Tristan Thompson was drafted fourth overall in 2011, ahead of players like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler. In his early years, he was a double-double machine and Cleveland’s iron man, playing all 82 games in four consecutive seasons.
Now, seven years later, Thompson is the longest-tenured Cavalier, and despite a rough stretch over the past two seasons, is still an integral part of the team.
In his only season at the University of Texas, Thompson averaged 13.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in 30.7 minutes per game. Along with first overall pick Kyrie Irving, Thompson was to be one of the leader’s in the Cavs’ post-LeBron James rebuild.
By 2014, Thompson hadn’t developed into the player that Cleveland had hoped he would become, but he was still a solid starter. In 2013-2014, Thompson averaged 11.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. His relentless motor was arguably his best asset, as his energy was infectious.
Once LeBron James and Kevin Love joined the team, Thompson moved to the center position full-time, at least until Timofey Mozgov was acquired. Still, Thompson logged 27 minutes per game off the bench, and his ability to switch onto guards on the perimeter made him a valuable player in the rotation.
After the Cavaliers won the NBA Finals in 2015-2016, Thompson was rewarded for his efforts with a five-year contract worth $82 million. Thompson’s relationship with James and the fact that the two players share an agent in Klutch Sports’ Rich Paul may have had something to do with the high offer Thompson received.
In hindsight, that contract was a massive overpay for a role player, but what else was Cleveland supposed to do? Thompson was coming off of a masterful Finals performance and the Cavs were already so far over the salary cap that they would not have been able to sign anyone to replace Thompson, except for the veteran’s minimum. Keeping Thompson (and J.R. Smith) on inflated deals wasn’t the most economical thing to do, but it made sense basketball-wise.
But since signing his new deal, Thompson has not been the same player. Something changed with him, and no one is quite sure what that something is.
Because of the additions of Jeff Green and later Larry Nance Jr., as well as the Cavs moving Kevin Love to the center position, Thompson’s playing time fell by about 10 minutes per game last season compared to 2016-2017. He struggled mightily in the middle of the 2017-2018 season, and even lost playing time to rookie Ante Zizic for a while.
For a moment, the Thompson of old looked as if he had returned. In Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers and Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors in last season’s playoffs, Thompson played wonderfully. The energy, effort, and physicality that he exemplified early in his career were on fully display, and the Cavaliers benefited.
And then, just as soon as Thompson returned, he disappeared again. He had two points and two rebounds in Game 2 against Toronto, and went scoreless in the next match. Five points and two rebounds in Game 4 were the results of another lackluster performance.
Interestingly enough, Thompson was solid for five of the same games against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, in Games 5 and 6, he combined for a total of three points. And when things really mattered, Thompson did not rise to the occasion. He finished with two points and five rebounds in Cleveland’s Game 1 loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, and Thompson let his temper flare with fewer than five seconds remaining in overtime, when a series of events led to his ejection. In the last three games of the Cavaliers’ season, Thompson wasn’t the reason the team lost, but he certainly didn’t do much to help them win.
And this has been Thompson’s recent arc. He will have a game once in a while where he will flat-out dominate, , and then he won’t be noticeable for the next two weeks.
Four years ago, if someone told you that Tristan Thompson was one of Cleveland’s most inconsistent players, you would have been laughed at. But that is what Thompson has become.
That inconsistency has put his job in jeopardy. Thompson is 27, and appears to be maxed out as an NBA player. He has two seasons remaining on his contract, and is owed about $36 million over that time. Thompson’s lack of ideal size for a rim protector and poor offensive range limit his effectiveness in today’s NBA, and, if it weren’t for his hard to move contract, would probably be on his way out, as the Cavs have younger, better, and cheaper options.
Larry Nance Jr. is every bit the defender and rebounder that Thompson is, but is an inch taller, and a much better scorer. Nance is also 25 and will make just $2.7 million this season. Ante Zizic is just 21 and has played extremely well in the Summer League thus far. He held his own in limited action against Jonas Valanciunas and Andre Drummond last season, and should get significant playing time this season.
Thompson has seen his role with the Cavs almost completely disappear in a matter of months. Perhaps next season, when his contract is expiring, Thompson will have some trade value. But for now, he will serve as a veteran leader on a very young team, a title that doesn’t guarantee him much time on the floor.