How Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson became the NBA’s best backcourt and helped the Golden State Warriors to the top of the league’s standings
by JONATHAN ABRAMS ON JANUARY 5, 2015
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.”
curry-stephen-nbaNOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
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.