Since the return of LeBron James, Cleveland basketball fans have seen a myriad of different Tristan Thompsons: high-energy role player, Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and valuable starter on a championship team. Each of these Tristans has a slightly different game and contributes in a unique way.
In the past three seasons, Thompson has started in 52.5 percent of the regular season games he has played. However, with the changing NBA style and recently revamped Cavaliers roster, Thompson will be out of the starting lineup once more. The question becomes: how does that change his game?
Thompson was always Cleveland’s Iron Man, never missing time and famously playing 447 consecutive games. It may not be a coincidence, though, that the first season he is asked to start every night is the first season he misses time. Moving Thompson to the bench will help him remain one of the league’s most durable players.
His style of play has always been high-energy. Every national broadcast could be turned into a drinking game where you had to drink every time an announcer mentioned his motor. Playing with such energy is much easier to do if you have to play fewer minutes, and Tristan averages just 25 minutes per game when he comes off the bench, as opposed to 31 minutes per game when he starts. The distribution of his minutes played can be seen below:
Rebounding was the area Thompson first made his mark in. He made his name known around the league even before LeBron’s return by consistently dominating the glass on the biggest stages there were. After LeBron came back, his exposure went through the roof and he was regarded as among the best in the NBA.
Total rebound percentage, or TRB%, shows how many rebounds a player grabs out of all rebounds available while he is on the court. For Thompson, he posts a 1.4 percent higher TRB% when he comes of the bench than when he is a starter. It varies heavily based on his total minutes played as well.
Additionally, offensive rebound percentage, ORB%, and defensive rebound percentage, DRB%, break this down even further to calculate offensive or defensive rebounds grabbed out of the total while on the court. Thompson’s ORB% is practically equal no matter what, but his DRB% is 2.2 percent higher when he comes off of the bench.
While being heavily limited on the offensive side of the ball, Thompson has made up for it by being as efficient as possible. In this case, eFG% and TS% don’t agree on his efficiency. When in the starting lineup, he has an eFG% that is one percent greater than his off-the-bench eFG% but a TS% that is two percent worse than TS% when he comes off the bench.
Scoring-wise, Tristan Thompson is about one point per 36 minutes better when he comes off the bench than when he starts, but he also scores increasingly more points per minute played as his per-game minutes increase, as seen in the distribution below:
In terms of total impact, Thompson has a 2.5-points better average net rating, which is team points scored per 100 possessions minus team points allowed per 100 possessions, in games in which he comes off of the bench. However, the splits are lopsided: he averages a significantly higher offensive rating as a starter, but a higher defensive rating off the bench.
Offensively, starter Tristan Thompson may be better than bench player Tristan Thompson, but the latter is more valuable in a wide variety of other areas. The per-game minutes that Thompson averages will play a large role in determining what production he brings to the table this year. Only time will tell which Thompson we will see.