Prior to his return to a reserve role Friday against the Houston Rockets, Tristan Thompson enjoyed a nearly three-week stretch as the Cleveland Cavaliers' starting center. The results were encouraging, which is why the Cavaliers' 91-77 win over the Rockets shouldn't prevent the 24-year-old from making his way back into the starting five.
During the time the 6'9" Thompson was a starter, Cleveland was an impressive 8-1. Its lone loss came on the road against the San Antonio Spurs, who are currently playing like the best team in basketball.
Thompson's impact was also felt on both ends of the floor, as he took over for what's been a watered-down version of Timofey Mozgov.
Even though he doesn't have the shot-blocking ability or size (7'1") of his Russian teammate, make no mistake: Thompson deserves the starting job.
What Thompson Brings
When asked how he had to adjust his game to play alongside Thompson instead of Mozgov, Kevin Love said with a smirk, "I try to pick up as many rebounds as I can."
"(Thompson's) another guy that I feed off of," Love said. "It's his fifth year in the league, and he brings it every single game and goes out there and competes, and that's why we love him."
While Love has led the Cavs in rebounding this season (10.8 per game to Thompson's 9.6), it's Thompson who's been better on a per-minute basis (12.4 per 36 minutes to Love's 11.9).
Thompson's aggressiveness on the boards has him eighth in the league in rebound percentage (19.4), the best mark on the Cavaliers.
His hustle and durability are demonstrated on a nightly basis, a rarity in today's NBA.
Even in games in which the outcome has been decided, Thompson will be seen throwing himself on the floor and out of bounds to save loose balls, displaying his trademark hard-hat attitude.
"That's Tristan," Cleveland head coach David Blatt said. "That's what he always does."
Despite this regular beating Thompson puts on his body, no one has played in more consecutive games. The Canadian recently overtook DeAndre Jordan for the NBA's longest active streak at 326 games, a mark he doesn't take lightly.
"It's an honor, but it's definitely—as a big, it makes you feel good that other bigs are being able to play consecutive games, especially with the pounding we go through in terms of rebounding, bumping against guys," Thompson said, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "It shows how we take care of our bodies."
Besides LeBron James, Cleveland's core has been injury-prone. Love (shoulder), Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) have all undergone surgeries in the past nine months.
Having Thompson on the team, and in the starting lineup, provides an interior force guys can count on.
"You know every day that this guy will be available regardless," James Jones told McMenamin. "And especially when he's a major piece of what we do. So, to have him there is comforting to know that our heart, our soul, our hustle—a guy that brings the energy—is going to be there every night."
On a team loaded with offensive firepower and players who need the ball in their hands, Thompson complements the starting unit beautifully with his dirty-work skill set.
Thompson vs. Mozgov
It's no secret that Mozgov has struggled this season.
The soon-to-be unrestricted free agent has fallen flat in his second year with the Cavs and deserves to stay in a reserve role. He's averaging six points, 4.3 rebounds and shooting 50.3 percent from the field after registering 10.6, 6.9 and 59 with Cleveland last season.
Even Mozgov's one saving grace, his shot-blocking, hasn't made that much of a difference compared to Thompson's ability to alter and discourage attempts. Opponents are shooting 44.7 percent at the rim against Mozgov and 46.2 when they meet Thompson, per NBA.com.
When it comes to on/off rating, there's no doubt who's been more valuable:
Numbers like these help to tell the tale of the importance of players like Thompson, Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova, who do their work outside of scoring the ball.
So, it's important to look at how the team operates with these key role players on the floor.
Thompson makes James better by setting hard screens and grabbing offensive rebounds that lead to second-chance opportunities. He makes Irving and Dellavedova better when defenses collapse on them with his incredible ability to finish alley-oops.
For every time Mozgov has had a pass clang off his hands and bounce out of bounds, Thompson seemingly skies to finish another lob.
Here's how the Cavaliers fared during their first 28 games with Mozgov as the primary starter (Thompson filled in for him three times in November) and the difference when Thompson took over:
|Team Stats with Mozgov or Thompson as Starter (Through Jan. 14)|
Part of this success, of course, coincides with the return of Irving, who made his debut eight days before Blatt made the switch to Thompson.
There's no denying, however, the success the team has enjoyed with Mozgov moved to the bench.
Setting Up the Future
Thompson will be in a Cavaliers uniform through the 2019-20 season, barring a trade.
Mozgov can walk this summer.
This is something for Blatt to consider as he looks around the league. Teams like the Spurs and Golden State Warriors weren't instant successes, but rather they became good, then great, by keeping key players and rotations together.
For Blatt, the Big Three of James, Love and Irving are locked up contractually (save for James, but he's not going anywhere) and won't be leaving the starting unit anytime soon. While Shumpert and J.R. Smith have split opening duties at shooting guard throughout the regular season and playoffs, Blatt has the chance to solidify the center position.
Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports noted Jan. 7 there have been trade rumors involving Mozgov, whom the Cavs swapped two first-round draft picks for just a year ago. With the deal deadline and free agency looming, his future in Cleveland is murky.
Blatt needs to go back to Thompson, whom he knows will be with the team for years to come and carries higher potential.
Mozgov can still be an effective role player and defensive enforcer, but the choice for starting center in Cleveland should now be clear.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CavsGregBR.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise sourced and are current heading into games of Jan. 16.