8.0 points per game, 9.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 0.8 turnovers.
That stat line might cause you to yawn and move on past Tristan Thompson as a sixth man of the year candidate. It would also be a mistake.
First of all, whom are you passing him over for?
a) Will Barton - 14.5 points on 53.8 percent true shooting, 5.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists. Poor defense. Bad team.
b) Ryan Anderson - 17.0 points on 54.6 percent true shooting, 6.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists. Among the worst defenders in the league. Bad team.
c) Darren Collison - 13.8 points on 58.7% true shooting, 2.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists. Very bad defense. Bad team.
What's that? You want an option from a team that was actually successful?
d) Jamal Crawford - 13.9 points on 52.5 percent true shooting, 1.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists. Defense nearly as bad as Ryan Anderson. But he is the bench spark for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
e) Raymond Felton - 9.2 points on 49.9% true shooting, 3.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists. Average defense for a point guard. Plays for the probable No. 7 seed in the Western Conference.
f) Enes Kanter - 12.8 points on 62.9 percent true shooting, 8.1 rebounds, 0.4 assists. The worst defensive player in the NBA today. Plays for a great team... that is 6.6 points better per 100 possessions when he's OFF the court.
There are four fantastic teams in the league this year: Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. Only one of them has a player that scores more than ten points per game off the bench (Enes Kanter). Simply put, there aren't any standout choices for this award. So why not consider an 'outside the box' choice?
Why Tristan Thompson is the most deserving candidate
Let's begin with playing time. Tristan Thompson hasn't missed a game this season. In fact, Tristan hasn't missed a game in more than four years. Among players that started less than half of the time, Tristan is third in minutes played this year. He's a player you can rely on as a part of the rotation every night.
Further, you can depend on him to be an asset while he's on the court. While his offensive role is not large, he rarely makes mistakes that hurt the team. He doesn't shoot often, but when he does he's within ten feet of the basket 95 percent of the time. He's made 67 percent of his shots from zero to three feet, five percent above the league average. In the three to ten foot range he's made 43 percent of his attempts, three and a half percent above league average. He's only shooting 62 percent from the line, but his free throw rate is double the league average. Even at 62 percent, a pair of free throws is just as efficient as a 41 percent three point shot. And his true shooting percentage is up to 61.5 this season, an elite number. Simply put, he's only taking good shots, and he's making them at a high rate. Exactly what you need next to three high usage offensive players.
What about his passing? This has been a liability for him in other years. Last year, for example, he had only 39 assists compared to 16 bad pass turnovers. This year? 58 assists versus just nine bad pass turnovers. His other turnovers are down as well: only 1.4 turnovers per 100 possessions this year, compared to 2.0 last year. Once again we see his efficiency, this time by not wasting possessions.
The only remaining offensive aspect to consider is rebounding, Tristan's greatest strength. Among all NBA players, he is currently No. 3 in total offensive rebounds. That places him just one offensive rebound behind DeAndre Jordan, who has logged an extra 336 minutes this year. He is among the best offensive rebounders this side of Andre Drummond, giving the Cavaliers 3.3 second chances every night. When LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan share the floor, the three of them ALONE rebound 25.7 percent of the team's misses. That would rank No. 6 in the NBA this year, and it doesn't even factor in the other two players on the floor.
In summary, on offense he takes only very efficient shots, commits very few turnovers, and gives his team many second chances. He really has become an ideal role player for the Cavaliers.
What about the other end of the court?
Here he contributes in three key ways: activity, versatility, defensive rebounding.
1) Activity - Tristan is the Cavaliers most active defensive player. According to NBA.com player tracking, his average speed on the defensive end of the court is 4.00 miles per hour. That is the fastest average speed for any center with over 1,500 minutes played. It's in the same ball park as the average speed for Kawhi Leonard, Avery Bradley and Dennis Schroeder. This is important because his most common front court partners, LeBron James and Kevin Love, are not very active on defense. Both are fundamentally sound, and make defensive plays, but each carries a heavy offensive load. That being the case, they sometimes need to take it easy on the defensive end. Tristan's effort level makes this possible while keeping the Cavalier defense better than average.
2) Versatility - By nature, Tristan should be a power forward defensively. His athleticism and length make him capable of shutting down some of the best power forwards in the league. Example A: Paul Millsap averaged just 13.8 points per game while shooting 34.9 percent from the field against Tristan in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
However, our team situation makes it necessary for him to play center the vast majority of the time. He accepts this assignment, and does it well. His DRPM this year is +0.98, which is a bit below average for a center but pretty good for someone playing out of position. Further, his assignments vary greatly from night to night. Some nights he's on the perimeter giving us the ability to switch the pick and roll. Other nights he's battling Andre Drummond in the paint. The Cavaliers can put him in just about any situation with confidence that he'll do a good job at his assignment.
3) Defensive rebounding - for how great Tristan has always been on the offensive boards, his work on the defensive glass was somewhat lacking. That's no longer the case. His DRB% has jumped 3.6 points from last year to a very solid 23.3 percent, and the team has a DRB% of 79.8 percent with him on the court. If you put LeBron and Love on the court with him, that number jumps up to 81.6 percent, along with 29.5 percent on the offensive glass. The league averages are 76.2 percent on defense and 23.8 percent on offense. This one elite skill that Thompson possesses helps the Cavaliers to dominate this facet of the game.
While Tristan's game isn't flashy, and on the surface the numbers don't seem that great, when you take the time to dig deeper you see that he's adding value in every aspect of the game. In a year with no great candidates, Tristan has been good enough to deserve this award.