Tristan Thompson
Posted by Michael Flores | Sports

Tristan Thompson is not a 2016 Eastern Conference All-Star. Despite being the most effective Cavalier per minute and the most productive Power Forward in the East at the All-Star break the fans preferred both Paul George (below average this season) and Carmelo Anthony (LOL) as starting front court wingmen to The King. The “experts” did no better. While all three are productive, none of Paul Millsap, Pau Gasol, or especially Chris Bosh are TT’s equal this season. Kevin Love — Tristan’s teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers — also is not the Canadian rebounder’s equal (and he, too, probably should have been an All-Star).

I mean it’s kind of silly that the runaway best team in the Eastern Conference has only one All-Star.

But grousing about the inequity of All-Star game selections is hackneyed, trite, and overdone every year. What is more interesting is if Tristan will also be robbed of his potential end-of-year honors as Sixth Man of the Year (or even candidacy). Sixth Man of the Year typically goes to a leading scorer off the bench, as with Jamal Crawford’s multiple honors or [now-Cavalier] J.R. Smith; but there is precedent for a top rebounder or defensive player on a team with a great record also; Lamar Odom was very deserving in 2011.

Thompson started off the season as a benchwarmer, but both David Blatt and Tyronn Lue have experimented with TT in the starting lineup. Too much of that will violate Tristan’s potential Sixth Man of the Year candidacy… But that can’t be any coach’s primary consideration. Rather, how does this talented and underrated rebounding machine perform, and more importantly how does the team do with him coming off the bench, versus in the starting lineup?

I. Starts

The Cavs have fifty-two games logged as of the All-Star break. Tristan has come off the bench in thirty of those and started “only” twenty-two… but all of the last ten.

Of particular note: Thompson is the only Cavalier to have played in all fifty-two games prior to the All-Star break, starts or no.

II. Coach

The season’s original coach David Blatt started Tristan twelve times in forty-one games.

New coach Tyronn Lue on the other hand has started Tristan ten out of eleven total games (including each of the last ten).

III. Points

Tristan averages only 7.7 points per game this season; 6.8 points per game off the bench and 8.9 as a starter.

… But playing next to LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and J.R. Smith (who never met a contested jumper he didn’t love) we don’t really expect TT to be a prolific volume scorer.

IV. Rebounds

Tristan is a top-ten rebounder this season, even by civilian statistics.

He is averaging 9.51 rebounds per game (9 off the bench and 10.1 when starting).

This might be counterintuitive, but Tristan’s per-minute rebounding is remarkably stronger as a bench player (17.54 rebounds per 48 minutes) than as a starter (14.8 rebounds per 48 minutes).

Consider the per-48 minute rebounding of the East and West All-Star front court players:

James 9.55
George 9.68
Bosh 10.53
Anthony 10.86
Millsap 12.68
Gasol 16.37
Drummond 21.26

Leonard 9.89
Durant 10.67
Green 13.40
Aldridge 13.54
Davis 13.65
Cousins 15.58

As a starter Tristan is a better per-minute rebounder than almost every 2016 NBA All-Star and only Andre Drummond is better than the bench version, per minute.

Why do Tristan’s total numbers go up as a starter if his per-minute efficiency is greater off the bench?

Easy answer: More minutes! Tristan plays 32.8 minutes on average as a starter, versus 24.8 minutes off the bench.

For that matter, why do his per-minute numbers go down when he starts?

Presumably… Weaker opposition. As a starter, Tristan’s excellent rebounding will be contested by the opponent’s best bigs, but as a bench player a greater percentage of minutes will be against opposing benchwarmers.

V. Record

Individual statistics are all well and good… But how does the team do with Tristan starting versus coming off the bench?

When Tristan starts the Cavs have an awesome 81% win rate (18-4).

On balance, Tristan’s coming off the bench gives the Cavs a mere 67% win rate… 20-10.

These aren’t perfectly clean A/B statistics… Almost half Tristan’s starts have come under a new coach and with Kyrie Irving back from injury, for example.

VI. Point Differential

Point differential tends to have a stronger signal to a team’s final record than its current W/L record.

The Cavaliers have the strongest average margin of victory in the East, between five and six points per game. That number exceeds both the 2011 Dallas Mavericks and the 2010 Los Angeles Lakers (both of whom won the NBA title). With Tristan coming off the bench, that average falls to a differential of 3.3… Which is wildly below any of the title contending teams I looked at from the last several years.


With Tristan starting, the Cavs win by a monstrous nine points per game.

Consider the last several NBA Championship teams:

2015 Golden State 10.1
2014 San Antonio 7.7
2013 Miami 7.9
2012 Miami 6
2011 Dallas 4.2
2010 Los Angeles 4.7
2009 Los Angeles 7.7

The Tristan-in-the-starting-lineup Cavaliers, despite having a weaker per-minute Thompson, outstrip the majority of recent Championship-winning teams by point differential comparison… Unfortunately they are still a little behind last year’s Warriors.

Oh, and both the Warriors and Spurs have stronger point differentials than “9” in 2015-2016. On the other hand, the Cavs will only have to play one of them, best case scenario.

VII. Narrative

One of the reasons I stopped doing The Top 8 after the first few weeks was that I realized that no individual regular season games really meant anything so the narratives weren’t even interesting. Even the blowout at the hands of the Warriors doesn’t mean anything with regard to the team’s real ability or prospects.

“The Warriors blew the Cavs out by thirty!” is what the National media is going to scream before Game One of the projected Finals. Who cares? It seems pretty likely at this point that the Cavs were deliberately trying to get their coach fired. Or are we to assume they also can’t beat the Trail Blazers (the team who beat the Cavs also by 30+)… right after they lost to the Warriors on Christmas?

I think you’d have to acknowledge more than a little bias to say the Warriors aren’t a better team, top to bottom, than the Cavs right now… But common sense is going to tell you that whichever team wins the West — Spurs or Warriors, or even OKC or the Clippers — will have had 20+ brutal fistfights to get to the Finals whereas the Cavs will probably have roflstomped their opposition 12-0. Remember, last year’s Cavs were hovering about .500 at this point in the season and despite all their injuries lost only two games in the East come playoff time, and even then only because J.R. Smith got himself suspended.

Sure there are a lot of weird things you can say about Tristan starting versus coming off the bench.

Is it weird that the team point differential goes up by a mile while increasing a diluted level of per-minute production? Yes, until you acknowledge that Mozgov isn’t performing as well as he did last year and that Tristan starting at Center is an addition-by-subtraction.

Is it weird to have a Center who is shorter than your PF? You mean like the Wallace brothers all during those dominant (and title-winning) Detroit Pistons years a decade ago?

You know what’s really weird? The concept of a Center at all in 2016! The Western Conference All-Stars are starting two Shooting Guards* and a Small Forward at “front court”. No Center, no PF at all! Draymond Green (the second most productive Warrior by a wide margin in either direction) would be a wing on most traditional lineups.

VIII. Conclusion

Tristan’s likelihood of making Sixth Man of the Year was probably low to begin with. He’s an outstanding player who has a fat contract and the acknowledgement of the best coach in the league… But isn’t a gaudy enough scorer for a lot of mainstream attention. I do think it’s silly he didn’t make the All-Star team (or that Cleveland has all of one All-Star) but it really does seem like the Cavs have better prospects with him starting, rather than coming off the bench.


* Kawhi at least used to be a Shooting Guard 🙂


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