When it comes to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, the 82-game regular season is all about getting the right chemistry, lineups, and rotations ready for the postseason. While health is most important come April, head coach Tyronn Lue has all season to figure out which players do and do not work best alongside one another, who should get rest at certain times, and who’s the best in crunch time.
Since they are in the Eastern Conference, Lue has all 82 games to figure all of this out. Winning is important, but the Cavs have proved numerous times that health and learning experiences are more important than being the higher seed when it comes to the postseason. Thirty-five games into the season, the wine and gold still have plenty of time to figure out what works best—four-and-a-half months, to be exact.
The lineup and rotations will likely change when point guard Isaiah Thomas makes his debut with the Cavs, but that shouldn’t really affect what happens in terms of the frontcourt. While Thomas will likely start, it will likely mean that he will take most of (if not all) Jose Calderon’s minutes, keeping the second unit pretty close to identical.
Lue still has plenty of time to figure things out ahead of the postseason, but one thing seems to be certain, at least for now: Channing Frye deserves more minutes than Tristan Thompson.
Thompson is in the third year of a five-year, $82 million deal, but that shouldn’t mean he deserves more playing time than one of his teammates. The Cavs gave him that money for what he did prior to the 2015-16 season and what they thought he would bring in the five years following the extension, not for the production that he currently has.
The 26-year-old hasn’t been the same since suffering a thumb injury on April 5, one that cost him his streak of 447 consecutive games played, the longest streak in the NBA. Prior to the injury, Thompson averaged 9.4 points and 8.6 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game (466 games) from 2012-2017. While he had a tremendous postseason, something just hasn’t been right since. This season, he is averaging just 4.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game. Those numbers are even worse following following a calf injury he suffered in early November, an injury that was much worse than first predicted. Both injuries are also two that have caused the big man to state that he will never be fully healthy again, according to cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon.
“When you play, what, five years straight, you’ll never be 100 percent again. That’s out the door,” Thompson said.
Since returning from the calf injury on December 12, the 6-foot-9, 238-pound center has averaged just 3.7 points and three rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game (seven games). He has played a total of 93 minutes in those seven games, including at least 12 minutes a game in the past five. Frye has played just 61 minutes since Thompson returned, including just two games with 10-plus minutes and two games that he didn’t see the floor, both of which were losses. In that span, the Cavs are just 2-3 when Thompson plays more than 10 minutes a night. Keep in mind: Cleveland had won 18 of 19 games, then Thompson returned, got more than 10 minutes a night, and they’ve lost three of their last four games. Thompson is taking away Frye’s minutes, and it hasn’t worked out for the Cavs.
After Lue stated that Frye was dropped from the rotation days before the start of the regular season, the big man has had quite a season so far, especially considering he wasn’t even expected to get significant playing time. Frye is averaging just 4.2 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.4 minutes a game. But for him, it’s more important than stats. The three-point shooter spreads the floor. Considering the Cavs’ second unit is led by Dwyane Wade, who is known as a slasher, having shooters alongside the future Hall of Famer is important. That’s the difference between Frye and Thompson in terms of the second unit.
In case you wanted to know just how much Frye can spread the floor compared to Thompson, let’s take a look at their shot carts from this season:
Since Wade asked to come off the bench in order to lead the second unit on October 23, a moment that changed the Cavs’ season for the better, the wine and gold are 16-3 when Frye notches double-digit minutes. When Thompson plays 10-plus minutes, they are just 3-7. During the Cavs’ 13-game winning streak, Frye played at least 11 minutes per game in the latter 12 games. Coincidence that they continued to win? Not really.
Two of Frye’s biggest downfalls going into the season were his defense and inability to get rebounds, something that is very important for a big man. As I stated previously, he’s averaging 2.3 rebounds a night, 0.7 less than Thompson is averaging since returning from his injury. Frye’s defense, you ask? In 30 games, he has a 115.9 offensive rating and 104 defensive rating (11.8 net rating).1 Thompson’s rating? 102.1 offensive, 109.9 defensive, which is good for a minus-7.9 net rating.
The Cavs are not only better offensively when Frye is on the court, but they are better defensively as well. So given the current roster and the second unit, why play Thompson over Frye? The latter not only allows other members of the second unit to play better given how Frye spaces the floor, but it gives the Cavs a better chance to win as well. Frye allows a slasher like Wade to get to the basket while keeping his defender on the three-point line; Thompson’s defenders stay near (or in) the paint no matter where he is.
Cleveland’s second unit currently averages 39.8 points per game, which is sixth-best in the NBA, according to hoopsstats.com. They also shoot 47 percent from the floor (third-best in the league among second units) and 37.8 percent from beyond the arc (fifth-best). If the Cavs want their bench unit to do well Lue might have to bite the bullet and play Frye over Thompson, regardless of how much each player’s paycheck may be.
Back in late November, cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor stated that Frye deserves to be one of the 10 players who receive somewhat significant playing time for the Cavs, even over Thompson. That remains the same today.
Frye has earned one of those spots. He deserves to keep the same role. He’s been more impactful than Thompson and is a better fit, especially if he continues to play solid defense. Swapping any individual piece will carry enormous risk.
Whether Thompson is truly 100 percent or not isn’t the question. The question is which of the two is better for the second unit, and as of now, it seems to be Frye. Luckily, Lue and the Cavs have plenty of time to figure out the best lineups and rotations, but as of now, Frye deserves the nod ahead of a big man that many believed was once worth more than $82 million over five years.
- His net rating is the second-best on the team, just 0.2 behind Kyle Korver’s team-leading 12.0 net rating. [↩]