The 2017-18 Cavaliers have been as amorphous as any of LeBron James’s teams throughout his career. Their opening-night starting lineup featured LeBron, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade. Three of those players are no longer on the team, and the player Rose was filling in for, Isaiah Thomas, is entering free agency after a half-season as a Laker. The Cavs added four new players at the trade deadline with the hope of rebooting a moribund team, but only one of them is getting major playoff minutes.
This shape-shifting roster has forced coach Tyronn Lue to tinker with the lineup like a kid with a Lego set. Cleveland had 29 different starting lineups during the regular season—the most of any playoff team. Lue alluded to making yet another adjustment on Monday, one day after being blitzed by the Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. It appears that it’s now Tristan Thompson’s time.
“Looking at the statistics, over the last three years with at least 30 possessions [defending him], out of all the guys that have guarded Al Horford, Tristan is no. 1 in the league defending Al Horford,” Lue told reporters. “So, that’s a good thing, you know?”
Horford was at the center (no pun intended) of Cleveland’s problems Sunday. The Celtics All-Star badly outplayed Love, who started at center. Lue is hoping Thompson can be an antidote, and, unlike the Sixers, he’s making the change sooner rather than later. Brett Brown turned to T.J. McConnell as the starter next to Ben Simmons when Philly was down 3-0 to Boston in the second round. It sounds like Lue is not passing up a chance to make an adjustment right away. But how much of a difference can relying on a more traditional center make?
Thompson was a minus-12 in Game 1, but in a game in which LeBron finished as a minus-32 and no Cavs starter finished better than minus-10, Thompson’s 21 minutes were among the best of the worst. He finished with 11 rebounds, including four on offense, in that limited time and added eight points. In the playoffs, the trio of LeBron, Thompson, and Love together have been a plus-12.
Still, giving Thompson a bigger role is a bit of a gamble. LeBron has been at his best recently in a small-ball lineup surrounded by shooters. Thompson is the furthest thing from a 3-point shooter—all of his points in Game 1 came in the paint, and he shot 93 percent of his field goal attempts inside 10 feet this season—and by playing him, one of the Cavs’ shooters will have to come off the floor. But he’s excelled sporadically this postseason as a rim-runner playing off of James.
The biggest advantage Thompson brings is on the offensive glass. According to Basketball-Reference, he has an impressive 19.4 offensive rebounding rate in nine games this postseason. In the 2016 playoffs, the year the Cavs won the title, Thompson collected 16.6 percent of offensive rebounds when he was on the floor (though in a larger sample size of 21 games). Making LeBron miss once in a possession is hard enough—though the Celtics seem to have found a way to do that so far—but making him miss twice in one possession, well, that’s just asking for trouble.
“I think as a team, 1 through 5, we’ve got to all play tougher,” Thompson said Monday. “Obviously when I check in the game, I’ll try to bring that toughness and that energy.”
Whether dashing toward the rim or bursting up the floor on a fast break, Thompson is a racing bowling ball who uses his large body and magnetic hands to grapple the ball away from defenders. He did this a few times when he was on the floor at the same time as 6-foot-10 Aron Baynes in Game 1. But one of the advantages of playing Thompson more is that it may force the Celtics to play Baynes in the frontcourt more next to Horford, a pairing that hasn’t fared well this postseason. Though Baynes has shot the 3-ball well in the playoffs, much to the surprise of everyone, his presence makes the Celtics far less dynamic offensively than they are with Marcus Morris at the 4. And Cleveland’s offense may be able to exploit Baynes’s presence by running a LeBron-Thompson pick-and-roll that would potentially switch Baynes onto LeBron. To call that a mismatch would be an understatement.
Conversely, Thompson can also be heavily targeted near the perimeter. Staying in front of the bevy of Celtics wings on switches will be a challenge and Boston’s ball movement can lead to wide-open shots:
Horford won’t hesitate to pull up from 3 if he needs to, either; he’s hitting 38 percent of his long-range shots in the playoffs. The Celtics’ wings might have a difficult time matching the Cavs’ size, but if they can punish them on offense, like in the play above, they may force Lue into a quick re-reshuffling of his lineup.
Thompson is just two years removed from being a key cog helping the Cavs beat the Warriors to win the 2016 title. Since then, he’s become more of a specialist. He played just 20.2 minutes per game this season, the fewest of his career. He’s an emblem of what’s happened to the center position over the past few years, with size not mattering as much as shooting. But that doesn’t mean size cannot be used to a team’s advantage.
On paper, Thompson’s combination of length, athleticism, and instinct for rebounds should give Horford problems in the same way he gave the Pacers problems toward the end of the Cavs’ first-round series. Lue’s adjustment was the same one he’s trying now: more Thompson. It worked that time; Thompson had 15 points and 10 rebounds to help push Cleveland over the top in Game 7. But pulling it out of his hat now gives Brad Stevens time to plan a counterattack. And if the Celtics render that move moot, will the Cavs have another adjustment to make with this patchwork roster?