Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson is Stepping Up in a Huge Way

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers, Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls, NBA
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers are not playing well this season, but at least they are getting their younger players valuable experience, and veteran Tristan Thompson has been outstanding. Throughout the last two seasons, Thompson had not been healthy, and last year was his worst season, as he had career-lows with 5.8 points and 20.2 minutes per game, and played in another (career-low) only 53 games. This season, despite Cleveland having one of the worst teams in Thompson’s tenure, the veteran is playing some of the best basketball of his career. He’s putting up a solid 10.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 27.7 minutes per game (the rebounds and assists would be career-highs), per Basketball Reference.

With Kevin Love only playing four games so far this year and still on track to be out for a while with a reported toe injury, Thompson is stepping up, especially in the aforementioned rebounding department. The Cavaliers also are currently without Sam Dekker (who is Love’s backup), and the team is not particularly big on the perimeter, so Thompson has needed to be huge on the inside defensively to deter opponents’ drives in the paint.

He’s done a solid job defensively in that respect, even with him not blocking many shots, he’s played good defense in the post and in pick-and-roll coverage with him being much healthier, and he’s actually played well next to Larry Nance Jr. in recent games. That’s something I don’t buy as being sustainable for the Cavs, given how it can stunt Nance’s growth on the offensive end, but considering it has worked pretty well, I’ll have to give head coach Larry Drew credit for making me eat my words at times. Cleveland has a defensive rating of 94.7 when that pairing has been on the floor this year, and a net rating of plus-2.6, per NBA.com.

Of two-man lineups that have played at least 50 minutes this year, that Nance-Thompson pairing has the fifth-best net rating. Perhaps what has been the most telling part about Thompson this season, though, has been his leadership through a really tough time with young players finding their way.

Cleveland fired Tyronn Lue after six games, there was a J.R. Smith trade request post-practice with the media (per Sporting News’ Jordan Heck), and according to The Athletic’s Joe Vardon earlier this month, “disillusionment with Collin Sexton.”

Since a 32-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets, though, Cleveland has played better, and I give “TT” a good amount of credit for them playing better. In the last five games, the Cavs have a net rating of minus-2.8, which, while not setting anyone’s hair on fire, is much better than the product they were putting on the floor before that. Their defensive rating is fourth in the NBA among teams in their last five games, and Cleveland’s rebounding percentage is fifth in that timespan, per NBA.com. Thompson is the main reason for that, for the way he grinds on the boards, often getting contested rebounds against two, three or sometimes even four opposing players.

As Jackson Flickinger of Fansided’s King James Gospel highlighted recently, “Tristan Thompson is the fight.”

Against the Hornets in Cleveland’s only second win of the season, he was a dominant force on both ends, as he had a career-high 21 rebounds, to go with 11 points and five assists. He was a plus-18 as well.

While I’d still like to see TT finish better as a roller and after he gets offensive boards near the rim, he does seem to be making strides as a passer. His hand-offs have been really good this year, and that’s helped Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and J.R. Smith in a big way by allowing them to hunt mismatches, especially in the mid-range area. He’s finding cutters better after receiving passes near the top of the key, too, and as the season progresses, that will allow Cedi Osman, Kevin Love and Sam Dekker to get easy baskets. Thompson is averaging 2.7 assists per 36 minutes, which is by far and away his career-best, per Basketball Reference. Working with a quality passing big in Nance (along with Love behind the scenes I would imagine) has paid off in that way.

Lastly, it’s clear that Tristan Thompson is the primary leader right now on the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, Thompson “took the next step as Cleveland’s unquestioned leader following Wednesday’s blowout loss” to the Washington Wizards.

Here’s a bit of what Fedor was alluding to, as Thompson took the L on his shoulders last night in D.C.

“I’m going to take a lot of ownership on that,” Thompson told cleveland.com of Wednesday’s 119-95 loss to Washington before leaving the arena. “In terms of tonight, getting in foul trouble early, it takes away the toughness and energy, that’s what I bring to the team as a veteran leader. I’m going to take responsibility for that.

“Getting in early foul trouble messed up rotations, but those things I bring were taken away from our starting unit, so I have to be smarter with those fouls and don’t put us in those holes. I’m going to put a lot of it on me messing up the whole flow of the game.”

That sort of accountability from Tristan Thompson is what this Cleveland Cavaliers team needs going forward in what is going to be a long rebuilding process. As a player who has been through it all in Cleveland, from losing with virtually himself and Kyrie Irving and a bunch of “guys” early on, and then going to four straight NBA Finals, and then now in a rebuild 2.0, he’s the key leader for this squad.

With him playing really well, it’s at least encouraging to see in terms of it setting an example for potential cornerstone young pieces in Sexton, Osman and Nance. While I wouldn’t totally rule out the Cleveland Cavaliers trading Thompson eventually, his dead cap number of over $36 million (per Spotrac) for the next two seasons makes it likely for him to stay in Cleveland. That being said, him playing some of his best basketball to begin this year says a ton about his character, and could potentially help improve his trade value as a high quality defender, screener and rebounder.

Nonetheless, if the Cleveland Cavaliers have to keep Thompson, they know what they’ll be getting every night, and his veteran leadership means a ton with the team shifting toward a younger rotation in the near future.