Draft night was both terrible and fun for me. I met up with some Cleveland bloggers and basketball fans for wings and some brews. Getting to know some of the die-hards that live and breathe Cavaliers basketball through this website and Cavs Twitter has been the best part of Fear the Sword for me. Even though I got to cover an actual NBA game last year as a media member, it doesn't hold a candle to the friendships that I've made. Getting to hang out with everyone on such an exciting night for the Cavs was really great.
And then I started seeing tweets that the Cavaliers were going to take Anthony Bennett from UNLV with the the draft's first overall choice. And then I watched as David Stern trolled NBA fans everywhere, giving a ridiculously drawn out speech before finally announcing the Cavs' choice. And then I heard the name, after a Stern double-take, of Anthony Bennett. And I was upset. Part of cheering on a bad basketball team is getting attached to certain players, in both positive and negative ways. If you have been around this site, or followed me on Twitter, it is pretty clear that I love Tristan Thompson. I love his attitude, his work ethic, and his obvious desire to get better. At the same time, we get down on certain players. By the end of last season, a lot of us were at our wits end with Tyler Zeller and Alonzo Gee, despite the fact that both were asked to take on bigger roles than they ever should have been.
The NBA Draft is the same way. We fall in love with certain guys that we think will fix our terrible team, and we find guys who have certain weaknesses and convince ourselves that it will be a disaster and set the franchise back. I am guilty of this. I thought Nerlens Noel could very well be the key to winning a championship, and I saw Anthony Bennett as an out of shape kid, old for being a member of the freshman class who didn't work hard defensively and won't have a position in the NBA. Part of my job as someone who tries to write seriously about basketball is to try and avoid these types of judgments, but I don't always do a great job with that. Bennett is both a prospect I didn't like, and a prospect who plays Tristan Thompson's position. I just wasn't going to enjoy the selection. But what it means for the Cavaliers moving forward is much more interesting than what it means for me.
Who should start?
Thompson should start, probably for the full year. Bennett is a better scorer, and has an NBA ready body. He should eventually have range from the 3 point line, if he doesn't have it already. The Cavaliers, with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and now Jarrett Jack, are going to be running the pick and roll all the time, and Bennett will in all likelihood be both better in the pick and pop and as the roll man than Thompson is. His range also would clear the lane for Anderson Varejao when Varejao is the roll man. Still, Bennett does have offensive deficiencies, as should be expected for a 20 year old big man. He isn't a good passer, and doesn't have experience making offensive reads. Oftentimes when he gets the ball he shoots immediately. He also isn't a very proficient post scorer, so as Cleveland attempts to add shooters like Jack and Sergey Karasev, his ability to pass out to spot-up shooters will take some refinement.
Thompson, entering his third NBA season, has made great strides as a passer, as well as added some wrinkles to his game. I think early on he will have a smarter offensive game than Bennett, as he will just have a better understanding of NBA defenses. We don't know what kind of shot Thompson will come back with this fall. Towards the end of last season there were some flashes of a jump shot, and his ball handling is quite good. If he continues making progress on keeping the ball moving, he won't be a negative offensively. His value added will come on the defensive end. With Varejao coming back, there will be less energy he needs to put into guarding opposing team's best big and in being a dominating rebounder. While neither Varejao or Thompson have shown much ability at rim protection, Thompson still has upside there, and both are relatively smart guys. I think as he develops an understanding of space defensively, there is no limit to what Thompson can become defensively.
Bennett defensively? I don't think there is any real way of knowing. I have some pretty grave concerns, but I also trust Mike Brown. Next year will be difficult for him, I think. I want him almost exclusively guarding power forwards, because trying to learn to play team defense on both the interior and perimeter seems like a lot to ask a rookie who by his own admission has never been taught much about defense. He will get lost in space, he won't be very good at communicating screens, and despite his strength a certain tentativeness might cause him to get bullied. I just think it is fair to say that third year Tristan Thompson will be better than first year Anthony Bennett taking into account both sides of the floor.
If you want Bennett exclusively at power forward, can Tristan Thompson play some center?
Yes, he can. Is it ideal? No, it isn't. The fact of the matter is, Thompson has spent a lot of time over the past two season's guarding centers. With Tyler Zeller's struggles last season, Thompson often found himself on Spencer Hawes, the Lopez brothers, etc. Thompson's strength as a defender lies in being both strong and quick. There are very few power forwards he can't stay with, and quite a few centers he is strong enough to stay in front of. Many of the centers who gave him trouble last season give almost everyone trouble. Still with a wingspan of 7'1, Thompson does not have great length. Centers posting him up can often shoot right over him.
The slightly cop out answer is that Thompson can guard many centers just fine, but struggles against the ones who are both skilled in the post and possess superior length. There are going to be a lot of times that Thompson and Bennett fit great together on the court. Their offensive styles in particular seem like a solid match. Big teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, and Indiana Pacers would cause problems, but those teams cause problems for most of the teams in the NBA. It is fair to wonder if it is good for Thompson's development, though. Spending that much time and energy banging with the centers of the league could make it difficult for him to exert energy in too many other areas of the game.
As a fan of Thompson's and the Cavs, part of what made watching games so difficult with Varejao out was players like Zeller and Thompson being asked to do things that are so obviously not natural for them. Still, there is a precedent for this. Chris Bosh gets a lot of abuse for the "lesser" role he has adopted in Miami. But he plays hard on defense, guards centers that are bigger and stronger than him, and does the dirty work for a small Heat team. Is he a rim-protecting center? No. But he works hard, holds his own, and that is enough for his team. However, it isn't ideal. If the Heat had a competent center on their team, Bosh could play the four and probably be more productive offensively. I think Thompson has the mental make-up to do whatever is best for team. If he sacrifices like Bosh did, the Bennett-Thompson pairing could really work.
Final thoughts and concerns
I think it is largely too early to tell what the result of Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson playing on the same team will be. One might get traded, at some point. But my optimistic take would be that they are both kept, and a solid starting center is added to the mix. The Cavaliers could then have a three big rotation that is both versatile and flexible. In time, Bennett may be able to even spend some time playing small forward. When Varejao is healthy, something approaching a three big rotation might even work now, though I doubt that Bennett is ready for it. I do think there will be times when Thompson and Bennett can play together. Given their talent, it could end up being pretty fantastic.