What does another serious injury mean for Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors?
In a terrible piece of news around what should have been a triumphant draft day for the Warriors, who selected James Wiseman No. 2 overall, Thompson went down during an offseason workout in Los Angeles with pain in his calf area. On Thursday, the inevitable fears were realized when Thompson was diagnosed an Achilles tendon rupture, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
With Thompson again sidelined for an extended period, how might Golden State react? And what would the injury mean for Thompson, who had yet to return to NBA action after the ACL tear he suffered during Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals?
Will Warriors use trade exception to replace Klay?
After Thompson’s injury, attention turns toward the $17.2 million trade exception the Warriors created by sending Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies last July. But under the revamped NBA calendar the exception expires on Monday, giving Golden State a short window to use it or lose it.
Adding salary using the exception would push the Warriors deeper into the luxury tax. At minimum, Golden State would be $25.6 million over the tax line with the roster as presently constructed, pending a reduction in that total based on how much the NBA’s basketball-related income (BRI) falls short of pre-pandemic projections. Yet Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers reiterated after the draft that using it is a possibility.
“We have the green light to do that,” Myers said. “We had it, we have it, Klay or no Klay, depending on what we hear, so it’s there. We’ve got to find a way to make it work for us. Certainly once we hear more tomorrow, that might affect it, it might not. We’ll see. Certainly it may allow us to be more aggressive, but something has to make sense. Certainly if we feel like we need to add to that position we’ll do our best to do it.”
Part of the challenge, of course, is finding another team with a starting-caliber shooting guard willing to make the deal. Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets could be an option, but he’s just starting a four-year extension that pays him $75.6 million and the Rockets might face less urgency to shed payroll after trading Trevor Ariza to Detroit on Wednesday.
Beyond that, there’s not an obvious fit unless Golden State is willing to give up additional value in draft picks or young players for a starter like Evan Fournier of the Orlando Magic (making $17.15 million in the final season of his contract).
One interesting alternative that would be cheaper for the Warriors and also give them more time would be a possible disabled player exception for Thompson, which would allow them to spend up to $9.4 million ($100,000 more than the non-taxpayer midlevel exception) either on a one-year contract for a free agent or on a trade for a player in the final year of his contract.
There’s typically a waiting period between the time a team applies for the disabled player exception and when the league grants it, so Golden State can’t go out shopping with it right away in free agency. Still, it would give the Warriors more spending power than their taxpayer midlevel exception ($5.7 million) if a player languishes in free agency or is willing to wait on them.
Other options for replacing Thompson
As noted, Golden State can use its taxpayer midlevel exception in free agency to add a player on a multiyear deal. A couple of former Warriors could make sense as targets. Old friend Justin Holiday, a member of Golden State’s championship team in 2014-15, has developed into one of the league’s better 3-and-D wings and signed for less money ($4.7 million) on a one-year deal last offseason.
The Warriors might also be interested in bringing back Glenn Robinson III, who started all 48 games he played for them last season before being traded to Philadelphia before the deadline. Robinson enjoyed his time in Golden State and might be interested in coming back on a bigger salary than the veteran’s minimum he earned last season.
As outside free agents, Wesley Matthews and Garrett Temple (provided the Brooklyn Nets decline his 2020-21 team option) could have markets at or near the taxpayer midlevel and would make sense as single-season fill-ins for Thompson given their age (both 34).
During Thompson’s absence last season, the Warriors did identify some in-house alternatives. Damion Lee played his way from a two-way contract into a full roster spot and a partially guaranteed contract for 2020-21 by starting 36 of the 49 games he played. Lee was stretched in that role but should be useful as a reserve.
Golden State also has Mychal Mulder on a non-guaranteed contract after he showed promise in the G League and will be hoping for improved shooting from 2019 first-round pick Jordan Poole, who knocked down just 28% of his 3-point attempts as a rookie.
Return to rehab for Thompson
It’s difficult to imagine how devastating this injury must be for Thompson, who was nearing the finish line in his 17-month comeback from the ACL tear and barely more than a month away from taking the court in an NBA game. Now, he’s back to square one in the rehab process with one of the other most severe injuries an NBA player can suffer.
There’s not a lot of precedent here. I have record of just three NBA players suffering both ACL and Achilles ruptures over the course of their careers: DeMarcus Cousins, Emanual Davis and Jerome James. Davis and James aren’t really comparable, having suffered the injuries years apart, with the Achilles injury occurring as they were already headed toward retirement at age 34.
At least Cousins got to play 38 games for the Warriors, including eight in the playoffs, in between his injuries. We also don’t know how Cousins’ comeback will go since he’s yet to play after the most recent ACL tear during the 2019 offseason.
Besides Cousins, about the closest comparison I can find for Thompson is two-time All-Star Norm Nixon, likewise a part of championship backcourts with the L.A. Lakers in 1980 and 1982. After being traded to the Clippers, Nixon missed the entire 1986-87 season due to a patellar tendon rupture suffered playing softball, then ruptured his Achilles in practice days before the start of the 1987-88 campaign.
When the injury happened, the Los Angeles Times speculated it might spell the end of Nixon’s career, but he managed to return for a final NBA season at age 33, starting 30 games but seeing his scoring average drop by more than half.
Thankfully, medical science has come a long way since the 1980s, and at age 30 (31 in February) Thompson is still closer to his prime. There’s reason for optimism that Thompson can once again take up his mantel as one of the NBA’s greatest shooters ever. Unfortunately, that won’t happen again until the 2021-22 season.
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