CLEVELAND, Ohio — There’s a question the Cleveland Cavaliers will eventually need to answer as they assess the best path back to respectability.
How valuable is Tristan Thompson?
The Cavs might be able to figure that out in the next month while Thompson is sidelined with a sprained left foot that he suffered in the third quarter of Cleveland’s 108-92 loss against the Milwaukee Bucks.
You know what they say: you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
It wasn’t long ago when Thompson was viewed as an offensive liability. He was a player with an untradeable contract and diminished value in a league focused on offense, spacing and 3-point shooting. Not anymore.
“He’s been the anchor,” Cavs head coach Larry Drew told cleveland.com recently. “Everybody knows he’s a workhorse. When you’re going through tough times you need that workhorse mentality from everybody so you can work your way out of it. That’s what he’s been.”
Thanks to a more focused summer, one that included a changed diet and more weightlifting sessions, Thompson is averaging career-highs in points (12.0) and rebounds (11.6).
He has a team high 15 double-doubles, including two games with at least 20 points and 10 boards. He’s one of 16 players averaging a double-double this season. Thompson’s Player Efficiency Rating ranks in the top 40, the highest he’s ever sat in that category.
While it’s a longshot, there have even been questions about whether Thompson deserves All-Star consideration.
The numbers don’t match other candidates, but they are tough to ignore — 10th in the NBA in rebounding and No. 2 in offensive boards. A team that fluctuates nightly on offense, the Cavs need those second-chance opportunities. With a dearth of high-end talent, they must take a team-oriented approach and win the areas that sometimes get overlooked. In other words, everything that defines Thompson.
He still has his limitations, no doubt. But there’s a reason the Cavs have a 112.8 offensive rating with him on the floor and the number drops to 106.0 when he’s not in the game. He’s become more of a focal point on that end, getting the ball at the elbow or in the post where he has added an effective jump-hook to his repertoire, shooting 62.3 percent on those attempts this season.
Away from the ball he continues to make the customary impact. According to NBA.com stats, Thompson is tied for the league lead with Utah’s Rudy Gobert in screen assists, averaging 5.7 and leading to 12.6 points. Thompson’s expected replacement, Larry Nance Jr., averages just 2.6 screen assists that lead to 6.3 points.
Before JR Smith left, he always used to refer to Thompson as the “heart of the team.”
“We always go as far as he lets us go,” Smith said. “He’s the backbone on offense and defense and really the only shot blocker we’ve had since I’ve been here. I think he has the biggest role on the team, being physical every night and bringing it every night, with the intensity and what he’s known for and that’s a hard thing to do, especially as a big.”
Beyond everything else, the Cavs will miss Thompson’s leadership during what will be a brutal stretch. He’s learned well from LeBron James and members of the organization have seen a more vocal player this season. Earlier in the year, when guys weren’t paying attention to defensive schemes, Thompson tore into them. He speaks up during film sessions, giving advice and holding teammates accountable.
Along with setting the emotional tone with hustle, energy and a won’t-back-down attitude, Thompson has become the team’s on-court mouthpiece, constantly barking out defensive instructions while helping guide the youngsters during stoppages.
“We feed off his energy and activity,” Drew told cleveland.com. “If he’s not giving us that I don’t think we would give ourselves a chance. We need a guy like him because we know from him night in and night out we’re going to get energy, intensity and we’re going to get a guy on the glass. His overall approach to everything thus far — practices, film sessions, games — they have really been a big deal. It’s not easy to get off to a start like this and still as a veteran come out and play with that mindset. He’s been a real pro.”
Nance will try to step into Thompson’s old starting role. It was just a few months ago when former head coach Tyronn Lue entered with a plan to rotate Thompson and Nance at center. That never materialized. Thompson earned the job and forced the coaching staff to stick with him.
Nance said following Monday’s game that he’s ready to pick up the slack. It won’t be easy. Thompson is no longer just a role player. He’s become irreplaceable.
Statistically speaking, the Cavs have been around five points per 100 possessions better with Thompson than Nance, who has the third-lowest net rating on the roster. Of all the lineups to log more than 10 minutes this season, Thompson appears in each of the top 4.
The Cavs were going to lose plenty of games regardless. They already have 21 losses. But Thompson was the guy showing them the right way, bringing the competitive juice that can make losses more tolerable. No Cavalier was playing better than him in the first few months — the guy the new guard could look to as the rock when things started to come unhinged.
The others expected to shoulder that responsibility are gone. George Hill and Kyle Korver have been traded. Kevin Love remains sidelined following foot surgery and it’s tough to lead from the training room. Smith isn’t around anymore.
This becomes Cleveland’s latest obstacle.
There were two players the Cavs couldn’t afford to lose this season. Not if they wanted to stay competitive. Love and Thompson. They are both likely sidelined until 2019.