Tristan Thompson completed another successful season in the wine and gold. Every season that goes by is another season where Thompson turns non-believers into disciples. Ever since he signed an $82 million deal to remain in Cleveland, Thompson has been heavily criticized by opposing fanbases. Judging from his stat line this past season where he averaged 8.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, he doesn’t come off as an incredibly valuable player.
When in reality, he’s easily the Cavaliers fourth best player and it’s not until you physically watch Thompson battle (and dominate) on the boards against guys bigger than he is that you realize just how special he truly is.
Despite standing at only 6’9” — which is already a disadvantage for someone who plays center — Thompson averaged 3.7 offensive rebounds per game, good enough for sixth in the NBA this season. Thompson is one of the best players in the league at shedding defenders and creating space for rebounds that only he can get to, and he proved it once again this past season. He has an incredible knack for being in the right place at the right time and it leads to endless extra possessions for the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers were 18-3 last season when Thompson recorded a double-double, including the playoffs. He doesn’t directly impact the game as much as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Love do, but his constant effort and hustle are invaluable assets that he brings to Cleveland. Thompson’s three point, 20 rebound performance against the New York Knicks back in December perfectly epitomizes what Thompson is all about. He brings a Dennis Rodman-esque energy and skillset to a team that lacks it. Plus, he has no issue being the guy who gets into with the other team.
Thompson took a step in the right direction this season when he added an efficient floater to his shot selection. Normally, Thompson is limited to offensive rebound putbacks or alley-oops but his newly equipped floater has proven to be a reliable shot for him. 68.6 percent of Thompson’s shots this season came within 0-3 feet from the basket, per nba.com/stats, and his floater is a big part of that. A lot of this has to do with a lot more pick-and-roll action with him as the roller, allowing more shots at the rim and even more lob opportunities.
Per NBA.com, Thompson scored 1.16 points per possession as the roll man on 63.7 percent shooting, ranking him in the 79th percentile. When he shoots his floater, he lofts the ball up from difficult angles but somehow manages to find the bottom of the hoop more often than not. It’s almost like a mini hook shot at times. What makes the shot so efficient is how well he manages to calmly control his body even when being hit with contact. Whether he initiates the contact or not, Thompson is strong enough to ignore it and focus on the shot. It never looks pretty, but that doesn’t matter if he’s consistently canning it home.
Thompson still needs to improve how he goes about grabbing offensive rebounds. Throughout the season, Thompson was a savage on the glass, but what prevented him from being an absolute force down low was his timidness. He struggled at going straight back up with the ball after a rebound, sometimes bringing it all the way down before attempting to go up. He also formed a habit later in the season where he would have the ball right under the basket and then defer to LeBron or Kyrie instead of going up strong. Perhaps his poor free throw percentage this season struck some fear into him as he only shot 49.8 percent from the line, easily the worst percentage of his career. This caused him to eventually become a victim of the “hack-a-Shaq” ploy that opposing coaches love to pull out on horrendous free throw shooters. Thompson is a vital part of the team and if he can’t make his free throws or go up strong for layups, he can become unplayable.
Thompson also struggled against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals averaging only 5.6 points and 5.8 rebounds in five games, however he was a beast during the first three rounds of the playoffs. Averaging over four offensive rebounds per game, Thompson also did a great job on defense, especially against Al Horford, who can never seem to get the better of Tristan when they go head-to-head. Tristan averaged 9.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in the first three rounds including 60 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from the charity stripe.
There is still little to no sign of a consistent and reliable mid-range shot yet but that should be the next step he takes in evolving his game. On the up-side, Thompson became a much more capable on-ball defender, even when tasked with guarding someone much smaller and quicker than him. He’s agile on his feet and can shift his body with precision in order to stay in front of opposing guards. Thompson also averaged the most blocks per game of his career with 1.1 per game. He improved his timing, most of all, and it allowed him to send back shots with authority. He’s more of a “out-of-nowhere” type shot blocker instead of an all-around one, but there is still plenty of time to improve.
Overall, Thompson had his best season in a Cavaliers uniform in 2016-17 and his best is still yet to come. His once questionable contract has turned into one of the best values in the league (shoutout to the salary cap spike) and he’s signed on with the Cavs until 2020. As the offseason moves along and the Cavs hunt to improve their team, Thompson’s name will undoubtedly by near the top of potential trade discussions. He’s an incredibly valuable asset right now despite his lack of outside shooting and the Cavs should hope to keep him. My grade for Thompson in 2016-17 is a solid B and at only 25 years old, there is no reason to believe he couldn’t take that up a notch over the next several seasons.