The Cleveland Cavaliers are NBA champions.
In an all-time great series with all-time legacy fallout on both sides, the Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-win Golden State Warriors to win the title in an epic Game 7 to secure LeBron James’ third title and the first major sports championship for the city of Cleveland in 52 years.
James will receive much of the credit for that victory, and rightly so – he was the first player to lead both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals in ANY series in NBA Playoffs’ history. Kyrie Irving will also get a lot of the credit, as he thoroughly outplayed two-time MVP Steph Curry throughout the series, and hit a clutch three with under a minute to go to break an 89-all tie in game seven.
However, Cleveland would absolutely not be champions today if not for the contributions of Tristan Thompson. His play throughout the playoffs shows, for a variety of reasons, that Thompson is the prototypical NBA center for the league going forward.
Thompson obviously is not the best center in the league – the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, and Karl-Anthony Towns are all better than Thompson, just to name a few. But where were all of those teams this year?
Obviously, none of them play with LeBron James, but the league has been shifting away from the traditional big man for years, and none of the past five champions have prominently featured a “traditional” big man. And other than Dirk Nowitzki, who is anything but traditional, the last big man to win a Finals MVP was Tim Duncan in 2005.
The point here is that teams aren’t winning with superstar big men anymore. While having a Cousins or Drummond obviously does not preclude you from winning, teams have shied away from spending big bucks on big men, and it’s worked. Beyond that, Thompson possesses a few traits that are vital for NBA centers going forward.
For one, he is a ferocious rebounder, especially on the offensive end, which helps solve a key issue coaches have been facing recently – crash the boards, or send players back on defense in transition? With Thompson, the Cavs can have both. In the regular season, the Cavaliers were one of 8 teams giving up 1.11 points per possession or fewer in transition while also having a team offensive rebound rate of at least 25%. In the playoffs, where Thompson played a larger share of the team’s minutes, the Cavs ratcheted those numbers up to a 26.8% ORB rate and gave up just 0.98 points per possession in transition, both elite numbers. It is rare to have this balance, but with Thompson, it is made possible.
Another staple of the future NBA is the pick-and-roll (this has always been and always will be frequent in basketball, but the pick-and-roll with shooters around the arc has replaced playing through the post as the most popular mode of offense). Thompson is an elite pick-and-roll big man, both on offense and defense. As an offensive roll man, Thompson scored 1.29 points per possession in the regular season, placing him in the 91st percentile in the league, and third among players with at least 100 possessions as a roll man (behind DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside).
Tristan Thompson is also elite defensively covering the pick and roll, both guarding the screener and switching onto the ball-handler. When covering the screener, Thompson did struggle in the regular season, allowing 1 point per possession, which ranked in just the 34th percentile. However, in the playoffs, that was a completely different story. Thompson allowed just 0.65 points per possession while defending the roll man, the best among all players in the playoffs with enough defensive attempts to qualify. It’s not as if this was done against total slouches either, as he guarded the likes of Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap, and Draymond Green in the playoffs.
Thompson is also well-known for his ability to switch screens and guard shorter, faster players, and has the numbers to back this up. When guarding the ball handler in pick and rolls (which, for Thompson, occurred when he switched onto a ball handler), Thompson allowed just 0.59 points per possession in the regular season, good for the 94th percentile in the league. This proved key in beating the Warriors, and having lineups where you can switch on any screen seems to be a trend in the league. Thompson allows for that to happen, and this ability unlocks all sorts of defensive schemes that are not possible otherwise.
Overall, Thompson is not a superstar by any means; but he is a ferocious rebounder, is great in the pick-and-roll on both ends of the floor, and can switch onto guards and hold his own defensively. In a league littered with three point shooting and spacing, this is all you really need from a center.
With LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers have the star power they need to repeat as champions, but it definitely will not happen without similar contributions from Tristan Thompson.
*All stats courtesy of NBA.com’s SportsVU tracking