This Cleveland Cavaliers season has been a bit more of a wild ride than most of us expected. The team will enter Wednesday night's game with the Houston Rockets just 19-16, and facing the prospect of perhaps another five or so games without LeBron James. We aren't sure when James or Iman Shumpert will return from injury. Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, and Kyrie Irving have missed time. Dion Waiters struggled mightily. Mike Miller has largely struggled.
All is far from lost, of course. In fact, there is still good reason for patience. Cleveland will likely get healthy, perhaps by mid-January. The struggling team that lost to the 76ers Monday night was a different one that started the season with a disappointing Knicks loss. It will be much different from the one we see once LeBron James returns. When Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron James share the court, the Cavaliers are outscoring opponents by nine points per 100 possessions. Were the Cavs to sustain that for 48 minutes, it would rank second in the NBA. They can't play all of them for 48 minutes, no, but in the playoffs they certainly will lean on those guys heavily.
And so far it has worked.
There is another player who has fit in with those three, and who has in fact been surprisingly productive for the Cavs this season: Tristan Thompson. When Thompson has joined the Irving, James, and Love (240 minutes) on the court, the team has blitzed opponents by 24.2 points per 100 possessions. Lineup data can be fluky, and time will tell if it can continue.
What is more clear, though, is the simple fact that Tristan Thompson is having a solid fourth year in the NBA. Labeled a bust by some, Thompson is proving that there is a place for him in the NBA. That place might even be the starting lineup of a championship contending team.
What has he provided defensively?
If Thompson really does have that ceiling, defense will have to be his ticket. After a disappointing third season on that end, the University of Texas at Austin product is putting together a pretty nice season. I'm not a huge fan of too many defensive metrics, but opponent's field goal percentage data from SportsVU when it comes to big men can be a useful way to measure rim protection. For the year, opponents taking shots in which Thompson is the closest defender within 10 feet of the basket are shooting 2.7% below the league average. That figure with opponents shooting within six feet of the basket is 2.1% below the league average.
The percentage of opponent's two point field goal attempts that he blocks has more than doubled from last season, though it still isn't particularly good. His defensive rebounding rate has gone down, but this might be in some part a reaction to him challenging more shots around the rim and taking himself out of rebounding position. With so much of his time coming next to a rebounder like Kevin Love, you will take that tradeoff. Thompson isn't satisfied though, and he told Fear the Sword that improving his defensive rebounding is a major focus:
"I'm one of the best offensive rebounders in our league. Defensive rebounding is something I have to improve on. I have to take that responsibility. I have to get better every day ... that's a personal thing I have to get better at. It's a mindset ... if it's in my area I have to call it and go get it."
In the eight games since Anderson Varejao went down for the season, Tristan has pulled down a solid 20.7% of the defensive rebounds available compared to 17.8% for the full season. That he's been able to increase that rate while playing more than nine minutes above his season long average is impressive.
Has it paid off for the Cavs? In those eight Varejao-less games, the Cavs are giving up 105.7 points per 100 possessions. In the 38 minutes a night Thompson has seen, though, the Cavs allow 103.3 points per 100 possessions which would put them 15th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. And when the Cavs are actually healthy? Check out some of these three man lineups. In the 312 minutes Irving, Thompson and James have shared the floor the Cavs outscore opponents by over 20 points per 100 possessions, all while giving up 99.8 points over 100 possessions. For the season, that would rank as the fourth best defensive efficiency in the league.
This isn't all on Thompson, of course. But the team has shown the ability, and even propensity, to play defense while he's on the court.
Thompson's offense is ugly, but it's made a nice leap forward
Coming into the season, Thompson's career true shooting rate was 51. Not good. Through 35 games this season, though, he's at 56.5. His usage rate is minuscule. He doesn't do any more than is asked of him. He pulls down 15.5% of available offensive rebounds and forces opponents to foul him as they struggle to box him out. He gets to the free throw line at an incredible rate, and while his performance once he gets there has regressed a bit, he's still making 62% of them.
The addition of Kevin Love takes a lot of the pressure off of Thompson offensively. 73% of his field goal attempts are at the rim, and he's making 63.5% of his shots there (3.6% better than league average). He's not a good offensive player, but he's becoming someone you can play, particularly if you have someone like Kevin Love. If his defense gets to a sufficiently high level, he's going to be really valuable. In the last eight games without Varejao, Thompson's true shooting is still several points above his career rate, even with a higher minute load and Irving and James missing time. That's a good sign.
I wrote a similar article to this a month and a half ago. The answer to whether this is sustainable is becoming more clear, and Cavs fans should like the answer.
Stats used courtesy of nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com.