One of the bright spots of the 2012-2013 Cleveland Cavaliers season was Tristan Thompson. A bleak end to the season saw Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters miss significant time with injuries and Anderson Varejao had long been injured. Chris Quinn seeing the floor with regularity was a thing. The Cavs ended a terrible season with a termination of their head coach, Byron Scott, and a ton of questions surrounding players on the roster. Amidst all of that, however, was Tristan Thompson, who emerged as a leader on and off the court, and he was a burgeoning double-double machine. He jumped from averaging eight points and seven rebounds per game as a rookie to nearly 12 points and nine rebounds, and improved his shooting from 43.9 percent to 48.8 percent from the field. Thompson made a very significant leap from his first year to his second, and gave us a lot of reasonss to be excited.
But here we sit, one year later, and instead of excitement, we have the same type of questions about Tristan Thompson that we did about Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao last spring. Thompson was horribly inconsistent from game to game this season, and his play wildly underwhelmed our expectations, which to be fair, were slightly unrealistic for him. He was projected to turn into a 15/10 guy, one who would be a quality option behind Kyrie and Dion (And Andrew Bynum I guess. This season was a lot) on offense. With his shooting hand switch, he was going to be even more dangerous. Instead, Thompson essentially took a completely lateral step in his development.
The easiest way to point out the plateauing of Thompson’s development is to look at his numbers per-36 minutes. They are essentially the same as in ’12-13.
A very minimal regression across the board is present in his counting stats. The only notable one is his blocks, which have taken a steady nose-dive since his rookie season. Otherwise, it’s roughly the same stats that he put up in ’12-13. Normally, you’d expect to see improvement in at least one area. And while he didn’t get much better, it’s not like his production completely cratered, unlike SOMEPEOPLE. It’s also important to note that his foul rate significantly decreased, and he also didn’t turn the ball over as much, even if it sometimes seemed like it.
Shooting was the primary concern for Thompson this summer, and this produced mixed results. Thompson didn’t shoot very well from midrange, hitting just under 35 percent from 10-16 feet. However, he did significantly improve from deeper mid-range, going from 27 percent to 37 percent, which is actually a pretty respectable percentage on long twos. His frequency of shots at the rim decreased, but his percentage basically stayed the same. Increasing the number of long twos he took, and decreasing his opportunities at the rim, predictably resulted in a lower field goal percentage, as he dropped to 47.7 percent shooting from the field from 48.8 percent.
However, it is important to note that Thompson got significantly better at shooting free throws this season. The hand switch did help out here, as Thompson improved from a problematic 60.8 percent in ’12-13 to a healthy 69.3 percent this year. That was enough to allow Thompson to improve his true shooting percentage by a full percent to 52.8 percent, even with the dip in raw shooting numbers. This is very promising. It’s easier to change your free throw shooting motion than your jump shooting motion, but over time, the frequency and consistency of the free throw shooting motion will become more natural to the shooter.
That bodes well for Thompson, who despite a dip in March, saw his field goal percentage increase steadily throughout the season. He started by shooting 40 percent from the field in November (to be expected in his first game action with a new shooting stroke), and closed out the year with a 55.4 field goal percentage in seven April games. We complained about his increase in mid-range jumpers all season, but in reality, taking those jumpers allowed him to work on his shooting on the fly. Developing the tendency to take that shot first was important, and now, over the next couple of seasons, it’s quite reasonable to expect these shots to start falling more consistently. I’m not saying he’s going to suddenly become David West or anything, but that stats indicate that he’ll become a more efficient mid-range shooter next year, which makes him more valuable to this team.
Defensively, it was another story. I covered a lot of Tristan’s defensive shortcomings back in early February, and it didn’t get much better after that point. Overall, Thompson was the 256th best defensive player in the league according to Synergy. That’s makes him a below average defensive player in the NBA. He was particularly bad at defending in space, allowing a ridiculous 0.93 points per possession in isolation, He did well in the pick-and-roll, surprisingly, but outside of that, he really wasn’t that good. The most telling stat is this; the Cavs were 6.3 points/100 possessions better defensively with Tristan sitting.
The problems for Thompson on defense came when he was defending on the ball. Where help defense is a huge team-wide issue, Thompson actually excels when he can get into passing lanes and disrupt a play by rotating to a shooter or drift over from the weak side to contest. He’s also the team’s most disciplined pick-and-roll defender. However, when opponents attempt to isolate on him, he gets destroyed.
Part of this is because Thompson’s footwork in the open court on defense is horrible. Opponents can get him out of position with relatively rudimentary moves, and he’s not quick enough to be able to recover. He also just isn’t disciplined in these situations, biting too much on pump fakes and dribble moves and allowing deep post position far too easily. If you watched Thompson defensively this season, he was at his best when he was guarding guys like John Henson or Nene, because they attacked him in the pick-and-roll or under the basket more than anything, and he could cope. It was when he was tasked with guarding a shot-creating four like Terrence Jones or David West that he struggled.
The underlying problem that makes Tristan’s lack of development a concern is that he’s eligible for a contract extension this coming summer. Currently, the Cavs are looking at a player who appears stuck as an offense-first big who can’t create for himself yet. He’s been sitting at the same level of production for two straight years now, and the Cavs have to determine what that level of production is worth, and project out where he’s going to be at the end of the contract. Is he worth locking up this summer with a big deal? Is going to restricted free agency after next season the best call? And what’s the dollar value here?
There really are two big key variables to this question. The first is Thompson’s shooting. If it continues to improve, which all signs point to being the case, Thompson can cement himself as that 15/10 guy that he seems to have the potential to be. It’s a huge question whether he’s actually going to live up to his defensive potential, especially because he is not a great on-ball defender who is asked to defend in isolation a ton in Mike Brown’s system. If he’s going to have value, I think it’s more likely to be on the offensive end. The magnitude of that value is still to be determined.
The other big factor here is the development of Anthony Bennett. There’s still a long way for Bennett to go before we can really consider him impacting this decision, but rapid improvement from Bennett could muck things up. If Bennett can become a more consistent force on offense, which he’s definitely showed flashes of this season, suddenly you have two power forwards that can do similar things for your overall offense, and while Thompson is the better defender and rebounder of the two, Bennett is two years younger and might have more offensive potential. The question then becomes, even if Thompson is starting all next year, will he still be the better player two years from now?
With that in mind, it seems to make the most sense for the Cavaliers to not make a decision regarding Thompson until restricted free agency next summer. Waiting to see if his shooting or defense develop is going to determine the difference between him getting $7-8 million and $10 million per year, and another year to gauge Bennett’s development would be helpful. Realistically, I think the most reasonable scenario to expect is for Thompson to have a slightly better season overall next year, with his shooting to continue to develop and his defense slightly improving. As far as his contract is concerned, I’d say something like 4 years, $32 million would be a good starting point. If someone offers him far more than that in restricted free agency, which I see as very unlikely, let him walk. Otherwise, $8 million a year seems like the most reasonable deal for a player of this level of production.