When Tristan Thompson was drafted fourth overall in 2011, he was considered to be a project big that might be able to have an impact down the road. Unfortunately, when you get drafted that high you are often thrown into a role that asks far too much, far too quickly. While some players excel in those situations, either due to the makeup of their game or by just being too talented to not succeed immediately (hi Kyrie Irving), Thompson has never been that kind of player. As the Cavs elevate through the NBA ranks, though, so has he.
Part of the process with any project player is figuring out exactly what role best fits their set of skills and whether or not those abilities will mesh with the core of your team. Thompson started off his career as a power forward until an injury to Anderson Varejao made it necessary for him to fill in at the center position. While he showed some potential as a shot blocker, his man defense was poor and he was unable to hold his ground against the full grown men he was asked to guard on a regular basis. Since that point he's added size, an improved ability as a man defender (even if it came at the expense of his shot blocking), a different shooting hand (still weird) and more awareness around the rim on offense.
But heading into this season, it still wasn't quite clear what his role would be with the team moving forward. The Cavaliers had already spent a number one overall pick on a player that played his position in Anthony Bennett, then traded for a flat out star in Kevin Love.
Would minutes be available for Thompson? How would he react to coming off the bench after starting every game for the last two seasons? Would he be able to play alongside the Big Three and would he help bring out the best in them? These were all serious questions that had a serious impact on the future of the Cavaliers. With plenty of future assets being used unite the Cavs dynamic trio, the ability for players like Thompson
and Waiters to be able to take a backseat and accept a role would be crucial to helping the team become a contender in the short term and keeping that window open down the road.
While Dion Waiters was not able to accept coming off the bench and make the necessary sacrifices to fit a role alongside the big three, Tristan Thompson has fully embraced his role and is thriving in it. There have been 381 minutes this season where Thompson, Irving, James and Love have shared the court together. In that time they outscore their opposition by 21 points per hundred possessions. Finding role players that mesh with the Cavs core of stars is essential to the long-term success of the team. Before the additions of Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, Thompson was the first and only role player that meshed with that core at a high level. Looking at the 4 man lineups this season that have played over a hundred minutes together, there is a common name that appears in six of the top seven lineups. Per NBA.com/stats:
Despite how effective the Cavs have been while he was on the court, he never has complained about the role he was asked to play. Despite outplaying Anderson Varejao early in the season, he expressed no displeasure in coming off the bench. He briefly regained his starting role when Varejao got hurt, but there was no decline in his effort or pouting when that job was immediately given to Timofey Mozgov upon his arrival to the team. He plays with the same passion and energy no matter where he is placed and the numbers show that his effort has a massive impact on the team.
But he's not just bringing out the best in his teammates, he is also performing at a much higher level on both ends of the court than we are used to seeing. He has doubled his blocks per game from last season while increasing his field goal percentage from 47.7 to 54.8. He's maintained his status as one of the league's best offensive rebounders despite playing with great rebounders for their position in Anderson Varejao, Kevin Love and LeBron James. He has shown an ability to defend the majority of the centers in the league all the while learning to guard perimeter players for a possession or two if there is a switch in the pick and roll coverage. His combination of strength and athleticism is turning him one of the more versatile defenders at his position that takes away scoring opportunities at one end, while creating them on the other.
Interesting Sixth Man of the Year candidate -- at least for a ballot spot: Tristan Thompson.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 7, 2015
The sixth man of the year award has traditionally gone to a player that brings the most scoring punch off the bench. Gunners like Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, Lou Williams, Jason Terry etc. are always in the discussion for the award whenever they are cast in a bench role. This season the names most frequently associated with the award are Lou Williams and Isaiah Thomas. Both are having strong seasons off the bench, but their streaky offensive impact does come at the expense of any semblance of a defensive game.
While both are net positives, they are prone to nights where their shots aren't falling and their overall impact is negligible. The consistent and relentless impact of Tristan Thompson needs to be recognized and should warrant strong consideration for sixth man of the year. Thompson also manages to stand out and have a significant impact on a contending team that's loaded with talented players. He's swallowing up boards alongside some of the league's best rebounders at their position. He's switching onto wings during the pivotal moments in games and coming up with stops; David Blatt has consistently played him in the closing moments of games where the outcome is in the balance. He's earned the trust of his team and the Cavs are consistently a better team when he is on the court.
This was a pivotal season for the twenty four year old big man. At the beginning of the year he took a gamble on himself in contract negotiations under the belief that he could elevate his play to a level that we had not yet seen from him. While he likely will never get All-Star consideration, his attitude on and off the court will put him in a prime position to hit whatever ceiling he has and has likely earned him deserved payday this summer. The Cavs likely understand that they cannot afford to lose the Canadian big man, and his importance to the team deserves league-wide recognition in the form of the sixth man of the year award.