How Klay Thompson’s 13-year run with the Warriors splintered so unceremoniously

SAN FRANCISCO — The tensest of 24-hour stretches in Klay Thompson’s 13th and final season as a Golden State Warrior — ending in an unceremonious divorce that stunned so many this week — came directly before this past All-Star break, during and after a home collapse against the LA Clippers.

The Warriors were on a five-game win streak that opened in Brooklyn a week prior, the same night Steve Kerr opted to close with little-known Gui Santos over Thompson because Santos made a few fourth-quarter hustle plays and Thompson had been slumping.

It worked fine. The Warriors won. Santos had a feel-good moment. But the postgame story shifted to Thompson, who delivered an honest, viral locker room interview about his difficulty grasping this transitional moment of his career, seeming to fight tears while also emphasizing how proud he was of Santos.

The Warriors won the next four games, but Thompson’s struggles continued. They were 26-25, battling back above .500 now that Draymond Green had returned from suspension, but still desperate to climb up the conference standings before it was too late. Kerr was making rotation decisions with increased urgency and less sentimentality.

Fast forward five months and Thompson’s free agency departure for Dallas has so many in the league wondering: Why? How did it get to a point where a 13-year legacy player willingly walked away from a dynasty brand he helped build and an area that adored him so much?

It’s been a layered five-year path to this divorce, splintering last season, sprouting earlier and finalizing in the last couple weeks, where —among the conversations Thompson had, league sources said — was a request of Stephen Curry not to exert his significant organizational influence and up the temperature with management to ensure Thompson’s return. Curry’s measured voice, even if it altered the outcome, wouldn’t change the genuineness of Joe Lacob and the front office’s true desire to have Thompson back.

So there they were against the Clippers, up 12 in the fourth but in constant fear of blowing a large lead because they’d made it a habit. Thompson hit two jumpers to open the quarter, but his night wasn’t going well. Those jumpers made him 4 of 14 overall. He subbed out at the 7:01 mark and it became clear quickly that Kerr didn’t plan to go back to him. So Thompson stewed.

Strip away the quirks, anybody who knows Thompson will tell you that his competitive fire burns as deeply and as ferociously as anyone who has ever played. It’s a killer instinct that has him bound for the Hall of Fame. The franchise won titles and made countless millions, in part, because of that instinct the past decade.

But dense character traits can be attached to flaws in adverse moments. Thompson was never going to smoothly handle a reduced role. During an early December game in Phoenix — the same night Green nailed Jusuf Nurkić and earned an indefinite suspension — Thompson was pulled from the closing lineup for the first time in his career. In a fit of rage after learning the decision, Thompson whacked a cup rack behind the bench to the ground and needed to be pulled back by Curry as he lit up the coaching staff in the huddle.

On this February night against the Clippers, he planted himself on the bench and boiled, staring out at the court as his two legendary teammates, Curry and Green, were out there battling to preserve the dying days of a dynasty with a rookie, Brandin Podziemski, in his spot.

But another problem surfaced: When absorbed in existential thought (as Thompson tends to find himself), the details of the present (like the mechanics of a basketball game) can fade. The Clippers went up six with 48 seconds left. The Warriors called a timeout. Kerr knew they needed a 3. So he called for a cold Thompson, still one of the world’s greatest floor spacers and shooters, to replace Jonathan Kuminga.

The design worked. Thompson drew two off a screen, found a rolling Green, who hit Podziemski in the corner for 3. The Warriors were now only down three with 39.1 seconds left, plenty of time to play out the possession.

“We didn’t want to foul,” Kerr said. “It’s an obvious defend and play it out, get a rebound.”

Thompson didn’t calculate time and score. He committed an intentional foul after the inbound, sending Kerr and the Warriors’ bench into a collective spasm of frustration that’d be replayed quite publicly over the minutes and hours that followed. Some theorized postgame Thompson’s head was elsewhere.

They lost again, a common factor at the core of most growing frustrations in sports. The proud Warriors were failing more often in increasingly bewildering ways, generating a perpetual blame game that was leaning Thompson’s way more than ever before.

This was an embarrassing blunder for him at one of the low points of his season, only compounded the next morning in Salt Lake City when Kerr, on the second night of a back-to-back, informed Thompson he’d be moving to the bench. He’d occupied the Warriors’ starting shooting guard spot for more than a decade, 727 consecutive games when healthy. It was an identity more than just a title.

But it was now being given to Podziemski, who was 8 when Thompson hit the first of his 2,982 3s (playoffs included) for the franchise. That news didn’t land softly. Thompson ripped into Kerr and his staff, team sources said, and spent some of that day grumbling about his inevitable summer departure from the franchise. His impending free agency loomed in the background all season.

But this is where the complexity and dichotomy of Thompson inevitably whipped back. He went out that night and torched the Utah Jazz for 35 points in 28 minutes and then sat down for another of his introspective postgame media sessions, telling the world he “deserved” the demotion, he’d “embraced” the role, he shouldn’t “pout” and then used Manu Ginobili’s career as a reference point.

Thompson and Kerr sat down for several heart-to-hearts over the last few seasons. Thompson detailed a few publicly, thanking Kerr for reminding him he needed to enjoy the final years of a historic career and not anguish over a chase to reclaim what he once was prior to the injuries. In one particular revealing soundbite, Thompson acknowledged the negative energy he’d been spreading and the need to be a better mentor.

“Sometimes I forget just how lucky and successful I’ve been,” Thompson said.

That version of Thompson is the reason so many within the Warriors expected him to circle back around in recent weeks, have all the necessary reconciliation conversations and ultimately decide on a reunion. He’s deeply proud of what he helped build and went into detail about his desire to remain with the Warriors forever prior to last season.

“I was here before banners were hung up,” Thompson said. “So in a way, it’s our baby. You want to ride it out. I’ve just been so lucky to be a part of this franchise. It’d be so hard to envision myself in another uniform.”

Kerr made some sensitive coaching decisions last season that, in retrospect, played a part in nudging Thompson out the door. In Kerr’s exit interview, he mentioned the desire to bring Thompson off the bench again (he won his starting job back by the end of the season) and the need to play him less in general, a soundbite that wouldn’t have helped in any theoretical negotiations with a player most proud of his durability and availability (a team-high 77 games at nearly 30 minutes per night last season) at this advanced stage of his career.

But the substantial relationship fracturing that led to this split points the microscope at upper management. Controlling owner Joe Lacob led a front-office effort to take a cold, mostly uncommunicative approach to Thompson’s next contract in his three summers of extension eligibility, league sources said, which isn’t separate from their norm. Lacob has done similar in the past with Curry, Kerr, Bob Myers, Andre Iguodala and Green, using dwindling time as a weapon but ultimately paying up (he put a substantial offer on the table for Myers) after a staring contest.

But Iguodala’s (in 2017) and Green’s (in 2023) are the two parallel situations that have popped up most in conversation about the split with Thompson that blindsided some Warriors’ executives in recent weeks. Iguodala and Green, both sharp and versed in the corporate world, used leverage to exact a better deal from the Warriors. Iguodala took his decision deep into free agency.

Thompson operates on his own wavelength. The Warriors’ decision-makers were warned that a drawn-out negotiation into July during this free-agent cycle wouldn’t be met the same way. He wasn’t trying to leverage his way back until the bitter end. After a bumpy end to a grumpy year, there was a realistic chance he went searching for a fresh start and more happiness elsewhere, regardless of how rapidly and warmly the Warriors prioritized him.

But his decision, as one source put it, became easy when the Warriors kicked him down the summer pecking order. They paid a record luxury-tax bill last season and didn’t make the playoffs, a cost-versus-benefit that is untenable. So Joe Lacob, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Lacob and their front office set off this offseason to explore big-picture moves that could vault them into contention and salary-slicing moves that were more reasonable.

There was little communication between Thompson, the Warriors and Thompson’s agent, Greg Lawrence, and ultimately no offer in this cycle. Warriors sources maintained a plan to eventually make a competitive offer in relation to his market once other business was settled. But they never had the chance. Many league sources said Thompson’s decision to depart was unofficially made weeks ago.

Thompson and Stephen Curry celebrate a win in Oklahoma City in November 2023. (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

Warriors sources will mention the two-year, $48 million offer put on Thompson’s desk back in the preseason, especially considering he is heading to the Dallas Mavericks on a lower per-year three-year and $50 million deal, as an example of their dollars-and-cents intent to keep him around longer term. But the two sides have differing versions of the firmness of the offer and, again, the true desire of the franchise’s lead decision-makers in valuing him as a can’t-lose member of the core, only becoming more complicated when Myers (the ultimate communicator) ceded his high-ranking position in June 2023.

An extension didn’t get done. It bled into the season. Thompson, who led the NBA in made 3s two years prior as the Warriors made the second round, saw a dip in his production. He still made the fourth-most 3s in the NBA, but went from 41.2 percent to 38.7 percent, slowed more defensively and saw a younger crop of Warriors (Podziemski, Moses Moody) begin to bump into his current and future playing time.

The real origin story of their split goes back to 2019. Thompson, at the absolute peak of his prime, tore his ACL on a Game 6 NBA Finals dunk attempt during one of the signature nights of his career. He had 30 points after he hobbled up to the free throw and buried both. Had he not fallen, those within the Warriors believe that series was going back to a Game 7 in Toronto and Thompson was destined for some sensational seasons through his mid-prime.

The Warriors rewarded him that summer with a five-year max deal, knowing he’d miss the following season. Thompson went without a player option on the end of it, a minor detail that now looms larger, considering he could’ve entered the market with Green the previous summer. Some of this is about timing. Despite becoming extension eligible right after the 2022 title like his three teammates, had Thompson been as close as Jordan Poole or Andrew Wiggins or Green to free agency, he’d likely still be around.

After Thompson went 0 of 10 in an elimination Play-In loss in Sacramento in April — his final game in a Warriors uniform — Green, when asked about Thompson’s future, mentioned that the Warriors’ leadership always takes care of its own.

“They did right by me,” Green said. “They’ve done right by Steph. They’ve done right by all of us. Klay tore his ACL and they gave him $160 million dollars.”

At a tense exit interview a few days later, Thompson — not directly at Green’s comment, but the prevailing theory that he owes the Warriors anything for the previous contract — bit back.

“Oh, man,” Thompson said. “Well, 2019, could you imagine if they didn’t pay me after I got hurt? That would have been really bad. Like, ‘Oh, you went to five straight finals, you blew your knee out, yeah, sorry.’ That was very nice of them.”

The Warriors let Thompson rehab his ACL mostly away from the facility during the 2019-20 season. Curry missed almost the entire season with a hand injury. Green missed part of it. They went an NBA-worst 15-50, but felt geared up for another run the following season.

That’s when one of the most consequential days in this run struck. On the same night the Warriors drafted James Wiseman second, Thompson ruptured his Achilles playing pickup basketball in Los Angeles, away from the team’s care and, he’d later admit, with too much weight.

“It might’ve been costly,” Thompson said in a 2021 interview with The Athletic. “I don’t know. I try not to think about it too much. But it just, uh, it’s something I learned from. I’m not in my early 20s anymore.”

Thompson was in the facility and far more committed to head medical decision-maker Rick Celebrini’s plan the second time around. But Thompson ended up missing 941 days and two-and-a-half seasons of his mid-prime, losing an intangible amount of his burst in the process. There were many thorny rehab and post-return interactions as Thompson struggled to fully grasp the best seasons of his basketball career getting ripped away. He did become more temperamental on a daily basis, team sources said.

But Thompson also worked diligently to reclaim every ounce of his former self and then served as a vital member of the 2022 championship run, averaging a team-high 36 minutes, appearing in all 22 playoff games and scoring 19 points per night. He hit eight 3s in closeout games over the Memphis Grizzlies and Mavericks to help secure the team’s sixth Western Conference title in his tenure. Then Thompson played 69 and 77 games and made 301 and 268 3s the next two seasons, respectively, his 12th and 13th in the league, giving him a strong belief that he has a whole lot more great basketball left and should be valued accordingly.

“I try every year I give my best effort,” Thompson said at his exit interview. “And the ownership group has been great. I have nothing but positive things to say about them. They treat us with great respect and do all the little things for us to do our jobs at the highest level … (But the future), it’s up to them.

“At the end of the day, whatever happens, it’s all gravy. It’s been such a freaking special run.”

Required reading

Kawakami: The poetic timing of Klay Thompson’s 13 seasons of splash for the Warriors

The Athletic staff: Klay Thompson to join Mavericks, Warriors get picks

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: Getty; Mike Rasay / NBAE)