Tristan Thompson has been a polarizing figure among Cavs fans ever since he was was made the fourth overall selection in the 2011 NBA draft. Fans wanted Jonas Valanciunas, fans wanted Bismack Biyombo, fans will tell you they wanted Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson. But Tristan Thompson was the pick. And, if you look at how he has performed next to the second, third, and sixth overall picks in the draft, you might come away encouraged by Thompson's play. If nothing else, Thompson has turned into a reliable and steady contributor for the contending Cavs this season.
But Thompson does not necessarily fit in all that well with the modern NBA game. He doesn't shoot, and he doesn't block shots (often). There are other important traits that Thompson does have, but he doesn't provide two of the most highly sought after traits in contemporary big men. When the Cavs or another team commit big money to Thompson this summer, I understand the consternation and trepidation.
Predictably, it's a pill I think the Cavs ultimately have to swallow. We've covered Thompson's impending free agency ad nauseum here at Fear the Sword. We are looking at it again today because Zach Lowe, who himself has been fascinated by Thompson's situation, mentioned him in his column today. Specifically, Lowe was describing the impending free agency of Ed Davis and how the Los Angeles Lakers forward might be a bargain:
Tristan Thompson will probably earn at least double Davis’s next salary, and nobody will be able to provide a decent explanation as to why. The limitations are obvious: Davis has the skill set of a traditional center, without the heft to hold his position in the post or on the glass against the league’s behemoths. He has zero range, and his free throw shooting has gotten worse for three straight seasons.
His ideal frontcourt mate is a big who can defend post-up threats and shoot 3s — a rare find. But Davis is an absolute killer on the pick-and-roll — the rare speedster with the basketball IQ to slow down at times, shift into an open space, and make himself available for his point guard.
Zach Lowe has lost more basketball knowledge due to sleep deprivation in the wake of his first child being born than I've ever tabulated, but permit me to try and give him a decent explanation why Thompson will make double Ed Davis next season. I also write about this because we've had spirited debates about the value of both players multiple times this season on this website. Lowe has weighed in against me. He doesn't know who I am, but he has. I'd love to post this on my old LiveJournal, but Fear the Sword is the only outlet I have.
Tristan will get double because the Cavs don't have any other options
I floated the idea last week of Utah's first round pick and Trevor Booker for Tristan Thompson. The Cavs would get Booker at $4.75 million to be the third big behind Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov. The Cavs save some money. Booker's numbers aren't that much worse than Tristan's, but he's also averaged 20 minutes a game for his career. You take a step back. It's also not clear that Utah is interested in investing a lot in Thompson with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert on board, players that are superior to Thompson and also fail to shoot.
So the Cavs could look to move Thompson in a trade, but the point of Lowe's article on Davis is that these types of bigs are undervalued. They might not get a lot back.
In the meantime, the Cavs will be in the luxury tax next season for the second straight year. Even if they let Thompson walk, they can't just offer Ed Davis $10 million over two years. They aren't going to be free agent players. In a vacuum, you try very hard not to give Thompson a lot more than Davis. The Cavs aren't in that vacuum, and Thompson's agent knows it.
Tristan will get double because he's a superior player at a younger age
Coming into the season, this statement was highly questionable. And it's more than fair to look at Thompson's situation playing with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and then to Ed Davis, stuck in Laker-land, and be tempted to severely discount the results of this season. In fact, it's downright responsible to do that.
But Thompson's development has been real and oh hey while I'm writing this Zach Lowe started tweeting about Tristan Thompson:
Interesting Sixth Man of the Year candidate -- at least for a ballot spot: Tristan Thompson.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 7, 2015
@WFNYJoe TT's a really interesting player. Just think he'll probably end up overpaid -- and it won't matter much, b/c cap and he'll improve— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 7, 2015
@DavidZavac TT's a better player for sure, especially on D (stronger). But he's not worth double, which is all I'm saying.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 7, 2015
So it turns out I don't really disagree with Lowe about much of anything at all. I do think there is a chance that Thompson ends up being worth double, in a vacuum. Here's how that could happen:
1) Thompson is a great locker room guy, and his motor is not in question. Cavs general manager David Griffin is on record saying that he believes Thompson will add a jump shot because he works too hard not to. I don't know when or if that is actually going to happen, but the team clearly believes in Thompson's work ethic and coachability. Don't think that has an effect? Look at two areas Thompson has drastically improved on in the last 18 months. He passes out after offensive rebounds instead of going up and getting blocked, and he has almost completely cut out shooting at all if it isn't at the basket.
Here's his 2013-14 shot distribution chart. Just 51.2% of his attempts are at the rim:
This season, 74% of Thompson's shots are at the rim:
As Lowe points out, the same can't be said, exactly, for Davis' coachability:
Previous coaches have questioned both his IQ and his motor, a reputation-killing double, and Davis can look strangely nailed to the ground when he’s not giving peak effort. On the flip side, he goes through bouts of happy feet on the perimeter — possessions in which his feet are moving so fast, and so haphazardly, that he can’t change directions on a dime. He’s like Luigi in the criminally underrated Super Mario Bros. 2 for the original Nintendo.
2) Thompson is nearly two years younger than Davis. Davis turns 26 in early June, Thompson turned 24 last month. Thompson has shown versatility as a defender this season, stepping out on guards while being a competent individual defender on centers, and a good one on power forwards. His rim protection is more than adequate if you compare him to power forwards, but well below average for starting centers. Continuity with David Blatt and assistant coach Tyronn Lue could lead Thompson to make more strides in the coming years.
At a certain point, Thompson's development will level off. I don't know when that will be, but it seems like there is still room to grow.
3) While Davis does many of the same things Tristan does, there is a level of uncertainty that simply doesn't exist with Thompson anymore. The Cavs have seen Thompson play with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron James. They've seen Thompson turn into a comfortable Pick and Roll finisher with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and, yes, Matthew Dellavedova. They probably feel better about the investment in Thompson looking at two specific lineup combinations.
a) Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Thompson have shared the court together for 396 minutes this season. When they do so, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 21.9 points per 100 possessions, and allowing just 97.4 points per 100 possessions. It's a small sample, but Thompson appears to be a great fit with the Cavs big three. Trying to replace him might be difficult.
b) As constructed, though, Thompson doesn't get a ton of run with all three of the Cavs top players on the court. With LeBron James though, the Cavs have been able to build a bench unit that's been incredibly successful. When Iman Shumpert, James, and Thompson share the court the Cavs are outscoring opponents by the same margin as the previous lineup, 21.9 points per 100 possessions. Opponents are scoring just 95.8 points per 100 possessions in the 318 minutes they've played.
This is, to a certain extent, cherry-picking lineup combinations that look good. Irving, J.R. Smith and Thompson, for example, haven't been great together. Other players with similar skillsets might get these minutes and the Cavs would see similar results. Or maybe this is small sample size theater. Either way, it's a small risk that other players won't fit in as well as Thompson has. The Cavs have to consider that.
But Thompson's put together a pretty good season. His market this summer remains fascinating.
Stats used courtesy of nba.com/stats. Apologies to Zach Lowe, no one likes to have small bits of their work hyper-analyzed.