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Tristan Thompson's growth on defense key to his new starting role

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Tristan Thompson's improvement on defense is key to him finding success as a starter.

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Full disclosure, when I started writing this article it was to make a case for Tristan Thompson to be in the discussion for sixth man of the year. Even though he doesn't meet the traditional profile of awards winners in the past, his impact merited consideration. But of course by staring to write that the basketball gods threw me a curveball as Thompson was named starter for the foreseeable future. So rather than throwing my laptop into the wall, let's look at the growth in his game that's resulted in his inclusion in the starting lineup.

If you were expecting a huge leap from Thompson offensively with his new contract, you're likely disappointed with his output so far this season. His points per game are down from 8.5 to 7 and his field goal percentage has decreased from 54.7 percent to 54 percent. It should be noted that Thompson historically has been prone to slow starts in his efficiency. In 2013-2014 he shot 46.4 percent before the all star break and 50.7 percent after it. In 2014-2015 those numbers went from 53.4 percent to 58.7 percent. His free throw numbers have been on the disappointing side as well, shooting just 52.9 percent compared to 64.1 percent.

While his offensive production has disappointed, his overall impact on the game is far more significant this season. His reputation as a defender was largely overstated coming into this season. The tools were present; his ability to switch onto perimeter players, defend the pick and roll, etc were all meaningful; but the overall impact on the team's defense just wasn't there yet. Last season the Cavs gave up 0.7 points per hundred possessions fewer with him on the bench last season, and his net rating was a +2.8. This season is a different story: the Cavs surrender 9.7 points fewer per hundred possessions when he is on the court, and his net rating is up to an impressive +10.3 (numbers taken from basketball-reference.com). Given the firepower and depth of the Cavs roster, having a low usage player that can still have a major impact on the game is significant.

In terms of rim protection, last season Thompson allowed his opponent to shoot 52.2 percent at the rim, a number that has improved to 45.3 percent this season on contested shots. That's better than DeAndre Jordan (46.1 percent) and Hassan Whiteside (46.6 percent), although it does come on a lower contest percentage than those two. These stats are via Nylon Calculus, you can look in detail at the numbers there. His defense of the pick and roll has also been impressive. The roll man has shot 32.1 percent with Thompson defending him, only three players allow a lower percentage out of defenders that have faced at least 20 attempts this season.

Despite the overall offensive regression I alluded to earlier, there are some encouraging aspects to his offensive game at the moment, other than the hope that trend of his late season spike in efficiency continues. Per NBA.com, Thompson currently ranks third in field goal percent as a roll man out of players with at least 20 attempts at 71 percent, trailing only Hassan Whiteside (75 percent) and DeAndre Jordan (74.2 percent). So while his offensive game is still raw, the Cavs can still run plays with him that he converts at an elite level.

Some of his slight decline in field goal percentage could be explained by him occasionally trying to do more in post up situations and adding more moves to his game. But the main value of his offensive game has been that he plays within himself and the offense, he knows what his strengths are and how to make an impact playing alongside the team's stars. When he and Iman Shumpert signed long-term this summer, the Cavs showed belief and commitment with those two, that they could be the type of complementary pieces needed to win a championship next to the big three.

The decline in play from Timofey Mozgov obviously aided in the decision to move Thompson into the starting lineup, but his individual growth helped force the team's hand. With his five year deal the plan was probably for him to evolve into their starter at some point in the future, it just appears as though that time has now arrived.