Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Tristan Thompson’s Defense Contributing to Cavaliers Collapse

With the chaos surrounding the Cavaliers right now, a majority of the conversation is focused on two of the Cavs’ young talents. Kyrie Irving is taking heat for not caring, not being a leader, and possibly not wanting to be here. Dion Waiters is taking heat for being an outlaw of sorts, speaking in the third person, and doing all of the things that lead some to believe he’s destined to be the next J.R. Smith or Nick Young. Talking about these two is the hot topic, and an important one. After all, much of the immediate and distant future of the franchise rests in the decisions that will resolve the issues surrounding these two. However, right now, the spotlight on Kyrie and Dion has kept it away from the player who is definitely struggling more than either of them on this spiral into the cellar, and is arguably the most disappointing of the three young core pieces on the Cavs this season. And while it’s no hot topic like the Kyrie/Dion rift has been, Tristan Thompson, and particularly his defense, has been very concerning lately.

Opposing power forwards have shredded the Cavs over the course of this five-game losing streak. Here’s how bad it’s been:

  • Sunday vs. Phoenix: Markieff Morris – 27 points, 15 rebounds
  • Tuesday vs. New Orleans: Anthony Davis – 30 points, seven rebounds, three assists, eight blocks
  • Thursday at New York: Carmelo Anthony – 29 minutes, five rebounds
  • Saturday at Houston: Terrence Jones – 17 points, seven rebounds
  • Monday at Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki – 23 points, eight rebounds

So basically, opposing power forwards who Thompson has spent a majority of the game guarding are averaging 25.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game over the losing streak. Thompson, on the other hand, has averaged 9.4 points and seven rebounds per game, both below his season averages. Granted, there are some solid names on that list who are tough tasks for anyone. Davis, Melo, and Dirk are all obviously going to get theirs any night. But Markieff had perhaps his best game as a pro against Thompson. Davis had an eight block performance. Terrence Jones basically got whatever he wanted for three quarters in limited looks against him. And Morris, Melo, and Dirk aren’t exactly threatening defenders for a guy who plays Thompson’s style offensively. Simply stated, Thompson has had his worst stretch of the season over the course of this losing streak.

This performance on the streak has been indicative of some of the major red flags with how Thompson has played this season. We applauded Thompson for his massive progress in his sophomore season, transforming from bewildered rookie to potential stud rebounder, blooming defender, and locker room rubber cement. This season, that growth has evaporated. Thompson switched shooting hands this offseason, to little effect on his offensive game other than a slight uptick in free throw percentage. His rebounding rate is down, as is his assist rate. And defensively, we’ve seen zero improvement from Thompson. This is perhaps the most concerning piece of the lack of development.

Thompson made us hopeful last season by demonstrating a strong post presence on defense, and also flashing the capability to guard some perimeter guys. However, we haven’t seen that this year. While Thompson is still a decent post defender, only allowing 0.86 points per possession according to Synergy, he still has his struggles here. He doesn’t deny post position well at all, and he really struggles with guys who have quick moves or strong fadeaway shots. His pick-and-roll defense and isolation defense are his real weak points, because while he has good length to contenst shots, Thompson really just doesn’t have the quickness to keep up with mobile forwards or point guards. The pick-and-roll defense is somewhat of a stylistic problem, because the way the Cavs attempt to defend pick-and-rolls doesn’t really even make sense in theory. However, the isolation issues are prevalent, particularly against these mobile forwards. The Knicks shredded Thompson with ISO plays, particularly when Thompson got switched onto J.R. Smith, a nightmare matchup for him.

When Thompson is defending one-on-one, he primarily relies on his length instead of foot speed. Thompson has fairly long arms, and this allows him to contest jumpers easily. He had a lot of success with this against Dallas, because the Mavericks kept pulling up against him. However, when guys (like J.R. Smith or Melo) attempt to take him off the dribble, he still relies on length, which leads to him either getting beat or fouling. Both occur quite often. Quite simply, Thompson isn’t quick enough to defend guys with any mobility outside of the paint, which seems like an issue given the high number of stretch-fours and quick, athletic power forwards currently in the NBA. For every Greg Monroe that Thompson gets to guard, there are two or three Terrence Jones’s or Josh Smiths. If Thompson is going to be a plus defender, he needs to get quicker. That’s the next step here.

Realistically, Thompson’s probably going to be alright defensively. He’s still got time to develop that quickness, and to develop a better understanding of positioning, which is something that comes with time in the NBA. However, I’m not sure that happens here, and under Mike Brown. It’s somewhat concerning that Thompson took a huge leap forward last year under Byron Scott, whose defense was a comedy of errors, and under a so-called defense-minded coach, has actually regressed. Maybe it is because he and Anderson Varejao are incongruent pieces defensively, because they do much of the same things well and have similar flaws. Maybe it’s because he took so much time to attempt to fix his offensive game this off-season, and didn’t give his defense enough focus to blossom. Either way, it’s important to note that Thompson’s defense is an important piece of the Cavaliers’ issues this season, and he needs to fix his defensive game if the Cavs are going to commit to him long-term.

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