NBA’s Rare Breed: Tristan Thompson

Today’s story focuses on one of the most electrifying members of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s not the self-proclaimed King of Cleveland. It’s not Matthew Dellevedova, the Australian point guard sensation who stole the spotlight in games 2 and 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals. It’s not Kyrie Irving, known for his viral videos as“Uncle Drew” or former Timberwolves superstar stretch-four Kevin Love. Although each of these individuals is a playmaker for the Cavs and tantalizing to watch, the overlooked star on the rise is 24 year old Power Forward, Tristan Thompson. Thompson has a rare and invaluable knack for one of the NBA’s most underappreciated skills — offensive rebounding.

Although offensive rebounding may not be the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of basketball, it has an exceptionally vital role. Fans want scoring and when the ball doesn’t go through the net, most spectators zero in on the missed shot, roll their eyes, and disengage with the action that goes on behind the scenes. Simply put, rebounding is boring.

Unbeknownst to many, a significant group of analysts believe that five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman, of all people, is one of the most important players in the past 30 years. His importance doesn’t lie in his offensive prowess and we certainly hope it doesn’t lie in his diplomatic skills. Instead, it’s his superior rebounding that separates him from the crowd. Even to the most casual fan, the logic checks out:

More rebounds => more possessions => more scoring opportunities => more potential points.

And Rodman, as one of the premiere offensive rebounders in NBA history, contributed a healthy dose of rebounds (and according to theory, points) in his five Finals victories for Chicago and Detroit. Without Rodman, Michael Jordan certainly managed, winning three championships in the early 90s. Granted, we’re talking about Michael Jordan — he even managed to thrive on an underwhelming Washington squad at almost 40 years old. And although the Detroit Pistons had their fair share of playoff runs before the emergence of Rodman, his borderline genius-level rebounding separated the Pistons from the Bulls, Trailblazers and Lakers in their championship runs in ’89 and ‘90.

So where does that leave Tristan Thompson? Putting him in the same category as Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman may be a little unfair – as he’s yet to prove himself to be the same caliber of player in his short four years in the NBA. His role so far, however has been Rodman-esque.dennis-rodman-rebounds-nba

With Thompson’s NBA Finals appearance in 2015 and even recognition from LeBron James as a valuable asset to the team, the only direction for Thompson to go is upwards. Although he seemed overmatched and sometimes overwhelmed against the deep Warriors frontcourt, he displayed flashes of brilliance.

During the 2015 Finals, he was consistently the first to grab a rebound on both sides of the ball. Whether he was matched up against the 6’ 8” Draymond Green or the much larger Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, he consistently crashed the boards early, providing an energy boost for his teammates. It may seem like a minor observation, but Thompson’s tenacity and passion for his team remains at a rare level. The league runs wild with the inverse – once-in-a-generation-talents squandering their opportunities due to poor work ethic and legal troubles.

Andrew Bynum focused on the bowling alley and salon instead of his post moves. Gilbert Arenas ruined his reputation as one of the most clutch players in the league by toting guns in the locker room and even defecating in a teammate’s shoe. And most recently, Javaris Crittenton went from Mr Georgia Basketball with a 3.5GPA to a convict serving 23 years for Manslaughter — the list goes on and on. All the while, an undersized and overmatched Tristan Thompson earns his 25 minutes per game via pure heart and hustle.

Bynum-Hair

REBOUNDING

 

Let’s first take a look at his rebounding. Averaging 8.0rbp, Thompson posts a solid 17.2% rebound percentage which places him 17th among qualified players (eliminating those who played less than half the season and those who played less than 25 minutes per game to eliminate statistical outliers such as Sim Bullahr and Eric Moreland (source)). In offensive rebounding, he placed fourth in the NBA at 14.4%, slightly behind Enes Kanter and Deandre Jordan. So clearly his strengths lie on the offensive end.

Thompsoncomparison

 

 

ThompsonComparison2

 

 

Here’s a quick look at two of Thompson’s closest comparisons: Kenneth Faried and Greg Monroe. Both play as “tweeners” — too small to play the traditional role as center but not quite offensively skilled enough for the power forward. Although his rebounding percentage is slightly lower, Thompson’s efficiency and net rating are higher in both cases. Also note that Faried and Monroe play larger roles in the offense which explain the higher PIEs and Ast Ratios.

 

2-rebs

 

Thompson has a similar style of rebounding as our man Dennis Rodman — his leaping, persistence and his method of wiggling his way past bigger defenders to the basketball is shared by none other than “The Worm”. His numbers may pin him as an average rebounder for his size, but by watching Thompson, it’s easy to tell he has an unusual knack for out-leaping and outmaneuvering his opponents.

OFFENSE

 

Despite serving primarily as a backup to Kevin Love this past season, Thompson put up some solid shooting numbers – 8.5ppg all with an impressive 54.7% from the field. Had he made just 33 more FG to qualify for the NBA’s standards, this percentage would place Thompson at 6th in the NBA in FG%, just ahead of Anthony Davis. And his per 36 numbers have him averaging a double double – 10.8rbp and 11.4ppg. In simpler terms, his restricted minutes this season have skewed his statistical importance to the team.

Due to both his limited minutes and his smart shot selection, Thompson was able to remain an effective offensive weapon despite his limited court time. His shot chart tells the story well:

thompsonshot

What makes this more impressive is that during the 2014 season, Thompson shot with a different hand! This offseason, he modified his shooting by switching from left to right in order to improve his technique. Imagine Tiger Woods switching to be a left handed golfer or Roger Federer becoming a lefty and still retaining their form. Quite an accomplishment.

Since Thompson knows his strengths, he shoots efficiently with over 80% of his attempts coming in the paint and 53.5% on the left low block, where he shot 67.6%.

His offense is far from versatile, as he scored almost 70% of his shots of off assists and 67% were either layups, dunks or tip ins. And he only shot 25% on jump shots. He knows his role on the offense well, and it’s tough to score any other way with lethal shooters like JR Smith, Kyrie Irving, James Jones and LeBron James prowling the perimeter. Simply put, the team doesn’t need him to score any more than he does.

thompsondefense

DEFENSE

 

Thompson’s scoring may not be diverse, but it’s certainly efficient. On the other side of the court, he has a reputation for inefficiency. However, he’s made significant improvements on defense. When matched up against larger, more traditional Power Forwards, Thompson is able to use his strength and mental game to defend his opponents and he typically excels. While defending in the post, he allows 0.86 points per possession (source) which is fairly solid.

On the other hand, when Thompson is matched up against smaller, stretch forwards, or when he switches to a guard off the pick-and-roll, results are varied. At times, he’s able to use his footwork and wingspan to keep up with perimeter players. We also saw that when matched up with the smaller Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, he seemed to struggle.

Although his defensive statistics are far from excellent (<1bpg and <1spg), the eye test proves that he’s certainly competent at times, and he’s been making improvements. In the NBA Finals, he allowed 52.5% of opponent’s shots to go in, holding the Warriors to 4.2FGM on 8.0FGA. These appear to be average numbers but they are on par with Draymond Green – a PF known for his defensive proficiency. He’s not going to win DPOY anytime soon, but Thompson’s defensive skills are overlooked.

 

Curry

With his free agency decision likely coming soon, where will Thompson go? The obvious decision would be to stay on a star-studded team like the Cavs, but seeing him in a bigger role after a year of improvement could be quite interesting. If he stays, and he likely will, another season of mentorship behind Kevin Love and LeBron could be extremely beneficial. With his improvements in the past season or so, it wouldn’t surprise me if he soon had a breakout season. Either way, I see his energy level and overall work ethic as a huge advantage in today’s NBA. A player with his level of motivation is a huge benefit for a either a contender or rebuilding franchise, as he’s willing to help the team in any way possible.

Overall, Tristan Thompson is part of a rare breed in today’s NBA – an undersized power forward with a limited shooting range. Most in his situation would struggle to even compete, but thanks to an incredible level of dedication, he excels in his limited role. After the Cavs picked him 4th overall in the 2011, he’s been consistently overshadowed by his star teammates — from the sheer dominance of LeBron James to the flashy, agile moves of Kyrie Irving. All the while Thompson’s been playing his role selflessly, waiting patiently for his opportunity to shine as a star.