With the spotlight rightfully centered on four-time MVP LeBron James, Thompson's blue-collar game should be stuck in the shadows behind James and Cleveland's swarm of incendiary shooters.
There's nothing sexy about Thompson's style or statistics. No one is running a highlight reel of the fourth-year forward bringing his lunch pail to work, and his impact looks decidedly minor in the box score with postseason per-game averages of 9.8 rebounds, 8.9 points and 1.3 blocks.
But it's incredibly telling that no one close to the situation mistakes Thompson's value for a second. Ask those in the know, and they'll paint a picture of the former No. 4 pick as a critical piece of Cleveland's championship-hopeful puzzle.
"Ever since stepping into the starting lineup following Kevin Love's season-ending shoulder surgery, Thompson has been the most consistent Cavalier," wrote Northeast Ohio Media Group's Chris Haynes. "With Kyrie Irving battling injuries, Thompson's work ethic and his persistence on the glass has instilled a jolt of vigor into a team that was in desperate need of it."
That probably sounds a tad exaggerated, maybe even hyperbolic.
It's neither of the above. In fact, the numbers see it more as an observation than an opinion.
During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs have outscored the Hawks by 8.0 points per 100 possessions with Thompson on the floor. When he sits, that number flips to minus-3.1 points per 100 possessions.
That's a wider on-off split (plus-11.1 points) than Cleveland experiences with James (plus-2.2) or any other player outside of Iman Shumpert (plus-20.9 points).
|Tristan Thompson's Astronomical Impact on ECF|
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Thompson's game, for the most part, is built around subtlety: fighting for rebounding position and holding his own on a defensive switch.
He's the classic must-be-seen-to-be-fully-appreciated type.
Production only tells part of his story. The important thing isn't that Thompson has more offensive rebounds than Atlanta's All-Star frontcourt combo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap (12 to 10), but rather it's the effect those extra possessions have had on this series.
The Cavs are outscoring the Hawks 42-30 in second-chance points. That 12-point difference makes up more than half of the total scoring differential in this matchup (305-282, 23 points).
"Offensive rebounding is part of our game," James said, via NBA.com's Lang Whitaker. "Three-point shooting is a part of our game as well. We get 30 looks at the three-point line, and we had 11 offensive rebounds that converted into 13 second-chance points. That's all a part of our game, it's part of our DNA."
It's part of the reason Cleveland sits just one win shy of the franchise's second-ever NBA Finals appearance. While James' crunch-time heroics may serve as the lasting image from the Cavs' 114-111 Game 3 overtime win on Sunday, a critical offensive rebound by Thompson made them possible.
That play perfectly encapsulated Thompson's all-guts, no-glory style. A full-time starter for the last two seasons, he shined during this campaign as a reserve behind Love and a valuable replacement for him once shoulder surgery derailed his playoff run.
It also showed how Cleveland has been able to offset the losses of Kevin Love (shoulder surgery) and Kyrie Irving (knee tendinitis).
The Cavs aren't running the most imaginative offense. They're playing the isolation card more than anyone, utilizing that play type on a postseason-high 16.5 percent of their possessions. They're shooting a ton of triples (28.9 per game), but they're connecting on a rather pedestrian 35.4 percent of those looks.
Still, Cleveland is 11-2 in the second season and owns the best net efficiency rating of the playoffs. That probably shouldn't be possible, but Thompson is a major reason why it is. When this offense stumbles on its initial attempt, he creates extra opportunities to get it right, as ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted:
It's hard to overstate the short-term importance of Cleveland's walking insurance policy. The Cavs hoped to have other frontcourt options, but injuries (Love, Anderson Varejao) and underwhelming performances (Kendrick Perkins, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood) have tied their hands.
With Irving hobbled, Thompson might be the Cavs' second-most important player today. But the really interesting part of this discussion is what role, if any, he'll play for them in the future.
He's going to hit the restricted-free-agent market at year's end. And based on his breakout performance under the bright playoff lights, he looks primed to find a better offer than the one Cleveland reportedly extended in October: four years, $52 million, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
James, who shares an agent with Thompson, said this should be an easy decision for Cleveland.
"Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career," James said, via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "There's no reason why he shouldn't. ... This guy is 24 years old. He's played in 340-plus straight games, and he's gotten better every single season. It's almost like, 'What more can you ask out of a guy?'"
In a vacuum, James may be right. Not necessarily about the Cavalier-for-life thing, but certainly with his recognition that Thompson is giving this team everything he has. The 24-year-old understands his offensive limitations—feasting on point-blank chances and avoiding longer ones is a major reason he shot a career-best 54.7 percent this season—and continues making his presence felt at the opposite end.
"I’m important to this team in terms of being able to switch out, block shots," Thompson said, via George Thomas of the Akron Beacon Journal.
During the regular season, Timofey Mozgov was the only real safety net for Cleveland's defense. Thompson, who's had two blocks in each of the last five games, is changing that.
But Thompson isn't the only productive power forward who can hit the open market this offseason. If Love declines his $16.7 million player option, the Cavs could have a franchise-defining decision to make.
In a perfect world, Cleveland would keep both Thompson's hustle and Love's floor-spacing game. But the Cavs could be stretched thin if they need to also pay James (player option), Shumpert (restricted free agent), J.R. Smith (player option) and Matthew Dellavedova (restricted).
Love hasn't publicly pined for a new home; in fact, he's done the opposite. But insiders aren't convinced that the three-time All-Star will want to continue being the third man on Cleveland's totem pole.
"Every executive I talk to, every agent I talk to, every quasi-insider, every girlfriend's cousin's sister's boyfriend all says this guy is out of there," ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst said on The Lowe Post podcast with Grantland's Zach Lowe (h/t RealGM).
The Cavs should make Love a priority.
The defensive attention he demands beyond the arc opens up driving lanes for James and Irving to exploit. Love might not have had the best season by his standards (16.4 points, 9.7 rebounds per game), and defense has always been an issue for him, but the Cavs were still 8.1 points per 100 possessions better when he played.
Thompson's role in this conversation is no different than the one he's filled during the playoffs: protecting the Cavs from disaster.
That could mean serving as an excellent consolation prize if Love leaves on his own. It might entail joining next season's Sixth Man of the Year award race by providing the same energetic two-way play off the bench. Or Thompson could even become a sacrificial lamb of sorts, taking his talents elsewhere while the Cavs keep their Big Three intact.
Either way, the unassuming Thompson will play a pivotal role in Cleveland's future. Maybe even a more significant one than he's already filling now.