Thompson’s overall stats this postseason aren’t necessarily attention-grabbing: He’s averaging 25.7 points per game (ppg) while shooting just under 46 percent from both the field and beyond the arc. What’s more telling is that Thompson’s numbers have been significantly better when Curry, who’s already missed four and half games this postseason, has not played. With Curry out of the lineup, Thompson’s averaged 28.8 ppg on 48 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent shooting on three-point field goals.
When Curry succumbed to a sprained knee in game four of the Warriors’ first round series against the Houston Rockets, analysts and fans (including The Atlantic’s David Sims) openly wondered if the MVP’s absence would create significant problems for the defending champions. Thanks to Thompson, who has unassumingly slid into the top-dog role and delivered as though he were used to being the team’s number-one offensive option, Golden State hasn’t yet experienced any major hiccups in their quest to repeat as NBA champions.
Curry’s injury isn’t serious enough to keep him off the court for the entirety of the playoffs, and assuming the short-handed Warriors advance past the Trail Blazers—a safe assumption—he’ll be back on the floor when Golden State squares off against the San Antonio Spurs, their presumptive opponent in the Western Conference finals. But regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate Thompson, the most underappreciated player in the NBA, and everything he’s accomplished these past two weeks.
I use the word underappreciated because Thompson rarely receives the recognition a player of his skill merits. Press coverage of the Warriors tends to paint either Curry or Draymond Green, the Warriors undersized power forward with an oversized chip on his shoulder, as the protagonist and primary reason for the team’s unprecedented success. Curry commands attention because, well, he’s Steph Curry. Green commands attention in part because his candid and occasionally brash personality lends itself perfectly to a media environment in search of the loudest voice in the room. He’s also a truly unique basketball player, someone who combines Xavier McDaniel’s toughness with Dennis Rodman’s slinky athleticism with Magic Johnson’s stat-stuffing skills. Juxtaposed with two much flashier teammates, Thompson tends to get lost in the shuffle. His game is not as aesthetically pleasing as Curry’s or as rambunctious as Green’s. He is subtle effectiveness personified, and while that makes him the kind of player most NBA coaches would trade their right arm for, it’s not an attribute that lands someone significant time in the spotlight.
What’s particularly interesting about Thompson once you take the time to watch him function as a team’s top offensive option, as he has in Curry’s absence, is that he’s a rare composite of old school and new school. His game is new school in that, like all analytics-conscious players, he takes a high number of three-point field goals and uses three-point shooting as a primary offensive weapon. This outside-in philosophy, which has taken the NBA by storm, is predicated on the notion that shooting threes constitutes a more efficient approach to offense—at least that’s what the math says. And Thompson, a gifted marksman, takes full advantage of this logic.