It’s hard to overstate the value of what Tristan Thompson brings to the Cleveland Cavaliers. As we’ve seen in the playoffs, cold shooting games from any of the teams stars can be covered up by the firepower of the supporting cast. Both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving initiate the offense, and from there the team seeks out matchup advantages and the hot hand.
But when it comes to Thompson, what he brings cannot be replicated by anybody on the roster. What he does fills in the cracks and helps hold the team together.
When Tristan Thompson initially signed his five year deal worth $82 million, many scoffed at the contract. It was viewed as LeBron getting one of his buddies paid and some suggested the perceived overpay would hurt the team.
In the middle of his third playoff run with the Cavs, it’s hard to imagine any credible criticism of his contract remain. Thompson has been a difference maker all three years and was an essential piece to the Cavs championship puzzle last season.
The biggest contribution Thompson brings to the table is versatility. It’s a funny thing to say about a player with obvious limitations, but his work ethic has helped him develop into someone that can impact the game in several ways.
As a mobile defender in the pick and roll, Thompson can switch onto guards and stick with them without fouling. He has added rim protection to his repertoire this season, helping address one of the team’s biggest needs.
Offensively he has also been able to find his niche. His intelligence off-ball allows him to find holes in the opposing defense and get into passing lanes. He’s also a strong finisher in the pick and roll and an elite offensive rebounder. While his growth offensively has been subtle, small wrinkles like improved vision off the short roll have helped increase his effectiveness.
In Wednesday’s blowout win, Thompson received a pass from Irving, caused Jaylen Brown to clear out of the lane with a look to an open J.R. Smith in the corner, and finished with an open dunk.
Thompson’s understanding of the subtleties of the game and ability to stay in his lane are incredibly valuable to the Cavs. It’s hard enough to deal with the Cavs star trio, but when Thompson is cleaning up misses and outplaying opposing stars, it’s nearly impossible to beat the Cavs.
If you only watched the Celtics when they played the Cavs, you’d likely have a low opinion of Al Horford. Horford is one of the more intelligent big men in the NBA and a skilled player on both ends of the floor. He can space a defense, put the ball on the floor, and his vision as a passer has helped unlock Isaiah Thomas’s full potential this season.
Yet when Horford shares the floor with Thompson, things quickly deteriorate for the former All-Star. During the regular season, Horford shot just 37.5 percent from the field when Thompson was on the court, per NBA.com’s Impact Stats. Compared to 71.4 percent when he sat, per NBA.com’s Impact Stats. In game one it was more of the same. In the 31 minutes the two big men shared the floor, Horford shot just 25 percent. In the seven minutes Horford played without Thompson guarding him, he shot 66.7 percent.
While Horford is a poor rebounder at the center position, he typically makes up for that by being quicker and more skilled than opposing centers. Against the length and mobility of Thompson, that advantage is severely diminished.
The list of centers that can guard their position, switch onto point guards, and play against small ball lineups is a very short one. It’s hard to think of many, if any players that would fill this exact need for the Cavaliers.
It’s this ability that significantly decreases the margin for error for teams playing the Cavs. It’s what allows them to survive cold streaks shooting the ball. It allows them to maintain a size advantage against the Golden State Warriors while not compromising their defense. Against the Celtics, it provides them with an advantage they simply don’t have an answer for.
On the other end, Thompson had the best offensive game of his playoff career. Scoring 20 points on 7-7 shooting and pulling in six offensive rebounds. In addition to the offensive rebounds, he also created extra possessions by drawing loose ball fouls as well disrupting defensive rebounders and forcing them to knock the ball out of bounds.
For the underdog Celtics, if Thompson is outplaying Horford they have little to no chance to win a game. With Thompson outproducing their star, it leaves Isaiah Thomas with the task of outplaying the combined efforts of Cleveland’s big three.
When evaluating star players in the league, there’s no true consensus on what it means to be a star. It’s very unlikely Thompson will ever be an All-Star, or be in line for any regular season awards. His counting stats don’t jump out at you and his game isn’t flashy. But Thompson’s ability to play like a star and make a difference when the value of each possession is amplified makes him one of the most valuable players in the league.
In the arms race between the Cavaliers and Warriors, sometimes less is more. Both teams are loaded with versatile talent capable of overwhelming the opposition. But it’s the consistent, blue collar effort of Thompson that helps level the playing field.
The way we look at the game has become more and more focused on winning championships. The Cavs are fortunate to have not only have arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, but two other stars to play along with him. When you look at ways to maximize what that trio can bring, it’s hard to imagine there’s a better glue guy than Thompson. Come playoffs, he’s the fourth star the Cavs need to win it all.