Why the Klay Thompson era ended at Golden State

  • Ramona Shelburne


    Ramona Shelburne

    ESPN Senior Writer

    • Senior writer for ESPN.com
    • Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
  • Kendra Andrews

Jul 3, 2024, 08:00 AM ET

RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB in Pacific Palisades is one of those places in Los Angeles where every room — every tree, even — has a famous Hollywood story behind it. Its 12th hole was Humphrey Bogart’s favorite to play and, later, where he’d sit and watch tournaments with a cup of bourbon. The sycamore on that hole was eventually named Bogey’s Tree.

Riviera was also where Tom Brady was spotted right after he retired in 2023 while his then-wife, Gisele Bundchen, took in the Met Gala in New York. The couple had attended that event together many times over the years, so seeing her shine in a feathery white gown on the same day Brady was chipping out of sand traps was the public end of their union, which had dissolved just a few months earlier.

Six weeks ago, the club’s famous golf course was the site of the end of the Golden State Warriors’ 13-year marriage to Klay Thompson. The team’s controlling owner, Joe Lacob, had invited Thompson to play a round with him at the exclusive course to show him respect, to try to strengthen a frayed bond with the franchise legend so that he might be willing to wait, to trust that the team still wanted him, even though negotiations on a new contract had long since gone south.

Thompson, 34, had spent his entire career with the Warriors. He had become a franchise icon, a symbol of an entire era. But even those closest to him in the organization often wondered if they really knew him. Assistant coach Bruce Fraser once said of Thompson, “If I was to choose my favorite book, it would be a book written by Klay Thompson when he’s 60. Because that’s when you’ll get everything that’s in his soul articulated.”

But over the past year, Thompson has been relatively easy to read. He was “miserable,” as one person close to him said. Miserable with how negotiations with the team had gone on a new contract. Miserable at the thought he wasn’t respected or valued by the franchise in the way his older Splash Brother, Stephen Curry, 36, and Draymond Green, 34, were. Miserable at his declining role on the team. And yes, miserable at the way his game and play had declined, as well.

The two years spent away from basketball as he rehabilitated from major leg injuries had forced Thompson to confront his basketball mortality. What his life was without basketball. What his identity was. He bought a boat, not to escape all these thoughts but to move through them even when his body could not. He read dozens of books and did sessions with motivational guru Tony Robbins. Thompson went spearfishing and challenged himself to hold his breath for several minutes.

His fight back to the court was one of the best stories in sports a few years ago. The Warriors’ NBA championship in 2022 was a testament to his resilience.

But everything since that championship has been off — the team, Thompson himself. The joy, such a hallmark of the Warriors’ dynastic run since 2015, had evaporated. The team wasn’t winning, either, going 90-74 the past two years and missing the playoffs this past season.

Thompson had felt disrespected, sources said, that the team didn’t offer him an extension the summer after it won that title. That feeling only deepened the following summer when Golden State was only willing to discuss two-year contracts in the range of $23 million to $24 million, instead of matching the four-year, $100 million deal Green had received.

Thompson did little to hide his feelings once the season started, and his actions increasingly became difficult to manage, exasperating even his loyalists in the locker room, sources said. He had several emotional meetings with Warriors coach Steve Kerr — a marked contrast from the days when Kerr dubbed him a “zero maintenance” star.

And so it was that Lacob invited Thompson out to play Riviera in mid-May. There was no set agenda. Lacob just wanted to connect with Thompson and to play. The invitation alone conveyed respect.

But in this case, it was just golf. There was no discussion of contracts or the team. No exploration of why Thompson had been so miserable all year. No drink out by Bogey’s Tree.

If either man had something to say that might have saved what had been one of the best basketball marriages in recent history, this would’ve been the time.

But sometimes there’s nothing left to say. The marriage is already over. All that’s left to decide is how to move on.

IN SOME WAYS, the Warriors had been moving on from Thompson since he blew out his left knee in the 2019 NBA Finals. They didn’t want to, but they had to find replacements for him while he missed two seasons with his injuries (torn ACL in 2019, torn Achilles in 2020).

When he returned in 2022, up-and-coming guard Jordan Poole moved back to a bench role so Thompson could start. But Poole’s mere presence — and contract situation — undercut Thompson’s role on the team. The Warriors prioritized extending Poole — for four years and $140 million — and young swingman Andrew Wiggins (four years, $109 million) over Thompson and Green the summer after they won a championship, which didn’t sit well with either of the two veterans, sources said.

Green’s frustrations and actions are well-documented at this point. But ultimately, he played out the season and played well enough to earn a new four-year contract in 2023. Thompson tried to do the same, scoring 22 points per game and shooting 41% on 3-pointers two seasons ago. But when it came time to discuss a new deal, the organization wasn’t ready to offer him the same years or salary it had given Green. Firstly, Green had the leverage of being a free agent in 2023. But perhaps more importantly, the Warriors were determined to maintain as much optionality with their books since the new collective bargaining agreement was set to kick in following the 2024 season.

The Warriors always told Thompson they wanted him back, sources said. But they also wanted him to wait, so they could make other moves first.

By the time this offseason arrived, Thompson’s representatives had proposed at least four contracts to the team. Each time, throughout the season, the response from the Warriors was that Thompson and his camp needed to wait while the franchise tried to improve the team in other deals. Most notably, sources said, were efforts to trade for Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, Brooklyn Nets swingman Mikal Bridges, LA Clippers star Paul George and Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen.

The Warriors didn’t know how much or how long they could re-sign Thompson for until they had answers on that other business. It was obvious: Thompson was not the priority.

The reason for this is fairly simple. After losing to the Lakers in the second round of the 2023 playoffs, the front office wanted to shake up the roster, sources said. But Kerr and the team “fought,” as one source put it, to keep the roster together. Going on a mini 4-1 run before the trade deadline bought the team time to play out the rest of this past season without a major trade. But the results at the end of the campaign — finishing 10th in the Western Conference and missing the playoffs entirely — were more conclusive.

The Warriors, as constructed, didn’t have enough. Which is unacceptable for the always-ambitious Lacob in any year. But especially with Curry’s prime years dwindling and the luxury tax bill soaring to historic levels.

The Warriors wanted Thompson to stay — but not in the starting role he had occupied for nearly a decade before his demotion in the middle of last season. He’d be a wise veteran if he returned, an Andre Iguodala-type of player, but not a leading man.

This was communicated to Thompson, sources said, and even though he was not thrilled with the idea, it was not a deal-breaker.

ABOUT A MONTH after the round of golf at Riviera, with his future at Golden State increasingly uncertain, Thompson had a revelation. After almost a year of despair, he needed an entirely new experience, sources said. Out of the fishbowl, away from all the history and people he had always known. Two weeks prior, Thompson’s camp had made one final offer to the Warriors, a two-year deal for roughly $20 million per season, sources said. The response was the same as it had been for nearly a year: We just can’t do it yet.

For five years, Thompson had been fighting to reclaim his position within the Warriors and be the player he was before his injuries. But that was never going to happen, no matter how hard he trained physically or mentally. Because the Warriors were not the same team, and he was not the same player.

The past two years had been miserable as they both tried to evolve, to accept their new realities. Rather than fight against the dying of the light, why not fight for something new?

Thompson loved watching the Dallas Mavericks run throughout the playoffs this year. He was intrigued by the young Oklahoma City Thunder. He had always wanted to play for the Lakers, in the uniform of his childhood idol, Kobe Bryant.

In the final week before free agency started on Saturday, Thompson met with Kerr in L.A. and told him all this, sources said. He called Green and Curry and told them he wanted a fresh start then asked them not to use their organizational clout to interfere with his negotiations with the team.

Then he called Lacob and general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. and asked them to help him get to a team of his choosing, via a sign-and-trade, if necessary.

Everyone understood and wished him well. This would be an amicable separation.

Dallas was his top choice. He loved the way the Mavericks played and believed he’d be an ideal fit alongside Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, sources said. He came into a dinner meeting with the Mavericks’ front office having studied tape of the team and already projecting out how he could help them.

The Mavericks were thrilled to get a player of Thompson’s ability and experience on such a reasonably priced contract. The team had a great run to get to the Finals this season, but sources said Dallas felt it needed more veteran leadership to build off the performance.

The Thunder also were interested in Thompson but ended up prioritizing big man Isaiah Hartenstein with their cap space.

That left the Lakers. His father’s team. His idol’s team. LeBron’s team. The team ultimately was willing to offer Thompson more years and more money than he accepted from Dallas. Sources said James was willing to take less and the Lakers were trying to make trades that would’ve cleared four years and nearly $80 million for Thompson.

James had several deep conversations with Thompson about the idea of playing together, sources said.

But something about playing for the Lakers apparently felt too much like playing for the Warriors. As one source close to him put it, “Would this be trading one fishbowl for another?”

All Thompson had talked about in the two weeks since he had decided and accepted that his time with the Warriors was over was wanting “new experiences” and a “fresh start.”

Dallas seemed like a better place to get that.

Mychal Thompson, who played for the Lakers from 1987 to 1991 and is a radio color commentator for the team, was ecstatic at the thought his son would finish his career with the hometown team. He tried to talk to his son about mooring the boat in Marina Del Rey and living in his new house in Hermosa Beach.

“I’m disappointed,” the elder Thompson told ESPN. “But maybe playing for the Lakers was more my dream than his.”