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Klay Thompson’s thirst for recognition speaks to a deeper inner conflict

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He knows he’s a better defender than other players who make all-defensive teams, but will anyone else realize it as long as he stays with the Warriors?

Getty Images/SB Nation Illustration

Klay Thompson sat down with Stadium’s Shams Charania this week. The big headline out of the interview hovers around Thompson’s declaration that he knows that he’s a better defender than some of the players who have been on the NBA All-Defense teams the last couple of years.

“I’m very confident in saying this: The past few years, there’s been some guys where I’m like, ‘Man, I know I’m a better defender than him,’” Thompson told Charania.

As a snap reaction, I’m inclined to agree! Thompson is a really strong defender who takes pressure off Stephen Curry and doesn’t let the energy he expends chasing around the league’s speedy, explosive guards to detract from his job of running off screens to get open on offense. It’d be so easy for Thompson to loaf. He doesn’t. That speaks to the combination of defensive talent, pride, and work ethic he has.

But it’s worth looking at the guards on recent All-Defense teams to explore who Klay might be talking about.

The All-Defense guards and wings last season were Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Robert Covington, Dejounte Murray, and Jimmy Butler. Thompson probably deserved the nod over Murray, and when you consider how many more games Thompson played than Butler (14), there’s a strong case there, too.

The All-Defense guards and wings in 2016-17 (the Warriors’ first with Kevin Durant) were Patrick Beverley, Chris Paul, Tony Allen, Danny Green, and Andre Roberson. You could have made the case for Thompson to be in there over anyone but Beverley or CP3.

In 2015-16 — the last season before Durant joined Golden State, and the season the Warriors won 73 games with the No. 6 rated defense — the All-Defense guards were Avery Bradley, Chris Paul, Tony Allen, and Jimmy Butler. Despite the Warriors’ supremacy, I’m not sure there’s a case for Thompson in that mix.

But there are obvious reasons Thompson gets short shrift in defensive considerations.

The first is that he’s not the “best” defender on the Warriors — that’s Draymond Green, who has made four straight All-Defense teams. Everyone acknowledges Golden State’s defensive excellence, but Green has traditionally received the lion’s share of credit for that. In the past two years, Durant has begun to drag that attention over as well — there was a Durant for Defensive Player of the Year bubble early last season (owing to his rim protection) before injury cost him too many games and he lost steam on an individual level.

The second is all about the perception of what an elite defender looks and acts like. Thompson is, in a word, chill. Most top defenders are not. They are Tony Allens, Patrick Beverleys, Chris Pauls. They are Draymond Greens! They snarl, they fight, they grab, they bump. Klay Thompson doesn’t really do much of that. He’s a damn good defender all the same, just not in the same way those getting the All-Defense honors are.

The third is that the Warriors are so unbelievably good that everyone gets shorter shrift at this point. Curry and Durant aren’t really in the MVP discussion anymore. We know Golden State without Curry would be the title favorite, and we know Golden State without Durant would be the title favorite, so how can either be the league’s Most Valuable Player?

Green’s stature is both aided by the Warriors’ excellence (because it allows him to be his best self — a tenacious defender and offensive playmaker who doesn’t need to hunt shots) and hurt by those same forces diminishing Curry and Durant. Is Green now the fifth best player on the roster with the arrival of DeMarcus Cousins? How does that affect his shot at All-Star and All-NBA honors? It’s worth noting that Green fell to the second team All-Defense last season, probably in part because of Durant’s defensive ascension.

This reason Thompson is getting less recognition than deserved for his defense is tied to the first, and it’s actually something Klay can fix next summer. How? By leaving the Warriors as a free agent. On a team where he isn’t constantly overshadowed by bigger stars, Thompson could get the attention and credit he deserves.

Some part of Thompson knows that, and it would appear some part of Thompson is working through that mental exercise all the time. Witness his answer to questions about 2019 Charania lobbed at him.

“I just want to be on a great team. I don’t necessarily want to be the focal point at all times, because I’ve been to the mountain top and I know what it feels like to win and win with some of your best friends. That’s why it’d be hard for me to leave, just because I put so much, you know, blood, sweat, and tears into this building, with this franchise. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I just, uh, I couldn’t imagine myself being anywhere else.

But, you know, it’s easy to say that now. With time, things change, so it’s hard for me to envision what goes on in nine months.”

Thompson talks like someone who really enjoys being a Warrior and winning championships. But there’s an element in there where he knows he has to leave open the possibility of moving on, because there’s a real possibility he’ll need to move on if Golden State isn’t willing to take the luxury tax hit that’d come with paying Thompson according to his market value.

Getting the biggest payday possible is different than getting individual recognition for your individual excellence, but they are connected. Being named to the All-Defense team as the best individual defender on, say, the L.A. Lakers alongside LeBron James and a motley crew of role players would be a lot easier than making it from the stacked Warriors.

Stepping out of a crowd of shadows doesn’t require becoming the focal point or having your own team. It just means gaining some breathing room. Moving to a team with a little less voltage could let Thompson shine brighter.

Is it worth saying goodbye to the sunk blood, sweat, and tears Thompson has put into Golden State? Is it worth uprooting your life? Is it worth saying goodbye to your best friends? Is it worth giving up a better shot at more rings?

That’s something only Klay himself can decide. And it’s pretty clear he’ll be working through his feelings about it all season long.