We are about to enter one of the most star-studded NBA Finals in the history of the association. Don’t believe me? Well, check this out:
The Cavaliers and Warriors rosters have a combined:— Carter Rodríguez (@Carter_Shade) May 31, 2017
7 MVP awards
31 All-NBA selections
45 All-Star appearances
11 Olympic Gold Medals
Now, it’s probably important to note that LeBron James accounts for a lot of those accolades. But even taking him out of the equation, that is still a considerable amount of accomplished players.
Yet when we look at ways for the Cavs to repeat as champions, one of the most important players in the equation doesn’t appear on that impressive list of accomplished players.
Tristan Thompson will likely never make an All-Star team, but his impact and worth to the Cavs has already been immortalized with the 2016 championship ring. With the added firepower the Warriors have added, Thompson will need to play bigger and better than ever.
The most obvious area where Thompson can make an impact is on the glass. As Zach Lowe highlighted in his fantastic feature, everything Thompson does on the court is deflating to the opposition:
When Kyle Korver arrived in Cleveland, he said he approached Thompson and told him, "Man, I'm so glad I don't have to play against you anymore."
Thompson obliterated Korver's Hawks in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs and created dissension among them. "He made Paul Millsap disappear," said David Blatt, the former Cavs coach.
Atlanta's big men so feared Thompson's offensive rebounding, they became hesitant to leave him and contain drives. The guards, hung out to dry, snapped at the bigs. The bigs snapped back that they needed more rebounding help. "He just becomes this problem," Korver said. "Everyone is suddenly yelling at everyone else. You get a stop against LeBron, and he gets another rebound. It's so frustrating. It sucks all the wind out of you."
It’s a testament to Thompson that at this point, this level of impact is expected in a playoff series. It would be shocking to see him not impact the game with offensive rebounds and hustle plays. He’s one of the most reliable role players in the league and his ability to play within himself means he is almost always a positive.
Yet, if the Cavs want to win, his impact will need to extend beyond what is typically expected of him.
Throughout this series, Thompson’s defensive versatility will be put to the test. Before he developed into a rim protector, his greatest asset defensively was his footwork and ability to switch onto perimeter players. Once again he will be asked to snuff out the pick and roll, and defend many of the lethal perimeter options on the Warriors.
The true test will come when he is tasked with defending Kevin Durant. How Thompson does in these situations will determine how aggressive the Cavs defense can be.
Nobody is going to stop Durant from scoring. You can put Kawhi Leonard on him and he would still like put up and efficient 30 points per game. But if Thompson can stay in-front of him, stay out of foul trouble, and make him work, that opens things up for the Cavs defense.
This would allow LeBron James to play defense on Draymond Green. An option that would allow him to roam defensively more than he could on Durant, or Klay Thompson. This was a successful approach in last year’s Finals that helped LeBron limit the Warriors primary initiator offensively, while providing help defense.
If Thompson is not up to the task of defending Durant, then he will need to be the one that limits Green. Either of these assignments will mean that Thompson is playing a significant amount of minutes away from the basket against talented, skilled perimeter players. It will require discipline, as well as every ounce of effort that he has. Either assignment would be more than almost any other center could handle, but if he excels at it, it could give the Cavs the upper-hand.
The Cavs have plenty of offensive weapons. We know that they can survive an off night from one of it’s scorers, as we’ve seen throughout the playoffs. We know that LeBron will have a significant amount of control over the pace and play on both ends of the court. But there is no plan B or safety net for Thompson. If he and James can fill in the gaps and cover for the rest of the team with their defensive versatility, it’ll give the Cavs a shot. If the Cavs want to win, Thompson is going to need to play like a star.