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Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) drives on Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson, left, and Draymond Green (23) during the second half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals in Cleveland, Friday, June 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The Spotlight Series: Cavaliers Edition – Tristan Thompson

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

In “The Spotlight Series,” I’ll be looking at a player or two (depending on the team) from each team in the league that, in my opinion, doesn’t get attention at all from casual fans, or doesn’t get enough praise for what he brings to the table.

The curse is over. Or, for my gospel fans out there:

 

Thanks to a superhuman effort from LeBron James, a breakout performance from Kyrie Irving and key contributions throughout the rest of the roster, the Cleveland Cavaliers finally ended their championship drought, defeating the historic Golden State Warriors in seven games and completing one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history in the process.

And by improbable, I mean the Cavs becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. You may have heard about it. In case you haven’t, Twitter is here for reminders:

Don’t worry, college football fans; this informative person has you covered:

In the middle of the Cavaliers’ title run — literally — was Tristan Thompson, tasked with doing the “dirty” work inside, but also extending himself on the perimeter defensively. While not a part of Cleveland’s big-name “Big Three,” Thompson emerged as one of Cleveland’s most important players and should continue that trend moving forward.

THE NUMBERS

Thompson was drafted fourth overall in 2011 to much confusion. While most agreed that Thompson was talented, there were questions surrounding the early selection.  Yahoo! Sports’ own Kelly Dwyer understood the frustration around the selection:

Outside of Pacer/Spurs fans, stung by their team’s mid-draft trade, the Cavaliers had more fans upset with their work in Thursday’s draft in our chat than any other group. They straight up did not like the Tristan Thompson acquisition, and I can’t blame them. Tristan can play, but taking him at No. 4  ahead of bigger names and/or bigger upsides could prove frustrating for the Cavs and their fans years down the road.

Eric Yearian of Fox Sports gave a more favorable view, but called the pick “a bit of a reach” regardless:

The Cavs wanted a big man to pair with Irving, and they passed up on Litunanian Jonas Valanciunas who they were said to like, for somebody they knew they could count on to step in and play right away. Thompson is a quality defender and looks to fit well alongside J.J. Hickson. They did pick up a quality forward with good size who can bang with anyone in the league. If he develops an offensive game he could be a good catch. A bit of a reach, but pretty good pick.

Thompson had a solid rookie campaign and immediately established himself as one of the NBA’s best offensive rebounders. Despite only starting 25 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Thompson averaged 8.2 points (43.9 percent shooting, 46.9 true shooting percentage), 6.5 rebounds — 3.1 on the offensive glass — and a block in 23.7 minutes per game, earning him a spot on the All-Rookie Second Team.

Thompson emerged as the full-time starter over the next two seasons, starting all 82 games in both years and averaging nearly identical numbers:

  • 2012-13: 31.3 minutes, 11.7 points, 9.4 rebounds (3.7 offensive), 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 48.8% FG, 60.8% FT, 51.6 TS%
  • 2013-14: 31.6 minutes, 11.7 points, 9.2 rebounds (3.3 offensive), 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 47.7% FG, 69.3% FT, 52.8 TS%

The following season, James and Kevin Love came (back) to town, which led to a smaller workload from Thompson. His starts (15), minutes (26.8), shot attempts per game (six), points (8.5), rebounds (8.0) and steals (0.4) all went down, but his glass-crashing prowess remained the same (3.3 offensive rebounds) while his efficiency shot up (54.7% FG, 58 TS%).

Thompson broke out during the 2015 postseason, starting 15 of 20 games and averaging 9.6 points on 55.8 percent shooting from the floor, 10.8 rebounds (4.4 offensive) and 1.2 blocks. Thompson shined in the absence of Love, replacing Love’s shooting with interior toughness and defensive versatility.

Last season, Thompson posted career lows in shots per game (5.1) and points (7.8), but averaged a career high in field goal percentage (58.8) and true shooting percentage (61.1), while also averaging nine boards (3.3 offensive), 0.5 steals and 0.6 blocks.

Thompson once again played well in the postseason. Though he didn’t score much (6.7 points on 52.7 percent shooting), he averaged nine boards (4.1 offensive) and roughly a block a night. He particularly shined in the Finals, averaging a double-double (10.3 points and 10.1 rebounds) and defending all over the floor thanks to Cleveland’s switch-heavy defensive scheme.

THE EVIDENCE

Thompson does four things well on offense: he runs the floor, sets effective* screens, rolls to — and finishes lobs at — the rim and cleans up misses on the glass. Nobody will ever mistake Thompson for Hakeem Olajuwon in terms of talent or versatility, but the things he does well are impactful.

My best friend, Glenn, was the person that brought Thompson’s screening — specifically the way he goes about it — to my attention. Thompson doesn’t just screen guys; he gets so wide, he practically swallows them up, then scoots down the lane to seal off, block and bump anyone behind him. A lot of the screens aren’t legal by definition, but if they aren’t called — like most of Golden State’s, or virtually anyone else’s — what is there to be said?

Take this clip from the 2014-15 season. The highlight was Thompson’s dunk over Nikola Mirotic, but look at how the forward set all of this up. He turned a high pick-and-roll into a hands drill for offensive linemen:

 

On this play, the screen itself wasn’t an issue, but peep the slight push before the roll:

 

One of the most random developments over the last two years has been the chemistry Thompson built with now-Milwaukee Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova. Teams knew what was coming when those two set up at the top of the key, but for whatever reason, it just couldn’t be stopped:

 

The process isn’t always pretty, but the results are undeniable. Thompson produced 1.29 points per possession as the roll man in pick-and-roll last season, placing him in the 91.3 percentile via Synergy.

As mentioned earlier, Thompson is one of the NBA’s best rebounders — specifically on the offensive glass. Despite being an undersized center, it’s hard to keep a body on him because he’s so active and relentless:

 

What Thompson lacks in overall size, he makes it up with his speed. He has no issues beating most big men down the floor, filling the lanes and finishing when fed the rock:

 

Though the sample was small (43 possessions), Thompson did shoot 76.7 percent and rank in the 95.7 percentile in transition, via Synergy.

Defense is where Thompson shines. Due to his height, he isn’t a traditional rim protector; opponents shot 52.8 percent at the rim when defended by Thompson last season, the third-worst mark in the NBA among players that defended at least six shots per game at the rim. Opponents also shot 45.2 percent on post-ups and 47.1 percent as the roll man in pick-and roll against Thompson, via Synergy.

However, Thompson’s ability to end possessions on the defensive glass and switch onto guards in pick-and-roll situations makes him one of the few “centers” that can thrive in small-ball units.

Thompson does a great job of playing angles and forcing quicker players where he wants them to go while staying in a position to contest when necessary:

 

On that play, Thompson was switched onto DeMar DeRozan. Thompson gave DeRozan space, attempting to bait him into a jumper, but positioned himself to cut off the middle and force DeRozan baseline. DeRozan drove baseline and settled for a tough, heavily contested shot at the rim.

Thompson’s versatility was on full display against the Warriors in the Finals, notably when chasing Stephen Curry around — and having success:

 

Thompson’s comfort level in space allows him to play the lanes when opposing players get sloppy:

 

Thompson led the Cavaliers in isolations faced (93), ranking in the 72.9 percentile by allowing 0.74 points per possession, via Synergy. He also ranked in the 68th percentile (0.91 PPP) guarding spot-ups.

With Timofey Mozgov heading straight to the bank with this in Los Angeles, Thompson is penciled in as Cleveland’s full-time starter at center. With a defined role, the young big man should thrive next season.

The Spotlight Series: Cavaliers Edition – Tristan Thompson

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