Tristan Thompson is dominating the NBA Playoffs

When Tristan Thompson’s name was called in the 2011 draft, many were shocked see him walk on stage ahead of Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas. As the Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, it was Thompson again reaching the big stage as Valanciunas was left behind.

Thompson has been the Cavaliers’ second best player in this year’s playoffs. This is nothing new, as his gritty, defensive-minded, board-cleaning style has anchored the Cavaliers as they raced towards the NBA Finals over the last two years. His ability to bang with the bigs and slide with the smalls has made him one of the most uniquely-positioned players in the three-point revolution of the NBA. And that value is magnified in the playoff setting. When the game slows down, when possessions are at a premium, and when a defense is trying to switch the weakest link onto their strongest, Tristan is a weapon.

At age 26, Thompson is realizing his full potential on the court. Valanciunas played the role of dinosaur in the last round, showing how the league has moved away from the traditional big man who cannot extend beyond a few feet from the rim. Even as he imposed his will on the offensive end, offense-cratering post-ups struggle to maintain with elite three-point shooting teams. This is especially true as Valanciunas was unable to corral the Cavalier guards or chase Channing Frye off the three point line. Even as Valanciunas produced a quality Box Score in Game 3, the Cavs were able to extend their lead by exchanging two points for three of their own.

Thompson, meanwhile, has found ways to impact the game on the offensive end even as he is unable to provide shooting away from the rim. Averaging nearly five offensive rebounds per game, good for second in the playoffs, Thompson provides extra possessions for what is already the NBA’s most efficient offense. It also provides him the chance for easy put-backs, an area that generated nearly a third of his 7.8 points per game in the playoffs. He’s become an elite screener, averaging 5.6 screen assists (setting the screen for the ball carrier that ends in a made field goal), good for third-best in the postseason. He’s also elevated his game on that end, increasing his offensive rebound percentage by 4.6 percentage points. His second-chance points are up by a half a point per game, and his screen assists from 4.8 per game to 5.6.

Thompson’s impact, however, will always be felt most on the defensive end. Though not possessing the height of traditional rim protectors, Tristan is still contesting the fifth most shots per game. Incredibly, even while contesting a high number of shots, he has avoided foul trouble, averaging only 2.3 fouls per game. Of centers playing more than 30 minutes per game, that 2.3 fouls per game is the second least, behind only Boston’s Al Horford. That ability to stay on the court and out of foul trouble is invaluable to the Cavaliers. With Thompson on the court, the Cavaliers have a 96.5 defensive rating (points given up per 100 possessions), the next closest Cavaliers is J.R. Smith at 102.1. This elite defense is the main reason Thompson has the second-best net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) on the team at 14.2, nearly identical to LeBron James’ team-leading 14.3.

The combination of James and Thompson is one head coach Tyronn Lue unleashed even more in the second round. Against the Pacers in Round 1, the bench unit had comprised mostly of James surrounded by shooters, with Channing Frye playing the center position. This was the unit that erased a 26-point deficit in Game 3 for the come-back win. But in Round 2, this lineup with Frye and James (surrounded by Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, and Kyle Korver) was blitzed for a -39 net rating in 21 minutes. Lue made the switch to putting Thompson in Frye’s place, trading the defense and rebounding for Frye’s elite shooting. The result was the Cavaliers being +63.4 in just 18 minutes. They were able to rebound at an elite rate, grabbing over 63.3 percent of available rebounds, as well as defend, holding the Raptors to only 69 points per 100 possessions. It was reminiscent of the lineups from the previous season, featuring James, Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova, but with Deron Williams subbed in Delly’s place. James, Thompson, and Korver have created a new terrifying trio, scoring nearly 27 points more than their opponent per 100 possessions in 43 playoff minutes. Let all that sink in.

Every round presents new challenges and matchups. This new bench unit may not be effective against the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference Finals challenger. But whether in this lineup, with the starters, or in any other configuration, Tristan Thompson has been dominating. There has been no threat, either real (his sprained right thumb just prior to the playoffs) or imagined (the silly blaming of Tristan’s celebrity girlfriend for any on-court performance), that has been able to slow Thompson down once he’s been invited to the stage.

  • CBiscuit

    I don’t want to jinx it, but I think Tristan is immune to the Kardashian kurse! Their kryptonite appears powerless against him. Or maybe it’s just all of the penicillin he’s been taking whilst they’ve been dating?

  • Greg Popelka

    Nice article. This needs to be talked about more. Like you said, lots of really tuned-in Cavalier followers were disgusted when Valanciunas was passed over. Perfect player on this team, and an ironman as well.

    Nom, question: It was Grant who selected Thompson, right? Was it dumb luck that they wanted to select someone who would be on the roster right away? Or was there foresight into needing the type of big that could guard anyone, anywhere on the court?

  • Chris


  • mgbode

    I will readily admit that I had wanted Jonas over TT. Grant noted that he absolutely loved the athleticism TT offered and thought his ceiling was ridiculously high.

  • Harv

    Like Tito’s creative use of Andrew Miller in ’16 has spawned bravery to try a new way, Kerr’s adjustment to his small lineup midway through the ’15 Finals neutered Mozgov and with surprising speed rendered guys like him and Jonas dinosaurs. Unless they can quickly grow fur for the ice age or shoot threes. I refuse to believe Chris Grant saw this coming – Jonas is better equipped for the NBA circa 2011. Grant is the guy who said he couldn’t stop thinking of Dion, or the earth moved, or something. This is heady good fortune. We’ll take it.

    Great point about TT’s lack of foul trouble. This is directly related to his fast feet. I like to pretend it’s also related to his being the only Cav that doesn’t throw his arms up at the refs after every missed shot or lost rebound, thereby getting a certain officiating benefit of doubt, but it’s probably just his fast feet.

    One other thing: Tristan has slowly taken on an enforcer role. Takes zero guff, doesn’t socialize, and sneaks some post-play walk thru shoulder bumps on guys he’s guarding (was teed up for it Sunday). Hey, when there’s no Kendrick Perkins, someone’s gotta do it so as to discourage assaults on your lane slashers. The failure of the ’90s era Cavs to save a roster spot for that kind of guy almost got Mark Price and Craig Ehlo killed.

  • Jeff Nomina

    I was just talking about this with a buddy – Chris Grant completely lucked into that pick. There was no way to know in 2011 that the NBA was going to shift to a league where traditional big men were obsolete and undersized centers that could switch onto guards were going to be the most valuable asset. It’s a complete fluke that the league just happened to shift right into TT’s specific skill set. Better lucky than good!

  • Chris

    Easy on the antibiotics, TT. The last thing we need is some mutant penicillin-resistant strain of Bacillus Kardashious spreading through the locker room.

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  • BenRM


  • BenRM

    I wonder how long the “traditional big man” will stay irrelevant.

    The Warriors (through dumb luck or precognition) began an arms race centered around firing three point shots. The Cavs responded in kind. Then, Houston threw its hat in the arms race ring.

    But that’s it. There’s only so much of that type of talent to go around the league, and teams have to be pretty lucky to assemble it.

    Part of the reason people are complaining about these playoffs is because the ending is inevitable. It’s inevitable because other teams simply can’t match the level of talent as the top teams. They can’t match the level of talent because it isn’t there to acquire.

    At some point, the Warriors super team will fall apart, through free agency or injury. At some point, LBJ will finally be on the down side of his career. At some point, the CBA will change (again) to try and prevent the formation of super teams.

    I think the obsolete nature of the traditional big man has as much to do with the unique circumstances the NBA finds itself in at the moment as it does with the increased emphasis on 3-point shooting.

    I mean, if Shaq 2.0 were to come out in the draft, I think you’d see teams trying to match him, in the same way the Cavs tried to match Boston before the Decision.

  • Harv

    agree with much of what you say, especially that these current trends aren’t permanent, but more like thriving until a coach with certain personnel stumbles on the silver bullet. Interesting that 20 years ago people were decrying the loss of skilled shooters, that Michael and ESPN and AAU systems led to kids who only wanted to dunk, and Mark Price and (player) Steve Kerr were unicorns with the shooting fundamentals. Now people worry that big men have no footwork inside. Then the thuggy Knicks had Oakley and Mason chewing up everyone underneath.

    The new CBA is designed to help teams keep guys they draft, but Durant left and the Pacers are worried sick about George. Maybe the players now make too much money everywhere for the pay differential to work as an effective bribe.

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