If only he could have solved the Golden State Warriors’ issues by making a clutch 3-pointer. Or by making a timely defensive stop.
Unlike for most of his NBA career, Klay Thompson could not offer any of that. He remained sidelined during the 2020-21 season with a ruptured right Achilles tendon after spending the entire 2019-20 campaign healing a torn ACL in his left knee. So after the Warriors suffered a 53-point loss last season to the Toronto Raptors, Thompson shared his frustrations with his teammates during a postgame locker room speech.
“We’re the Warriors!” Thompson yelled. “We’re better than this!”
The circumstances surrounding Thompson’s rare postgame talk did not go unnoticed. He spoke after the Warriors lost to the same team that beat them in the 2019 Finals when Thompson suffered his first injury in a series-ending Game 6 loss. The Warriors credited Thompson’s speech for fueling them to play better enough in the final month of the season to land an appearance in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament. And Thompson’s outburst offered a window into how he dealt with staying sidelined with injuries for two full seasons.
“He held us accountable to let us know that we’re taking this for granted,” Warriors forward Kevon Looney told NBA.com “He’s out there hurt and rehabbing just to get back on the court. That shows you his passion, and how much he misses the game.”
And that moment also revealed how much the Warriors have missed Thompson.
Ever since Thompson injured his left knee on June 13, 2019, the Warriors have experienced an identity change. Less than a month later, Kevin Durant bolted to Brooklyn as a free agent. Three months later, the Warriors changed venues from Oakland (Oracle Arena) to San Francisco (Chase Center). And for the past two years, the Warriors have failed to return to The Finals or even make the playoffs.
The Warriors will restore their identity soon, though. Thompson could return when the Warriors host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday (PHT) at Chase Center. No wonder Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser predicted: “It’s going to be a goose-bump moment at Chase when Klay Thompson returns.” The Warriors spent the past 941 days playing basketball without Thompson, who helped the Warriors win three NBA championships in five Finals appearances with his clutch outside shooting, dependable defense and team-first attitude.
“The emotion that will come with his return is because of the pain with the rehab,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers told NBA.com. “The reason there will be so much emotion around Klay and his return is because it was so hard for him to experience it, for the fans to miss him and our organization to try to move on without him. It’s all really hard. So when it comes back around, you reminisce about the journey of the whole thing.”
Thompson’s injury halts Warriors’ title hopes
That journey started right when the Warriors had hoped to end another one to their liking.
In Game 5, Durant ruptured his right Achilles tendon in his first game after missing the previous five with a strained right calf. The Warriors still snuck out a win both to force a Game 6 in Oakland and to renew their confidence in winning a third consecutive NBA title. So much that Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown still remembered vividly what Thompson said after the Game 5 win.
“It’s a wrap!’” Brown recalled Thompson saying. “‘We’re going to get Game 6! We’ll be back!’”
Thompson appeared ready to back up that bold prediction against a Raptors team that featured Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol. After all, the Warriors still had Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Thompson.
Toward the end of the third quarter of Game 6, Thompson already had 28 points. Some on the Warriors’ coaching staff likened Thompson’s performance to his career postseason-high 41 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals. As Fraser claimed, “We were going to win that game. When he gets in those moments, he’s that good.”
It appeared nothing could stop Thompson, only for him to discover otherwise. As Thompson attempted a fast-break dunk with 2:22 left in the third quarter, former Raptors guard Danny Green contested the shot from behind. That caused Thompson to land awkwardly on his left leg before falling to the ground. Thompson stayed on the ground and grabbed his left knee.
“It was a tough play that Danny Green did from behind with trying to block the shot,” Brown said. “So initially there’s a rage inside of you.”
And then confusion. The Warriors did not know immediately the severity of Thompson’s injury, but they took no chances. Thompson’s teammates Jordan Bell and Jonas Jerebko walked with Thompson to the locker room. But Thompson quickly returned to the court to hit two free throws, while the adrenaline still masked his pain.
Afterwards, Warriors coach Steve Kerr recalled saying to Thompson, “We’re going to take a foul to get you out.” Thompson’s response? “No, we don’t need a foul; I can play the rest of the quarter.” Even when Thompson returned to the locker room, his agent, Greg Lawrence, saw him “running around and jumping.” But the Warriors’ medical staff soon determined Thompson needed to go to a nearby hospital for imaging. Before the Warriors lost Game 6, Thompson learned he had a torn ACL.
“It just felt like we had just run out of gas as a team after five years of going to The Finals,” Kerr told NBA.com. “To suffer those two injuries in back-to-back games, it felt like to me, our guys extended themselves above and beyond. They had taken everything, not only to the limit but past the limit.”
2 years, 2 injuries & 1 long journey
Despite Thompson’s season-ending injury, the Warriors hardly hesitated with rewarding him with a five-year, $190 million contract. Thompson had become a five-time All-Star by becoming one of the NBA’s most dependable two-way players. He still remained in the prime of his career. Though that further made Thompson appreciative of a franchise that selected him No. 11 in the 2011 NBA Draft, it did not soften the frustration with his current injury.
One, Thompson was not exactly in the right frame of mind to begin rehabbing after feeling fatigued from the Warriors’ long Finals’ runs.
“The ACL, they want you up on your feet the next day,” Lawrence said. “That’s what made the first injury tough because Klay probably needed a break. But all of a sudden, he has to go start doing rehab every day.”
Two, money hardly can buy Thompson’s happiness. Consider what Thompson said during his lengthy absence during the 2019-20 season. “He did say one time, ‘The money doesn’t matter; the trophies don’t matter,’” Fraser recalled. “‘I just want to play basketball.’”
That explains why Thompson mostly stayed away from the team while rehabbing his left knee during the 2019-20 season. Before his season-ending injury, he played in 615 out of a possible 640 regular-season games and 122 out of a possible 123 playoff games during his first eight NBA seasons.
“People say, ‘Why doesn’t a player sit on the bench more or why aren’t they around?’ I would say Klay did a good job of that, but I think it’s physically painful for him to watch a game and not play,” Myers said. “There’s a visceral pain to him having to watch a game and not play.”
Thompson’s pain softened after finally fulfilling some of his basketball fix in the 2020 offseason.
He practiced with the Warriors during their two-week mini-camp, something granted to teams that did not play in the NBA bubble. Thompson also scrimmaged with other NBA players in Los Angeles.
“I saw the joy that he was having with being in L.A. and playing pickup and going about his business the way he wanted to go about his business,” Green told NBA.com “I enjoyed that more than anything. Most people didn’t get the opportunity to see him then. So just having that opportunity to see him at that point and the excitement that he had, I cherished that moment.”
That feel-good moment didn’t last long.
On the afternoon of the NBA Draft, Thompson ruptured his right Achilles tendon while playing pick-up with other NBA players in L.A. Thompson suffered the injury after taking a two-dribble pull-up jump shot, a move he said he has done “100 times a day.” This time, Thompson fell to the ground after turning to run back on defense.
Lawrence soon called Myers while he stayed huddled up in the Warriors’ draft room. Kerr, who was also present, observed that Myers’ face turned light after answering his phone. He soon put the phone down and said in disbelief, “Klay just tore his Achilles.”
Shortly afterwards, Myers gathered with Kerr and Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob before calling Curry and putting him on speaker phone. When they informed Curry about the news, Myers recalled “there was just silence on the other end of the phone.” All parties struggled with their words when they connected with Thompson on a conference call shortly after.
“It changed our whole outlook on the season when you’re missing a guy like that,” Looney said. “It kills your joy and confidence going into the season. You’re scrambling to put the team together to replace his absence, but we never really did.”
No surprise then that Myers described Thompson as “crestfallen” and “shook up” during the first conference call. Numerous NBA players have overcome an Achilles injury, including Kobe Bryant, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Wesley Matthews and Jerebko. But Durant and Dominique Wilkins are the lone players to perform better after injuring their Achilles.
Last March, Thompson described the past season as “the worst year of my life.” Not only did Thompson deal with two season-ending injuries. He coped with the passing of his grandmother as well as Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
After Thompson had surgery about a week after the injury, however, Myers saw Thompson showing a different demeanor. While visiting Thompson at his parents’ place in L.A., Myers noticed that Thompson showed “a place of acceptance” despite being immobilized and on crutches. Shortly after Myers’ arrival, Durant connected with Thompson on the phone to offer encouragement and perspective.
“It was so interesting to observe,” Lawrence said. “It’s so easy to say, ‘You got to be kidding me?’ and ‘Why did this happen?’ But Klay’s attitude was, ‘I’m going to go all out and make sure that I work my ass off and I’m going to be around with the team.’ He had an unbelievable mindset.”
Although the Warriors have lauded Thompson for his disciplined dieting and training before his injuries, Lawrence said that Thompson made various unspecified tweaks in those areas both to compensate for not playing and to give himself a potential edge for his return.
By last March, Thompson had his walking boot removed and received medical clearance for various drills, including walking, lifting weights, calf raises, mobility and balance exercises as well as running on a weight-bearing treadmill underwater. By mid-November, the Warriors cleared Thompson for full-court, full-contact drills before sending him to practice with the team’s G League team in Santa Cruz. Thompson has since scrimmaged with the team and has participated in pre-game workouts.
“His body is in the best shape of his life,” Green said of Thompson. “You can visibly see it as soon as you see him. His body is in great shape with the work that he’s put in to get back to where he is. That’s beautiful to see a guy stick with it and continue to put the work in like he has.”
By being around the team more, Thompson encouraged and mentored his teammates frequently from the sidelines. Just like he did following the Warriors’ 53-point loss to Toronto last season, Thompson occasionally critiqued the team for its play. By having a more active presence, however, Thompson became much more emotional.
Consider what happened when the Warriors played the Denver Nuggets on April 23, 2021, in what marked the first time they played in front of fans since before the pandemic. After the game, Thompson fought back tears before Curry approached him on the bench. Then, Curry talked with Thompson and encouraged him.
“That was tough. You realize how much time has been since he’s been out there and how much he missed that atmosphere and being out there on the floor,” Curry told NBA.com. “He knew how much longer he had to wait. All of that weight came crashing down at one time. That was rough, but thankfully he was around us and not sitting at home watching it by himself.”
A similar incident happened at the end of the Warriors’ win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 26, 2021.
Thompson sat on the team bench for about 30 minutes after the game with a towel draped over his head. While Thompson stayed on the bench, his teammates periodically sidled up to a nearby seat. The remaining Warriors fans continuously cheered for him.
“He was having a moment, so you just try to throw some positive energy and some positive thoughts,” Green said. “It’s one of those dog days where it’s like, ‘I can play right now and I’m feeling good. I’m in these scrimmages and I can play, but I kind of have to get through that last hurdle.’ Those days can be a lot tougher. I think he was having one of those days.
“But to see the fans embrace him and everybody come back and be by his side and continue to push him, that’s what’s important.”
Thompson has ‘earned this comeback’
The Warriors also found it important that Thompson still brought levity, joy and laughter as he often did before his injuries.
The Warriors witnessed plenty of moments during Thompson’s Instagram live sessions. Then, Thompson filmed himself driving on his boat, listening to music and giving updates about his progress. Looney called those sessions “one of the most entertaining things you’ll see on the Internet.”
The most memorable moments happened, however, out of public view.
On Monday, Myers talked to Thompson about his pending return following his workout. But Myers struggled holding back laughter with Thompson addressing him while wearing boating attire.
“I can’t take you seriously when you have the captain’s hat on,” Myers said, chuckling. Thompson laughed before sharing, “I’m taking my boat back.” Plenty on the Warriors have yet to tag along on Thompson’s boat rides to and from practice. Those that have insisted politely on keeping those details private. But Thompson offered enough entertainment elsewhere.
Shortly after learning the NBA excluded him on its NBA 75th Anniversary Team, Thompson texted Lawrence if it was logistically feasible for him to change his jersey number to No. 77.
“This is f—bull–,” Lawrence recalled Thompson’s texting. “‘I’m going to f– come back and kick all of these motherf–.”
Lawrence knew how unfeasible it would be for Thompson to change his jersey number because of licensing and inventory concerns. Instead, Lawrence called Myers to see if team equipment manager Eric Housen could stitch up a No. 77 jersey and hang it by Thompson’s locker. Lawrence pleaded to Myers, “I think it’ll actually be good for him in a good way; it’ll motivate him.”
“I didn’t want it to be offensive or have Klay take it the wrong way,” Myers said, chuckling. “But Greg is good and talks to Klay all the time.”
So when Thompson saw the No. 77 jersey at his locker, he then wore the uniform frequently during practice. For Halloween, Thompson dressed up as Larry Bird by wearing a Boston Celtics jersey, sporting his blond hair and mimicking his shooting stroke. Since then, Thompson has rocked an ABA jersey, short shorts and a headband.
“The thing he got going on right now, I’m not down with it,” Brown said, laughing. “I’m more excited to see when he gets back on the floor how his look is going to be. Is he going to be the captain from the 70s ABA team or Washington Generals/Washington Bullets teams? Or is he going to be Klay Thompson?”
Therefore, Brown has recently told Thompson, “I hope you clean up your look when you come back because it looks terrible.” Thompson chuckled and countered, “You don’t know fashion; you don’t know style.”
After all, Thompson set an NBA record for most 3-pointers in a game (14) three years ago while rocking a headband. The Warriors said that Thompson has often spent recent practices going on shooting streaks and talking trash in the same attire.
“He loves to win,” said Warriors player development coach Chris DeMarco, who works with Thompson on individual drills. “Whether it’s shooting games, one-on-one, five-on-five or whatever it is, there’s going to be that joy. But there’s competitiveness, especially, when he wins. If he does lose, he’s going to be pissed off about it.”
All of which has fueled the Warriors’ excitement over Thompson’s return.
For the past 2 1/2 years, they have seen Thompson at his most vulnerable while dealing with pain from his injuries, monotony with his rehab and frustration with remaining on the sidelines. Even if potential hiccups await Thompson with his return, the Warriors have become eager to see their former player in a more familiar setting.
“He’s earned this comeback,” Kerr said of Thompson. “He’s put the work in.”
* * *
Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.