Last week, I wrote about Dion Waiters’s potential breakout year for the  Cavs this upcoming season. Fellow teammate/number four overall pick Tristan Thompson is seen in some of the same light that Dion has found himself in. They were both surprising number four overall picks in their respective drafts; both of which have been scrutinized. Above everything else, they’re both polarizing players when it comes to evaluating what they have done and what they will do with the Cleveland Cavaliers. There are fans that think the Cavs could do away with either of them and it wouldn’t hurt one bit. There are others who think it would take an extreme circumstance to part with one of them – though this is probably more so the case with Dion.

Nonetheless, it seems as if it’s been tough for fans to collectively gauge where Tristan Thompson belongs on the Cavs. Is he the power forward of the future (given the Cavs don’t complete a trade for Minnesota forward Kevin Love)? Is he just a scrub who won’t get much better, if at all, than he was last season with the Cavs? Is he somewhere in the middle? I think he’s a fascinating player if only for the opinions that he elicits from fans. Here’s where I think Tristan stands with the Cavs going forward.

High Expectations

Tristan Thompson was the fourth pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the same draft in which the Cavs selected Kyrie Irving number one overall. As mentioned before, he was the surprising pick of the Cavs, passing up the likes of projected pick Jonas Valanciunas. Fair or unfair, these two will always be linked in terms of figuring out whether or not the Cavs made the right decision or GM Chris Grant was just trying to outsmart everyone.

As the number four pick in any NBA draft, you’re expected to contribute heavily and efficiently right away. Thompson hasn’t lived up to expectations in that sense, but if you step away from the vacuum of “he was the fourth overall pick” and look at the rest of the draft, his production, or lack thereof, for the number four pick is more understood. For comparison’s sake, the only player taken ahead of him that has clearly succeeded more than Thompson has been Irving. With Derrick Williams and Enes Kanter, while an argument can be made that both of them have been more efficient than Thompson, it’s so close that it really is splitting hairs to some extent.

Then you look at the players taken after Tristan Thompson that were a realistic possibility for the Cavs. The one that comes up the most is Jonas Valanciunas, who was expected to be taken by the Cavs at number four (I personally didn’t want him at the time because I wasn’t willing to wait a year for him to play overseas with that high of a pick). This is also a close debate between the two players, as much as the pro-Valanciunas/anti-Thompson crowd would be reluctant to admit. This article written during last season by Zach Salzmann of RaptorsHQ highlights some of the struggles Jonas has encountered during his young career.

Thompson has had high expectations as the Cavs’ number four overall pick in 2011. But when you look at some of the players that the Cavs could’ve plausibly picked at that time, Tristan Thompson hasn’t been clearly outshined.

His role with the 2014-15 Cavaliers

A big part of this depends on what happens with the Kevin Love deal that will probably happen. However, to make things simpler, I’ll just assume (for now) a deal doesn’t get done and we go into next season with the roster as is (which won’t happen).

The current lineup would most likely look like this:

PG: Kyrie Irving

SG: Andrew Wiggins

SF: LeBron James

PF: Tristan Thompson

C: Anderson Varejao

The two biggest changes from last year are the additions of Andrew Wiggins and LeBron James. I’d like to say LeBron coming in will give Thompson a big spike in productivity, especially in terms of rebounding, but how much of a step he takes this year will be much in part due to his own improvement. We all remember him switching shooting hands before the season last year. This saw an impressive improvement in his free throw shooting (60.8% to 69.3%) and around the basket (3-10 feet out; 39.2% to 42%).

His jump shot still leaves a lot to be desired. His hand switch rendered his impact with these shots ineffective, as he shot 34.9% from 10-16 feet out, down 3.9% from last season. Floor spacing on this team is always a great thing and Thompson can be a big part of that if he can improve his shot from mid range, much like Varejao has over his career. This would give the Cavs an extra pick-and-pop player to utilize.

Speaking of Varejao, with the starting lineup the way it’s projected, Thompson will likely continue to struggle to get rebounds the way he’s capable of. Varejao has been one of the best rebounders in the league over the last few years when he’s been healthy. Rebounding is one of Thompson’s best attributes, so it’s a bit redundant having him out there with Varejao considering the latter also possesses supreme passing ability and a solid jumper. Getting Kevin Love and sending Thompson to the bench would be the best thing for both the Cavs and Tristan.

Going forward: Starter or bench player?

Speaking of the bench, that’s probably where Tristan could do his damage on this team and where his skillset fits him the best. I only see this happening if/when the Love deal happens. For the argument of him being a bench player, let’s say the deal goes down with Wiggins and Anthony Bennett being traded away. This is probably what two of the lineups would look like:

Starting lineup:

PG: Kyrie Irving

SG: Dion Waiters

SF: LeBron James

PF: Kevin Love

C: Anderson Varejao

Rotational lineup:

PG: Matthew Dellavedova

SG: Dion Waiters

SF: Mike Miller

PF: LeBron James

C: Tristan Thompson

Unless the Cavs sign a cheap rim protector, Thompson is looking to see minutes at center in a small lineup. Additionally, perhaps we shouldn’t rule out Thompson starting at center instead of Varejao. It would make more sense to limit Varejao’s minutes if you have to pick between the two. Nonetheless, Varejao is more experienced there and Thompson can still get ample minutes coming off the bench because of the current lack of bigs on the Cavs’ roster.

As a rookie, Thompson played in 60 games, starting 25 of them. Since then, Thompson has started all 164 games in the last two seasons. His experience the last few years as a regular starter would help should Love get hurt (has missed 96 games out of a possible 246 in the last three seasons).

With this lineup, Thompson should provide energy off the bench, something that is valuable to any team in the NBA. His rebounding is much more useful coming off the bench away from Varejao. With shooters like Waiters and Miller on the court – and even Dellavedova to some extent – offensive rebounds will be super beneficial to get these guys more possessions and touches.

Tristan Thompson has been both praised and – probably more so – criticized during his time with the Cavaliers. In reality, both aren’t wrong, but there’s middle ground to be had when talking about him. To me, he’s a solid player to have on the bench of a championship caliber team. He’s a hustle player who will get you a good amount of rebounds that lead to more possessions. He’s almost like what Varejao was in the early years. And as we know, there’s always room for a player like that.