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How Would Losing Tristan Thompson Next Summer Impact the Cavaliers?

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Tristan Thompson tried to ride a successful postseason into a max or close-to-max contract. While it initially looked like that was going to happen, there’s growing doubt over whether that’ll actually happen.

Reportedly, he’s now considering playing for the $6.78 million qualifying offer, which while cheaper for the Cavs this year would mean he’d be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Were he to command a max contract, he’d fetch a contract starting in the $22.5 million neighborhood.

And if that happens, it would be bad:

So, how much does it hurt the Cavaliers’ chance of a dynasty if Thompson bolts?

To answer that question, let’s look at what he actually does. Last year, he averaged 8.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and .5 assists in 26.8 minutes per game during the regular season. In the postseason, he slid into the starting spot in the absence of Kevin Love and bumped his scoring up to 9.6 points per game and his rebounds up to 10.8 per game in 36.3 minutes per game.

He attacks the offensive glass with utter passion, as though he were a cat about to finally catch the proverbial canary. His success on that level, while notable, is perhaps overstated by the national media.

It’s fairer to Thompson to use Offensive Rebounding Percentage than totals because the Cavaliers played at a slow pace last year, and that helps Thompson’s numbers a bit. Over the regular season, he was fourth in the league, corralling 14.5 percent of his offensive opportunities.

In the playoffs, surprisingly, that was down. He snared 13.5 percent of the Cavaliers’ misses. While that’s good for the 39th-best output since the 1974-75 season (when the NBA started counting offensive vs. defensive boards), it’s not that spectacular. It means about one player per year is better than him.

It’s very good. But it’s not great.

Thompson is still young (24 years old), but such energy and abandon on the boards are often aided by youth. Those are the kinds of things which can dissipate with mileage and age, and Thompson doesn’t give much in the scoring or passing department. At least what he does get in terms of points is reasonably efficient, as he posted a 58.0 true shooting percentage last season.

Is a very good offensive rebounder who doesn’t really do anything else at an elite level worth a max contract? To evaluate that, let’s consider the merits of offensive rebounding. Seth Partnow, editor of Nylon Calculus, tweeted on Aug. 6:

Then there was this tweet from Andrew Johnson on a Nylon Calculus piece by Johannes Becker:

The part you want to focus on is the yellow line, which indicates that there’s little correlation between winning and offensive rebounding.

And in the corresponding article wrote:

Protecting the defensive glass has had positive correlation to SRS throughout the decades. There was a small correlation between offensive rebounding and SRS until the middle of the nineties, but this disappeared. I don’t want to speculate too much about why other than to observe that it happened.

This message was reinforced again by Partnow with this tweet:

And in a completely unrelated article, another Nylon Calculus writer, Justin Willard, wrote this while introducing his new HBox model:

Basically, according to those results, offensive rebounders don’t lead to wins and are entirely replaceable, which runs contrary to previous metrics like Win Shares or even basketball-reference’s new BPM. Most systems assume defensive rebounds are a lot less valuable. The traditional view is that an offensive rebound is an added possession, which is very valuable, and the credit is entirely given to the rebounder. But this is a radically different view of rebounding value. Actually, this effect is well-known at the team-level, as the best teams often rebound less on offense.

So, what does all this mean? It means that offensive rebounding just isn’t as important as it used to be or as we once thought it was. That might be what led Partnow to tweet this out:

And all that might sound like statistics/schmatistics mumbo-jumbo if it weren’t for one simple fact: The Cavs were better with Thompson on the bench during the postseason — when he was supposedly building up that “max contract” resume.

According to NBA.com, in the 248 minutes Thompson sat, the Cavs had a Net Rating of +9.3. During the 727 minutes he played, it was just +1.7. Sure, their Offensive Rebound Percentage was better with him on the court (29.6 percent to 23.4 percent), but the actual scoreboard was friendlier to the Cavs when he was grabbing pine.

To be fair, the bulk of that damage came against the Warriors in the NBA Finals, where the Cavs’ net rating was -16.6 with him on and +17.9 with him off. And he did tear up the Bulls, with Cleveland’s net rating being 23.7 points better when he played than when he sat. So there were legitimate moments when he shined.

According to ESPN, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus was only -.48 during the regular season, and scorers shot 1.0 percentage point better when he was the closest defender, suggesting at best, marginal defense. However, during the playoffs his opponents shot 4.6 percent worse, indicating significantly better defense. But there’s a danger in assigning too much value to a splendid series or two.

Also, Timofey Mozgov‘s contract expires at the end of this season. At that time, the Cavs may decide to choose between Mozgov and Thompson. Frankly, when Cleveland was without a rim protector for the first part of the season, they struggled. And an “energy-rebounding guy” off the bench is easier to find in free agency than an authentic rim protector. The fact is, Thompson is just more replaceable than Mozgov, especially because Anderson Varejao can’t be counted on at this point (that extension sure isn’t looking too hot).

This isn’t an attempt to deny Thompson’s value as a player. If he were to even sign a max deal this year, it’s not entirely unreasonable with the view of the upcoming cap bump. But there’s a limit to his value.

So, long story short: Is a player who does one thing very well (and that thing has limited value) worth a max deal? Particularly if there’s nothing else he’s proven to be above-average at over the course of a full season?  The Bulls fan in me says absolutely!

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