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On Klay Thompson as a sixth man, boost from a living (Larry) legend and uncertain Warriors future

SAN FRANCISCO — The motivational message, courtesy of the great Larry Bird, came at the perfect time.

Klay Thompson was just a few days removed from the unwelcome start of his sixth-man life in Utah, where the 34-year-old Warriors legend had been asked to come off the bench after the previous 12 years as a starter. Even with Thompson’s spectacular debut in this new reserve role, a 35-point showing on Feb. 15 that helped lift Golden State over the Jazz heading into the All-Star break, this was the kind of career-changing decision that would take much more time to truly accept. The emotions were still raw.

This was already a sensitive situation too, what with Thompson and the Warriors having been unable to come to terms on an extension in recent months and his free agency looming this summer. And now, with all those existential questions about value and mutual respect front and center already, here he was being asked to sacrifice for the greater good of the group.

An unexpected morale boost from the Basketball Gods, in other words, was badly needed.

As Thompson would learn by way of Warriors PR man Raymond Ridder, and would eventually see for himself on that cellphone video that will be cherished and saved in his digital archives for all of time, Bird had spent part of his All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis speaking with great admiration about him.

The remarks took place at the annual Tech Summit, where Bird shared the stage with famed broadcaster Bob Costas for a wide-ranging basketball conversation that shifted in Thompson’s direction when the Celtics great was asked about which players he enjoyed watching. Then Bird, who shared the NBA Finals stage with Klay’s father, Mychal, when the Lakers won it all in 1987, waxed poetic about the five-time All-Star who was missing on the festivities for a fifth consecutive season.

“Klay Thompson has always been one of my favorite players,” Bird said. “What an incredible shooter.”

Bird went on to share his memories of Thompson’s incredible Dec. 5, 2016, performance against his Indiana Pacers in which he scored 60 points in three quarters — while dribbling the ball just 11 times.

“How do you that, Bob?” Bird, who headed the Pacers front office at the time, said to Costas as his voice rose in disbelief. “How do you do that? … That’s pretty incredible to me.”

For Thompson, who grew up in Los Angeles hearing all those stories about the rivalry between Bird’s Celtics and the Showtime Lakers, the sight of Larry Legend speaking with amazement about his career for a grand total of 37 seconds was nothing short of profound. After all, as those close to him know, his desire to feel appreciated has been a central theme in this trying season of change and self reflection.

“It’s very nice to be reminded, especially from someone like Larry, who I not only looked up to but who I heard about my whole life — especially from my dad,” Thompson told The Athletic. “I watched the Showtime Lakers versus those Celtics teams, and it was just a really cool thing to hear. To hear him going out of his way to say that meant so much to me. Ray sent me the clip, and I’m gonna keep that clip forever.”

As Thompson shared publicly back on Feb. 5 after a game at Brooklyn, when he was so honest and vulnerable about how hard this late-career transition to a lesser role has been, these past few months have been an emotional roller coaster the likes of which he has never felt. It wasn’t the first time he’d chosen to be so open about his truth, either, as he talked at length in early January about the importance of him finding a way to maintain positive energy even when he’s struggling.

Thompson is hardly alone when it comes to this sort of crossroads, with future Hall of Famers such as Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and his Warriors teammate Chris Paul among those who made the shift to a reserve role earlier than expected in recent years. Andre Iguodala, of course, went down in Warriors lore because of his willingness to make the move gracefully in 2014 en route to them winning three titles in the next four seasons. Carmelo Anthony’s ill-fated final few years were considerably less successful. For better or worse, it’s a hoops tale as old as time.

But given the mood of the moment for Thompson, who lost those two seasons with ACL and Achilles injuries and worked his way back with dreams of returning to his All-Star level, the Bird video was an assist of sorts during an otherwise-challenging time. Especially when the criticism, both in social and mainstream media, has become such a staple of his late-career experience.

This latest chapter has gone mostly well, though, with Thompson adding a dynamic dimension to the Warriors’ second unit that is expected to welcome Paul back after his 21-game absence (fractured hand) Tuesday at Washington. That development alone — the notion of two future Hall of Famers coming off the bench to share the backcourt — has Thompson excited about the possibilities here.

Even in the games where Thompson’s shots aren’t falling, like the home win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday in which he missed eight of nine from the field but had a plus-2 rating, the lifelong sharpshooter is being lauded for his ability to make an impact in other ways. His fast chemistry with young big man Trayce Jackson-Davis, in particular, has been a bright spot.

There have been vintage Klay moments already too, like his showing in Salt Lake City and the 23-point first half against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday (though he went scoreless in the second half). In these first four games in this new role, Thompson is fourth on the team in minutes (27.1 minutes per game), second in scoring (18.1 points) and fourth in plus-minus (plus-13). Overall this season, Thompson is averaging 17.1 points (his lowest total since his 2012-13 season) while on pace for career lows in overall (41.8) and 3-point (37.2) shooting percentage.

The key revelation for the Warriors (29-27), who have won 10 of their last 13 games while creeping back into Play-In Tournament territory, is that Thompson doesn’t see this new assignment as any sort of disqualifier when it comes to his Warriors future. And while Thompson plans on listening to pitches from other teams, it’s clear that staying put is still his preferred option — so long as he feels appreciated and respected in ways that go beyond the financial factor.

“Not really,” Thompson said when asked if the sixth-man assignment might change his desire to return. “I mean, you’ve still got to examine all of your options, but I would love to be a Warrior for life. Whatever happens though, I’ve got a few more years to play this game, so I’m gonna enjoy every second. I realize that I see light at the end of the tunnel, (and) I’m not sure if I want to play until I’m 40, man. That sounds really exhausting.”

That last part appears to qualify as a change of heart, as Thompson had previously expressed a desire to play until he was 40 in the summer of 2019 (during his ACL recovery and before his Achilles tendon tear). When asked to confirm that this reserve role wasn’t a deal-breaker when it comes to him possibly re-signing with the Warriors, he repeated the stance.

“Nah,” he said.

Yet in terms of the bigger-picture outlook, the fact remains that Thompson is the only member of the Warriors’ celebrated core whose contract situation has not been resolved. Steve Kerr’s recent extension (two years, $35 million) lined him up with Steph Curry (signed through the 2025-26 season), and Draymond Green received his four-year, $100 million deal last summer. Even before you dig into the personal dynamics, with Thompson well within his right to wonder if the Warriors truly see him as part of their future, that sort of contractual landscape is inevitably uncomfortable given all they’ve accomplished together.

It hasn’t helped matters that the departure of longtime front-office head Bob Myers last summer left a communication gap of sorts between Thompson and Warriors owner Joe Lacob behind the scenes. Publicly, Lacob has maintained a consistent desire for Thompson to remain. Even with the daunting luxury tax ramifications that loom so large.

Thompson always knew he would likely have to wait until his free agency arrived this summer, what with Lacob’s well-chronicled hopes of ducking under the second (and possibly first) luxury tax apron compelling them to let the roster landscape fully unfold before adding salary. But it’s clear their relationship has suffered some strain along the way, with league sources indicating that Thompson has received no assurances from on high that his hopes of retiring happily in a Warriors jersey someday will be a shared priority this summer. Both sides, it seems clear, have no clarity about what might happen when that time rolls around.

In the here and now, though, Thompson insists he’s in a good place.

“I’m doing great,” he said. “I think I’m doing much better in not putting my identity in my performance, especially after 11 years of NBA basketball. That alone is an incredible accomplishment. And to be out here and still be playing and having fun and being healthy, that trumps any big shooting night or 50-40-90 milestones.

“It took me a long time to realize that, but once I finally did, my game has been much better. I’ve been so much more at ease and realizing that, ‘Gosh, this is such a cool opportunity for me.’ Guys would kill to be in my shoes, even with all the injuries and all that. The heights we’ve reached are rare, so it’s been awesome.”

When it comes to how Thompson has been handling this transition, a quick trip around the Warriors locker room on Sunday night yielded positive feedback. Warriors big man Kevon Looney, who started for most of the past two years before being moved to a reserve role in late January, made the point that the timing of it all made it even tougher for Thompson.

“I think he’s handling it extremely well,” Looney told The Athletic. “I wasn’t sure how he was gonna handle it, especially during the midseason. It wasn’t like (he had) a talk (with the coaches) in training camp, where you’re able to prepare yourself for something like that. It’s a midseason (decision), so I didn’t know how he’d handled it.

“But he’s been more than great. He hasn’t been complaining. I think that (aspect) has probably been even better. He showed his frustration early in the season … (but now) he’s been a great teammate, great leader. And when one of your Hall of Fame players shows that type of leadership, everybody has to kind of follow suit. Nobody can be mad about their role or the minutes they’re getting.”

With the need to maximize youngsters Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski more crucial than ever, and the recent results validating that approach, the Warriors’ roster is now full of veterans who are being asked to accept far different roles.

“You’ve got Klay, guys like CP and Wiggs (Andrew Wiggins), who are bona fide Hall of Famers and All-Stars, buying in like that, so everybody else has to buy in,” Looney said. “(But) we can’t win without him being good or without him being a key piece. Whether that’s starting or off the bench, we’re not contending without him being special.

“We all care about him. We all want him to succeed. We all want him to be great. So when he’s not doing well or his energy’s not great, it kind of weighs on everybody else. He knows that. Steve talked to him about that (in early January), and I think he’s been great for the last 20, 30 games. I think that kind of changed our season, changed the way that we’ve been playing.”

Kerr, who once persuaded Iguodala to embrace this sixth-man life and appears to have done it yet again with Thompson, raved about his recent handling of it all as well.

“He’s been great,” Kerr said. “His approach feels so much better than it was even a few weeks ago. This has been an emotional season for him. You guys know this. He’s been grappling with his mortality in some ways as an athlete. He knows how good he was six years ago, and he’s had a hard time reconciling everything after the injuries.

“The thing that we keep trying to convince him of is he’s still a hell of a player. But he’s at his best when he’s not pressing and he’s not stressed out (or) worried about trying to be the guy he was six years ago. I think coming off the bench has maybe helped in that regard. I just notice he’s more relaxed. His approach, his leadership in the locker room, it feels different, and I think he’s starting to get more comfortable with the role but also just kind of the bigger picture stuff that has been bothering him.”

And on those days when the doubts and frustration might return, he’ll have the Bird video just a few screen swipes away to lift his spirits.

“It’s on my phone,” Thompson said with a smile. “I’ll put that (compliment) in the same category as when Kobe (Bryant) called me and Steph great players with that killer instinct (in 2016). It means the world to me.”

(Photo of Klay Thompson: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)