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The changing Tristan Thompson dynamic: While We’re Waiting

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Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

Welcome to my inaugural WWW for March 2018. Yep, it’s March, the month when the weather typically starts to become a little more moderate, college basketball tournaments are played, and people flock to McDonald’s for green milkshakes. It’s also the month the Cleveland Cavaliers typically find themselves dealing with a bunch of injuries that cause uneven play and force the team to make some moves in the buyout market.

2018 is pretty much like any other March in that respect. The Cavaliers were already dealing with the loss of Kevin Love, but now Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson are added to the list. Yes, that is a lot of size to be out with injury and the Cavaliers simply do not have many options for replacing those guys.

Larry Nance being asked to take on a bigger role is perhaps a good thing for the Cavaliers in the end, though. But it pushes a deeper issue to the forefront, and that issue is what to make of Tristan Thompson.

Tristan has quickly become one of the most polarizing players for Cavs fans to discuss with heated takes on both sides of the argument. At any point, Tristan might be referred to as a complete bust, a Kardashian, a waste of money, an NBA Championship hero, a glue guy, an underrated effort player, or any other type of descriptor used on the spectrum between chump and champion.

When Tristan Thompson held out from training camp and was eventually given a five-year, $82 million deal, many eyebrows were raised. It put an immediate target on Thompson’s back and expectations were raised.

Of course, then a funny thing happened. The Cavaliers went on to win the NBA Championship with Tristan’s rebounding and athleticism playing a key role in the title. You can make a pretty strong argument that Tristan was the third-best player on the Cavaliers in that Finals win over the Golden State Warriors. Tristan averaged 10 point and 10 rebounds while playing the third-most minutes on the team and was an integral part of most of the Cavs’ best offensive lineups.

As the salary cap was exploding, many felt Tristan’s contract relative to the cap was going to become more and more of a steal. By the start of the 2016-17 season, nobody was complaining about Tristan Thompson’s salary or performance. He was the unquestioned starting center on a Championship caliber team. So how did we get from there to where we are today in a little over a year?

Tristan had another solid 2016-17 season. His numbers mostly held steady and even through the Eastern Conference Playoffs he was fine.
He was unquestionably the fourth best player on the Cavaliers heading into the Finals rematch with the Warriors. The 2017 Finals is where things started to fall apart. Surprisingly, Tristan had a terrible Finals. His numbers slid to 5 points and 5 rebounds per game. He no longer looked quick and athletic. He looked sluggish and at times distant. Somethings seemed a little off.

That head-scratching performance seemed to drag into the 2017-18 season. Although Thompson’s consecutive games streak ended at the end of last season with a thumb injury, this season saw Thompson miss a significant number of games for the first time in his career. A strained calf would cause him to miss a little over a month. Now he’s going to miss a couple weeks with an ankle injury. The once-reliable ironman is suddenly seeming more and more susceptible to injury. Combined with his lackluster play on the court when he does play, and suddenly fans are wondering if the Cavaliers would be better without him.

The decline in performance is the real struggle here. Injuries happen and are a part of sports. But when you see a player’s performance decline so rapidly, that’s when the tough questions arise. Most people attribute Tristan’s decline to injuries, age, and the wear and tear of playing 447 consecutive games. All of those things make sense. But perhaps a big reason for Tristan’s decline is a shifting context.

One massive change for the Cavaliers this season is the loss of Kyrie Irving. When Kyrie was on the team, the Cavaliers had two prime scorers capable of dominating with the ball in their hands. Tristan could excel as a pick and roll guy with either LeBron or Kyrie and shooters pulling everyone out of the paint. Without Kyrie, though, the offense has been a lot different. Especially with Kevin Love out of the lineup, LeBron James has suddenly become the sole scorer on offense, allowing defenses to key on the pick and roll to greater effect. Now, the Cavaliers need better offensive talent at all positions to be efficient. That means Tristan’s niche role doesn’t work quite as well.

Even when Love returns, Tristan’s specific skill set still might not be what’s best for this configuration of the Cavaliers, and that’s a bummer. Tristan has played his heart out for this franchise for seven seasons. He’s been here longer than anyone (not counting LeBron’s first term in Cleveland). He’s been nothing but a joy to watch and it’s been difficult watching his performance decline this season and seeing so much animosity from fans being directed his way. But the fact is, when Kevin Love, who is not a ball-dominant guard, returns to the lineup as the second-scorer, a more versatile offensive player is probably going to be more efficient for the Cavaliers in the starting lineup.

This doesn’t mean Tristan shouldn’t have a role at all or that he no longer has any value. Energy guys who can rebound have been making huge impacts coming off the bench in the NBA forever. The only question will be whether or not Ty Lue and Tristan Thompson are comfortable making this change.

None of this is to overreact to one game with Larry Nance, Jr in the starting lineup. It’s by no means a certainty that Nance is the right guy in that role, either. But it’s probably time to find out. And if he is, the hard move is probably going to have to be made.

None of this is a eulogy for Tristan Thompson no matter what happens. Whether he’s a starter or coming off the bench, nobody should be surprised when Tristan makes a huge impact in helping the team win a couple games in the playoffs. The postseason is set up perfectly for a player like Thompson to shine. When the game slows down and possessions are at a premium, Thompson’s offensive rebounding is invaluable. He will be closing out many games in crunch time in the playoffs for that reason. For the sake of opening up the offense and allowing the team to be the most efficient it can, though, it’s probably time for some changes to be made.