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Barber: Why Warriors' messaging changed on Klay Thompson

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SAN FRANCISCO — When we went to bed Monday night, there was a chance Klay Thompson would return to the court after the All-Star break, and also a chance that he would miss the entire 2019-20 season while rehabbing an ACL tear. When we fired up the laptops Tuesday morning, there was still a chance that Klay Thompson would be back after the All-Star break, and still a chance that he would sit out the entire campaign.

And yet the entire conversation surrounding the Warriors’ wounded shooting guard had shifted. In the course of one interview, it migrated from the optimistic end of the prognosis to the we’re-doomed end.

That interview was a conversation between Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and Logan Murdock, who covers the team for NBC Bay Area. In a mostly standard preview of the coming season, Kerr reframed our perception of Thompson’s comeback.

“It’s unlikely that he’s going to play this year,” the coach said. “So we have to understand that.”

Kerr added: “Generally, an ACL for a basketball player is a full-year recovery, and if it’s a full year for Klay, that puts him out for the season.”

Kerr’s math was correct. Thompson had knee surgery on July 2. Even returning April 2, a couple weeks before the start of the postseason, would represent a slick nine-month recovery.

“I wasn’t announcing anything,” Kerr said early Tuesday afternoon, as Thompson undermined his caution by scooting around and shooting baskets on a nearby court. “He’s doing great with his rehab. Still possible that he could play. I forgot with modern media that ‘unlikely’ is gonna become, on the ticker, ‘out for the year’ and all that stuff. So probably my mistake for opening my mouth.”

It was breaking news that wasn’t quite news at all, because nothing truly had changed. The Warriors never said Thompson would be in the lineup for the last few weeks of the regular season.

In fact, general manager Bob Myers had kicked off Warriors Media Day on Sept. 30 by saying, “First on the injury front, because I know that’ll be a question — Klay, you’ll get to talk to him at 2, but he’s doing fine. We’ll have another update on him probably around the All-Star break. Don’t construe that as if we think he’ll be back by the All-Star break, that just means we’ll have an update then.”

In other words, Myers said nothing on Sept. 30 that directly contradicted what Kerr said to NBC Bay Area more recently. And what they uttered makes perfect sense.

When I interviewed Dr. Robert Nied, one of the Warriors’ team doctors, last week, he told me: “With the NBA, everyone wants to know immediately exactly what’s going on, exactly how long things are gonna take. Some of it is just managing those expectations.”

That’s what the Warriors are doing here. They are managing your expectations. If the team sets an aggressive goal for Thompson to return, and if his reattached ligament fails to meet that goal, the disappointment will be inevitable. If, on the other hand, they tamp down expectations, the only surprises will be happy ones. “Expect the worst, hope for the best” — motto of the 2019-20 Warriors.

It makes perfect sense. But it still begs a question: Why didn’t the Warriors take this approach all along? And if you claim they did, I will redirect you back to Media Day at Chase Center, when Kerr was asked, “Given the talent and experience Steph (Curry) and Draymond (Green) have together, what do you expect they can do to help transition everything both on the court and behind the scenes this year?”

Kerr’s answer began: “Well, we’ll rely on those guys along with Looney and Klay at some point …”

A little later that day, someone asked Curry, “How much contemplation this summer did you give to the leadership role that you’ll have to continue on and maybe even up to another level this year with all the roster turnover?”

Curry’s reply included this sentence: “Myself, Klay whenever he comes back, Draymond, Kevon (Looney) able to help set the tone for what our DNA is here, how we do things.”

Notice that neither of those questions was about the long-term vigor of the franchise. Both pertained specifically to this season, and Kerr and Curry each spoke as if Thompson’s return wasn’t an “if” so much as a “when.” All along, there has been a range of possible return dates for the injured All-Star. But the messaging has changed in a month. Why?

I have a theory about that.

The Warriors didn’t look so great this preseason, 80% of which was a four-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers. They weren’t an unmitigated disaster by any means. But they lost three of five games and were outscored by a cumulative 20 points.

Curry looked ready to make another run at the NBA MVP award, and newcomer D’Angelo Russell showed flashes of brilliance. All in all, though, the show was a little terrifying for Warriors fans. The newly assembled team struggled to find a rhythm or identity, and was occasionally a disaster on the defensive end. The Lakers, who are very good, drove through and over the Warriors for inside bucket after inside bucket.

Yes, the Warriors have been hit with injuries, including a minor one to Looney and a longer-term problem for center Willie Cauley-Stein, but that’s part of the equation, too.

I think Kerr looked at the early results, recognized that Curry and Green can’t play 48 minutes every game this season, got a vivid reminder that an injury or two can all but derail this thin team and came to the conclusion that it was time to lower expectations.

If everything breaks right for the Warriors — if all these new pieces come together to form a different but still-effective team — and they are aiming for the playoffs in March, there will be an urge (most of all by the player himself) to get Thompson back in action. But what if everything bogs down and the Warriors are 23-32 at the All-Star break, far from the eighth seed in the Western Conference? Why even consider putting Thompson on the court at that point?

This, I believe, is the contingency that prompted Kerr to open up to NBC Bay Area. Thompson’s knee will cast the majority vote in deciding whether it rests nine months and 12 months, or something in between. But the health of the Warriors’ status as playoff contenders might play a role, too.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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