Why Klay’s Sixth Man role makes sense for both him, Warriors

NBC Sports Bay Area

Steve Kerr’s decision Thursday night to pull Klay Thompson from the Warriors’ starting lineup, where he has been a fixture since 2012, speaks louder than any adjustment the coach has made during this season of transformation.

This was not punishment for Thompson’s shooting inconsistency or his defensive miscues in the fourth quarter Wednesday, including one inside the final minute that was as mindless as it was costly.

This was Kerr making an assertive shift to maximize a roster with so many players having such varied skills. If the goal is to let each man play to his strengths, there is wisdom in auditioning Thompson for the role of Sixth Man.

If Thompson’s spectacular performance and professional attitude in an anxiety inducing 140-137 victory over the Utah Jazz at Delta Center are any indication, he is embracing the change.

“Coming off the bench gave me fresh legs, especially on a back-to-back, that was nice to come in with a fresh, clean slate,” Thompson said.

Those words rolled off Thompson’s tongue during a halftime interview with NBC Sports Bay Area – before he came out for the third quarter and scored 18 points in six minutes.

Before he finished with a season-high 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field, including 7-of-13 beyond the arc.

Before he gave the Warriors a very necessary offensive boost on a night when Stephen Curry (16 points, 4-of-14 shooting, including 2-of-8 from deep) cooled off.

“He’s amazing,” Brandin Podziemski said on “Warriors Postgame Live” after the win. “One of the best vets to be around. We all know he can shoot the ball with the best of them. Him and Steph are the best two shooters in NBA history. With that second group he allowed us to play through him and get him as many shots as we can. It worked wonders tonight.”

With this game coming on the dark side of a back-to-back set and the last stop before the All-Star break, this was Kerr experimenting. Tinkering. Seeing how Thompson responds to a different role.

Very different, as Thompson had made 727 starts before Kerr decided to go with Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga joining Curry, with Podziemski moving into the spot normally occupied by Thompson.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Kerr told reporters in Salt Lake City. “The lineup with Brandin out there with Wiggs, JK, Draymond and Steph has been by far our best lineup. BP connects the game. He rebounds, he does some things that really help the other guys.

“I’ve been thinking about it, decided to do it tonight and talked to Klay this morning. I thought he handled everything beautifully.”

Thompson conceded that he had to make a mental and emotional adjustment. This was new territory. He chose to perform rather than pout.

“I thought about Manu Ginobili,” Thompson said of the longtime San Antonio Spurs Sixth Man who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022. “That guy has four rings and a gold medal, and he came off the bench his whole career. And I don’t think anyone looks down on his Hall of Fame candidacy because he’s one of the greats.

“I embraced it before tip.”

When studying Golden State’s roster, who better to come off the bench with the ability to put up 35 points in 28 minutes, as Klay did against the Jazz?

Chris Paul was acquired not to light up the scoreboard but to manage the second unit. Kuminga is in the starting lineup, where he belongs. Podziemski is an all-purpose player.

Thompson fits the mold of the traditional Sixth Man, putting opposing defenses on alert the second he heads to the scorer’s table. From John Havlicek to Vinnie Johnson to Jason Terry to Jamal Crawford to Lou Williams, the traditional NBA Sixth Man’s job is to change a game with offense.

Impact dictates playing time. Might be 14 minutes one night, 34 the next. If he’s cold, he sits. If he’s hot, he cooks. Which is perfect for Klay, who, at age 34, remains dangerous but is streakier than ever.

“It doesn’t mean it’s permanent,” Kerr said of the move. “But I like that lineup with BP and the other four. And Klay coming off the bench gives us a lot of firepower. We’ll give it a little look and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

It’s a big move. A loud move. Yes, even louder than Kerr placing enough trust in Kuminga to put him in the starting lineup two months ago.

This was Kerr placing the team’s reality over lingering sentiment. Need over loyalty. The most efficient lineup over one that was more familiar.

Thompson already seems to have made peace with his pride and ego and is willing to attack the new challenge.

“The moment you worry about what people say or what headlines will be written about being benched or the streak being broken is when you go out there and you don’t play with that love and compassion for your teammates and the freedom that has gotten me to this point,” he said.

“I realized that I didn’t want to go to the All-Star break on a sour note and had my best game of the season.”

This move has as much win-win potential as any Kerr has made this season.

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