On an island with the NBA’s most dynamic big man, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson was a one-man swarm against the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis.
In the Cavs’ 107-102 victory, Thompson was everywhere on the court, much to Davis’ chagrin. On a late key possession, the Cavs’ big man met Davis three times on one drive, forcing an air ball.
A few nights later, in the Cavaliers’ second consecutive victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors, Thompson was nowhere to be found—going scoreless with six rebounds in 14 minutes.
Since being taken with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Thompson’s role has been simple: play solid defense, set screens, and attack the rim for alley-oops and offensive rebounds. Hit ability to attack this limited role with limitless energy still made him one of Cleveland’s most reliable contributors.
His performance in the 2016 NBA Finals—stymying Stephen Curry on switches and hedges at the point of attack and finding seams in the Golden State Warriors’ switching defense to hit the glass—was admirable. The Cavaliers would not have won a championship without him.
But since then, Thompson has not been the same player. And these are not the same Cavs.
All season long, the Cavaliers have struggled to get their full strength lineup on the court. With key players missing time since a trade deadline deal turned over Cleveland’s rotation and only four games remaining in the regular season, the Cavaliers are still searching for an identity for the playoffs.
What is certain is, once they begin, Thompson can no longer be counted on for a significant playoff role.
Before going down with a sprained ankle on March 3, Thompson played in 42 games, starting in half. During those games, he averaged 6.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in 21.4 minutes. His playing time is down nearly 10 minutes a game from last season, largely due to the Cavaliers starting Kevin Love at center and, later, the acquisition of Larry Nance Jr.
With the reduction in minutes, he’s down roughly two points and three rebounds from last season. Worse, he also fails the eye test. The non-stop motor that’s been present since the beginning of his career seems like it just isn’t there anymore.
And if a limited role isn’t met with special energy, then what’s left besides a limited player?
In 20 games with the Cavaliers, Nance has been nothing short of excellent, averaging 9.7 points and 7.3 rebounds with a 22.2 Player Efficiency Rating in 22.6 minutes per game. He brings more energy, athleticism, and utility into a similar role.
Since joining the Cavaliers, Nance has the best defensive rating on the team at 102.8; compared to Thompson’s 111.6.
Reminder that I love Larry Nance pic.twitter.com/WPKlCjmtGZ
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) April 3, 2018
His offense is superior with at least some range on his jumper:
And burgeoning, above-the-rim chemistry with LeBron James (he wasn’t a dunk contestant for nothing).
— Hoops City Brasil (@hoopscitybrasil) March 28, 2018
With Nance filling the role of athletic finisher with switch-ability potential on defense, Thompson can be somewhat redundant. For a change of pace, the Cavaliers have also found another center capable of contributing in Ante Zizic.
Zizic was the least talked about acquisition in the deal that sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, and now he’s the only player from that trade left on the Cavaliers. His inexperience showed. The game looked way too fast for him in the rare opportunities he got.
But once injuries gave him a steady run of minutes, Zizic showed flashes of potential. For the year, he’s averaging 3.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in 6.6 minutes per game and a 23.53 PER.
In his last five game receiving significant time, Zizic has played 88 minutes, scoring 59 points and grabbing 24 rebounds. His 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame is unique on the team, allowing the Cavaliers to match up with players like Jonas Valanciunas and Andre Drummond.
At only 21 years old, Zizic struggle at times, but should improve if given opportunities.
Unfortunately, since Thompson’s return, Zizic’s playing time has returned to almost nonexistent levels. In the Cavaliers’ last five games, Zizic has played in just three, logging a total of 10 minutes.
Nance and Zizic provide the Cavs with size, defense, hustle, and offense. Thompson can only do two of those things, and at a lower quality.
Nance matches up with the Golden State Warriors much better than Thompson and a Nance/Love frontcourt should give the Cavs a boost in the Finals. Thompson’s game just doesn’t compliment Love’s very well because he’s a one-dimensional player, and that one dimension is very easy to negate.
Nance and Zizic’s versatility doesn’t leave much room for Thompson, other than an end-of-the-bench third-string big man.
This isn’t to say that Thompson doesn’t have a spot on this team right now. Depth is crucial in the NBA, especially during the playoffs.
Larry Nance Jr. has a tendency to get into foul and Thompson can be a failsafe in case that happens, especially against Golden State. Thompson’s role should be similar to what former fan favorite Anderson Varejao’s was; to provide a spark off the bench, with rebounding, defense, and energy, in fewer than 15 minutes a night.
Thompson is in the third year of a five-year contract which owes him over $17 and $18 million for 2018-2019- and 2019-2020 respectively. He is not worth that deal, and since the Cavs are trying to get cheaper and lessen the luxury tax blow, Thompson is a candidate to be moved this offseason.
The Cavs have younger, cheaper, and better options than Tristan Thompson, and the rotations should be adjusted as such. Thompson still has a place on this team, but his role should be greatly reduced.