Is there something wrong with Tristan Thompson? This is the question that has been bothering me since the beginning of February. For what it’s worth, the Cavs are 14-5 when LeBron plays over that stretch.
In addition to the tooth/lip injury Thompson suffered Sunday night, the numbers suggest the Cavs are struggling when he is on the court.
Thompson, who typically ranks near the top of the team in terms of On/Off rating differential, ranks last on the Cavs since Feb. 1 and March 1. And while the difference on offense is certainly notable, the defensive metrics truly raise eyebrows.
While there is an argument that Thompson plays alongside a starting lineup that has missed Love and J.R. Smith this doesn’t really hold up from the numbers.
The Cavs are better since Feb. 1 and March 1 with Thompson and Iman Shumpert on the floor together than when Thompson is on and Shumpert is off. In fact, the Cavs offense alone is 20 points per 100 possessions better in March with Thompson and Shumpert together as opposed to just Thompson.
These numbers paint a confusing case and beg the question: is there cause for concern or is this just noise?
Thompson is by all accounts the Cavs’ best interior defender and possesses the skills to switch onto guards ably on the perimeter.
This fact makes it even more surprising that the Cavs have been significantly worse on defense with Thompson on the floor the past two months and much better with Channing Frye on.
The Cavs’ 103.8 defensive rating with Thompson off since Feb. 1 would rank fifth in the NBA. Over the same period, the Cavs 115 dRTG with Thompson on would be the worst in the NBA - five points clear of the league-worst Lakers.
Yet, after digging into the numbers, it is entirely possible that Thompson may be the victim of some terrible shooting luck.
As the chart shows, Thompson’s On/Off opponent 3-point shooting luck has completely flipped the last two months. In both February and March, opponents are shooting better than 38.5 percent from three with Thompson on, the percent allowed from deep by the league-worst Phoenix Suns.
On top of that, teams have gone completely cold when the Canadian big man rests, shooting at about the rate allowed by the Golden State Warriors’ league-best 3-point defense.
These results are a complete 180 from the luck Thompson had over the first three months of the season.
For instance, Thompson is on the floor, but can do nothing to prevent either of these threes by D’Angelo Russell.
In addition, opponents are shooting a crippling 80.4 percent from the free throw line with Thompson on the court in March, nearly 3 percent greater than league average.
These numbers appear to indicate some bad luck that you would expect to even out over time. But there is another trend that may suggest something a bit different.
From the beginning of the season through Jan. 31, Thompson was a top-10 rim protector in the NBA. He allowed 49.8 percent shooting at the rim on 6.2 contested attempts per game.
Since Jan. 1, he has allowed 56.6 percent shooting at the rim and defended only 5.1 attempts per game, numbers that would place him in the top-50 as a rim protector.
More likely than not, these numbers are influenced by the injury to Love, who allowed Thompson to assume a more traditional defensive role.
Currently, the Cavs have the 21st ranked defense in the NBA, giving up 107.5 points per 100 possessions. However, when Love and Thompson are on the floor together, the Cavs dRTG is 103.4, a number that would rank fourth in the NBA.
Thompson certainly seems to be a victim of bad luck on the defensive end over the past two months. Additionally, the return of Love to a full minutes load should provide the necessary stability on defense to quell some concerns as the playoffs approach.
On the offensive end of the floor, the evidence over the last two months seems to strongly suggest that the Cavs are better with Tristan Thompson on the bench.
The following numbers, comparing the Cavs offense when Thompson is on the floor versus when Frye is on the floor are illustrative of this point:
Even when you add LeBron to the equation for both players, the gap does not significantly close:
Two things appear to be true when Frye is on the court instead of Thompson: the Cavs shoot the ball better and the Cavs assist on more shots.
On the first point, nearly every single Cavs player has shot the ball better when Frye is on the floor over the past two months:
The spacing provided by Frye has been invaluable to jump-starting the Cavs offense. Frye’s presence forces opposing centers (like Rudy Gobert last week) to hang around the perimeter and watch as other Cavs slice their way into the lane.
In addition to the recent 3-point shooting, since Feb. 1, the Cavs have a .233 free throw attempt rate with Thompson on the floor—which would rank 28th in the NBA. When he sits, the FTr jumps to .314, a number that would easily lead the league.
The Cavs’ top two assist artists—LeBron James and Kyrie Irving—have also seen their assist rates boosted significantly by Frye’s presence.
Since February 1, LeBron has an assist rate of 50 percent when Frye is on the floor and 33.8 percent when he shared the floor with Thompson. Irving’s assist rate of 34.1 percent with Frye is also significantly better than his 28.6 percent assist rate with Thompson.
Add newly-acquired Deron Williams to the mix in March and the trend continues. Williams has an assist rate of 32.1 percent with Frye compared to a 28.4 percent assist rate with Thompson.
CONCLUSION: IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH TRISTAN THOMPSON?
This question is difficult to answer because of all the moving parts associated with the Cleveland Cavaliers over the past two months.
On defense, the Cavs probably have nothing to worry about with Thompson on the floor. You would expect opponents’ ridiculously hot 3-point shooting to revert to the mean before long. The addition of Kevin Love should allow him to assume his traditional role guarding fewer pick-and-rolls and protecting the rim with more force.
On offense, the picture is less clear. The Cavs are clearly benefitting from the spacing provided by Channing Frye and the five-out offense. His gravity as a 3-point threat changes the way other teams defend the Cavs and opens the lane for Irving and James to either finish at the basket or find open teammates. While Thompson does create additional possessions with his offensive rebounding skills, the value decreases if those are also empty trips.
The re-integration of Love and J.R. Smith to the starting lineup should provide more spacing around Thompson and hopefully free James and Irving for more drives and trips to the line.
But the shooting of Frye and Road Trippin’ co-host Richard Jefferson (40 of their last 89 from 3) create another dimension for LeBron-plus-bench lineups and the Cavs offense as a whole.
Still, Thompson certainly remains a net positive to this team. Tyronn Lue’s job will continue to work with lineups that seek to best maximize his impact as the Cavs set their sights on another title.