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The Warriors May Learn The Hard Way, Again, How Much Klay Thompson Means

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 25: Injured Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors reacts on the bench after the Warriors made a basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chase Center on November 25, 2019 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the rancid old days when the Golden State Warriors’ mascot was a buzzard to commemorate their typical level of bad luck and worse judgment, Klay Thompson’s potentially catastrophic Achilles tendon injury would not have happened on the same day that they drafted a likely foundational piece. It would have happened on a regular day when there was nothing to cut the bitterness and anger. Wednesday, the Warriors cut the misery with the selection of Memphis center James Wiseman with the second pick, a choice many people hailed as the best of a desultory draft.

Update, 1:32 p.m.: He’s done for the year.

Judge this properly. James Wiseman could be David Robinson 2.0 for all anyone knows, but Thompson’s loss still weighs more than Wiseman’s potential launch. On a day which is now safe for crying, the Warriors and Thompson’s rheumy-eyed fan base are tearing up in the aftermath of this Johnny Hekker–strength kick to their collective nethers.

Of the league’s players, Thompson may be the one upon whom all his peers and all 30 fan bases agree—he is, to appropriate Nick Lowe’s album title from nearly a half-century ago, this generation’s Jesus of Cool. Other players may have more power (LeBron or Kevin Durant) or influence (Chris Paul) or media throw-weight (Draymond Green) or electricity (Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Murray, Luka Doncic, et. al.) or be more generally admired (Stephen Curry), but nobody is more universally liked and enjoyed than Klay Thompson. Between his shot, his defense, his attraction to the game, his general demeanor, his seeming disinterest in the attention so many other athletes crave as their due, his level of contentment and even his devotion to his dog Rocco, he is the guy everyone would most want to hang with—even the ones who prefer only the glowing company of their own self-esteem. Of all his measurable and countable gifts, he also has one that is more ethereal but just as important: He has no enemies on either end of the remote.

And now they all feel his pain because fate has doubled down on him. Blowing an ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals (and shooting one last free throw on one working leg before leaving the floor) was enough suck for any career. To miss an entire year and work for 16 months to return to his happiest world only to have it snatched from beneath him again by his offended legs would attain a level of breathtaking cruelty. Or at least as much cruelty as someone who has been paid $79 million to do the thing he most loves can know.

While it is too early to refer to his career in the past tense, Thompson, if it’s a blown Achilles, likely wouldn’t return to full health until he is 32 by calendar, almost 34 by odometer. He will have lost the two years of his career that could have cemented him as a Hall of Famer; his basketballreference.com similarity scores through eight seasons list only two Hall of Fame comps, former Warriors Tom Gola and Mitch Richmond. Now he is looking at a resume that would be decidedly on the thin side in terms of counting statistics, and he would become one of those you-had-to-see-him debate topics in the selectors’ room.

But that’s an argument for seven years from now at the earliest, and that’s only if his luck remains this level of bad. For the moment, he is that saddest of athletic characters, the cautionary tale about how quickly the thing that gives maximal joy can be taken away through no fault of his or anyone else’s. That’s not how Thompson’s story should be told, not when there’s that lightning release and those ungodly highlights and that dogged defense and his utterly necessary role in making the Warriors the best team of the past decade. On a team that was born as an ensemble, he was every bit as vital as Curry or Durant; indeed, a case can be made without much effort that without him the Warriors win no championships at all.

As day dawns and the MRI machine warms up, there is only the cold fear that Klay Thompson entertains nobody but Rocco for the foreseeable future. A blown Achilles on top of an ACL tear would be the baddest of beats for anyone, let alone someone who has only known the full-throated approval of both contemporaries and customers. In a time in global history in which so few people get what they deserve, the distance between what Klay Thompson got and what he had coming can be measured in parsecs, and everyone who has seen him or played with him has the same pained reaction.

To put it in more immediate terms, James Wiseman just got a sense of the shoes he’s really being asked to fill, and no matter what Wiseman does in the next five years, the shoes will seem awfully roomy indeed.