Drafted as a project in 2011, Tristan Thompson was thrust into a role that he was not prepared for and his shortcomings have been exposed for all to see. He's been one of the most durable players throughout his three years in Cleveland, starting every game for the past two after missing six games in his rookie campaign. While Thompson remains raw, his looming restricted free agency leaves the team with a tough decision to make. Do you give him a significant contract over the next four years? Or, do you risk putting yourself in a position where you have to chose between matching a big offer and letting him walk?
Coming into last season, Thompson made waves as the first player in NBA history to change his shooting hand. It seemed reasonable to expect some setbacks as he learned to adjust to the change. Unfortunately for him, the Chris Grant Cavaliers seemed to do everything in their power to help bring out the worst in their players. The acquisition of Andrew Bynum and the failure to bring in players to space the floor resulted in a clogged paint operating within a stagnant Mike Brown offense.
In the month of November, Thompson shot just 40 percent from the field. The pairing of Thompson and Bynum was not a fruitful one and proved destructive for both the player and team. Thompson did show improvement throughout the year, however, particularly after the departure of Bynum and the acquisition of Spencer Hawes. Through 29 post All-Star break games, Thompson shot an encouraging 50.7 percent from the floor and 76.5 percent from the free throw line. Despite these improvements, his finish at the rim remained a glaring weakness in his game, which was reflected in his year end numbers:
While the overall numbers left a lot to be desired, there were encouraging trends towards the end of the season that could be an indicator of future success with the Cavs, especially with the much improved roster.
The shift in Tristan's efficiency can be attributed in part to the presence of Spencer Hawes. The floor spacing and passing that Hawes brought to the offense for twenty seven games in Thompson's post all star stretch had a significant impact on the Cavs performance as well as Tristan's. This impact will be replicated and surpassed by the acquisition of Kevin Love. Not only is Love a better shooter and passer than Hawes. He is also a significant threat off the dribble and capable of drawing more attention than Hawes.
While adding players like Love, LeBron James, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion help create a situation that is conducive to Tristan excelling, there are still changes that need to occur to his individual game in order to maximize his opportunities within David Blatt's offense.
One of his worst habits throughout his career has been his tendency to bring the ball down upon receipt of a pass or after bringing in an offensive rebound. He would consistently bring the ball down to his knees or execute an unnecessary dribble before rising up with a shot attempt. This, of course, allows for a defender to recover and get into position to block or contest his shot. It also gave a lot of time for a help defender to get into position to do the same thing, especially in an offense that did not punish teams for packing the paint.
His poor finishing at the rim is something that he is cognizant of and that he's acknowledged he has worked on this summer. Utilizing both quick finishes as well as the glass will help him avoid some of the blocked shots that he was prone to.
His ability to run the floor and remain constantly active on the offensive side of the floor will likely create several easy opportunities in transition as well as off ball cuts. When Thompson sets screens or moves around without the ball he will need to be constantly prepared to receive a pass with all the exceptional passers that the Cavs feature. In preseason we have started to get a taste of what kind of looks he will get within the offense.
Against the Miami Heat, Thompson scored 18 points on 6-10 shooting in 25 minutes. He also pulled down nine rebounds On this possession Thompson initiated the offense by passing to James on the left wing and then moving to set a screen for him:
Thompson's pick forces Chris Bosh to switch onto LeBron and Luol Deng onto him. On the weak side Kevin Love moves from his position in the high post out to the three point line drawing Udonis Haslem out of the paint and effectively opening up the key. These types of looks were not possible last season due to the lack of spacing or a small forward that can initiate the offense:
By Thompson dropping down it doesn't allow the HEAT to double team LeBron with Deng and Bosh. Leaving James alone with a favorable matchup. But James swings the ball to Love on the right side of the court, tricking the Miami defenders to attempt to switch back to their man. By the time the ball reaches Love's hands Thompson is all alone underneath the basket with neither Bosh or Deng in position to do anything and Wade occupied with Mike Miller in the corner. Love promptly finds Thompson who slams it home:
Notice how Thompson does not have a pronounced gather upon receiving the ball. He receives Love's pass right on the numbers and goes up with it right away. This prevents the recovering Bosh from being able to block his shot from behind.
Another example of Thompson going up quickly is on this offensive rebound. Rather than snagging it out of the air, securing it, gathering and going back up; he elevates and puts it back with no hesitation:
If Tristan can consistently do these things he should be able to elevate his field goal percentage above 50 percent and be an effective cleanup man within the offense. But if he is to start at center next to Love, he will need to increase his impact on the defensive side of the floor. The Cavs are void of a proven rim protector outside of Brendan Haywood, a player that is well past his prime. Thompson has shown some ability to block shots both at Texas and in his rookie season with the Cavs, however those numbers have regressed over the past two seasons.
After blocking 1.6 shots a game per 36 minutes as a rookie, he managed only 0.5 blocks a game per 36 last season. Some of this drop off may actually be attributed to the amount of center he played his rookie season in comparison to his last two years. With the NBA offenses shifting towards small ball or stretch fours, a power forward typically needs to play defense outside of the paint far more frequently than ever before.
There were only 12 power forwards last season that averaged over a block a game, with the usual suspects like Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol all appearing on that list. Thompson has made large strides in his man defense in comparison to his rookie campaign. However, it has come at the expense of the weak-side blocks that he would come up with as a rookie. With Thompson playing more minutes at center this season, it is imperative that he up his block totals and make players aware of his presence when they come in the lane. If he is unable to significantly increase his block totals, he will need to improve his ability to read what the opposition is doing and get into position to take a charge.
This season is clearly a pivotal one for Thompson. He is in the final year of his rookie contract and while he has made improvements to his game to this point, he has failed to string together a consistent enough run to silence those that don't believe he should be rewarded with a significant long term deal. He will be in a position to succeed for the first time in his career and it appears as though he has put in a lot of work over the offseason. At 23 years old he still possesses considerable upside and his work ethic has never been in question. This should be the year that we discover if the effort put in results in him actually moving forward in his career, or if he is just spinning away on the hamster wheel of unrealized potential.