This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
For approaching two seasons, the NBA has become obsessed with matching up with the Golden State Warriors. It is the Ric Flair wisdom of professional sports: In order to be considered the best, you've got to beat the best. As the Warriors have run over the league with a combination of elite shooting and elite speed, the rest of the championship contenders have tried to figure out ways to getting five players on the floor who can keep up with Golden State's deadly small-ball lineup. It seems unlikely that any team will be able to figure them out four times out of seven, but we will see in May and, probably, June.
Usually, that math involves collecting as many athletic guards and swingmen as possible. Teams have virtually given up on trying to overwhelm the Warriors with size; Golden State has navigated those situations too often. Should the Warriors-Spurs matchup that everyone anticipates come to pass, it will be hard for San Antonio to keep LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan on the floor at the same time. Versatility, particularly on the defensive end, has become crucial.
"I think if you look at the history of the game, all of the good teams, all of the great teams have always had those versatile players," Cavaliers swingman James Jones recently said, himself known for his 3-point shot and almost nothing else. "I think in today's NBA more than ever, I think it's highlighted because more and more teams are getting away from the superstar-dominant system.
"That's what you need to be great."
That he was talking about Tristan Thompson requires a minute to process.
After the lack of a deal kept him out of the start of training camp, Thompson signed a five-year, $82-million contract in October. It was a profoundly confusing (and capitalistic) situation, with LeBron James' agent, Rich Paul, representing Thompson, and James publicly campaigning for the Cavaliers to do whatever it took to get him into camp. It seemed very strange for a team to spend so much money on a player who was, essentially, its garbage man. Thompson remains best known for being relentless on the offensive glass, and the Brampton-born forward plays that up.
"My job is easy every night: come and play hard, be a big man, and try to control the paint," Thompson said before a recent loss to the Raptors.
And why should Thompson be his own hype man? He has already profited off of that reputation as the Cavalier who willingly gets his hands dirty, and is locked in for years to play next to James. Thompson, however, is misrepresenting his value, if not doing himself a disservice, by painting his role as simple.
With apologies to Cory Joseph and Joel Anthony, he has the biggest role for any Canadian on a championship contender since Steve Nash. Should an expected Finals rematch between the Cavaliers and Warriors arrive in June, Thompson will be one of the most important players on the floor—and that importance is only tangentially related to his rebounding prowess.
Yes, rebounding is his most obvious skill. As the injury-decimated Cavaliers somehow took two games from the Warriors last year, Thompson grabbed 32 offensive rebounds in six contests. Despite teams placing a decreasing emphasis on offensive rebounds, they still lead to extra possessions—generally high-efficiency possessions, too. Thompson is 15th in the league in total rebound percentage, and sixth in offensive rebounding percentage as he has taken over from Timofey Mozgov as the team's primary paint-patrolling big man. The Cavaliers' two most frequent lineups, whether with Kyrie Irving or Matthew Dellavedova, destroy opponents, and the team is significantly better with Thompson on the court in place of Mozgov.
It is Thompson's rebounding that makes him such an asset, but it is his other attributes that make him so playable, despite relying on putbacks, push shots and baby hooks in an increasingly shooting-obsessed league. He is not a shot-blocker, but a credible rim protector. Against the Raptors, the Cavaliers went with 3-point gunners Kevin Love and/or Channing Frye up front for almost all of the fourth quarter, trying to take advantage of Jonas Valanciunas's lack of foot speed. While that strategy worked occasionally, the Raptors scored 31 points in the frame, with Kyle Lowry getting where he wanted with little deterrence once he got there. Thompson's presence would have helped.
Looking ahead to a potential series against the Warriors, however, it is still Thompson's lateral quickness that is his most essential skill. The hell that is a Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll requires lots of switching, and Thompson is one of the few big men in the league that can make life tough on the NBA's best guards on the perimeter.
"He can move very well. He knows how to use his length," said Joseph, Thompson's longtime friend and college teammate. "Obviously he's very athletic so he can contest a lot of shots. He's up there as one of the elite guys that can switch on to you, like a Tyson Chandler—one of those guys. Especially with small ball—the league is going smaller and smaller every year. He's doing well at fitting in."
"I think it's evidenced by the commitment to bring him back," Jones added. "He provides us something that you can't replicate, that you can't find. He's an extremely unique player: the ability to play inside against the biggest players and dominate, the ability to play on the perimeter against some of the best perimeter players and more than hold his own has made him invaluable to us. We're a team that thrives on versatility. I would say outside of LeBron, he's our most versatile player."
Again, it is bizarre to think of Thompson in these terms. As the NBA collectively expands its range, Thompson has taken 17 shots from 10-plus feet from the rim in 62 games. When you think about LeBron James, you think about surrounding him with as many shooters as possible.
Yet, should the Cavaliers make it back to the Bay Area in June, James might need Thompson more than any of his starry, maxed-out teammates. And that's why the Cavaliers maxed out Thompson.