The Numbers Lie: Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson managed to get a five-year $82 million contract before the 2015-2016 season thanks to three things: 1) His relationship with LeBron James. 2) His ability to snag meaningful rebounds and irritate guys in the paint. 3) His ability to switch out on smaller players when placed in the pick and roll. He also managed to get that $82m contract despite nobody else offering anything particularly close to that number. Such is life.

In the 2016 Finals, he averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds, grabbing 13, 15, and 16 rebounds in Cleveland's first three wins of the series. Additionally, and much as he was expected to do, he often found himself switched onto Stephen Curry and had to defend the two-time MVP. Thompson fared well, the Cavs won the series, and Thompson's contract was seen as being worth every penny.

This year, Thompson has fully taken over as the Cavaliers center. Mozgov is in LA, Birdman's knee exploded, and Larry Sanders committed five fouls in 11 minutes in his D-League debut, so Tristan is the only center who actually plays. The results seem like they've been pretty good. He's averaging career highs in blocks and rebounds while avoiding foul trouble. He even inspired someone (me) to write an article about how he might be stepping into the role of rim protector. It hasn't quite worked out that way, as his block numbers regressed, but overall he is an important cog in the Cavaliers success.

He's just not a success in the areas that you might expect. Here are a few things you've been right about and wrong about in regards to Tristan Thompson.

Where you're right

1) Tristan Thompson is a stud when it comes to offensive rebounding. 

This is correct. Thompson is averaging just under four (3.7) offensive rebounds per game, placing him in 5th in the NBA (per NBA.com/stats). He fights for these more than anyone in the league, as he leads the league in offensive rebounding chances per game at 8.7. This is an incredibly valuable skill. It would be even more useful if he could make a free throw. 

2) He's good around the rim on offense. 

Also correct. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Tristan Thompson shoots 66% within three feet of the rim. He's only 44% from 3-10 feet, but he's a pleasant 47% from 10-16 feet. He's not as anemic a shooter as conventional wisdom suggests, and he seems to know his limits.

Per Synergy Sports, Thompson's 1.25 points per possession on non-post-ups around the basket puts him in the 78th percentile in the NBA. He's ahead of guys like Porzingis, Embiid, Nurkic, and Gortat (Kyrie Irving is right there in that mix as well, which is fun). He's even occasionally flashing moves like this.

 

3) He's a pretty good 1-on-1 defender.

This is not quite as simple as it seems, but it's mostly correct. Tristan Thompson is in the 68th percentile against both spot ups and isolations. Basically, when someone decides they're going to try and beat him to the bucket or shoot over him, they have notably less success than they would against an average defender.

4) Tristan Thompson in the pick and roll is a good thing.

Bingo. Thompson is in the 80th percentile on Synergy's ranking when it comes to setting screens and heading to the rim. The Cavs score a lot when this happens. They're best when it's a high PnR, and curiously very inefficient when they go from the left side, but that could just be due to a small sample size. If TT rolling to the hoop doesn't result in a layup or dunk, he's getting fouled on a big-time 26% of his trips through the lane. This would also be a highly valuable skill if he could make some free throws.

While these are largely encouraging, it's not all great news with Tristan. Just like his blocked shots numbers coming back down, there are some other stats that might make you scratch your head.

Where you're wrong

1) Tristan is a solid overall defender.

Not so. There's an odd (and big) discrepancy between Synergy's stats and NBA.com's stats, but neither of them suggests that Tristan is doing well as an overall defender. Synergy says that opponents are shooting 43.6% against Thompson, which would put him at 355th out of 500 players (500th is the worst). NBA.com says opponents are shooting 46.8% against him, which would obviously be even worse.

Synergy also has Thompson in the 31st percentile defending the pick and roll, which is what he sees more than anything else. 

2) Tristan Thompson is a mediocre offensive player when it comes to scoring.

Wrong again. He's statistically great. Tristan's 1.034 total points per possession put him in the top 100 in the NBA overall (including guys who've only played five total minutes) and even puts him ahead of guys like Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker, and DeMar DeRozan. While this is likely a symptom of plays being drawn up for Tristan, it's more fun to think that he's just beating guys off the dribble every time he gets a chance.

3) When TT gets an offensive rebound, the Cavs are scoring.

Another shocker: When Tristan Thompson gets an attempt at a putback, the Cavaliers only score 53% of the time (either by a field goal or free throw). That number is 154th out of 276, per Synergy. In our heads, when Tristan gets on the offensive glass, he's either dunking or he's getting fouled. In reality, that's just not true. The reason it feels that way, however, is that he gets so many of these second chances for the Cavaliers that we remember the good ones.

The Cavs (ahem, Tristan) actually turn the ball over 10% of the time he gets an offensive rebound, which is the 224th worst rate of the 276 players who appear in this category.

Fun fact, the lowest points per possession on that 276 person list? Channing Frye. He has 20 putback attempts and they have totaled eight points. Poor guy.

4) Tristan Thompson has a great smile.

Wrong. Dude got his teeth knocked out* by Julius Randle.

Randle is dangling his arm like he's the one who deserves sympathy here.

One thing that could've gone in the "you were right" section, I guess, is that Tristan is a tough guy. Not a "tough guy" in the way you'd call your friend "tough guy" when he gets the sniffles, but "tough guy" like "I just got elbowed in the face by a 260-pound man and didn't fall down."

If there were a stat for that, it would tell the truth about TT.

*Apparently he didn't actually get the teeth knocked out. Instead, they were just bent all goofy and the team had to put some kind of temporary braces on to get them back to where they were supposed to be. He's kind of a monster. 


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