Out of all the traits you want in a role player, consistency is likely the most valuable. All role players come with limitations of some sort; that’s why they’re role players. However, if you are consistent in what you bring to the table, you can become a staple in a quality game plan. It allows a coach to maximize your strengths and put the team in a better position to succeed. The Cleveland Cavaliers have found this level of consistency in Tristan Thompson.
Thompson had assumed a starting position early in his tenure with the Cavaliers. But once LeBron James returned, he was relegated to the role of sixth man. While he was still the team’s closer, he had yet to assume the role of full-time starter. Heading into the 2016 playoffs, that changed. Tyronn Lue recognized the team is at its best with Thompson on the floor and corrected the team’s slow starts by moving Timofey Mozgov to the bench. Thompson once again showed his worth in those playoffs, as he had the year before. When the game slows down, and each possession becomes more valuable, Thompson’s ability to generate extra possessions becomes increasingly valuable. When you combine that, along with his versatility as a defensive player, what you get is the third most valuable player in the Cavs first ever title.
On the surface, Thompson’s 2016-2017 season looks fairly unremarkable. His points per game are at a career low, and the only notable uptick is a 0.6 increase in rebounds per game. But looking at counting stats alone will cause you to miss the tremendous growth he has made as a player. Thompson has taken a leap this season and has solidified his role as a cornerstone piece for the Cavaliers.
One of the main criticisms you’ll hear about the Cavaliers is the lack of rim protection. While it’s true that swapping Channing Frye into the minutes that were occupied by Timofey Mozgov have impacted the team’s rim protection and rebounding. However, that statement ignores the transformation Thompson has made as a rim protector this season.
Thompson is recording 1.2 blocks per game this season, up from 0.6 last year. But as we know, blocked shots aren’t the best indicator of protecting the interior. Per NBA.com’s player tracking, opponents are shooting 45.9 percent at the rim with Thompson on them. Compare that to 49.4 percent for DeAndre Jordan, 46.5 percent for Hassan Whiteside, and 43.3 percent from Rudy Gobert, and you can see that Thompson is among the league’s toughest defenders at the rim. His defended field goal percentage at the rim of 45.9 is a very nice 6.9 percent improvement from last season.
In addition to that, the opposition is shooting 10.5 percent worse than their expected field goal percentage within six feet of the basket when Thompson is defending. Last season the opposition shot 0.3 percent better than expected in the same situation. By combining his lateral quickness with better awareness, timing, and discipline, we have seen Thompson develop into a legitmate difference-maker on the interior this season.
At 25 years old, this is the time you often see centers realize their defensive potential. It takes a long time for players to gain the experience and understanding needed to be an elite defensive center. There is so much responsibility placed on that position and to execute on a high level, your reactions must be second-nature, rather than read, think, and react. When on the court, you can see him calling out defensive rotations and communicating on defense. He’s also increased his vocal presence off the court, speaking up in defense of teammates as well as himself. These appear to be indicators of a player that is comfortable in his own skin and is growing within the role the team needs him to be in.
As Thompson told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:
"I earned my money - LeBron's not my agent. I earned my money doing what I do; you can ask anyone around the league. I opened doors for other guys. It's a business, and you get paid what the market value is for you. I got my money and opened up doors for other guys that play hard and do the little things
Thompson has done more than earn his money. He’s the 55th-highest paid player in the league and will be even more of a bargain as the rest of the league signs their new contracts. The team is incredibly fortunate to have a talented, young player like him locked up until 2020.
As always, one of his most valuable traits is his understanding and acceptance of his role. His effort and impact is the same in games where he only takes one shot, or when he’s more involved in the offense. His efforts to improve his game have been focused on areas where the Cavs need him to contribute. Whether it be the aforementioned rim protection, or his improved vision as a passer this season. His ability to pass out of the pick and roll has dramatically improved and opened up many opportunities for the offense. It’s very likely that his ability to read things as a defender have opened his eyes to what defenses are giving him and where the ball needs to go.
If his develop were to stall out this season, Thompson would be more than worth his contract. But everywhere you turn there’s somebody praising his work ethic and attitude.
From Kyle Korver speaking to FTS about his willingness to improve his game...
He made free throws before me. Working with technique and free throws is just something I enjoy. He’s really receptive, he’s really open to things that I’ve had to say. It takes time. You just gotta trust it, shoot the ball a little higher, let it come off his hand a little stronger. Just tinkering with a couple mechanics, see what feels comfortable to him.
...to my discussion this summer with Dwight Walton of the Canadian National Team, where his leadership and dedication to the game received rave reviews. It becomes very hard to question the drive of Thompson. While his ceiling may not be as high as some of the team’s stars, it’s hard to see him not reach whatever his ceiling is.
Questions surrounding this team continue to linger, but it’s important to not one of the Cavs most reliable contributors take for granted. His impact may not be as sexy as the rest of the core, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.