While rain pelts downtown Oakland, Klay Thompson finds shelter inside the Golden State Warriors’ practice facility. The storm disrupts the entire Bay Area, triggering school closings and flash-flood warnings. Thompson, however, enjoys the inclement weather. It reminds him of growing up in Oregon. “I used to hoop all the time in the rain,” he says. “It never bothered me to go outside to shoot in my backyard all day.”
A banner representing the Warriors’ last championship — from nearly 40 years ago — hangs on the wall. Many of Thompson’s teammates have scattered after practice. Golden State beat Houston the previous night, to stretch its franchise-best win streak to 14 (it would end at 16, with a loss the following week to the Memphis Grizzlies). Stephen Curry shoots on one basket. Andy Thompson, one of Klay’s uncles and a vice-president of production for NBA Entertainment, is in town for a visit. He attempts a few shots on the near court and clanks a long jumper. “You didn’t see that,” Andy says.
“I heard it,” Klay responds with a laugh.
Klay Thompson returns to a conversation about why he chose basketball. “It’s one of the few sports where you can work on it individually — just go in the gym with a basketball and a hoop,” Thompson says. “[Or] not even a hoop. You can just have a basketball. I can go out there with nine other people and play five-on-five, [or with] three other people and play two-on-two. You don’t need pads. You don’t need much gear. All you need is a ball and a 10-foot hoop. It doesn’t even have to be a good ball or a good hoop.”
Thompson remembers playing with his brothers, before they all began pursuing careers as professional athletes, when they challenged each other out of nothing but competitive instincts and the sheer enjoyment of the game. “I did not expect to be this good, really,” he concedes. “It still shocks me how effective I’ve been in the league so far. I thought I was going to be a good role player, a guy that could shoot and defend a little bit, a three-and-D guy, but now that I can maybe even be a franchise cornerstone truly shocks me. I never thought I’d get to this point.”
Thompson’s game has blossomed after a summer that was full of challenges and rewards. In the span of a few short months, Thompson saw Golden State fire Mark Jackson, the coach whose unwavering support steadied Thompson’s confidence, and then he heard his name floated in so many Kevin Love trade rumors that he began imagining himself on the receiving end of Ricky Rubio assists. But Thompson also shone as one of Team USA’s top performers at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, and when he returned with his gold medal, he signed a near-max contract worth around $70 million to remain in Golden State. While Thompson hated seeing Jackson lose his job, he has flourished under first-year coach Steve Kerr, who has granted him more freedom in the Warriors offense. Thompson has long looked the part of a prototypical NBA shooting guard: long and lean, a pure shooter, a dedicated defender, and a willing passer. And this season he’s acting the part, averaging a career-best 21 points per game and shooting 43.1 percent on 3-pointers. Thompson’s ascent has been one of the main reasons for the Warriors’ NBA-best 26-5 record, as the team finds itself atop a historically deep and competitive Western Conference.
Thompson has flashed new dimensions of his game this season. He attacks off the dribble more than in previous years, visiting the paint more frequently and more aggressively. When he comes off a ball screen, then splits a double-team before lofting a feathery runner from a step inside the free throw line, Thompson appears to be incorporating touches of his backcourt partner’s game. And indeed, Thompson credits competition between teammates for his development into an all-around scoring threat. “Trying to chase Steph,” he says. “That’s how you stay hungry. Try to do what he does. I can’t do that. I don’t think anyone on this planet can.”
As Thompson and Curry have grown into what many believe is the NBA’s best backcourt, it has become clear that they’re linked by much more than their catchy Splash Brothers nickname. Their fathers, Mychal Thompson and Dell Curry, both had successful NBA careers before becoming broadcast analysts for the Lakers and Hornets, respectively. Their mothers, Julie Thompson and Sonya Curry, both played volleyball in college. And their brothers, Mychel Thompson and Seth Curry, are fellow basketball pros who have pushed and prodded Klay and Stephen on their paths to the NBA. But if genetics alone could determine NBA greatness, there would presumably be more Jordans in the league today. “It’s dedication and work ethic,” Dell Curry says. “You can be around it, but you still have to go out there and do it. That’s what makes you proudest as a parent and ex-player.”
Klay and Steph understand that their genes and their fathers’ NBA experience placed them on the inside track to becoming the athletes they are today. But both Thompson and Curry had once been lightly recruited and considered too frail for the NBA game. Of all the common traits between them, this might be the most important: They know how hard they worked to get here. They know they can get even better if they keep working. The best backcourt in the NBA expects to improve.
“For the last couple of years, Steph has been knocking on that door of the top guys in the league,” says Warriors forward Draymond Green. “Now he’s there, but you can see that he’s not satisfied. He wants to get great. Steph went to Davidson, wasn’t highly recruited, probably had a few scholarship offers, didn’t really play AAU. So he was never that highly touted guy.
“Klay, coming out of high school, he wasn’t highly touted,” Green says. “He went to Washington State, but Washington State isn’t a basketball powerhouse. This territory is new to him and you can see that. You can see that it’s new to them. All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Let me get more. I want more.’ And it’s that hunger — you can see it.”
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About an hour after practice, Stephen Curry heads to a clothes fitting. A hotel room high above downtown Oakland is covered in a rainbow of shirts, ties, suits, and shorts. Curry jumps from one ensemble to the next. One moment, he looks like James Bond in a tuxedo; the next, he’s beach-ready, sporting a pair of swimming trunks.
One of the stylists compliments Curry’s look. “But don’t quit your day job,” he cautions. “Male models don’t make much.”
If Thompson’s steady, season-by-season improvement from promising rookie to potential All-Star represents an ideal form of progress for NBA players, then Curry’s game resembles something more like a video game cheat code. Curry looks quick, and then when he moves on the court, he’s even speedier than he looks. The release on his shot seems impossibly fast, and his stroke remains smooth from distances that should require a heave. “For me, it’s about not being defined as just a shooter,” Curry says. “It’s about [being] a guy that plays the point guard position in a totally unique way and hopefully [becoming] one of the best point guards in the history of the game — shooting the basketball and being a playmaker with a couple of championships to show for it.”
The stylist tells Curry that he thinks a great backdrop for a photo shoot would be the south of France, maybe Saint-Tropez. “When is your offseason?” he asks.
“End of June until September,” Curry answers.
Until a couple of years ago, Curry could have answered “mid-April.” That’s when the regular season ends for non-playoff teams, when the Warriors traditionally clocked out for summer. “That was the worst feeling,” Curry says. “A month before the season’s over, you know it’s done. Cats got their bags packed, cars packed.”
Golden State lucked into drafting Curry seventh overall in 2009, after Minnesota made its now infamous decision to select two point guards, Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn, back-to-back ahead of Curry. The Warriors, who had tried and failed to trade up to draft Curry, were thrilled that the Davidson guard fell to them. That offseason, Golden State was in transition. Its marquee point guard, Baron Davis, had left the team through free agency the year before. A few leftovers from the 2007 “We Believe” team remained on the roster, but that group never coalesced after their memorable playoff run, and the team’s veteran core had lost faith in coach Don Nelson and the direction of the franchise.
As a rookie, Curry tiptoed into turmoil. Although the Warriors tried to welcome him into their fold, the team couldn’t stop star guard Monta Ellis from telling reporters at team media day that he and Curry were too small to play together in the same backcourt. Nelson played Curry less than three minutes in his eighth NBA game after fielding the first-year guard for more than 20 minutes in each of the previous seven. “We had lost Baron Davis and our team was in flux and I had some issues with some veteran players,” Nelson recalls. “I had to bring [Curry] along slower than I wanted to. Otherwise, I would have thrown him in right away. But we were still trying to win games, so I did bring him along slowly. In my mind, before long he was going to be my starting point guard, which he ended up being.”
Curry endured the upheaval and submitted a solid rookie season. But Keith Smart, who replaced Nelson in 2010, often chose to finish games with Acie Law over Curry. Smart wanted a caretaker to close out games, and Curry was turnover-prone early in his career. The Warriors replaced Smart with Mark Jackson in 2011, but the organization continued to stumble, sputtering to a 23-43 finish in Jackson’s first year, the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, while persistent ankle injuries threatened to derail Curry’s career.
That all seems so long ago.
Curry stands in front of a mirror, sizing himself up in a black tux. “Just seeing the change from my rookie year to now, what being a Warrior means [has] changed,” he says. “When I came into the NBA we were irrelevant. Now, to be championship contenders, it’s pretty special.”
Thompson’s rookie year came in that dreadful, lockout-shortened season. He didn’t know what to expect from himself — how good he could be as an NBA player. Back then, he said about two words a day. Now, he’s comfortable with his teammates, with the media, and with his game, and Curry has noticed.
“The ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as opposed to just being a scorer, that’s the best thing for him and [for] us as a team,” Curry says. “He’s almost impossible to guard if he can do that. I don’t know what clicked, whether it was just the confidence that he can make a play in traffic and get where he wants on the floor — it’s pretty cool to see.”
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Jerry DeBusk remembers how quiet Klay Thompson was when Thompson arrived at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Southern California. “As a sophomore, he spoke in two- and three-word sentences,” DeBusk says. “As a junior, he actually would complete the full sentence. And as a senior, we had really good dialogue.”
Thompson grew up in Lake Oswego, Oregon, near where his father, Mychal, had played with the Trail Blazers. To Klay and his brothers, Mychel and Trayce, Clyde Drexler wasn’t just one of the league’s premier guards, but also their dad’s pal. Whenever the Thompson kids joined a youth sports team, the coach would invite Mychal to offer a motivational speech. “I would just roll my eyes, like, ‘I’ve got to hear this at home every day,’” Klay recalls. “‘This is nothing new to me.’ But a lot of my friends would like it and have their eyes glued [to him], and I’d just be laughing, like, You guys don’t even know.” Mychel was the oldest boy, then Klay. Trayce, the youngest, was bigger than Klay when they were growing up.
“Trayce was a year younger than me, but he was physically just bigger,” Klay says. “So I couldn’t punk him, and Mychel would punk both of us, so I would be the one always getting punked. It was so frustrating. We’d have some intense games — one-on-one, one-on-two. That’s why I got good fast in high school.” When Klay was about 15, he beat Mychel in basketball for the first time. “Anybody in the NBA with siblings will tell you how important [that is],” Klay says. “As a kid growing up, you don’t want to beat anybody so badly as your brother. [Mychel] kicked the ball so far on the school roof that I never saw it again.”1
It’s possible that for all the great perimeter defenders in the NBA — Patrick Beverley, Tony Allen, Avery Bradley — no one knows how to guard the Splash Brothers better than their actual brothers. “To this day, I’ll still beat him,” Mychel Thompson says. “I’ve been playing against him my whole life, so I know his tendencies.” Seth Curry adds: “Just like anyone else, I can’t shut him down one-on-one. I don’t want to say the majority of the time [he wins], but it’s not like he’s sweeping me 10-0. He’s real shifty and crafty when you try to be physical, but I’d much rather him take a tough 2 than a 3-pointer — try to make him put it on the floor and hope he misses.”
Yet despite his basketball pedigree, Klay’s game confounded coaches and scouts during his high school career. After the family had moved to Orange County, when Klay played for Santa Margarita teams that were stacked with Division I talent, he remained relatively unheralded. DeBusk set out to prepare Klay for the college level. “I used to be critical of his defense,” the coach says. “I thought he was slow as far as moving his feet, but I finally realized that he glides. He covers a lot of space because he’s so long. It was a mistake on my part to think that he wasn’t really busting defensively.” As far as his shot? “All he needed was a step and he’d get open and just drill it,” DeBusk recalls. “A couple kids that I’m coaching now say they’re shooters. I say, ‘No, Klay Thompson is a shooter.’”
Mychel, who starred at Santa Margarita before Klay and now plays for Golden State’s D-League affiliate, never doubted that his younger brother could become an elite player. “People saying he wasn’t a good athlete and the things I’m seeing him do — it [didn’t] make any sense,” Mychel says. “I’ve seen him dunk on plenty of people. He’s athletic, blocks shots. I [didn’t] understand why people would try and say he’s not athletic. Just because he’s not the highest jumper? OK, but he can shoot and he’s more athletic than you think.” The major Pac-12 programs recruited Thompson lightly and offered spots to other star guards from the region. USC landed DeMar DeRozan, UCLA signed Jrue Holiday, and Arizona chased Brandon Jennings, who wound up playing in Italy before declaring for the NBA draft. Being treated as second-tier talent put a chip on Klay’s shoulder, and he embraced that underdog’s mentality.
“I was right in UCLA’s backyard, Cal’s backyard,” Klay says. “[But] with Washington State, I was attracted there because Tony Bennett really sold me on his guys that were under the radar. I bought into that. People think because I was a player’s son, I was supposed to be this All-Star right away, but I was kind of a late bloomer.”
Playing at Washington State, far away from the Pac-12 spotlight, ended up being an important step in Thompson’s career. It allowed him to develop into an NBA prospect without facing the same level of scrutiny and pressure as his peers at glamour programs. “I thought I was going to make the NBA,” Thompson says. “But if I had went to UCLA, I probably would have felt I had to perform right away. Washington State was kind of unique — we are just a blue-collar school. I think I would have put a lot more pressure on myself if I was that five-star recruit coming out of high school. I probably would have gotten a little big-headed. [Instead], I was really hungry when I came to Washington State.”
Thompson started as a freshman on Bennett’s team. He averaged 12.5 points and led the Cougars in 3-point shooting and free throw percentage that season. By his junior year, Thompson was an all-conference player and the Pac-12’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game. Still, when Thompson declared for the draft after that season, he remained somewhat unknown to NBA scouts. “I played on the West Coast and up in the Pacific Northwest, in Pullman,” Klay explains. “Really in obscurity.” In pre-draft workouts, he was often paired with Mychel, who was two years older than Klay and who’d just finished his college career at Pepperdine. The brothers were part of the same draft class, and their workout battles weren’t much different from the driveway clashes of their childhood. “It wasn’t easy” Mychel recalls. “When you have scouts come and having to compete against him and he’s making every shot.”
In 2011, Bob Myers was named the Warriors’ general manager. That June, he would have to make his first NBA draft pick in that position. It was also the first draft for the Warriors’ ambitious new ownership group, headed by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. Klay Thompson, true to himself, had been reserved during his pre-draft interview with the team. “I sensed a quiet confidence,” Myers recalls, “which is hard to see, because when you’re interviewing potential players, often the ones that speak the loudest are the most memorable. It’s harder to read the introverts and it’s harder to read somebody that’s a little less gregarious.”
The Warriors took Thompson with the 11th overall pick. Adding Thompson to a roster that already included two ball-dominant guards seemed like a risk. Jackson had just been hired to coach the team, Monta Ellis and Curry were still learning to coexist, and incorporating a third wing scorer threatened to upset the lineup’s balance. At least, when Thompson joined the team, Curry gave him a kinder welcome than Ellis had offered Curry a few years before.
“When I first got here, I’d shoot with him and have competitions,” Thompson says. “I was good enough to win sometimes — just set shots — but when I started trying to put the dribble combinations together like him and do the things he does around the rim, my percentages didn’t look good,” Thompson adds. “His ball handling surprised me. I didn’t know he was that smooth with the ball, and how he has it on a string so much, and how quick he was to get his jump shot.”
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Back in the hotel, Curry has modeled nearly all the garments that have been laid out for him. All of a sudden, Kobe Bryant’s voice booms from the television. It’s audio from a recent Lakers practice, in which Bryant railed against his teammates, cursing them and calling them soft as toilet tissue.
Curry smiles. “Yeah, Kobes,2 talk to them.
Pronounced with a silent e, like “robes.”
“I like it,” he says. “I’ve been in practices like that before — when you’re trying to figure it out, trying to spark something. I know his competitiveness. He’s trying to figure that out.”
Not too long ago, most casual fans would probably scoff at uttering Curry’s name in the same breath with the NBA’s franchise cornerstones — players like Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. In 2013, after Curry narrowly missed making the 2013 Western Conference All-Star team, his mother, Sonya, remembers the patronizing support of one acquaintance, who told her, “Good try, but he’s really not LeBron or Kobe or anybody like that.”
Sonya Curry never doubted. Even when Stephen was a scrawny teenager, she saw he had the intelligence and work ethic to succeed. All he needed was a growth spurt. “We were praying that God would not leave our son with size 13 shoes and 5-foot-6,” she says. “Part of that was just praying, ‘Lord, you can’t have my child running around here with these big feet as tall as I am.’” And even though he grew to 6-foot-3 — an above-average height for an NBA point guard — and became a star at Davidson, scouts still wondered if Curry’s slight frame could withstand the toll of the league’s physical style and endure the grind of its unforgiving schedule. They questioned whether he’d be fast and explosive enough to create separation for his jump shot. But Sonya Curry never doubted.
Basketball, Dell and Sonya taught their children, was their father’s job and not a form of entertainment. Like Klay and Mychel Thompson, Stephen would battle his brother, Seth, on the court. “It would be hard for a game to finish because we’d go back and forth,” says Seth, who now plays for the D-League Erie BayHawks. “We’d foul and we’d end up almost getting into fights and my mom would have to break it up.” But Sonya Curry intervened only when the scuffles threatened to get serious. “Dell and I are both competitive as husband and wife — in everything — so we knew that our children were going to be like that too,” she says. “You don’t want to interfere too much because that’s just natural stuff. They grow and learn through it. But we were always there at the end to say, ‘What’s the lesson in this? Let’s check our attitudes and let’s move on.’”
At Charlotte Christian School, coach Shonn Brown got used to meeting college coaches who saw Curry’s slim build and questioned his potential. “I couldn’t tell you the number of coaches that were like, ‘He’s not athletic enough,’” Brown says. “It became comical to our staff, because we were like, ‘If I brought him to your college practice right now, he’d be the best shooter on your team.’ It was like, ‘You guys really aren’t understanding.’”
Curry’s Davidson exploits are the stuff of college basketball legend. During the school’s 2008 NCAA tournament run, March Madness descended on Davidson’s tony North Carolina campus and Curry became a national sensation. And although it’s easy for basketball fans to recall the images of Curry burying 3 after 3 in wins over Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin, there’s another memory that Davidson coach Bob McKillop rarely mentions when he talks about that season.
“In the year we went to the Elite Eight, prior to our opening game of the season, [Curry] was contemplating having surgery on his hand and sitting out the year,” McKillop says. “Not many people know that. If you look at tape from that year, you can see his thumb was taped up quite a bit and he played through it, and it was just remarkable, the resiliency that he had.”
During the Davidson years, America fell in love with Curry’s elegant game — the soft touch on his high-arcing jumpers and those delicate little teardrops he’d loft above the fingertips of opposing big men. A kind of sweetness shines through when you watch Curry play. But … “Don’t ever take that little baby-faced look and think he’s not competitive,” cautions Jerry West, who serves on the Warriors executive board. “He’s unbelievably competitive.”
“Nothing was ever given to me, regardless of what people think,” Curry says. “I had a dad that played in the league, but it wasn’t a cakewalk to get to this place. I’m obviously blessed to have natural talents, but for me, it was all about hard work and discipline when it came to getting to this level.”
Every player who enters the NBA, no matter how good he is, experiences a moment of doubt early in his career, something that makes him ask, “Am I good enough for this league?” Curry struggled at times in his rookie year, and his friend and former roommate Chris Strachan remembers that Curry would watch his old Davidson highlights to remind himself of how good he was. “It was like, Yeah, this is how I play,” Strachan says. It was as if Curry were thinking, “This is a new league and a new 3-point line and new teammates and different personalities and everything, but this is how I play right here. This is what I need to do.”
That’s when Curry began to gain the confidence necessary to succeed against the most talented and competitive basketball players in the world. He’d already built that self-belief over the first two years of his career, but it received an even greater boost when Mark Jackson was hired to coach the Warriors. Jackson, who’d been one of the most brash players of his generation, assured Curry that he’d be on the floor to finish games, and he demanded that Curry play with the same edge and attitude that Jackson once had. Although Jackson was fired after three seasons in Golden State over disagreements between himself and the front office, there’s no debating that he instilled confidence in his players and that they enjoyed playing for him.
“I spoke what I believed of those guys even if some of them didn’t believe it and even if the world didn’t believe it,” Jackson says.3 “I said that those guys were the best shooting backcourt that ever played this game. People looked at me like I was crazy [at the time], and now it’s a throwaway line. I said that Klay was the best two-way shooting guard and it looked like I was biased. I said Steph Curry was a superstar and we would be in the playoffs and we would be successful and we’d play defense. Draymond Green, people thought I was crazy for letting him shoot 3s. You believe in these guys, and sooner or later, it’s going to catch fire. I didn’t lie. Everything I said, I believed.”
“One thing about Klay, people fall in love with his ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor and [to get better] at that,” Jackson says. “He came into this league and he couldn’t defend. He wasn’t a defender, and to become a stopper and an elite defender, it’s an incredible accomplishment for him. It was a no-brainer he was going to be a max guy.”
The moment Curry knew he could be a superstar arrived randomly, during a road game against Dallas early in the 2012-13 season. “We were down in the second half and we had a huge comeback on the road,” he says. “And the last eight or so minutes of the fourth quarter was like my best performance ever as far as taking over the game. It was a random game, but it gave me a lot of confidence that I could do that — perform in big moments when I needed to.”4
Curry also cites his first playoff series against Denver in 2013 as an affirming moment. “You don’t really know what the playoffs are going to be like,” he says. “You have confidence that you are going to play well, but you never know how it’s going to shake out.”
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Klay Thompson had a similar moment midway through his rookie year, during a ho-hum game in Denver. He was nervous in his first several games, but the breakneck pace of that lockout-shortened season meant Thompson had no time to worry about feeling butterflies in his stomach. He just had to play, and that night against the Nuggets his game came together in a flash and revealed Thompson as the kind of scorer he could be. He scored 19 points in less than 18 minutes. “I was like, ‘Man, did I just do that?’” he says. “I realized from there that I could be a good player in this league.”
Mychal Thompson saw proof that his son would find NBA success even before Klay’s performance in Denver. It came against the Lakers in Los Angeles. “Knowing what a killer Kobe was on the court and how he likes to test young players,” Mychal says, “if Klay could hold his own against Kobe, then I thought, OK, he’s ready for this league, because there’s no better competitor in this game than Kobe Bryant.” His son hit six of eight shots in a loss to Kobe’s Lakers. “I just played as hard as I could,” Klay recalls. “I tried to contest every shot to the point of the ball. It was a cool moment for me because my family was in the stands. My friends were in the stands. They’re all Kobe lovers and Lakers lovers.”
From there, Jackson kept tutoring Thompson, showing the rookie tricks that the coach’s former teammates, like Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin, had used to free themselves for shots. “He just gave me extreme confidence,” Thompson says. “He really felt I was the best 2-guard in the NBA on both sides of the ball. It was fun playing for him every night. He was really motivational and he really had me believing.”
The best explanation for the steady improvement Thompson has kept up throughout his career might also be the simplest: He doesn’t have many interests besides basketball. There’s his dog, Rocco; his video games; and basketball. “I just really do want to play,” Thompson says. “I’m not out there trying to make a fashion statement or pump my chest or have the most social media followers. I just love basketball.” Thompson’s numbers have improved every year he’s been in the league. He averaged 12.5, 16.6, and 18.4 points in his three full NBA seasons.
Late in Thompson’s rookie year, Golden State traded Monta Ellis to acquire Andrew Bogut. The deal marked the official turnover of the team to Curry and freed more playing time for Thompson. “I give Bob Myers and Jerry [West] and all the guys in basketball ops great credit for pushing to do the Bogut trade,” Lacob says. “It allowed Steph to blossom and take over without Monta, and the pairing with Klay was perfect.” Myers admits that the deal was more about landing Bogut than anything else. “Klay gave us the opportunity to explore dealing Monta because we saw that [Thompson] could be a high-level 2-guard,” the GM says. “But this franchise had been centerless for 20 years. The chance to grab a guy [who] we felt we could grow with and was relatively young, it was too good to pass up.”
Andre Iguodala guarded Thompson when Golden State faced the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. The series, which the Warriors won, played a role in Iguodala’s decision to sign with Golden State the following offseason. Iguodala envisioned himself as an ideal backcourt complement to Thompson and Curry.
“There’s no such thing as a bad shot [with Klay],” Iguodala says. “There’s no such thing as a play that can’t be made. If he makes a mistake, it’s almost as if he didn’t make it, because the next time, he’ll try it again and make it happen.” That confidence, Iguodala says, distinguishes Thompson from other gifted shooting guards: “Everyone in the NBA is talented, but the mental part of it goes [overlooked]. That’s something that’ll never show up in analytics. It’s hard to measure that as a GM — what type of guy [a player] is. But Klay is one of the very few who you can measure it [for], because there is no fear.”
Last season, Curry and Thompson’s long-range assault truly came into its own — and terrorized opponents. They made a combined 484 3s, the most ever by two teammates in a season. “I try to get a little shove off my defender, get as much space as possible,” Thompson says of how he creates separation when he curls off screens. “You can kind of feel in the back of your head how much space you’ve got, if you’ve got a good push on him. I don’t need a lot of space to get it off. If I feel like I got a good push off him, it’s going up every time.”
When Golden State reached the 2014 playoffs, Bogut was sidelined by a broken rib, and the Warriors dropped a tense seven-game first-round series to the Clippers. Both Curry (with playoff averages of 23 points and 8.4 assists) and Thompson (16.4 and 3.6) impressed.
By the end of last season, Curry and Thompson’s incendiary scoring runs had become so common that fans almost began to expect them. “It’s kind of unfortunate, because as a player, you want that surprise,” Draymond Green says. “You want that, Man, you see that? You want someone to feel that way about the work you put in. But at this point, it doesn’t surprise me when they run off 12 or 14 straight. Both of them are just so good.”
The 2014-15 season opened after a summer of uncertainty. To the dismay of many players, Golden State replaced Jackson after his relationship with the front office deteriorated. Steve Kerr was hired as the Warriors’ new coach. “That was tough to handle because the whole year, I knew there was obviously questions about his job security and there wasn’t many people, especially in the front office, backing him,” Curry says of Jackson. “So he was kind of just left hanging until the end of the season and they obviously pulled the trigger on the decision. [At first] I wasn’t very happy about it, and then you’re kind of uncertain about who they’re going to hire. I approached it as two separate decisions. I wasn’t happy with the first one [to fire Jackson], but happy with the second, knowing that we’re getting a good head coach, highly touted [for] his basketball IQ and his background.”
The offseason was even more nerve-racking for Thompson, whose name continually surfaced in trade rumors with Minnesota for Kevin Love. The question of whether to make a run at Love split the Warriors front office. “Clearly, we had an opportunity to make a big deal, which would have involved Klay, and it was a very complex decision,” Lacob says. “It went on for quite a long time. Really a couple of months. It’s always a tough call on something like this. There are great players going both ways. But at the end of the day, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are maybe the best backcourt in the NBA. That doesn’t come along every day.”
After months of speculation, Kerr sent a text message to Klay: You’re not going anywhere. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to coach you.
Curry and Thompson both earned gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where Thompson was one of Team USA’s stars. “He has an edge to him, which we liked,” says Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball. “If you’re having a conversation with him, he’s always rocking. He’s always on his toes. He’s ready to play all the time.”
After the United States pummeled Serbia in the tournament final, Thompson approached his mother. “Mom, I can’t imagine how it would feel to win an NBA championship,” he remembers saying. The comment caught Julie Thompson off guard. Klay hadn’t even bothered to take a victory lap with his gold medal. He was already focused on the upcoming NBA season.
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Steve Kerr has maintained an “aw shucks” demeanor while helming the Warriors to the best record in the NBA. He lucked into this position, he says. The pieces were in place, he says. He just tells his players to shoot, he says. He praises the job Mark Jackson did before he arrived.
All that is likely true. But Kerr’s humility camouflages what he’s done to help Golden State reach a new level of success. He has an understated confidence that comes from the years he spent as a player on the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, learning from Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. If Kerr took the wrong approach going into the season, he could have enflamed a tense locker room full of players who didn’t fully approve of how Jackson had lost his job. Kerr called each player individually to deliver the message that he believed the Warriors were already a great team. He was not a savior, he told them, because the organization didn’t need one. He explained that he just planned to implement some tweaks that would hopefully inch Golden State to the next level.
Still, Kerr is the coach who, during his playing career, once got into a fistfight with Michael Jordan at practice. He wants to win as much as do all the players on his roster. Before the team’s first film session, Kerr broke the ice by splicing in a montage that mocked the team’s assistant coaches. He included a photo of Alvin Gentry from his college basketball career in the 1970s, when Gentry sported a huge Afro; there was another vintage photo of Ron Adams and a Family Guy clip that mocked Luke Walton’s playing ability. On the second day of training camp, however, Kerr lit into his team. “And we deserved it,” Thompson says. “We had come out sloppy. He hates to lose, man.”
Kerr has tasked Curry with defending opposing point guards game after game.5 “It’s important, especially as a captain and a point guard, for a player like that to take the challenge,” Kerr says. “It sets a good tone, but it also means that in certain matchups, we stay more solid because a lot of teams will have a great point guard and then a couple great wing players. It’s nice to keep Klay on a big wing rather than look at a possible mismatch.” Curry has been among the league leaders in steals this season, and Warriors assistant Adams emphasizes that Curry’s steals don’t come at the expense of team defense. “He’s deflecting passes that people are trying to throw through him to feed the post,” Adams says. “He’s getting a hand on the ball and then he’s picking up the turnover and going with it. That’s to be contrasted with a lot of the steals with guys who are running out in lanes and trying to get the steal, and if they don’t, it’s a five-on-four.”
“Klay Thompson is an elite defender, and his size disrupts smaller guards, and what we were asking Steph to do offensively, it made it a no-brainer,” Mark Jackson says, explaining his decision in previous seasons to hide Curry in some defensive matchups. “I never had a doubt about his defense. When he had to guard the point guards, which was, no matter if I put Klay on somebody or not, Steph still had his moments with having to defend the point guard. So nothing about that surprises me at all. To make the point, people that say, ‘Steph guards the point guards now.’ In ball games, you’ll see Klay on them even now. It’s just the wise thing to do.”
Kerr has pushed Thompson to put the ball on the floor more often and to sharpen his decision-making for when to pass, shoot, or drive. “Coach Kerr told me I’ve got to be greedy,” Thompson says. “That’s getting into the lane, getting to the free throw line, getting my shot.”
Young teams that skyrocket up the standings often experience power struggles within their rosters. Think Shaq and Penny with the Orlando Magic, Shaq and Kobe with the Lakers, or even, to some extent, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with the Oklahoma City Thunder. There are only so many shot attempts, so many contract dollars, and so many endorsement opportunities to go around. But Golden State believes that type of friction won’t develop between Curry and Thompson. “I’ve never heard Steph come to anybody and say, ‘I need this many shots. I need to get the ball,’” Thompson says. “That’s not my nature, either. I know I’m going to get shots up if I just play my game and keep moving without the ball. For us, it’s never been about, ‘Oh, he’s the franchise guy,’ or ‘Oh, he gets all the accolades.’ I think we all put our egos aside.
“I know my strengths,” Thompson continues. “I know I’m not as good as Steph with the ball in my hands. I’m better moving off the pick, off the ball, in position to catch and go, instead of standing still with the high ball screen. So let’s say it’s the end of the game and Coach Kerr calls a drag screen for Steph. I’m not going to argue because I know that [Curry]’s going to draw enough attention that I’m going to get a shot. Or I know I’m a better post player than Steph, so if I have a mismatch, he’ll recognize it and throw me the ball. [But] at times, both of us have to be selfish to get into a rhythm and a groove or just to put pressure on a defense.”
This outlook has spread among the rest of the Golden State roster. “Steph don’t care if Klay gets the shot,” Green says. “Klay don’t care if Steph gets the shot. So if you’re on their team, how can you get mad at something like that?”
The public expectations for this Warriors season have skyrocketed — perhaps more than Jerry West would prefer. As great as the team has played, it will always be held back by concerns about Bogut’s health. The oft-injured big man, the key anchor to the Warriors’ league-leading defense, recently had platelet-rich plasma therapy performed on his right knee and hasn’t played since December 8. He’s expected to return mid-January. West insists that this is a team and roster set for the long haul. “You can’t even talk about a championship at this point in time,” West says. “I think it’s inappropriate because this is a work in progress. I think we’re starting to get more confident. I think we can get a lot better. I really do. When I look at other teams, how many can get a lot better? I don’t think there are a lot.”
But regardless of whether West deems it proper to anoint the Warriors as a potential championship team, as long as they’ve got the best record in the NBA and continue to pull away from the field in a historically competitive Western Conference, fans and the media will keep Golden State high on the list of title contenders. And the pressure will be on Curry and Thompson to prove that they can be just as devastating in the postseason.
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Steph Curry and Klay Thompson offered similar descriptions of how it feels when they can’t miss on the basketball court — when every shot, from everywhere, seems like it will be swallowed by the net.
“The rim looks bigger,” Curry says. “The ball feels better. Your body feels in sync no matter where you are on the court, or what happens before you rise up and take the shot. It just feels like the ultimate confidence. Because you know the opposite of that. You know when your timing is off or something doesn’t feel right and every shot is awkward for whatever reason. But when you’re on fire, [you] could rush a shot, [you] could force a shot and it still feels like it’s going in.”
Says Thompson: “Once you see that ball go in three or four times, you feel like you can’t miss. Once you see it go straight through the net — that swish — that’s the best feeling in the world. When it doesn’t even touch the rim and you don’t even have to hold your follow-through. That’s when you’re in the zone. At the beginning of the game, you hold your follow-through. Once you come off that curl, though, and you feel like you can’t miss, you shoot real quick, cock back, and that’s a great feeling. Individually, that’s probably one of the best things in basketball as a scorer. You feel on top of the world.”
Back at the Warriors’ practice facility, with the rain still pelting Oakland, Klay Thompson had time for one last question.
“The definition of ‘Splash Brothers’?” he says. “The definition is make it rain, like to hear the net go swoosh — that beautiful sound. The definition is just two shooters who are locked and loaded from 30 feet in and you can’t relax.”