The Cleveland Cavaliers' offense has been pretty strong with Tristan Thompson on the floor as of late. Since he was inserted into the starting lineup 12 games ago, the Cavs' offense has an offensive rating of 112.9 with Tristan on the floor, and 106.6 when he sits, a 6.3 point increase over 100 possessions.
This is a strange point considering that many conversations surrounding Thompson's contract worth this offseason centered around his offensive worth and ability. There was serious question whether Tristan could ever make an impact offensively, as his ability to shoot outside of the paint and his passing are serious flaws.
However, the Cavs' offense has used Tristan successfully in some of their best offensive lineups, and a lot of that has to do with Tristan's biggest offensive plus skill: offensive rebounding. Tristan's a top-10 offensive rebounder in the league, and he specializes in sealing off opposing bigs from not only grabbing rebounds, but also from effectively challenging shots from his teammates. That skill is something the Cavs have been able to use, to Thompson's and his teammates' benefit. Last night's 115-102 win over the Los Angeles Clippers gave us a great example of how that happens.
With the score at 82-70, the Cavs run a set where LeBron James sets up for a pick-and-roll for Kyrie Irving. The Clippers, as they had been all game, trap the pick-and-roll, and LeBron pops to the weak side. Meanwhile, Tristan, James Jones, and J.R. Smith set up a strong side, with Tristan setting a decoy screen for Jones while Smith rotates over. This creates the classic "Four guys on one side, LeBron one-on-one on the other" look we see from the Cavs offense.
Here at the end you'll notice the first advantage Tristan creates for the Cavs offense in this set. Because DeAndre Jordan is settled at the top of the defense, he has to account for covering the pick-and-roll in case LeBron or Kyrie breaks the trap. However, after the screen, Tristan settles into his natural spot along the baseline opposite of LeBron. Because of the threat of Tristan getting a dump-off for a wide-open dunk or lob, DeAndre Jordan hesitates a step towards Tristan just as LeBron catches the ball. This creates a problem on multiple fronts for the Clips.
Wesley Johnson is late to rotate back to LeBron. Jordan, because he's taken that hesitation step towards Thompson, quickly has to rotate over to cover, and is out of position as LeBron blows by him. And perhaps worst of all, because of James Jones tracking to the corner, Jamal Crawford is the man left responsible for boxing out Tristan. You'd never guess it, but even though LeBron misses, things end poorly for LA.
The best part of this set isn't even the Tristan dunk, though. It's the options that this simple action and the threat of Thompson creates. LeBron has an open look at the rim, which eight times out of ten is good enough. Thompson's boxing a guard out for the putback. And because Thompson has that seal, LeBron has the option to make another choice he often makes, to swing the ball to a wide-open James Jones, who, if there's another defensive rotation, has the option to kick to a completely wide-open Smith, who, if there's another rotation, would then be able to swing to an embarrassingly wide-open Irving.
The Cavs' offense isn't difficult to figure out. It's a lot of simple options that work consistently because they have some of the best players to fit the roles they need in order to make this simplistic offense work, even against some of the league's most elite defenses. Obviously Kyrie and LeBron's driving threats and J.R. and Kevin Love's shooting threats are the biggest parts of those sets. But the frequency of how often Thompson's threat as a lob finisher, offensive rebounder, screen setter and outlet finisher is the locus around which the Cavs' offense revolves is staggering.
Thompson has plenty of offensive worth, even if he can't create for himself or others with the ball in his hands. As he showed last night, the threat of a second-chance bucket from Thompson opens up so much more than meets the eye for the Cavaliers offense.