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Celtics waiting for Cavaliers Tristan Thompson to emerge

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The veteran received a two-year deal for the full mid-level exception from the Celtics in the offseason, but has struggled early.

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Tristan Thompson sat down in front of an array of Cleveland Cavaliers reporters on Zoom before facing the one team he had ever played for during his 10-year NBA career before becoming a Celtic.

The city’s brass of sports writers exchanged pleasantries as Thompson waved at them, recognizing their faces on the screen. They reminisced over the 2016 championship and wondered why Thompson and his former team couldn’t come to a new deal. Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff later said that Thompson’s #13 should one day hang in the Cleveland rafters.

Boston signed Thompson away from Cleveland in November, but Monday’s presser revealed an unfinished transition. He’ll forever be endeared in Ohio, but so far, his play hasn’t exactly enamored himself to the New England masses. The Garden hasn’t connected with him in person, but also hasn’t watched the same player from afar. A preseason hamstring injury hobbled his start. Daniel Theis and Robert Williams III have outplayed him and arguably passed him in Brad Stevens’ eyes.

Stevens still starts Thompson every night. Opponents abuse him on switches, teammates struggle to feed him in the post. The C’s then shift away in game as he struggles to anchor defensive units and impact the offensive side of the ball.

“Definitely not having training camp and an injury kind of set me back,” Thompson said. “I feel like now I’m just starting to get my legs back a little bit. Of course it’s tough because you come back from an injury, minute restriction and all that jazz and s***. It’s definitely frustrating, but it’s a long season. This team is built for the long run, not for the lottery ... this team is built for the summer, until June or July.”

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Thompson got hurt during summer workouts and jumped back into practice for one or two live actions before joining the Opening Night lineup. Between a condensed schedule and a week-long COVID-19 layoff, the team didn’t receive ample time to integrate him.

Isolation sets haven’t worked for him to break into his array of floaters and hooks and they’re sparse in Boston’s offense anyway. He’s 10-for-20 on put back attempts, ranking in the 32nd percentile of the league and well behind Theis (7-for-8) and Williams III (9-for-11).

Thompson’s strong frame is adept at sealing, but he hasn’t provided the dumping, rolling, and lob outlets for Boston’s pick-and-roll ball handlers that are crucial to offensive flow. Stunningly, he has struggled to catch the ball.

He mostly screens, seals and looks at the offensive glass — plodding and ground-bound so far. His offensive rebounding percentage ranks 16th in the league (10.9%), but a familiar face tops that list — Enes Kanter.

The Celtics handed Thompson a two-year deal two months after Theis fouled out of the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Heat. Stevens stared down his bench that night and saw Kanter, unable to stop the pick-and-roll. Robert Williams III had sat most of the playoffs, unable to stop the pick-and-pop. So Grant Williams, 6’7”, entered, fought, but physically could not keep up with Bam Adebayo as he shut the series down with 32 points.

Boston needed a more defensive center who fouled less and could hold his ground. With large financial investments at the wing and point guard, the team seemingly spurned a perceived chance to acquire Myles Turner in a Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade. Turner is due $18 million annually for three years.

The Celtics paid half of that to Thompson for one less year, staying under the luxury tax while sacrificing some talent. They chose flexibility and a player the team long coveted. Thompson described receiving texts from Jayson Tatum around buyout time and whispers going back years that Boston wanted him. He knew Jaylen Brown well and above all, felt that his dominant past play against the Celtics would enticed them to pursue him.

“For me, being to four straight Finals and winning a championship, and knowing what they’re trying to achieve,” Thompson said at his introduction. “If I can come here and help be a part of that and help get them over that hump, that’d be an honor.”

Danny Ainge acquired a trade exception from Charlotte instead of Turner, along with Thompson’s championship experience. That decision will now be graded based on the TPE addition. As Thompson continues to struggle, Turner has since emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Thompson sat out of an already-condensed training camp and stayed home from the first Philadelphia preseason game and away from The Auerbach Center. The nature of a COVID preseason season kept him even further from the team than a normal injury would. Despite all that, he’s brought his veteran leadership to this young Celtics team.

After he joined the group in team workouts and along the sidelines when the Nets demolished Boston in the preseason finale, he burst back into practice the next day, challenging everyone with his presence and intensity.

“You could tell that our energy raised,” Stevens said. “Our energy went to a different level in large part because he brings a physicality that we really need.”

That carried into the opener against the Bucks, when he surprisingly suited up in a game time decision and scored 12 points with eight boards in the upset over Milwaukee — holding Giannis to 5-of-10 inside. Thompson then piled up 17 offensive rebounds in the first four games.

Since that strong start, his scoring and rebounding have decreased. Theis and Williams III improved through that stretch, early question marks who perhaps improved due to Thompson’s pressure. Thompson has mentioned mentoring Rob during a road trip.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Theis and Thompson have shared the floor to start most of Boston’s games to begin the year. The double-big flopped as one of the worst net-rating starting lineups in the NBA while the two flashed little chemistry. They still occasionally play together, as Stevens stresses the difficulty of juggling minutes for all his centers.

Consider Theis’ impending free agency and another Thompson with another year left, it will be curious to see Danny Ainge’s priorities heading into the trade deadline. Stevens notes the loaded front court frequently.

“Tristan’s in a position with two other guys that have been very productive, in Theis and Rob, and Rob especially in limited minutes has been very productive,” he said Sunday.

The Celtics are 2.4 points per 100 possessions better with Williams III on the floor this year, while Theis and Thompson’s units are worse. Theis has steadily improved shuttling between the starting lineup to the second unit in favor of Grant Williams, averaging 13.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 75.6% shooting. His lineups have outscored opponents by 20.9 points per 100 during that stretch. Thompson’s are a +7.2.

Theis is undoubtedly the better offensive option, while Williams’ COVID diagnosis and slow return show the positive side of abundant depth. A long season presents much more opportunity for expanded comfort, improved health and a potential playoff burst for Thompson, who learned from his Cleveland years about saving his best for the postseason.

“I know that during the season there’s going to be peaks and valleys,” Thompson said. “Me playing in this league for ten years, there’s stretches where you feel on top of the world and there’s stretches where it’s frustrating at times.”

When Boston gets there, the Celtics don’t need him to score 20 points due to their variety of personnel. He’s here to defend, box out, switch onto perimeter players effectively and rebound at an elite level. If he does, the decision to play the matchup game inside over acquiring a more expensive player could pay off.

It just hasn’t yet.

Joel Embiid shot 13-for-15 against Thompson in the 76ers series. Jimmy Butler hit him with 8-for-10 on switches. Kevin Durant hit 4-of-5, Kelly Olynyk 8-of-8 and Fred VanVleet 5-of-5, all possible playoff opponents.

But on Sunday night, the Celtics kept Cleveland out of the paint all night and Thompson grabbed twelve boards, his best game in weeks while he and his fellow starters outscored the Cavs by over 30 points during their minutes. He added 10 more boards in Monday’s win.

“I think it’s early in the season,” Stevens said. “Those guys, like the team, are adjusting to one another. Obviously, there comes a point in time where you have to move forward with whatever you think is best.”