- Tristan Thompson played through lean years before LeBron James returned home to lead the Cavaliers to a title. Now that James has left again, it is Thompson who has taken it upon himself to reshape Cleveland's future.
Tristan Thompson understands the importance of patience. There wasn’t much of it in Cleveland over the last four seasons. After LeBron James wrote his Sports Illustrated “I’m Coming Home” letter in July 2014, the Cavaliers altered their roster each year and created a whirlwind of player acquisition with one goal in mind: bring a championship back to Cleveland. But when James took his talents to Los Angeles in July, Thompson and the Cavaliers shifted to a more manageable approach.
“If our young guys are better in March and April than they were at the beginning of the year, then we’ve done our job this season,” Thompson told The Crossover. “We want to see development for the group each month, and make these guys better. That’s our priority.”
Cleveland’s circumstances lend well to diminished expectations. The Cavaliers are 5–18 through the first quarter of the season, ranking last in the league in points per game and defensive rating. They make fewer threes than any other team and have the lowest assist total in the NBA. Jordan Clarkson is Cleveland’s leading scorer with Kevin Love injured.
Thompson isn’t new to these circumstances. Cleveland went 78–152 in Thompson’s first three seasons, mired in a tug of war between Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. The Cavs fought to the final day of the season in 2013-14, finishing ninth in the East behind head coach Mike Brown. Yet for a large share of Thompson’s pre-LeBron career, there was little harmony at Quicken Loans Arena. He’s now working to avoid the same discord in Cleveland’s post-James era.
Don’t mistake Thompson’s patience for a lack of competitive fire. In September, he reminded the media that Cleveland was “still four-time Eastern Conference champions.” Thompson wasn’t delusional; he understood the altered circumstances of a non-LeBron world. But to abandon the mantle as the East’s top team isn’t Thompson’s style.
“If I don’t believe in our team, we have nothing,” Thompson said. “If I needed to light a fire under our ass and take that mentality that we’re still the conference champs, that’s part of what’s being a leader is. We have to go out there with confidence to have a chance.”
Cleveland’s cupboards aren’t bare by Thompson’s estimation. He notes the growth he’s seen from Rodney Hood and Cedi Osman, and has high hopes for rookie point guard Collin Sexton. The Alabama product’s development is paramount to Thompson, a key to unlocking a brighter future in The Land.
Sexton is earning more than his fair share of opportunities to run the show. He trails only Clarkson in usage rate for the Cavs, ranking third among rookies behind Trae Young and Luka Doncic. There’s been encouraging signs of late—including back-to-back 20-plus point performances against the 76ers and Rockets in late November—yet as life often goes for rookie point guards, the headaches have been common as well. Teammates anonymously complained about Sexton’s shot selection in early November and the rookie has registered over four assists in just one game this season. Thompson hasn’t been discouraged. He praised Sexton’s explosion off the bounce, relishing the chance to teach Sexton the finer points of a two-man game.
“We’re trying to get Collin as many reps as we can so he can one day become that guy who mentors others,” Thompson said. “He continues to grow every day, and springing him for open shots and quality looks for our other players is something we’re trying to do every day.”
Playing with a pair of inexperienced point guards is a far cry from working with a maestro like James. With LeBron, Thompson often barreling to the rim unencumbered. He feasted on lobs and smooth dump offs. It was a free-bucket buffet.
The easy finishes have been few and far between with Clarkson and Sexton, but Thompson has now tied a career-high at 11.7 points per game while averaging a career best 11.5 rebounds. Thompson is also having a career year in rebound percentage and defensive rating, exploring his game in space for the first time since 2013-14. He relishes the opportunity to expand his offensive arsenal outside of the screen-and-slam repetition of the past four seasons.
Thompson is no Joel Embiid, but he’s shown incremental growth in 2018-19. He’s leaned on a reliable flip shot in traffic—otherwise known as the Steven-Adams-special—and is smoother on his drop-step inside. Thompson is still the bruiser and ferocious offensive rebounder of the LeBron era, albeit a more refined version in his eighth season.
“I knew what puzzle piece I was when LeBron was here and I proved my value. You couldn’t replace me,” Thompson said. “Now, I have an opportunity to show people that I have more to my repertoire. I can be a playmaker, score the ball in space, more so than earlier in my career.”
Cleveland has lost its last five contests and will host the Warriors on Wednesday night. What was previously the regular season’s most highly anticipated matchup will be forgotten by week’s end. The Finals were Thompson’s standard for the past four years. He’s been forced to reshape his goals.
Thompson can’t fill the void LeBron left on the hardwood. “Damn near 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists each night is nearly impossible to replace,” Thompson said. But each night provides Thompson an opportunity to grow, and another chance to mold the Cleveland’s future with Sexton and the rest of the Cavs’ youngsters. With the James era now in the rearview mirror, Thompson is determined to provide the veteran guidance he didn’t receive during his first three years in the NBA.
“All I can do is come in every day, put in the effort and punch in the clock like I have my whole career,” Thompson said. “If our young guys see that, they can learn from it, and get us back on the winning path.”