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Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson or Tyler Zeller in the Starting Lineup?

Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao are going to be on the court for the Cavs when they tip off against the Washington Wizards this Tuesday night. Who will join them? What position will Varejao play?

No Tristan, thats not where the ball is
No Tristan, thats not where the ball is

What position should Varejao play? Is Tristan Thompson ready to start in the NBA? Is Tyler Zeller? Do any of these questions matter?

They do matter, because there are implications involved with each answer that affect how the Cavaliers plan their roster moving forward, and whether or not they win games in the near future. Tyler Zeller is 22, and Tristan Thompson is 21. They shouldn't be, and most definitely are not, finished products. We might want them to be, but they aren't. More caveats: Tristan Thompson was selected with the intention of being a project for the Cavaliers. The team had the "luxury" of selecting a project because no one expected any serious winning in the foreseeable future. Tyler Zeller is also a project, though this is perhaps not recognized as clearly or with as much urgency. Zeller is a young big that has never been in a system that emphasized defense and has to add strength if he wants to score or defend consistently in the post. Kyrie Irving being ridiculously good at basketball may make it more difficult to be patient with our young Cavaliers, but it shouldn't. Back to this theme later.

The question is whether Tristan Thompson or Tyler Zeller should start, but on face, this seems a bit silly- after all, they play different positions. This blog has gone back and forth over whether or not Varejao is a center or power forward, or whether it even matters. I have always fallen on the power forward side, but am starting to wonder whether or not center might be his best position defensively at this point. We have seen some opposing centers be able to bully Varejao a little bit over the years. If and when he loses some of his quickness, we might see some power forwards exploit him. There is a very fine line between excellent defensive positioning and getting to the spot a split second late. The center spot could hide some of that for Anderson. In short, I am not sure that Varejao provides much more value at the power forward position than he does at center. He is going to be his same energetic, rebounding self, finding himself in the right spots, annoying anyone who doesn't cheer for Cleveland, and making a lot of put-backs regardless of position.

So we go back to Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson. Zeller, expected to be more "NBA-ready" because of his years in college, but expected to accomplish less because he was the 17th pick in the draft, and Thompson, raw as can be but with the weight of the 4th overall pick on his shoulders, or around his neck, or whatever metaphor you want to use. I believe that ultimately either of these players could be valuable starters for the Cleveland Cavaliers at some point in their development. I hope that the front office is able to add another player that allows one to come off the bench. Obviously that player is Anderson Varejao right now. And neither Thompson nor Zeller are likely to be worthy of a starting position in the NBA just yet. But I added the caveats at the beginning of the article because right now the Cavs don't have to replace Varejao, and Thompson and Zeller don't have to help lead the team to the playoffs in a starting role. Regardless of which one of them starts, they both have to get better at basketball. And I think that they will.

For now, I expect Tristan Thompson to be a starter for Cleveland on opening night, and I think it is the right call. He is younger than Zeller, and has a lot of parts to his game that need refined. But his body is bigger and better suited to banging down low with NBA bigs than Zeller's is at the moment. Thompson has the benefit of a full off-season training with the the Cavaliers coaching staff. And his confidence might require the validation of getting to go out there and hear his name called in the Cavaliers pre-game introductions. By all accounts, he works hard, took the summer seriously, showed up and gave a good-faith effort during Summer League, and he should have the opportunity to start. I think Coach Scott will lose patience with Thompson a few times this year, in all likelihood over defensive breakdowns and defensive rebounding problems. He might lose his starting role a few times. It will be interesting to see how Thompson responds. In the final preseason game, Thompson came off the bench, and to say that he struggled would be an understatement.

Coach Scott will try quite a few permutations with the bigs this season. I would anticipate Varejao getting around 32 minutes a game, Thompson getting around 26, and Zeller anywhere from 22-26. Zeller will impress, and get bullied, and make free throws. Thompson will make you raise your eyebrows in both glee and consternation, and miss free throws. It matters not who starts, only who develops. What do you guys think?