Cavaliers Film Room: Tristan Thompson’s Offense

In our last installment of Cavaliers Film Room, we took a look at how the Cavaliers defended Lakers center Dwight Howard. This week, we’ll dive into one of the season’s most strongly criticized facets: the offense of second-year power forward Tristan Thompson. While some point to lapses in Tristan’s defense1, it’s his offensive skills (or lack thereof) that are making him a less than ideal start at power forward. At this point in his career, Tristan is a solid contributor with his rebounding, but we’ll take a look at some of the reoccurring themes in Tristan’s struggles as well as a few recent bright spots.

Let’s start in Milwaukee last Saturday and Tristan’s biggest issue on offense. In 27 games, Thompson has had 36 of his shots blocked, nearly all of them directly at the rim on dunk opportunities, good for nearly 18% of his total shots and sixth in the entire association among those with at least 10 games played.

Here, we see Thompson catch the ball in the left short corner against Sanders, who is a thin framed center, but he’s supplanted Samuel Dalembert for his athletic ability and shotblocking skills2.

With 4.8 seconds on the shot clock and the Cavaliers spaced out with only Kyrie on the same side, this is looking like it’s time for Tristan to get off a shot.

Tristan takes a couple of hard dribbles to the top of the charge half-circle. Sanders is still in pretty good defensive position. That’s the thing with shot blockers, it doesn’t always have to be perfect. They can recover in short order.

As he takes off looking for the dunk, it doesn’t appear Thompson gets the spring to elevate that he should. Sanders times it perfectly and is still between Thompson and the rim.

Sanders blocks the shot, and like too many of the possessions that end in Tristan Thompson’s hands, the Cavaliers have no points to show for it.

Let’s take a look at another post feed from the Milwaukee game with Tristan. This time, Tristan’s on the left side again, receiving the ball a step up and out from the block. Drew Gooden is bodying him up.

Let’s keep it simple here and just say that passes to Thompson that require any bit of creativity or more than a gather and shot do not have a high success rate.

Tristan uses basically the same move he did in the last play3, but Gooden keeps him out of the charge circle and prevents the dunk opportunity. It would seem that Drew’s come a long way from his ole’ days on the defensive end in wine and gold.4

The Cavalier big man, thanks to Drew’s great position D, is forced to jack up an awkward, contorted, one-hander that I don’t think deserves to be called a hook shot.

He misses the shot, but Thompson uses those long arms to grab the rebound over Gooden. One of my biggest pet peeves is Tristan’s hesitation about going right back up like a pogo stick, never bringing the ball below his head. Too many times, he brings the ball down to gather and explode in one predictable, calculated surge at the rim, which any serviceable center can send away.

Gooden recovers again, and Thompson is forced into an almost identical awkward shot. This is Thompson’s worst shooting area overall, hitting just 28% of these 3-9 foot jumpers (up nearly 4% though since Jacob broke down some Tristan numbers recently.). This zone is also where the most turnovers and offensive fouls occur for #13. There’s no questioning that Thompson has all the touch of a Reggie Evans around the rim. That HAS to improve at least a little going forward.

Perhaps this is the best case scenario when Tristan has nothing and there’s a defender between him and the rim. Watch what he does to gain this offensive rebound and extend the possession. Alonzo Gee’s just fired up an elbow jumper.

Take a second look and spot Tristan in this screen grab. He starts in the right corner and hustles to the glass for the rebound. Notice how nobody puts a body on him. Monta Ellis and Ersan Ilyasova are the two in best position for that, but they’re both staring at the rim.

I just want to make it clear how excellent this rebound was. While it’s not the type that makes you a starting power forward, it’s the type that keeps you in the league, in a key rotation spot on the bench for years to come.

Tristan sprints from the right side and under the rim to the left side where he uses that great leaping ability to snag the board.

With Sanders, Ellis, and Ilyasova all in the area, Tristan really has nowhere to go. Instead of forcing something up at the backboard, he makes the proper call and dribbles back out of the paint.

Tristan finds Gibson, who delivers with a three ball. Some of your best three point attempts come off offensive rebounds, and the Cavaliers often try to capitalize on this. Instead of going to the line and splitting a pair of free throws, turning it over, or getting stuffed at the rim, Thompson has secured the possession and helped deliver three points. How very Anderson Varejao circa 2005 of him.

Now, let’s take a look at a couple plays that have worked for Tristan in the last couple of games. First, Thompson scored a few quick buckets in The Garden. This time, he starts in the right corner against 28-year-old rookie Chris Copeland.

Thompson uses his natural left-handed dribble to the middle this time. Copeland is more concerned about chesting him up than stopping his path to the basket.

Tristan goes up for a true hook shot this time. Copeland remains planted on the floor a second too long.

Thompson really elevates on this shot with a little bit better form, straight up and down, no awkward jockeying just to get the shot up in the air. Quick moves with minimal dribbling and a fake or two sprinkled in should be Tristan’s bread and butter.

We’ll look at one more sequence, this one from the Toronto game on Tuesday. This offensive move is so basic, but I think it’s one that can eventually have a high success rate for Tristan. He starts outside the paint again on the right side against Ed Davis.

He faces up Davis, which is a good move. Tristan doesn’t have a good handle, but his young legs give him a good first step to get by an average speed post defender. Backing down a guy and bruising his way into a layup or dunk will never be Tristan’s style. That’s why it’d be so key if Thompson could even develop just a decent 8-10 foot jumper.

Watch Tristan take that huge first step to the baseline side against Davis and immediately get the edge and the angle.

Below, Tristan’s about to plant his right foot for a power move. If he can quickly get wide and plant that left foot, he’ll at least be going to the foul line.

Does he finish strong this time?

Yes, he powers through both Davis and Jonas Valanciunas for the slam. I wish we saw this type of power move more often. If Tristan elevates, shows the ball late, and powers through without pushing off, it should be a bucket every time.

In closing, I’m probably at least as hard on Tristan Thompson as the average fan is. But, I’m not going to beat him up for likely never living up to what the fourth pick in the draft should be. He’s still the age of a a college junior, and he has made a difference on the defensive end and in the rebounding department for the Cavs. I think he’s continuing to improve at both ends. The key is consistency and not being so predictable on the offensive end. I see no reason why Tristan can’t be the first big off the bench and log 25-30 minutes for a playoff team for years to come.

If I could make a plea in defense of Tristan, it would be to critique him for things that are correctable and could realistically be added to his skillset.5 When you can do that, I think you can appreciate the value that Tristan is providing rather than being disappointed in the star power that he’s not.

That’s it for this week. Was I too easy on Tristan? Feel free to discuss that and all things Double-T  in the comments. Until next time, the film room is closed!

  1. There certainly have been some, though we highlighted two great possessions against Dwight Howard last week. He also did pretty good against Josh Smith a few weeks ago against the Hawks. []
  2. He’s currently averaging a whopping 3 blocks per game []
  3. One of my biggest concerns with Tristan more than anything is the predictability of where and when his shots are going to come. []
  4. Let it be known, however, that I still maintain respect for Drew Gooden, who prevented us from being shut out completely when Carlos Boozer stiffed us some seven years ago. []
  5. That means avoiding so many blocked shots, finishing stronger at the rim, and having more awareness to pass the ball out or find a teammate in the paint when he’s got nothing. []

  • Nice work. Some of the flaws are correctable – some I’m not so sure. Do players learn how to have good hands? TT has terrible hands. He loses a lot of potential rebounds because they hit him in the hands and he doesn’t control them. Clearly he is not comfortable trying to dunk with 1 hand. Also, it seems like he SHOULD be a very athletic player, and yet, he certainly doesn’t channel that athleticism. It is encouraging that his FT shooting isn’t so bad as to be eligible for “Hack a TT”. I think TT more than any player is going to affect how we feel about Chris Grant. We give credit to Gilbert for the Kyrie pick since it was him opening his pocketbook that landed us the unlikely #1 pick. But TT was the product of an brutal season of sucktitude. He was also selected when the only semblance of NBA talent on the Cavs was at PF (Varejao/Jamison/Hickson) and it forced Varejao to play C and Jamison/Hickson to be jettisoned. So a lot of the organization’s moves have been directly related to him being selected #4. He’s a likable guy and seems to play pretty good defense – but he is not going to be afforded the sort of “big man patience” that late 1st round, early second round picks often get. He wasn’t drafted to be a rebounder off the bench.

  • mgbode

    “learn to have good hands” – maybe we should have TT train however Greg Little did this season? Or is a motivational talk with Zo all that he needs?

    you have to give Gilbert & Grant credit for the Mo trade because Grant went out and found that trade.

    I think Waiters will be more influential on how we view Grant. Not enough good players drafted behind TT to make it seem like we truly whiffed. Then again, this rookie class isn’t looking all that great so far either. We’ll see.

  • mgbode

    great breakdown. my notes:

    one of my pet peeves with TT is that he doesn’t seem to possess the ability to spin back to the weakside and finish a simple left-handed-layup. both those shots vs. Gooden the opportunity was there and he still forced his way where the defense was playing and put up bad shots.

    one his non-power power moves, I wish that one of the coaches would just tell him to get angry on those. there are times to be a finesse guy and times to just power it in. if you go to the power move without power behind it, then bad things tend to happen.

  • There’s lots of trades that could be “found”. The limiting factor in this case wasn’t GM ingenuity, it was owner willing to drop 12 million for a long shot draft pick in a crappy draft.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Thompson is no JJ Hickson! Uh wait…but seriously maybe it’ll take him as long as JJ to figure it out sadly I’m not patient enough to wait. Well that and I don’t think he’s as good, raw or not, as Hickson as far as offense goes which means Thompson needs to be lights out defensively. Ain’t happened yet.

  • mgbode

    personally, I hate that logic. the GM needs to get credit for going and getting the trade too. he is the one that convinced Gilbert it was a worthy gamble to go for those longshot odds while also convincing the Clippers that it was such a longshot they didn’t need to protect the pick.