Tristan Thompson's Benching Has More to Do with Basketball Than off-Court Drama

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterApril 18, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 11: Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks for a pass during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on April 11, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Knicks defeated the Cavaliers 110-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Once upon a time, a Google search of Tristan Thompson resulted in headlines that actually had to do with basketball.

A few simple clicks revealed he was the Cavaliers' starting center on their only championship team in franchise history in 2016. Others mentioned his streak of 447 consecutive games from 2012 to 2017, even leading the NBA in durability for the final 122 contests. There was also news of the five-year, $82 million contract he signed in 2015, just two years after switching his shooting hand from left to right.

Now, headlines involving Thompson tell a different story.

Before girlfriend Khloe Kardashian recently gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter named True, video showing Thompson bringing an unidentified woman back to his New York City hotel room was released by TMZ. Back in October while the Cavs were in Washington D.C., Thompson was also shown on video getting friendly with two women in a hookah lounge.

The off-court drama surrounding the 27-year-old has actually covered up what's been one of his worst professional seasons, one featuring poor play and a body suddenly susceptible to injury.

As the Cavaliers embark on what they hope is a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals and perhaps one last chance to convince LeBron James to stay, Thompson appears to have fallen not only out of the starting lineup but Cleveland's rotation altogether.

This isn't a punishment for off-court behavior, either. In a world where the best NBA bigs now shoot threes and protect the rim, Thompson is doing neither.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 15:  Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers arrives to the arena prior to Game One of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers on April 15, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: U
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

With 11 new faces on the roster since the championship, this was supposed to be Thompson's time to step up as a leader for newcomers like Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman, who are making their first postseason appearances. Instead, he played just two garbage-time minutes in Cleveland's 98-80 Game 1 beatdown by the Indiana Pacers and faces an uphill battle for playing time for the rest of the series.

The Cavs have committed to using Kevin Love as their starting center for the foreseeable future due to the enormous offensive potential that lineup provides. Unfortunately, head coach Tyronn Lue also wants to use journeyman Jeff Green as the starting power forward for reasons we may never understand. LeBron James should also see a healthy dose of minutes in the post these playoffs after spending 61 percent of his time at power forward in the regular season, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Behind them lie Thompson and Nance to battle for time as the primary reserve big.

Out of Love, Thompson, Nance and Green, only Love shot better than 31.2 percent from three in the regular season. Nance only made one of his eight attempts from deep while Thompson didn't connect on a single shot from outside 17 feet all season. Nearly 92 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket.

In today's NBA of pace and space, that's just too many bigs and not enough outside shooting to play everyone, especially when James needs driving lanes to operate.

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 09:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers converses with Tristan Thompson #13 during the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on February 9, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

So why isn't Thompson, a proven starter and winner for Cleveland, seeing the court ahead of Nance or Green?

Thompson had easily his worst offensive and defensive output since his rookie season. Cleveland outscored opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions this season when Thompson was on the bench, the first time he registered a negative impact since James returned to the Cavaliers.

A large part of this was due to Thompson's noticeable lack of lift and overall movement on the floor. Long praised for his athleticism and foot speed when switching defensively, it was clear injuries to his calf and ankle were taking their toll.

In November Thompson actually tore a muscle in his calf and told Jason Lloyd of The Athletic that he'll "likely never be 100 percent healthy ever again."

A few stats help to paint the picture on this. While Thompson has never been a major source of offense, he has found success as a roll man, using his acceleration and bounce to finish lobs at the rim. Coming into this season, Thompson was averaging 1.32 dunks per game for his career. This year his rate has dropped to just 0.75 dunks per game, the lowest in his seven seasons.

Thompson's lack of mobility has also plagued his ability to challenge shots. Across the board, he's allowing his highest percentage of opponent looks since the league began tracking data.

Tristan Thompson Defensive FG%
< 6 Feet< 10 FeetOverall
2014-1556.6%52.8%47.4%
2015-1656.2%50.9%45.5%
2016-1752.4%49.9%46.1%
2017-1865.9%59.6%50.9%
NBA.com

Rim protection has never been a part of Thompson's resume, but he's typically been good enough to make opponents think twice about challenging him inside. Among centers who faced 150 or more shots at the rim this season, however, Thompson is allowing opponents to convert 69.1 percent of their looks, the worst mark in the NBA.

If there's any hope of Thompson becoming a contributor to this year's playoff run, a few things have to go right.

First, it would appear Lue would need to lose faith in either Green or Nance. Lue is fiercely loyal to Green, dating back to their days with the Boston Celtics, and played a major role in convincing him to take a veteran minimum deal with the Cavaliers this past summer. Still, Green was awful in Game 1 with zero points on 0-of-7 shooting as a starter. Another performance like that will test Lue's loyalty.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 11: Jeff Green #32 and Tristan Thompson #13 and JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers watch from the sidelines during the second half against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on April 11, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Knick
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Nance is the best overall player of the three, even though Lue has been hesitant to start him when all of the bigs have been healthy.

Thompson's rebounding and experience could push him ahead of Green or Nance in Lue's rotation, though.

Even with the drop-off in stats suffered this year, Thompson actually tied his highest career defensive (23.3 percent) and overall rebound percentages (18.4 percent). His 11.8 boards per 36 minutes were only slightly behind Love's 11.9.

With so many young guys taking part in their first or second playoffs, memories of Thompson's valuable championship contributions are once again popping up in the coaching staff's heads.

"We've been talking about it as a staff," Lue said, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com. "I just know those guys have been through everything with us the last four years and we won a championship, went to three finals. Tristan and J.R. played a big part of that. We understand that and trust me, we know that." 

Thompson may yet return to the rotation at some point because of this, but loyalty only goes so far. He'll have to greatly improve on his regular-season performance to win back trust for good.

                       

Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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