The Cleveland Cavaliers largely go as LeBron James goes. For instance, when LeBron dribbles the ball deep into the shot clock, the Cavs' offense stagnates. When he's engaged defensively and closing out hard, the Cavs defense goes from poor to passable. As good as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are, LeBron is key to the Cavs' ignition.
Against the Bulls, this was especially true. With Irving playing hurt and Love out, LeBron had to do a little bit of everything. He's LeBron James, so he's generally good enough.
Enter Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert. Both filled in perfectly around James against the Bulls and did exactly what Cleveland needed to advance. And it's for a Cavaliers team that needed them to be excellent and needs them to hide some of the its flaws. The versatility that both players provide allowed them to do so. Both can defend multiple positions - the Cavs used Shumpert on ones, twos and threes in this series; Thompson can defend fours and most fives on top of being able to switch onto guards and defend them in space - and both have played within the confines of what they are good at.
This is versatility that can, and in the case of Thompson and Shumpert, should, get you paid. To boot, both Thompson and Shumpert are 24 years old and have years ahead of them as NBA players. Both are restricted free agents, which means the Cavs can match any offer sheet either player signs this summer. Barring an insane offer - the max for Thompson, which you could argue he's worth with the cap rising next summer, and anything more than Thabo Sefolosha-ish money for Shumpert - the Cavs should match for either player.
This is key for the Cavs - a team that is going be hard pressed to find good role players for the foreseeable future due to cap space issues that are unavoidable when you have two, and maybe three, max players. Barring a crazy offer the Cavs can't match - say a max for Thompson or any sort of big money deal for Shumpert - both have proven that they worth keeping around for the long haul. That's been proven in the playoffs when the Cavs need them more than ever.
Shumpert, while having to take on an expanded offensive role due to Smith's suspension in the first two games of the Bulls series, and Irving's injuries, has been spectacular on defense. In the playoffs, players Shumpert has guarded are shooting 38 percent from the field and 24 percent on 3-pointers. Again, he's putting up those numbers defending multiple positions and that's huge for a Cavs team that still isn't great on defense. In the fourth quarter, before the Cavs make the obvious adjustment and put LeBron on a point guard, the Cavs can put Shumpert on the point guard and leave Irving to defend a stationery shooter.
Shumpert was overall incredibly active on defense against the Bulls. For instance:
Here, Jimmy Butler is cutting to get open on top of the key. Shumpert, defending Butler with LeBron off the floor, is a step or two behind him.
Partially due to a lazy pass, Shumpert catches up and gets a steal. He wasn't always perfect - there were times where he gets beat inside and relies on Thompson or Timofey Mozgov to bail him out - but the effort is largely there and with the effort come results.
This worked against the Bulls who played Kirk Hinrich for large minutes, but becomes harder to when/if Kyrie has to chase around Kyle Korver in the conference finals while still injured. Still, against the Bulls, Shumpert's ability to switch was essential to the Cavs series win. For the Cavs to advance to the finals, it will be even more so.
Thompson's ability was just as much on display, if not more. When Pau Gasol was healthy early in the series, Thompson was excellent at beating Gasol to spots on the floor and limited how many clean looks he got within the 10 feet of the basket. He was also predictably awesome on the boards on both ends. First, on offense, look at how Thompson outworks Nikola Mirotic to get the ball, immediately looks up to find a guard to pass it to and gets a hockey assist on a Kyrie Irving 3-pointer. And after he passes, he goes right back down inside in order seal off Tony Snell and position himself for another offense rebound. On top of these little, but important, moves, Thompson has a TS% of 62.1 percent in the playoffs and is shooting over 70 percent from the foul line. If he can shoot at a similar rate, opposing teams won't be able to hack anyone on the Cavs.
And on defense, look at how well Thompson seals off Taj Gibson and, after LeBron forces Gasol into a jumper, Thompson is in perfect position to grab the miss. It's because he begin working for box out position on Gibson even before Gasol has taken his shot. And he gets there after hedging on a PNR:
The Cavs are a thin team - the bench is basically reliant on Thompson, Smith/Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones to play heavy minutes because it's Joe Harris and a bunch of old guys otherwise - and largely need to play LeBron James at a heavy level in heavy minutes in order to win games. Irving and Love, were they healthy, would certainly be playing productive, heavy minutes as well.
Against the Hawks, the rotation is probably going to shrink down even more. Jones is borderline unplayable against certain Hawks lineups - basically anytime Millsap is playing power forward - and barring the Cavs trying to dust off Shawn Marion for a few minutes and live with the spacing issues, there isn't anyone else worth throwing out there.
The beauty of this, though, is that LeBron is still good enough to carry a team to playoff wins - at least up to a certain point - even when his back seems to go out for a minute. And he'll certainty need to if the Cavs want to make it past the conference finals or win the title this year without Irving at 100 percent and without Love.
Having two guys who do the little things well makes the best possible outcome all the more possible, both now and in the future.
GIF via Grantland