As the roster for the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers continues to take shape, there is one glaring weakness that seems obvious to anyone who follows the team, and that’s defense; particularly in the form of rim protection. Most seem to think the Cleveland Cavaliers will look for another center to backup Anderson Varejao, and a while back we looked at some of the possibilities that are available through free agency at the time. But what if the Cavaliers are already comfortable with their big man rotation? While this seems unlikely at first glance, it may very well be true. Let’s take a look.
As things stand, Thompson will probably be the team’s third big man behind Varejao and Kevin Love, likely backing up both men at times. In many ways energy big man off the bench may be the role he was meant to play in the NBA. In fact, one could make the argument that some of Thompson’s struggles have been due to him being overexposed as he has started every game over the past two seasons while most of his better teammates (Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Varejao) have been injured, leaving him to carry more of the load than he should. While he may pale in comparison to Varejao in his prime, it’s important to remember that Thompson is eight-and-a-half years younger than the Brazilian big man. Think about Varejao in 2006-07: He was a solid rebounder and defender (although this was at the height of his “charge taking”), who was a such a poor offensive player that Cavalier fans would scream if he had the ball for more than a second. You could easily make the case that Thompson is as good or better than Varejao was at the same age, and even then Varejao was a big part of a Cleveland Cavaliers playoff team as the first big man off the bench. As discussed here, there are several reasons to believe Thompson can work as the backup center.
Thompson was an elite shot blocker in college, but for some reason that skill has disappeared. It could be due to the weight coaches have had him put on to help him bang down low. It could also be the defensive schemes Byron Scott and Mike Brown employed. It could be due to Thompson having to chase stretch fours around and therefore being farther from the basket. Regardless of the reason, new head coach David Blatt may be able to draw this skill back out of Thompson, an important task as Thompson’s shot blocking would help offset his lack of size when guarding true centers. Pairing him alongside solid defenders such as LeBron James or Shawn Marion while they played power forward would help as well. Thompson is also an elite rebounder, particularly on the offensive end (while his offensive rebounding numbers were down last season, that is likely due to the fact that Mike Brown prefers that his teams get back quickly on defense instead of worrying about offensive rebounds), finishing second to Joakim Noah in total offensive rebounds over the last three years. That is an elite skill that the Cleveland Cavaliers will need on the floor for more than 12 minutes a game behind Kevin Love. Thompson also has a half-court offensive game more similar to a center than a power forward, often staying close to the basket. Given this fact as well as his ability to score in transition, Thompson may be best served playing significant minutes as the backup center against big men who do not have his talent, quickness or energy.
As Tom Haberstroh stated in his terrific piece on from earlier this week, Love is actually quite effective as a small ball center. While the Timberwolves allowed an unimpressive 106.1 points per 100 possessions with Love at center, they also scored 109.5 points over the same period. While not as impressive of a margin as what they had while Love played his more natural power forward position, they still outscored the opposition by 3.4 points per 100 possessions. There is little doubt that Love will see some time at the center position while Thompson, James or Marion play power forward alongside him.
Haywood is justifiably seen by many as a man whose unique contract situation could allow the Cleveland Cavaliers to add a significant player next summer despite being over the salary cap. That being said, Haywood has carved out a very nice career as a solid rebounder and rim protector who has been an asset on the defensive end for several playoff teams. Even as recently as the 2012-13 season, the Charlotte Bobcats allowed 5.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when Haywood was on the court. Unfortunately, at 34 years old and after missing last season with a stress fracture in his foot, Haywood has some serious obstacles to overcome before he can once again be a contributor on the court.
Alex Kirk/Malcolm Thomas
While Cleveland Cavaliers fans may laugh, there is little chance that any other player sees time at the power forward or center positions with Varejao, Love, Thompson, James and Marion on the roster. While Kirk and Thomas don’t offer great upside and are unlikely to be regulars in the rotation, they are both young and have shown potential as both defenders and rim protectors: Kirk in college and Thomas in both college and the D-League. It’s unlikely that both men make the final roster, but whichever one does could be used in certain situations where a true shot blocker is required.
So there you have it. Between all the men discussed above, the Cleveland Cavaliers have some real depth at the center position and may not pursue a rim-protector after all. However, even if they do, don’t be surprised if it’s for more of a marginal player who will be content with limited minutes because the desired playing time probably won’t be there for anyone better than that. Adding John Lucas III and his non-guaranteed contract for Ronny Turiaf and his career average of 3.7 blocks per 100 possessions has been an idea mentioned by multiple people including ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Regardless of what the Cleveland Cavaliers do, they have an intriguing group of players to mix and match in the frontcourt.