Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
Tristan Thompson had an eventful offseason in the summer of 2015 as his “worth” became a controversial subject. With the Cleveland Cavaliers already well over the luxury tax, was there any way to justify giving the big man a big payday, even if it was at the request of the synecdoche of the franchise, LeBron James.
In the end the Cavs caved, giving Thompson a five-year, $82 million deal — a figure which seems relatively moderate in the wake of this summer’s deals. And Thompson rewarded the Cavaliers for their faith in him by winning the starting center job as the season progressed and becoming a factor in the city of Cleveland’s first championship in over 50 years. How much more can he build on his breakout season?
Thompson only averaged 7.2 points per game last year and just 10.2 points per 36 minutes. He also only averaged 1.0 assist per 36 minutes. In terms of direct impact, he doesn’t do very much offensively. But Thompson does a lot of other things. He plays defense and guards multiple positions. He’s a terrific rebounder who snatched 11.7 boards per 36 minutes last year. Overall, the Cavaliers’ net rating was 4.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court than when he wasn’t, a particularly intriguing stat when you consider he only started 34 games, according to NBA.com.
In short, Thompson is having about as much impact on the game as you can without putting points on the board, but he needs to start doing that to rise up much in the rankings.
There is probably a better chance that Chris Andersen is going to show up on opening night without any tattoos than that he’ll be a threat to take much playing time from Thompson. Thompson has also not missed a game in four years. Ergo, there’s not much of a chance he loses many minutes.
And the flip-side of being the type of player whose impact comes away from the ball is that it usually comes with consistency. So while there’s not much room to go up for Thompson, there’s also not much room to go down.
Most people probably expect that the Cavaliers were better with Thompson on the court defensively last year, but he also made a tremendous impact on them offensively, as the team’s offensive rating was 3.5 points per 100 possessions higher while he was on the court. One reason for that is his tremendous work on the glass when the Cavaliers had the ball. He personally grabbed 4.3 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, and when he was on the court the Cavaliers’ offensive rebound percentage went from 22.5 percent to 27.0 percent.
Another aspect of Thompson’s game that is immeasurable is his screen setting. And let’s be honest here: the best screens are the illegal ones you get away with. And Thompson’s ability to do that was pivotal to winning the title, as Mike Prada explained (and illustrated) for SB Nation:
Let’s be clear: all’s fair in love and basketball. The legality of these Thompson screens is beside the point, because a screen is as legal as the referees are calling it. We can’t turn the other way on borderline Warriors calls for the sake of a game’s natural flow and then ask for a strict screening interpretation when another team adopts similar tactics. The Cavaliers are smart for making this adjustment, not cheap.
As a result of those non-scoring things, Thompson was 15th among NBA centers in Offensive Real Plus-Minus.
Thompson is also a plus defender. He ranked 38th among 71 centers in the NBA in DRPM, but the truth is he’s better than that. There are two ways a center plays defense in the modern age. One is the rim protector a la Hassan Whiteside who can camp out and swat shots and scare away anyone who deigns to come inside. The other is the Joakim Noah type who can pick up switches and guard elite ball handlers when they’re driving to the basket.
Thompson is evolving into the latter type. One thing I like to do is look at how many threes a center guards. That gives you an idea of how often they’re stepping out to the perimeter. Thompson defended 167 three-point attempts last year, and 341 shots over 15 feet from the rim. Compare those numbers with Whiteside’s 62 and 227. Thompson saw 9.3 percent of his defensive possessions come in isolation, and he was in the 72.9 percentile, per Synergy.
Thompson does give up a little in the strength department, though; he gave up .89 points per possession on post-ups, only good for the 43.1 percentile. But that’s an inefficient play anyway (one of the reasons teams are getting away from it).