Age to return to, no past period we can find when justice was achieved and a final state of happiness could be obtained. But in our current moment, with thousands dying daily from a disease that no one in power seems eager to combat or mitigate the spread of, any retreat seems desirable. The possibility of past brilliance returning can offer such a haven.
All throughout the Warriors’ hot start, there was a constant refrain among a certain subset of optimistic Golden State fans that fantasized about just how much better they would be once Klay returned to the line-up. “If we are this good while missing two starters, just imagine what we’re capable of at our peak!” went this partiuclar line of thinking. It could turn out to be true, but it always felt a little naive to me. Isn’t it a bit presumptuous for anyone to assume that Thompson could slide into the starting line-up after a two-and-a-half year absence as if nothing has changed?
In his first several games back, he has only intermittently looked like his old self. Though what else would one expect? Thompson has started every game since he returned, but the Warriors are still bringing him along slowly. His minutes have been limited, like the team knows that he is likely to be of much more value to them in a few months than he can be now. Despite his early struggles, Tuesday’s game against the Mavericks was a welcome showing as he made fifty percent of his shots for the first time, knocked down three three’s, and made a behind-the-back pass. It was his best game since returning and though I don’t want to make too much of it, I am no more eager to pass up the opportunity to watch Klay show flashes of his previous greatness.
In the past decade and a half, fans have seen many players return to form after suffering ACL tears, an injury that was once practically a career-killer. In that same timeframe, there has been exactly one player who has approximated their former self after an Achilles tear: Thompson’s former teammate, Kevin Durant. There has never been a player to come back from both. Thompson’s game is primed for a smooth transition back from injury though – at least in theory. He never relied on bursts of athleticism to get open as much as a high basketball IQ and the structure of Steve Kerr’s offense, which afforded him all sorts of freedom and space. There was Stephen Curry’s gravity and Draymond Green’s court-vision helping him out too. This is not to take anything away from Thompson – one of the greatest shooters in NBA history and someone who played a pivotal role in three championship victories. Thompson was always the epitome of equanimity, the one whose steadiness helped keep the team afloat in the midst of the in-game pyrotechnics of Curry and the emotional ones from Draymond. Is there even a Warriors dynasty without him? Possibly, but not necessarily.
Few NBA players have had more iconic moments or games than Klay Thompson. There is the 37 point quarter from 2015; the 60 point game against the Pacers in which he only played 29 minutes and dribbled just 11 times; the record-breaking game in 2018 where he converted 14 three’s. And, of course, the season-saving Game 6 in 2016 where he made 11 three-pointers to stave off elimination in Oklahoma City. Each of those performances was a minor miracle, an unprecedented combination of luck and skill, the purest evidence since the days of Moses that one can catch fire and not be consumed. The thing about such moments though is that they cannot be anticipated, cannot be expected, only hoped for. How many players have ever been able to conjure such magic even once? The line between desire and greed is often a thin one.