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Tristan Thompson’s skill set can help a contender (and net the Celtics a future asset)

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Thompson has been out a week in the league’s COVID health and safety protocols.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Boston’s fall from grace this season has been well-chronicled. Heading into 2020-21 with seemingly legitimate NBA Finals aspirations, the Celtics have yet to sniff the consistency required to accomplish such goals and sit with a mediocre record. At 21-21, the squad would be the sixth seed in the East should the playoffs start today — an alarming reality when considering Boston’s 28-14 record 42 games into the 2019-20 campaign.

Sorry to burst your bubble — this Celtics team isn’t raising any banner to the rafters. Heck, even a divisional title is all but out of reach when factoring in the three-headed hydra in Brooklyn. But when Boston inked big man Tristan Thompson to a two-year deal back in the fall, the outlook on the potential of this group differed drastically.

Thompson, an NBA champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers, appeared to be a missing piece to a championship-contending puzzle. A non-stop threat on the offensive glass and a hard-nosed defender, Thompson was a theoretical hand-in-glove fit in Beantown. Shortly after inking his contract with the green, the 30-year-old echoed the sentiment that his presence could address a glaring need. He recognized that the Miami Heat’s bigs devastated Boston throughout the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, a series the C’s lost in six games.

“You saw in the Miami series, their bigs were playing at a high level,” Thompson said during a preseason media availability on December 3rd. “[It’s my job] to come in and slow these guys down.”

“I think this is the best decision for me in my career and the point that I’m at to join a team that’s trying to do something special,” Thompson went on to say. “If I can get them over the hump, that’d be an honor.”

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Thompson joined the Celtics with the expectation that he’d be part of a winning organization. Boston, meanwhile, desired an added punch on the glass and an interior presence. Thompson has more or less lived up to his end of the bargain in terms of on-court production. But Boston has fallen cataclysmically short of theirs.

The former fourth overall pick is pulling down misses at a wonderfully impactful rate. Sure, 8.4 total rebounds per game won’t knock your socks off when considering he grabbed double-digits (10.1) during his swan song in Cleveland. However, Thompson averages just 22.5 minutes compared to 30.2 the year prior. If Thompson saw the court that often in Boston, he’d have no difficulty replicating last season’s numbers.

Generating second-chance opportunities has long been the meat and potatoes of Thompson’s repertoire. Offensive rebounding is a neglected art in the modern NBA. Teams nowadays encourage their bigs to hurry back on defense to prevent fastbreak scores. But extra possessions are invaluable and can swing the outcome of a game often decided by so few. While the Celtics haven’t piled up many victories, they’d have even fewer if not for Thompson’s heroics on the glass.

Thompson is securing his teammates’ misses at an almost career-best frequency. According to Cleaning the Glass, Thompson’s offensive rebounding percentage is 13.8%, which is the second-best mark of his career and ranks in the 91st percentile. Among all NBA bigs who have at least 600 minutes under their belt, only Clint Capela, Steven Adams, Andre Drummond, Enes Kanter, and Dwight Howard are snatching a higher percentage of their team’s misfires. Thompson’s tenacity, fearlessness, and brute strength allow him to bull his way inside for extra possessions most players wouldn’t dream of obtaining.

Thompson flat-out devastates smaller opponents on the offensive boards when he forces a switch in the pick-and-roll. Thompson’s unparalleled motor and nose for the ball are on full display in this clip. Houston Rockets wing Sterling Brown recognizes Thompson as his responsibility and attempts to box him out. Brown has Thompson to his back and sealed multiple feet from the rim, but Thompson holds his ground and legally rises over the top of the 6’5” Rocket for the one-handed traffic rebound.

Mind you, Brown is no slouch either as an individual defender or board-snatcher. The fourth-year wing found himself in the 98th percentile among forwards in defensive rebounding percentage in 2019-20, per Cleaning the Glass. Despite this, Thompson decisively outmuscled the 6’5” wing and earned another possession for Boston.

Thompson wreaks havoc on offense in more ways than one. He’s a polished and reliable post presence with great patience when maneuvering his way to the cup. His patented scoring method inside is the one-handed hook shot, which Thompson utilizes with great regularity. With 79 field-goal attempts on the season coming from the hook, the only shot-type he settles for more frequently is the layup (93).

Additionally, Thompson isn’t merely taking numerous hook shots — he’s converting them as well. To be exact, 51.3% of these looks have found the bottom of the net for Thompson. While primarily an opportunistic scorer, his post and hook shot prowess are capable of salvaging lifeless possessions. When the C’s have had nothing going for them throughout the lion’s share of the shot clock, dumping the rock down low to Thompson has served as a remedy.

Here Thompson’s value as a scoring option in the half-court is highlighted. The shot clock is running out for Boston after a stagnant and unfruitful possession. By the time Thompson commences his move on Blake Griffin, only five seconds remain on the timer. But the heady veteran that he is, Thompson calmly makes his way baseline and circles back to the front of the rim. He then buries the floating hook with just tenths of a second to spare—keen awareness by Thompson to release it just in time.

Thompson’s elite rebounding and interior scoring talents can impact winning for a squad gunning for a title. Extra possessions and points in the paint are aspects of NBA basketball that determine playoff games and series, and Thompson brings both of these attributes in droves. It’s unfortunate that he likely won’t contribute towards an NBA Finals appearance for the green. Still, there are presumably opportunities for him to be a vital cog in a rotation elsewhere — one that is thriving and playing winning basketball. Contenders should blow up Danny Ainge’s phone as the trade deadline draws near if there’s any indication the big man is available.

Perhaps it’s the Miami Heat, a team dead-last in offensive rebounds per game, that dials Boston’s number. The Los Angeles Clippers are a possible destination as well — their roster boasts only two impactful bigs in Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka. Additionally, the Clippers lay in the latter half of the NBA in both points in the paint and total rebounds. Albeit not a contender, the Toronto Raptors have expressed interest in acquiring Thompson and reuniting the Canadian with his home country, per Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes.

With that said, Boston may not be actively seeking to move Thompson. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe wrote that the Celtics “remain quite high on the veteran center,” and the team “targeted him as a priority” in free agency this past offseason.