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Chairman of the Boards

Through Thick and Thin, Tristan Thompson Has Been the Wine & Gold's Rock
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Chairman of the Boards

Through Thick and Thin, Tristan Thompson Has Been the Wine & Gold's Rock

Tristan Thompson is still a young man; he doesn’t turn 30 until next March. But in nine seasons with the Wine and Gold, he might be able to see he’s seen it all.

His rookie season was shortened to 66 games by the NBA lockout; his most recent season was shortened to 57 games by the COVID crisis. He’s been a cellar-dweller and an NBA Champion. He’s been a tabloid star. He’s started 429 games and has come off the bench for 190. He’s been both jeered and cheered playing against his hometown team. He’s seen seven head coaches, 17 assistants and 113 different teammates.

Hell, Tristan was a lefty when he came into the league and is a righty now!

So if you’re wondering why the veteran big man usually has a smile on his face and never seems to get rattled by the grind, only part of that reason is because he’s Canadian.

Easily the longest-tenured Cavalier on last year’s roster, Tristan almost came to Cleveland under the radar back in 2011.

Kyrie Irving got most of the spotlight. And from winning Rookie of the Year, making three All-Star teams and hitting the biggest shot in franchise history, it stayed on him the entire way.

During that time, Tristan slowly entrenched himself into the organization’s DNA. He played the final 42 games of his rookie season and didn’t miss another contest until April 2017 – a stretch of 447 straight. Following his rookie year, the Cavaliers combined to win 57 games over the next two seasons.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

But things changed drastically over the summer between his third and fourth seasons – and Cleveland proceeded to win 53 games in 2014-15, reaching the NBA Finals that summer and in each of the next three. And during that run, Thompson – who then-head coach Tyronn Lue labeled “the heart and soul” of the team – became a household name.

The teams and the times have changed. Tristan brings the same thing to the table he did back in 2011-12. It’s just a little louder these days.

Thompson was the squad’s unquestioned leader again last year – even when he came off the bench.

In fact, that’s part of what makes him the leader – that he’s willing to do so for the betterment of the team. Instead of sulking, the former Longhorn went off for 27 points in 26 minutes against the Hawks in his second game as a reserve – going 11-of-16 from the floor overall, adding 11 boards (six off the offensive glass), an assist and a steal.

In that win, he also outshot Atlanta’s Trae Young – drilling all three three-pointers he attempted.

“We’ve just been working on it with Coach Geriot, a.k.a. ‘Big Dan.’ Larry, Andre and myself, we’ve been getting shots up after practice,” said Thompson. “We’re just shooting them, working on our game and just trying to expand our game. You’re never too old to get better.”

Add that to the list of changes Tristan has either seen or undergone over the course of his career – from reluctant bomber to dead-eye long-range marksman.

Maybe that’s a stretch, but after attempting just nine triples in his previous eight seasons, Thompson drilled nine threes in 23 attempts this year.

(And yes, that .391 mark was tops among all Cavs regulars. Don’t be surprised if he’s well-aware of that fact.)

The value of Thompson is that he’s been whatever the team’s needed him to be. Isn’t that what we ask of our athletes? To come through where and when the team needs them.

When the Cavaliers needed his offense during their struggles during his early years, he produced: averaging double-digit scoring to go with his standard excellence on the boards. When LeBron James returned and the team traded for Kevin Love, he adapted his game – setting hard screens for the four-time MVP, clashing with opponents’ big men, working the glass on the both ends.

The past two seasons, Thompson’s been called on again to escalate his offense. And again, he’s answered the call – averaging career-highs (12.0ppg, 10.2rpg, 2.1apg, .88bpg) – almost entirely across the board this year. Thompson’s averaged exactly 4.0 offensive boards per game over the last two seasons. This year, it was good for 2nd-best in the NBA, trailing only to his teammate, Andre Drummond.

Thompson’s postseason heroics have been well-chronicled. And no Cavalier did more blue-collar work in four epic clashes with the Warriors. He’s had big moments in big games and a resume that spans 619 games with the Wine and Gold – trailing a man whose nickname is “Mr. Cavalier” for 6th on the all-time list. He’s rightfully mentioned among the franchise’s heavyweights.

But if there was one game from this past season that epitomized the overall value of Tristan, it was the January 9 overtime win over Detroit – and not just because of his monster numbers.

The Cavaliers were coming off a five-game losing skid and heading out onto a West Coast, beginning with a stopover in Motown. The previous evening, then-head coach John Beilein made a well-publicized gaffe during a film session and suddenly, the national media was focused on a struggling squad with an embattled coach.

The team needed a win.

That night, in a herculean effort against Andre Drummond and the Pistons, Thompson went off for a career-best 35 points on 15-of-20 shooting, a team-high 14 rebounds, three assists, one steal and a team-high three blocks in 45 minutes.

More importantly, the Cavs secured the overtime victory, following it up with a win over the Nuggets in Denver for good measure.

Thompson didn’t become a scoring machine after that contest, although he did continue on with his second straight campaign averaging a double-double.

But that night, when his teammates needed something big, he came through.

Two months later, the opponent that he dominated that night came to Cleveland in a trade and Thompson willingly moved to the bench – where he also came through.

That’s why he’s the leader.

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