Watching Tristan Thompson, Master Of Basketball's Invisible Tasks

There's nothing outwardly remarkable about Tristan Thompson, except for the thing he does remarkably well—crash the boards and win his team extra possessions.

by Robert O'Connell
May 10 2016, 12:54pm

Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

Offensive rebounds are hard to watch. I don't mean that they're tedious; I mean that it's difficult to get a visual hold on them. They are peripheral almost by definition. The real stuff of an offensive board happens when almost everyone watching the game is looking elsewhere—at the ball in flight, and the rim it's about to meet. If the shot clanks off, we cast our eyes around in a hurry for what might happen next. When we see someone on the shooting team grab the carom, we generally won't know exactly how he did it, or what combination of foresight and muscle got him to the ball first.

Because of this, we categorize great offensive rebounders by style more than strategy. Dennis Rodman was a tabloid wacko and tended to look, in the second he snared a miss, like a man leaping from a burning building, and so his work on the glass was considered the effect of nearly deranged hustle. Moses Malone had the tired hairline and on-court demeanor of a carpenter, so his success was thought to be derived from a mastery of angle and weight. Never mind that those two, and many other rebounding greats elsewhere along the spectrum, shared some essential qualities: an opportunistic streak, a total willingness to prepare for something that might never come about. While these attributes were on display, everyone was busy looking at Michael Jordan or Julius Irving.

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The best offensive rebounder in basketball right now is Cleveland's Tristan Thompson, and while he does the things that help him win his team four and a half second shots per game, we are mostly watching LeBron James strobe down the lane or Kyrie Irving turn a basketball into a dime store gotcha gag. When a Cavalier misses and Thompson retrieves it, we try to fill in the gaps.

We see what he looks like with the ball in his hands—sort of doughy, sort of splayed—and guess at what led to that moment. The difficulty, with Thompson, is that he doesn't move quite like anyone who has done his job before, which makes the taxonomy a little tougher. The nice thing, for the Cavaliers and Thompson both, is that it doesn't really matter whether we understand it or not. It is enough that it keeps happening.

This is a cool thing to be able to do, but it's not the coolest-looking way to do it. Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Physically, Thompson is non-superlative. He stands six feet, nine inches tall, a standard height for an NBA big man, and he ranks near the middle in terms of strength and quickness. He's not really imposing, either, with a round face and dull shoulders and long arms that sometimes waggle out of his control. His coordination is situational; ask him to dribble more than once or try a pass slightly out of his routine, and he'll likely as not gift the ball to the other team.

Of course, Thompson isn't on the court to impose, or to post up, or to dribble or pass or any of that. He's there to rebound, and if he doesn't exactly have a flair for that, either, he certainly has a knack for it. One of the most common sights during a Cleveland game, ranking just behind the various James and Irving impossibilities, is that of Thompson salvaging a possession by just kind of shrugging his way to the ball as it leaves the rim. He almost never grabs two boards the same way—reaching over the shoulder of a defender to tip one to himself, arching his back and stretching his fingers to get another before it sails out of his reach—but each shares a strange, self-effacing quality. He seems to have the ability, over the 24 seconds of a shot clock, to get forgotten, or at least to receive a little less attention than he deserves from the opponents tasked with keeping tabs on him.

When a shot goes up and the defense tries to find Thompson, it is usually too late. All the standard-issue clumsiness that hinders the rest of his game is suddenly crucial the second the ball falls off the rim. In that moment, Thompson is as hard to wrangle as a heavy tarp in a gust. He gets to the ball in whatever the midair equivalent of a stumble is, his limbs all wrenched, but he gets to it, and so gets the Cavaliers' sharper operators one more possession than they would otherwise have had.

During Cleveland's semifinal sweep of the Atlanta Hawks, most of the attention went to a locked-in James, a rejuvenated Kevin Love, and the team's historic run of three-point marksmanship. The Cavs would have romped without any help from Thompson at all, but he helped plenty. Going up against the All-Star frontcourt of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, Thompson averaged 11 rebounds a game, six of those on the offensive end. He seemed not to contribute to the series' lopsidedness so much as personify it. Hawks sprinted back and forth on defense, closing out on shooters and hedging off James to force a tough shot, and then there was Thompson to gather it in, lob it back out, and make all that hard work moot.

When you see that Robert has written an appreciation of your weird game at Vice Sports Dot Com. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

That there aren't many players in today's NBA like him isn't entirely a compliment. If the Cavaliers make it past Toronto or Miami in the conference finals—which, I mean—and end up facing Golden State or San Antonio in the NBA Finals, Thompson will spend much of his time on the court matched up with big men of the modern mold.

The creativity of Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge keys their respective teams' approaches, whereas Thompson fits in Cleveland as a sort of attachment, a clumsy but useful support staff for the main goings-on. His place in the Cavaliers rotation represents a compromise that most teams these days aren't inclined to make. Thompson's own shortcomings are what make his virtues into necessities; maybe with some new-age range or cleverness in his spot, his team would miss fewer shots to begin with.

Then, that bargain typifies this Cleveland team's growing charm. In an era of synchronicity, the Cavaliers stall and start up again, moving in hard old-fashioned lines that sometimes work out and other times go all to hell. They take a few bad shots, having not yet committed the new basketball to habit. It fits that they'd fix their out-of-fashion problems with an outdated solution: have someone down there who gets those bad shots back, one way or another.