What a difference a year makes. A year ago at this time, it was Tristan Thompson, not J.R. Smith who was engaged in a contract dispute with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It wasn't uncommon to see people suggest that the team wouldn't really miss Thompson should his holdout go on deep into the NBA season. Anderson Varejao, Sasha Kaun and Jack Cooley were all listed as reasonable replacements for the big man.
Don't believe me?
IMO RPaul/Tristan F'd up passing on QO; #Cavs already #1 NBA salary by $300K over OKC. Kaun, Wild Thing re-sculpted Love WILL take those min— Chris Parker (@CRS_1ne) October 11, 2015
This isn't to shame anybody. But to point out that Thompson was very much of an unknown. He was known as a rebounder and defensive player, though his offensive impact was greater than his actual defensive impact prior to last season. Thompson is now regarded as one of the league's more underrated players and is generally acknowledged as a key piece to the Cavs first ever championship.
In fact, one could make an argument that Thompson is the Cavs third most important player. While Love is certainly the better player in a vacuum, the reality is that you have to go through the Golden State Warriors to win a championship, unless something unforeseen happens. Love is more important for 80/82 regular season games and the Eastern Conference Playoffs, but against the Warriors Thompson's unique ability to switch on to wing players and disrupt the pick and roll is vital. He allows the team to play small, without actually being small.
Thompson's value comes from an understanding of what he can and cannot do. That awareness and intelligence is what transforms him to an elite role player for the Cavs, rather than other second tier players that try to do too much and fail to maximize their strengths.
Thompson is an top-level finisher in the pick and roll. Out of players who had over 100 possession attacking in the pick and roll last season, Thompson finished third behind DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside in points per possession with 1.29. As a frame of reference, that's more points per possession than James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson averaged on spot up shots last season.
He also does a great job of disrupting the pick and roll defensively. While he may not provide the same rim protection as other traditional defensive centers, his ability to disrupt the pick and roll leads to less penetration and fewer attempts at the rim. As we saw in the Finals taking away a teams ability to get those easy looks at the rim can disrupt their ability to find a rhythm .
Throughout the playoffs Thompson displayed why he is so crucial to the success of the team. Nobody has a greater appreciation for what he can bring than fans of the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors. His relentless effort and extra possessions are impressive to the casual fan, but crushing when you are counting on a defensive rebound. His ability to disrupt one of the elite power forwards in Paul Millsap continues to be one of the more bizarre, but incredible things to watch in today's game.
In the Finals, he appeared to have found another gear. Not just with his awareness or his nose for the ball and defensive ability, but also in his passing and feel for the game. You could make an argument that Game 6 of the Finals was the best game he has ever played. He finished finished with 15 points, 16 rebounds and three assists on 6-6 shooting to bring the series back to three all:
He has shown over the last two season that he has the ability to rise to the occasion and deliver when his team needs it. The youth of Kyrie Irving is often discussed when people look at the Cavs, and for good reason. But in celebrating how good he has been up to this point, we can't forget that Thompson was only 24 years old last season and very much still entering his prime. If you look at how raw Anderson Varejao was during his first trip to the Finals, also at the age of 24, and how much progress he made after that point, it's easy to see that the best may still be yet to come.
He likely will never be an All-Star. A refined offensive game seems unlikely. But with his well documented work ethic and great leadership around him, he should continue to improve within the margins and continue to be an important part of this franchise for years to come.
Jeff Van Gundy joked after Thompson pulled down his n fithnourth quarter rebound in game six that the team should retire his jersey between quarters. While that was likely premature, given his current trajectory and importance to the team's first title, don't be surprised to see No. 13 hanging in the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena one day.
Now THAT is something not many would see coming only just a year ago.
Third place votes: 2
Fourth place votes: 9
Fifth place votes: 2