Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Ray Allen vs. Klay Thompson
Ray Allen emerged as a go-to option for the Milwaukee Bucks in his second season, delivering 20-5-4 across all 82 games, and he made his final All-Star appearance for the Boston Celtics in 2011, the year before he lost his starting job and ultimately left to enjoy his final act as a role player on the Miami Heat.
From 1997-2011, Allen averaged 20.8 points (58 true shooting percentage), 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.4 combined blocks and steals in 37.5 minutes per game. In that 14-year span, his teams made eight playoff appearances, reaching three conference finals and two NBA Finals, including his 2008 title run. Allen missed the playoffs six times in Milwaukee and Seattle in his prime and lost in the first round twice.
During his 14-year prime, Allen averaged 19.4 points (59.2 TS%), 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.4 blocks/steals in 39.5 minutes over 110 playoff games for the Bucks, Celtics and Seattle SuperSonics.
Allen made Second Team All-NBA in 2005 and the Third Team in 2001, respectively finishing ninth and 11th in the MVP voting. Playing alongside All-Star teammate Glenn Robinson, Allen was the best player on a Bucks team that reached Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference finals. He played with one concurrent All-Star in just three of his first 11 seasons (Robinson twice and Rashard Lewis once) before joining future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Boston, where Allen was the third-best player on a title team.
Klay Thompson similarly did not earn his first All-Star bid until his fourth year in the league, but by his sophomore season he had already become a top option on a team that reached the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. He may well still be in his prime at age 30 (Allen’s prime lasted through his 35th birthday), but we have yet to see him play since he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals.
From 2012 to the present, Thompson has averaged 20.3 points (57.7 TS%), 3.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 blocks/steals in 34.1 minutes per game. His Golden State Warriors made the playoffs each season until falling to the bottom of the lottery this year without him (and sans Splash Brother Stephen Curry for much of the season), winning three titles in five straight Finals trips. He has lost once in the first round in his prime.
Over the previous seven seasons, Thompson averaged 19.3 points (56 TS%), four rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 blocks/steals in 37.2 minutes across 123 playoff games for the Warriors.
Thompson made Third Team All-NBA in 2015 and 2016, and he earned his lone All-Defensive selection last season. His lone MVP vote was a fifth-place nod in 2015, when he placed 10th behind Curry during the first of his consecutive MVP campaigns. Thompson placed 11th in the 2018 Defensive Player of the Year voting. He has played with at least one other active All-Star in each of his seven prime seasons, at least two other All-Stars in four of those years and three other All-Stars twice (Curry, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant).
Depending on how you compare his impact to Green’s, Thompson was either the second- or third-best player on the 2015 title team and either the third- or fourth-best player on the 2017 and 2018 title teams.
This category is a little unfair to Thompson, since we know what Allen’s longevity looked like. We also do not know what Thompson’s impact would look like as a primary option, particularly in terms of team success and playmaking. As it is, even removing longevity from the equation, Allen’s advanced statistical résumé (19.5 player efficiency rating, .158 win shares per 48 minutes, 3.5 box plus-minus and 3.8 average value over replacement player) is more impressive than Thompson’s (16.5 PER, .116 WS/48, 0.9 BPM and 2.0 average VORP), giving him enough of a nod to overcome Thompson’s greater defensive contributions.
Allen was the best player on a pair of 52-win teams — the 2001 Bucks , who came within a historically controversial playoff series of reaching the Finals, and the 2005 Sonics, who lost to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the second round — garnering a number of MVP votes in each of those seasons.
In those two seasons, Allen averaged 23 points (58.1 TS%), 4.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.5 blocks/steals in 38.7 minutes per game. He was a Third Team All-NBA guard with Gary Payton behind Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady in 2001, and he was a Second Team All-NBA guard with Dwyane Wade behind Iverson and Steve Nash (and ahead of Bryant and Gilbert Arenas) in 2005.
Allen averaged 25.6 points (60.7 TS%), 5.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks/steals in 41.5 minutes over 29 games across the 2001 and 2005 playoffs. He averaged a 27-3-5 on 47/51/97 splits in the seven-game conference finals loss to the Sixers in 2001. Allen scored 41 points on 25 shots to force Game 7, and then followed with 26 points and six assists in a blowout loss on the road with a Finals appearance on the line.
Pick either of Thompson’s 2015 and 2016 seasons as his apex. He averaged 21.9 points (59.4 TS%), 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 blocks/steals in 32.6 minutes a game. He was a Third Team All-NBA guard both times — behind Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul in 2015, and behind Curry, Westbrook, Paul and Damian Lillard in 2016. Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry were the other Third Team guards.
Thompson averaged 21.6 points (57.3 TS%), 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 blocks/steals in 35.8 minutes over 45 games in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs. He averaged a 25-4-2 on 42/42/86 splits in a seven-game conference finals win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. Thompson scored 41 points on 31 shots to force Game 7, and then followed with 21 points and five rebounds in a narrow victory with the Finals on the line. He averaged 17.9 points (42/33/83 splits) in the two Finals appearances at his pinnacle.
Consider this: Allen was better at age 32 in the 2008 Finals (20-5-3 on 51/52/87 splits) than Thompson was in any of Golden State’s three Finals victories (at ages 24, 26 and 27). It would have been fascinating to see Allen at age 25 opposite a 22-year-old Bryant in the 2001 Finals, but his supporting cast and the officials let him down in the end. As it were, peak Allen made a Second Team All-NBA roster over Bryant in their primes, a claim Thompson cannot similarly make, largely because he has carried a lesser burden than Allen.
Allen made arguably the most clutch shot in NBA history, his corner 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation that sent Game 6 of the 2013 Finals into overtime, and that is far from the only time he came through with a playoff game on the line. His triples also won Game 2 of the Celtics’ epic 2009 first-round series against Chicago and Game 1 of their 2011 first-round series with New York. There is a 12-minute compilation of Allen’s clutch shots and game-winners, and it only covers his time in Boston and Miami.
In eight advance-or-go-home playoff games during his prime, Allen averaged 19.4 points (54.4 TS%), 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals and blocks. He posted a 17-4-2 on 43/41/91 shooting splits in his two Finals appearances, including a blistering 52.4 3-point percentage in the 2008 Finals and 26 points on 12 shots (7-of-9 3-pointers) in the close-out Game 6. He made a case for the Finals MVP honor that went to Pierce.
Thompson does not have so many iconic shots, if only because Curry and Durant commanded so many last-second touches, but the longtime Warrior is one of the greats when it comes to showing up in close-out games. There were his 11 three-pointers and 41 points in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals against Durant’s Thunder, his 35 points and nine threes in Game 6 of the 2018 conference finals against Houston and his 30 points in 32 minutes before tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals.
Thompson has played just four advance-or-go-home games in his prime, averaging 17.3 points (53.6 TS%), 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 steals and blocks. He registered a 19-4-2 on 45/41/82 shooting splits in his five Finals appearances. Thompson was never close to capturing Finals MVP honors, although he may have had an argument if he had not been injured in the 2019 Finals and the Warriors went on to win. He was averaging 26 points on 58.5 percent 3-point shooting in his five appearances before the ACL injury.
Both Allen and Thompson have not been without fault in the clutch. Allen’s 13 points on 14 shots in a Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the 2010 Finals and Thompson’s 14 points on 17 shots in a Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals both stand out as duds. And given how similar their production is in big games, it is hard not to favor the guy who saved LeBron James’ second ring with one last-second flick of his wrist.
• Allen: two-time champion; 10-time All-Star; two-time All-NBA selection (2005 Second Team, 2001 Third Team); all-time leader in 3-point field goals; 1997 All-Rookie Second team selection; 2001 Three-Point Shootout champion; 2000 Olympic gold medalist; 1995 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year
• Thompson: three-time champion; five-time All-Star; two-time Third Team All-NBA selection; 2019 All-Defensive Second Team selection; 2012 All-Rookie First Team selection; 2016 Three-Point Shootout champion; 2016 Olympic gold medalist; 2014 World Cup gold medalist
Allen’s longevity gives him another leg up on the still-active Thompson when it comes to the space left in their trophy cases. The Warriors star may well get to 10 All-Star appearances and even approach Allen’s 2,973 career 3-pointers (a record Curry will shatter by the time he is done), but that would require a level of consistency over his next seven seasons that few players have ever achieved into their late thirties.
There is a case to be made that Thompson’s extra championship and the All-Defensive honor give him an edge here as a more broadly impactful winning player, but the ring debate has greater significance when they belong to the best player on the title team. I still think I would rather have Allen’s two championships, his Second Team All-NBA selection and a legacy as the erstwhile greatest living shooter on the planet.
For the culture
Thompson is the second Splash Brother. He is an integral member of a modern-day dynasty, but he takes a backseat to Curry in every conceivable way. Off the court, he has built a reputation for being, shall we say, aloof. There was the 2017 summer of Klay Thompson, one in which he transformed into the lovable dunk-missing, Pop-A-Shot-losing, dancing and arm wrestling “China Klay.” There was his iconic man-on-the-street news interview in which Thompson professed to be something of a scaffolding expert. And do not forget Rocco, the bulldog who accompanies him to contract signings and signature shoe launch parties.
This is tough to top, but Ray Allen is Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional prospect he portrayed alongside Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.” Few players had the fluidity to play someone so smooth.
Unlike Thompson, Allen belongs to no team. He feuded with Bucks coach George Karl, earning himself a trade to the since-relocated SuperSonics. He won a title with the Celtics, and then joined the arch-nemesis Heat, much to the chagrin of his former teammates and Boston fans. But he belongs to greater basketball conversations, the ones about the smoothest stroke and greatest shooter in history. He is an NBA icon.
THE DAGGER: Ray Allen has had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Stephen Curry vs. Jerry West
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Bernard King
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Clyde Drexler vs. Dominique Wilkins
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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