Klay Thompson's deserving max doesn't come without risk


The image will always stay with me. Early in the fourth quarter of the final game at Oracle Arena, Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers emerged out of the tunnel during Game 6 and walked briskly past the basket stanchion near where Klay Thompson had, just a few minutes before, roared in pain as he rocked back and forth clutching his left knee. Myers kept his eyes down, past the baseline crowd, then turned a hard left to go toward where his boss, Joe Lacob, was seated courtside, just as he is for every home game.

Two rows of the most sought-after seats in the world separated Myers and Lacob, who was intensely focused on the close game in front of him, cheering on Quinn Cook, Thompson’s emergency replacement, after he made a layup to extend the lead over the Raptors to 91-88. It was there that the 6-foot-7 Myers waited in plain sight, carrying the weight of something you never want to carry. He had news on Thompson’s knee, and it was bad. So bad that Myers didn’t bother to text Lacob or call with the information. He needed to tell the billionaire in person.

The game continued and Myers continued to wait alone, hands in his pockets like he was waiting for the elevator after a long day’s work. A fan recognized Myers. He shook his hand, and then went back to waiting. Finally, a stoppage of play. Myers slid his way through to the courtside seats. Lacob and Myers spoke, eyes down on the floor. A few seconds later, they retreated to the tunnel together. The game was tied 91-91 with 8:53 remaining. A dynasty hung in the balance, but the two wanted to be there for Thompson as the 29-year-old dealt with the news he had torn his ACL.

This weekend, they were there for him again: a five-year, $190 million commitment to keep him in Golden State will be agreed upon, NBC Sports Bay Area’s Monte Poole confirmed through a source. A cold probabilistic analysis might say handing a max contract to a player on crutches is a dubious choice. But Thompson has given so much to the organization, this feels more about the past than the future.

Thompson is the closest thing to an ironman we have in the NBA. Since being drafted 11th overall in 2011, no guard has played more regular-season games than Thompson. His Game 3 absence with a pulled hamstring was his first missed postseason game of his career. Even if Thompson misses all of next season and Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 player of Thompson’s class, plays all 82 of 2019-20, Thompson will still have played 25 more career regular-season games than Irving.

Thompson’s durability is what stings the most about this injury. It reminds us that no player, even with a near-spotless bill of health, is immune to the cruelty of major leg injuries. It must be noted that Thompson wasn’t exactly in peak form. Eight days before Game 6, the Warriors held him out of Game 3 to nurse a hamstring injury on the same leg. 

How much of a factor did that have on the injury? One study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that decreased hamstring strength and ACL tears are related in athletes, but the cause and effect aren't as strongly linked as it may seem.

But that’s in the past. What does Thompson’s future look like?

The good news is that it appears Thompson didn’t have any secondary damage to his knee. His MCL and PCL are still intact and there’s no indication that he suffered any injury to his surrounding knee cartilage or the meniscus.

That’s important because not all ACL tears are the same. Michael Redd seems like a fair comparison considering Redd was the same age as Thompson (actually down to the same month) when they tore their ACL and like Thompson, the All-Star sharpshooter had been averaging over 20 points per game for Milwaukee before his knee gave out. A year later, Redd suffered the same injury after 18 games of struggling to get his game back. Though Redd returned a year later to play 61 games over two seasons, Redd’s career was just about over.

But Redd didn’t just tear his ACL. He tore his MCL, too. And that matters. Other players who suffered a torn ACL had additional damage including Ricky Rubio (LCL), Leandro Barbosa (LCL), Danilo Gallinari (lateral meniscus) and Kendrick Perkins (MCL and PCL). 

According to injury-tracking guru and certified athletic trainer Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com, the average return to play for an isolated ACL tear like Thompson’s is 330 days. Assuming he undergoes surgery around July 1, that timetable would place him at June 1, right around the Finals. Thompson’s teammate Andre Iguodala was more hopeful, recently saying Thompson would return four months earlier than that, in February.

That’s a far more aggressive timeline, but not impossible. A hypothetical July 1 surgery and Feb. 28 return date would be 242 days. Looking at Stotts’ research, Perkins (224), J.J. Hickson (211) and Al Jefferson (238) all returned sooner than that, with the caveat that they aren’t guards who rely on shiftiness and speed. Derrick Rose got hurt in April 2012 and missed the entire 2012-13 season. Rajon Rondo injured his ACL in late January 2013 and didn’t return until late January 2014. On top of that, we’re coming up on 17 months since Kristaps Porzingis last played.

The safe bet here is that the Warriors will be conservative on his return date, just like they were with DeMarcus Cousins and recovery from a torn Achilles. The Warriors have extra reason to play it safe considering they’re paying Thompson the max through the 2023-24 season.

That’s a big bet once you consider this sobering fact: Since 2005, no player has suffered an ACL tear in the NBA and later made an All-Star Game.

Rose (age 23 at injury), Rondo (age 26), Redd (age 29 and age 30), David West (age 30) and Josh Howard (age 29 and age 32) never returned to the All-Star Game following their ACL injuries. It remains to be seen whether Porzingis can return to his dominant ways in Dallas.

But the Mavericks are obviously bullish on his fortunes, trading two first-rounders for him in the middle of his rehab. There are plenty of examples of players getting their groove back after an ACL tear. Lou Williams tore his ACL in 2013 and is playing the best ball of his career in his early 30s. Jefferson became All-NBA in 2013-14, five years after his torn ACL. Zach Lavine just averaged 23.7 points per game.

Going back further, Kyle Lowry and Baron Davis each tore their ACLs in college and later became some of the best point guards on Earth. Golden State fans remember Tim Hardaway averaging 20 and nine in his first season back from a torn ACL. The Warriors traded him to Miami that following season, where he earned two All-Star bids and now has his jersey hanging in the Miami rafters.

It’s hard to envision a universe in which the Warriors don’t raise Thompson’s No. 11 to the rafters of the Orac -- err, the Chase Center. He might not return to being Klay f’ing Thompson until the 2020-21 season. In the meantime, the Warriors will have the taxpayer’s mini mid-level exception (up to three years, $18 million total) to chase his replacement. Wesley Matthews, Reggie Bullock and Terrence Ross are all good fits, though Ross would likely fetch a higher number elsewhere. The Warriors may choose to split that money with Durant’s replacement for next season, if not longer should Durant leave the team.

Max money for a player coming off an ACL tear is a sizable gamble no matter how you slice it, especially when the Warriors could be paying $200 million in luxury taxes. But the Chase Center could be essentially printing money with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green opening the San Francisco waterfront property. Considering Thompson has played an average of 92.3 games per season since being drafted (playoffs included) and contributed to priceless memories for the Warriors faithful, Thompson has more than earned this paycheck.

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