Is Tristan Thompson as a Sixth Man a Good Idea?


What an offseason. Between Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, and Derrick Rose, the Cavaliers added 17 All-Star Appearances, 10 All-NBA appearances, an MVP, eight top-10 points per game finishes, a Finals MVP, and eight top-10 MVP finishes. They also got a guy in Jae Crowder who is going to reconfigure the Cavs' starting lineup because he's too good to keep on the bench. They got Jeff Green and Jose Calderon too, but it's hard to get excited for those guys right now.

With all this new blood - even if Wade's "new" blood is not terribly new anymore - coach Tyronn Lue has some difficult things to figure out. How is he going to juggle all these minutes for all these players? Will Kyle Korver - who played the 6th most minutes in last year's playoffs - crack the top 8? Will Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson become full-time TV guys halfway through the season? What happens when Isaiah Thomas comes back? Is Edy Tavares going to stick around just because his giant shoes are hilarious?

It's a lot to sort through, and there are plenty more questions than those above. Perhaps the most interesting of all, however, is that Tristan Thompson is going to come off the bench. But should he?

The Case for Tristan to Continue as Starter

1) Tristan Thompson is a known commodity for the Cavs

He is a rebounding machine, a very good roll man to the basket, and an above average rim-runner on fast breaks. Thompson ranked in the 79th percentile in the NBA last year as a roll man on pick and rolls, scoring over 1.16 points per possession.

He routinely raked in high-volume rebounds early in games and acted as an energy man with the starting unit. While Kevin Love would score like crazy in the first quarter, Tristan Thompson would get rebounds, irritate guys in the paint, and (early in the season anyway) bother shots.

The Cavs also had their best success with Tristan Thompson as a starter. During the Timofey Mozgov era, Thompson routinely came off the bench, starting 15 games in the 2014-15 season and 34 in the 2016-17 season. However, Thompson took over as the starter down the stretch in 2015-16, including being the go-to guy for the entire playoff run and eventual 2016 NBA championship. He played well in that series. That matters to the team.

2) Defensive versatility?

We've been lauding Thompson for his ability to guard big-men despite being "only" 6'9" while also being able to switch out on guards - a talent he showed brilliantly in those 2016 Finals. Unfortunately, this reputation is not true to life. He was in the bottom 30% of NBA players last year at stopping the ball handler on pick and rolls. Oddly, Thompson was also a victim to jump shots. Constantly.

Tristan ranked in the 23rd percentile in the league in points allowed per jump shot, giving up a beefy 1.035 PPP. But it gets worse: He was in the 11th percentile in jumpers off the dribble (meaning guys drove, pulled up, and made shots more successfully than if 89% of the other players in the NBA were guarding them) and he was in just the 7th percentile defending jumpers within 17 feet of the hoop. That's very bad. The Cavs' alleged best big-man defender couldn't defend someone shooting a jumper from close range. If he stays a starter, he will guard opposing centers, meaning he should have fewer jumpers coming his way, even if it means he could go into the pick and roll blender more often.

3) Floor spacing 

If the Cavs started a lineup of James, Crowder, Smith, Love, and Thompson, Tristan is the only guy who can't shoot. That's ideal. He could battle for rebounds while the others space the floor. It would even get him more runs to the basket. A lineup with Rose starting and Smith or Crowder on the bench means two guys can't shoot from the outside, which stifles the offense. His starting status could lean heavily on the other guys who make up the first unit.

The Case for Tristan to Come off the Bench

1) Tristan Thompson might not be as good as we think 

He was very ordinary last year: His offensive efficiency was relatively high because his shots came at the rim - 69% of his shot attempts came within three feet of the basket, and another 26% were between three and ten feet out. His defensive efficiency was average, his Defensive Rating was notably worse than the year before, and his rebounding rate was down a bit. To say he's limited is probably an understatement. A limited player is a role player. Role players are bench players.

2) He may not have anyone to feed him the ball 

If Derrick Rose is starting, and it seems like he will be, he would be one of the only guys to run pick and rolls with Thompson. However, as we mentioned, neither of them can shoot, so they shouldn't play together. If a backup point guard is in, who is it? Is it Dwyane Wade? He can't shoot, so defenses will sag back to stop the pick and roll with Thompson. If it's LeBron playing secondary point guard, the video above suggests that he'll get a few chances, but LeBron doesn't want to play point guard. So how is Tristan going to get touches at the rim?

He probably won't. He doesn't have Kyrie (or Delly [Love you, Delly. Miss you, Delly.]) to throw him lobs, so he'll go back to existing under the hoop, digging for put-backs. But - and you're not going to like this - when Thompson gets a rebound and goes back up with it, he is only in the 43rd percentile in scoring efficiency. He's great at getting offensive rebounds, but the team is better off if he kicks it out. It's strange.

3) The starters will score, and that's not Thompson's game 

This might be the biggest point of all. The Cavs now have scorers of all kinds, in all places. Slashers and drivers like Wade, Thomas, Rose, and James need space in the lane. Shooters like Korver, Frye, Smith, and Love need other shooters around to pull defenses away from them. Thompson's job is to get rebounds and let those other guys do their thing. Simply put, that need is less now than it was last year.

4) Tristan's Finals performance still stings 

When your best big man's best moment of the Finals was when he kind of kissed David West, things aren't great. 

Does Khloe know? I'm happy for them.

It's a weird time for the Cavaliers. With Ty Lue saying that he expects Thompson to come off the bench, there might be more questions than answers. Minutes are at a premium, as 25-35 minutes per night would be expected of James, Love, Thompson, Rose, Crowder, Smith, and Wade. If they averaged 30 minutes - keep in mind that Ty Lue is not very good at managing minutes - that leaves a grand total of 30 minutes to split between Korver, Green, Calderon, Frye, Shump, Jefferson, and anyone else down the line. That's a mess. Someone will be short-changed and conceivably request a trade. Also, this is the situation without the starting point guard.

This will be Ty Lue's toughest test as a coach. Time will tell if he can sort it out.

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