Last season, Tristan Thompson started all 82 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers at power forward. The season before that, he started all 82 games, and almost all of those were at power forward.
But things are about to change. With Kevin Love now on the team, it is almost a certainty that Thompson will come off of the bench, which is something that he has not done since his rookie season.
Thompson is just 23 years old, so his ceiling as a player is still undetermined. There are signs, however, that his ideal destiny would be as a big who comes off of the bench to provide rebounding, defense, and the threat to run the floor for about 20-25 minutes every night on a contending team.
On that first point, rebounding: Thompson was very solid on the glass last season. He was sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game (31st in offensive rebound rate), and 24th in defensive rebounds per game. Much was made about his decision to switch shooting hands in an effort to become a better jump-shooter, but on this team, with its plethora of shooters and scorers, he won't be asked to take a lot of outside shots. He will, however, be asked to grab a bunch of rebounds, especially when the presumptive starters (Love and Anderson Varejao) are on the bench.
Defensively, Thompson still has plenty of potential to be really good. As a rookie, he showed that he could maybe become a solid rim protector -- he averaged a block per game in less than 24 minutes a night. Since that season, he's primarily been playing power forward rather than center, which has perhaps masked his ability clog the lane. Now, if he can offer any sort of rim protection whatsoever, he'll help fill one of the biggest needs that the team still has.
Another aspect of Thompson's game that should make him a solid fit in his new role is his ability to run the floor on offense. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Thompson shot 66.7 percent from the field on shots that came in transition, and he ranked 32nd in the league in points per play that came in transition, just slightly behind LeBron James.
When Thompson gets minutes at center with LeBron, Love, and the other starters, the Cavs should have a lineup that can run the floor as well as any team in the NBA. And if Thompson can defend well in the paint, he and Love should be good enough defensively to utilize such a lineup regularly.
You can get a better idea of what Thompson will be expected to do from watching what Kenneth Faried has been doing for Team USA in their preparation for the FIBA World Cup. A few days ago, Kevin Zimmerman wrote for SB Nation about Faried's role:
The worry about Faried's game as part of Team USA hinged on what we already knew. He's a limited offensive player who can't do much outside of the block. But it's possible his national team won't need more from him. The depleted center and power forward positions could throw Faried into a role that accentuates the team's strengths. In the fullcourt, he's a threat to beat less athletic big men down the court. In the halfcourt, he'll be hunting for shots in the paint away from the remaining USA frontcourt players.
The situation is pretty comparable to this Cavs team. They are similarly somewhat depleted in the frontcourt. Thompson will be asked to make athletic plays, rebound, run, and finish shots at the rim. Not much more.
Some players, after starting every game for two consecutive seasons, would not take kindly to being moved to the bench. Thompson, by all accounts, will not be one of those guys. He's been known as a good locker room presence and a hard worker, and it seems like he'll accept any role the team asks of him. Of course, his feelings shouldn't be too hurt, since he's being replaced by the best power forward in the game. Still, it should be an easy transition.
And unlike Thompson's transition between shooting hands, this one makes a lot of sense. Coming off of the bench may well be the role that he was always meant to play. If he thrives, he will be a very important piece on this team.