Chris Paul is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Following a missed shot by Clint Capela — as well as some questionable decision-making by Ryan Anderson to pursue the offensive rebound — Paul finds himself as Houston’s only hope of stopping Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson in transition. Iguodala receives the ball from Stephen Curry on an outlet pass around the half court line and immediately changes course to put himself in direct line to the basket. Thompson, meanwhile, floats towards the corner on the right side of the court to force Paul to make an impossible split-second decision.
If Paul drops to the paint, he’ll prevent Iguodala from getting an uncontested dunk. If he runs out to the perimeter, he’ll prevent one of the best shooters in the NBA from getting an uncontested 3-pointer. Paul chooses to do the former, taking away a guaranteed 2-pointer in the hope that Thompson, who has made 54.0 percent of his wide open 3-point attempts this season, will miss.
It’s a decision opponents have to wrestle with constantly when playing against the Warriors, who have scored more points in transition than any other team in the league over the last two and a half seasons. Those plays make up 19.2 percent of their scoring this season alone and they find themselves at the top of the league with 1.21 points per possession as a team, a ridiculous accomplishment considering only the Lakers have attempted more shots than them in transition.
Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant each excel in the open court. The difference this season is Thompson is the one who is leading the way in those situations. The only players who have outscored Thompson in transition thus far are Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Thompson, however, has each of them beat when it comes to how well he converts those opportunities. According to NBA.com, he has scored a total of 226 points on 155 transition possessions this season, which works out to be a video game-like 1.46 points per possession. Nick Young and Marvin Williams are the only players in the league who have been more efficient than Thompson on at least 50 transition possessions.
Three numbers from that table tell you everything you need to know about what makes Thompson unstoppable in transition. The first is his effective field goal percentage — a statistic that adjusts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth more than 2-pointers. Thompson’s is significantly higher than Antetokounmpo’s, for example, because far more of his transition points come from the perimeter. It’s why there is a huge difference between Thompson’s field goal percentage (58.6 percent) and his effective field goal percentage (77.9 percent).
The second and third are Thompson’s comically low free throw frequency (3.2 percent) and turnover frequency (7.1 percent). Westbrook’s frequency in those categories is much greater because he puts far more pressure on teams at the rim, making him more prone to drawing fouls. Like Antetokounmpo and James, Westbrook also likes to take control of the possession as early as possible by grabbing his own defensive rebounds or receiving an outlet immediately from one of his teammates, thereby giving him more opportunities to make plays and turn the ball over.
Thompson prefers to beat his defender up the court without the ball in his hands and make himself available for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Not only does most of Thompson’s offense come in the form of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, almost all of his made 3-pointers this season have been assisted. (The two usually go hand in hand). Sprinting the floor and spotting-up on the perimeter early in the shot clock is what he does best.
Thompson can get away with that approach because the Warriors have an abundance of playmakers on their roster. Curry is the “point guard” when he’s on the court, but Iguodala, Durant, Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston can each take over as the primary ball handler when needed. So as soon as one of them has possession of the ball, Thompson can take off confidently knowing they will make the right decision.
Further complicating matters for the defense is each of them are capable of making plays off-ball as well. Curry can play the role of a shooting guard when needed, as can Durant. Green isn’t the greatest 3-point shooter in the league, but he can stretch the floor out to the perimeter as a power forward. It’s a similar case with Iguodala and Livingston, although they much prefer to attack the basket. The combination of Curry, Thompson and Durant is particularly difficult for defenses to game plan against in transition because it pushes Thompson to third in the pecking order.
You can see teams go through each option when the Warriors push the pace following a missed shot or turnover. Someone has to meet Curry as soon as he crosses half court, and the threat of his 3-point shooting off the dribble often draws a second defender into the picture. Next in line is Durant, who can step into a 3-pointer or cut to the basket for a dunk. He, too, sometimes draws the attention of two defenders because of his shooting. That leaves Thompson, one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in NBA history, as a complete afterthought.
Other than face-guarding Thompson the moment the Warriors get possession of the ball — a death sentence when Curry and Durant are on the floor at the same time — there isn’t a specific way to limit his touches in transition because he’s as versatile as a shooter as there is in the NBA. He’ll pull-up several feet beyond the 3-point line, create space for himself with difficult stepbacks and launch a 3-pointer within seconds of a made shot without a moment’s hesitation.
He’ll even let it fly when one of his teammates is standing alone underneath the basket.
Thompson is comfortable taking those shots because he has been given the green light to do so. When the Warriors signed Durant, Steve Kerr said that Thompson would have the easiest transition on the team because such a huge portion of his game has always been built around catch-and-shoot jump shots. It would be different if Thompson was a high usage pick-and-roll or isolation player, but putting another volume scorer alongside him doesn’t mean he has to sacrifice much as, say, Curry. If anything, it helps Thompson because it draws more attention away from him, especially when all three of them are involved in the same play.
Pushing the pace in transition is also a good way to ensure Thompson continues to get his touches. According to inpredictable, no team in the NBA scores as quickly as the Warriors do following a defensive rebound. (It takes them 9.6 seconds on average). And according to NBA.com, nobody has taken more shots within eight seconds of the shot clock than Thompson this season. He has already attempted 172 “early” 3-pointers — roughly half of his total 3-point attempts on the season — and he’s made 84 of those opportunities.
Thompson is unlikely to shoot that well for the remainder of the season, but, as Chris Paul learned, hoping he starts to miss certainly isn’t the answer to slowing him down.