The Cleveland Cavaliers seem to have a monopoly on undersized centers with ugly offensive games, impressive offensive rebounding numbers, and versatile defense.
If watching Tristan Thompson this season has given you a sense of deja vu, that this is a movie we have seen before, you aren't alone. When LeBron James was asked if he had ever played with someone with a nose for the ball quite like Thompson before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Cavs lead 2-0, he didn't skip a beat.
Anderson Varejao has been able to add shooting to his game in recent years, but early on his skill-set seemed based on gaining extra possessions, guarding different positions, and getting under the skin of opponents. Thompson and Varejao always have seemed duplicative on the court together, but with the latter out for the year with a torn achilles, Thompson has been effective for the Cavs all season. The parts around him have changed, the minutes have changed, his role has not.
Varejao has taught Thompson by example, though with the Canadian's mental makeup it's fair to guess he'd have figured it out in time anyway. Without prompting, Thompson brought up Varejao's help and influence.
"I learned from Andy," Thompson said at shoot-around before Game 3. "He said with offensive rebounding, box out your man, push him underneath the rim. Gives you a good chance of getting the ball."
When asked how his defensive job has changed throughout the season, Thompson speaks of the skills his teammates bring to the table, but ultimately keeps it straightforward.
"My goal is simple. Try and make sure my guy doesn't score. And if he does, make sure it's a contested two, or a tough shot ... Timo [Mozgov] is more of a shotblocker, but for me and Kevin [Love] we've got to use the rule of verticality and take charges."
Of course, there are exceptions for Kent Bazemore.
Much of Thompson's improvement has come not just from hours of work in the gym and the help of James, but from simple changes to his game and increased understanding of opponents and NBA offenses. He can speak of probabilities for where corner 3's may come off the rim, and his pick and roll defense has become much more effective.
Above is Thompson's shot distribution from the 2013-14 season. Despite limited range, just 51.2% of Thompson's shots were at the rim. Given that he actually was a little better than league average at the rim after January 1st of the 13-14 season, and his limited range, that number is way too low.
So he fixed it. Thompson took nearly 3/4 of his shots at the rim during the regular season, converting 62.2% of them. That's about 2% better than league average. It's nice to play with James and Kyrie Irving, but the amount of these shots he is making has been relatively stable. It's how many of them he's taking that has made the difference. More shots at the rim have also led to an increase in how often he gets fouled. Despite struggles at the line in Game 2, Thompson's still making 62.7% of his attempts in the postseason.
Thompson has already played 83 minutes through two games of the Hawks series after just averaging 27 during the regular season. He hasn't missed a game in three years. He hurt his shoulder late in a physical series with the Bulls. The Atlanta Hawks like to play with pace and have quick bigs. Despite this, it's been Thompson imposing his will on the All-Star Paul Millsap.
Doubts about whether his all-energy brand of basketball would translate to the playoffs, doubts about whether he could handle the workload and difficult matchups that come with starting are being put to rest. For a Cavs team with little depth in the frontcourt, even with Kevin Love healthy, Thompson's play isn't just a nice surprise. It's been as big a story behind the Cavs' postseason success as anything else, save the presence of LeBron James.
For years, the focus on Thompson has been what the future will mean for him and the Cavs. Will he be good? Is he a bust? What do you pay him? Where can he fit in? What's the role of a big who doesn't shoot or defend the rim? Those questions can now be answered with a sunnier disposition, but the conversation has shifted in a fundamental way. He's played more minutes than anyone in the Eastern Conference Finals for the team with a 2-0 lead. He's getting the better of a disciplined, impressive Hawks frontline.
It's not what Thompson will be, for once. It's what he is.