Why Klay Thompson is not fantasy's top SG

ByJohn Cregan ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Klay Thompson is on fire. In the richest, most NBA Jam-ian form of vernacular.

Thompson's averages in the past five games: 30.3 PTS, .548 FG%, .864 FT%, 5.5 3PT, 3.8 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.0 BLK, 0.8 STL.

By way of celebration, Thompson just self-proclaimed himself the best shooting guard in basketball.

Hmmm. Do we agree with Klay Thompson?

Does his current scoring rampage place him upon the off-ball mountaintop? Has Thompson assumed the mantle of best shooting guard in the NBA?

Or do we agree with ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton? Does Thompson benefit a little too mightily from playing alongside the near mythological Steph Curry? Is there still two-way work to do before taking the top spot at the 2?

Let's focus. Is Thompson the top shooting guard in fantasy?

In fantasy, the debate can take place from within more myopic boundaries. We can throw out reality-based valuation metrics like real plus minus and win shares and focus on a narrower, geekier bandwidth.

Using ESPN.com's 2015-16 player rater averages, the top 10 shooting guards currently shake out in this order...

Thompson clocks in at ... ninth.


It would seem that Thompson is way, way off from being fantasy's top shooting guard.

Not so fast.

First off, the shooting guard leaderboard is cluttered with players with multipositional eligibility.

There are several players up there who just eke out qualifying at SG. (It's a good thing SG eligibility is surrounded by a more forgiving and utopian velvet rope. It's traditionally the thinnest position in fantasy.)

How many actual true starting NBA shooting guards are we talking about?

Throwing out the Steph Currys and Nicolas Batums, Thompson leaps up the charts to notch fourth.

Let's close our initial debate.

James Edward Harden is the best shooting guard in basketball. Hands down, case closed, in fantasy and reality.

Even with Harden's attenuated start -- and steep drop-off from his 2015 player rater score of 20.43 -- Harden nearly doubles Klay Thompson's fantasy production. (To put it into perspective, one Harden is the fantasy equal of Thompson and C.J. McCollum.)

Harden outproduces Thompson in points (28.5 to 19.3), free throw percentage (.866 to .853), rebounds (6.2 to 3.5), assists (6.8 to 2.5) and steals (1.8 to 0.6). Thompson wins out in field goal percentage (.473 to .413) and 3-pointers (3.2 to 2.7).

On paper, Thompson also ranks behind Jimmy Butler (21.5 PTS, .450 FG%, .823 FT%, 1.7 3PT, 5.0 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.9 BLK, 1.8 STL) and even a slumping Brandon Knight (19.7 PTS, .432 FG%, .836 FT%, 2.3 3PT, 4.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.4 BLK, 1.5 STL).

To be fair, given current trajectories, Thompson should overtake Knight for the third spot.

But here's the thing. Here's why I really brought you here today.

The 2015-16 version of Klay Thompson isn't even as productive as the 2014-15 version of Klay Thompson.

2014-15 Klay Thompson closed out the campaign with 13.13 player rater points. He finished the season as the second-best true shooting guard in Fantasyland. But this season, Thompson's production is down by 36 percent.

When Thompson made his chest-thumping proclamation, perhaps he was thinking of last year's numbers.

Because 2014-15 Thompson (13.13 PR points) would be in the conversation with 2015-16 Harden (15.13 PR points) for top shooting guard.

The real question here isn't "Is Klay Thompson is the top shooting guard in fantasy?" It's "Why has Thompson been less productive in 2015-16?"

It isn't playing time. Thompson clocks in at 31.7 minutes per game in 2015-16. That's nearly identical to the 31.9 MPG he averaged in 2014-15.

So why has Thompson's fantasy production taken such a hit?

Part of the answer actually lies in Pelton's rationale. While playing alongside Curry boosts Thompson's real-life NBA rsum ... it's been hurting him in fantasy.

Curry is playing at such a Ruthian pace that his gravitational pull is siphoning away Thompson's production.

Let's look at player rater production alongside usage rate and PER.

And Curry's not the only Warrior who's taken a leap. Quietly and steadily, Draymond Green has begun to assert himself more on offense. Adding Green to the chart delineates Green's ascendancy --

While Curry's and Green's usage rate, PER and player rater production have all spiked, Thompson's numbers have slid.

You can see the extrapolation of the drop in volume (usage rate) and efficiency (PER) in Thompson's player rater comps --

As you can see, Thompson hasn't only dropped in pure scoring production. His rebounding, steals and blocks are also down.

The Warriors' narrative tends to be laden with 3-point production. But the real story here isn't Thompson's drop in 3-pointers, because looking at Thompson's 3-point metrics across the board, one could argue that he has actually improved from behind the arc.

Instead, take a look at the free throw production.

Thompson is down by nearly a full player rater point in free throw production.

Remember, in the player rater, volume of attempts is folded into the free throw metric. So players with fewer attempts will register a lower score, even if their actual free throw percentage holds steady.

Thompson is shooting fewer free throws in 2015-16 (2.7 FTA to 3.3 in 2014-15). And he's hitting them with less frequency (.853 FT% to .879).

This drop is a harbinger of a shooting guard mentality.

And it's why shooting guards drive me nuts in fantasy. Shooting guards are to fantasy basketball what wide receivers are to fantasy football.

Unlike quarterbacks and point guards, wide receivers and shooting guards have to be fed touches. If they don't get fed, their raison d'tre hits an existential pothole.

If you mosey on over to Basketball-Reference.com, you'll see further evidence in Thompson's 2-point production.

Thompson's 2-point attempts per 100 possessions are down from 15.0 to 11.0. I think this has as much to do with Green as it does Curry. Curry's 2-point attempts have held steady at 13.0. But Green's 2-point attempts have gone from 8.6 to 10.2.

In 2014-15, 58 percent of Thompson's field goal attempts were from 2-point range. In 2015-16, it's down to 50 percent. And that's more telling than you think, when you consider the shooting guard mentality.

It's not just the decrease in less efficient jump shots. The biggest single drop in Thompson's 2-point production has been from 0 to 3 feet. As in layups. As in drives to the basket.

Thompson isn't getting to take the ball to the hoop the way he did in 2014-15. He's getting fewer layups, which translates to fewer fouls, which translates to fewer free throw attempts.

Shooting guards tend to need the ball in their hands to be productive. When they're fed fewer touches on offense, numbers start to drop across the board. Statistical fissures pop up in odd places. Rebounds drop. Steals divot.

What we have here, dear reader ... is a numerically pouty shooting guard.

Look at Thompson's big night last night against the Bucks. His shot chart reflects an uptick from 0 to 3 feet.

Thompson was more aggressive with the ball, and it translated at the free throw line. Thompson scored 27 points but was only 2-for-9 from downtown. The key was getting to the line. Thompson was 9-for-10 from the free throw line, his second-best free throw performance of the season and only the second time he's gotten to double digits in free throw attempts.

Thompson's recent trash talk is fine. No; it's good. Thompson is known for being somewhat shy, which is atypical for a 2-guard.

You want your shooting guard to experience constant bouts of delusional overconfidence. To achieve peak production, Thompson needs to be a true shooting guard with a true shooting guard mentality.

Which will, coincidentally, lead him to make the occasional irrational pronunciation about being the best in the NBA.

Look at what Thompson's registered over his past five games. It's a genuine breakout. Thompson's mojo is working. He's reverting to his gangbusters 2014-15 form.

Which should ... make him a mortal lock for fantasy's second-best shooting guard.