In case you hadn't heard, the Cleveland Cavaliers are currently on an 8 game winning streak, with LeBron James' improved creativity and ball distribution, Kevin Love's rising comfort level and Kyrie Irving's generally awesome awesomeness leading the charge. The stars have undoubtedly spurred the club with their high level of play over the past two weeks, but the guy leading the team in Net Rating during the streak (and for the entire season, for that matter) is none other than Tristan Thompson, whose box score stats aren't doing him justice.
During the winning streak, Thompson is averaging 10.4 points and 7.8 rebounds on 62% shooting - solid numbers, but once you dive into the advanced statistics, his play begins looking more and more extraordinary. When Tristan is on the court this season, the Cavaliers outscore their opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions. During the streak, that number jumps all the way to 26.6 (!!!) points per 100. League-wide, over the past 10 games, Thompson's +18.3 points per 100 ranks 12th overall.
Of course, declaring that it's time for Thompson to become a starter implies that someone would have to head to the bench, and that someone is Anderson Varejao. The 32 year old Brazilian has been healthy enough to appear in 19 (of 20) games, all starts, posting averages of 10.1 points and 6.9 rebounds on a team-leading 58% from the field. A favorite of LeBron James, Varejao is widely considered to be a smart, hardworking complementary player, and is understandably a fan favorite. He's been perfectly solid this season. But when you stack up how the two perform with the three stars of the team in terms of Net Rating, Thompson appears to have quite an edge:
That's a 34.3 point per 100 possession swing between the two. Offensively, the Thompson and Varejao are similar enough that the drastic difference in Offensive Rating seems kind of fluky. Varejao is better and pick and pops than Thompson, but both take well over half their shots inside of 8 feet. Tristan currently sports the best offensive rebounding rate in the league (grabbing 16.6% of available offensive boards), while Varejao is much closer to average (10.4%), but that isn't enough to explain a 19-point difference.
What makes the drastic variation in Net Rating even more amazing is the fact that Varejao has spent much more time (85%) with either LeBron, Love, Kyrie or some combination of the three on the floor with him. For Thompson, that number is 65%. More than a third of Tristan's time has been spent with the 3rd-lowest scoring bench unit in the entire league. And yet Thompson is with Kyrie Irving for the best Offensive Rating on the team.
The differences between Varejao and Thompson become much clearer on defense. This play in the final minute of last night's huge come from behind victory over the Raptors is indicative of how far Tristan has come as a defender:
The first possession in the above video wasn't perfect, but Thompson managed to discourage Kyle Lowry from taking a shot, which was good enough. The second possession, when Tristan ends up switched onto Lowry, who is one of the best drivers in the league, is pure magic. Notice the way he keeps his left shoulder forward, ready to contest any pull up jumper, without getting too sideways and conceding a lane to the hoop. Light on his feet and possessing outstanding footwork, Thompson doesn't bite on any of Lowry's fakes or spurts, keeps his feet moving, slides the ballhandler towards his help and contests the shot, forcing Lowry to bounce an ugly toss on top of the backboard.
Thompson's tendency to hedge hard on the pick and roll is somewhat perplexing, but that doesn't fall on Thompson's shoulders. It's clearly the coaching staff's desire, given that all of Cleveland's bigs do it (or attempt to do it). Debating whether or not hedging hard is an effective strategy probably deserves its own full-length post, but of the big men on the Cavs' roster, Tristan is clearly the best at doing it. Not all of what follows are hard hedges, but there are a few of them sprinkled in. Contrast the hedge plays with the ones where Thompson drops back and is able to handle guards who are attacking off the dribble:
Varejao simply doesn't have the foot speed or athleticism anymore to duplicate what Thompson can do. Tristan is able to hedge all the way out near center court sometimes, yet recover to his man without much of a problem. He could probably gain just a little bit more weight to help him out when he's getting backed down in the post, but that might be nitpicking.
It also might be nitpicking to point out that even with Thompson's emergence, Cleveland could still use a true rim-protecting big man, which is probably why those Kosta Koufos rumors are flaring up again. Tristan is blocking shots at a higher rate than he has since his rookie season, but the number (1.3 per 36 minutes) is still fairly low. He's also allowing opponents to shoot 52% at the rim, which puts him in the around the middle of the pack among NBA big men (per SportVU data). For instance, he's been better at protecting the rim than Chris Bosh, Al Horford or Joakim Noah - three players with markedly better defensive reputations than Thompson.
Why Thompson doesn't block more shots is difficult to figure out - attacking from the weakside doesn't seem to be his strong suit. Even though he has the physical tools to be a slightly more successful shot blocker, it hasn't quite clicked yet. He's at least shown an aptitude for staying down on pump fakes and getting vertical on drivers in order to swat away their attempts, but it's all about finding consistency:
So... should Tristan Thompson become the Cavaliers' starting center over Anderson Varejao? On one hand, it's clear, according to the advanced statistics, that lineups including Tristan are better than ones including Andy. It's also becoming apparent, according to the 20 games of film now available to study, that Tristan Thompson is probably a better defender. Why wouldn't David Blatt want his best five at the court to begin each game?
The flip side to that argument is that coaches actually want their best five on the court at the end, when it really matters, and Blatt already uses Thompson in the fourth quarters of games. In fact, only Kyrie and LeBron have more fourth quarter minutes than Tristan. His 144 fourth quarter minutes are exactly double those of Varejao (72). Isn't that more important than the somewhat arbitrary distinction of who starts? Plus, why upset the balance if things are humming along nicely?
It's a fine line to walk, which is why NBA coaches make exorbitant sums of money. The nice thing about this particular roster debate is that both Varejao and Thompson are lauded as terrific teammates, and neither has made a peep about playing time, playing in crunch time or starting versus not starting. If I were to guess, I'd say that Thompson ends up as the starting center before the end of the season, but as long as the Cavs are winning, don't expect David Blatt to shake things up. Might as well ride the current wave to see how far it can take them.