It’s never pretty with Tristan Thompson but the veteran Canadian big man with the movie star looks (yes, he’s been mistaken for Michael B. Jordan) and the celebrity romantic relationships has never bothered with that.
In his ninth season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thompson has won a championship, played in three other NBA Finals and earned nearly $100 million and counting but his ”see ball, get ball” formula has never wavered.
“It’s just my DNA,” Thompson told Sportsnet in a near empty visitor’s locker room at Scotiabank Arena after his Cavaliers were thumped by his hometown Toronto Raptors 133-113 as the Cavs fell to 6-21 on the season.
Thompson was Thompson, though, as he put up 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds and dished three assists in his 33 minutes.
“At the end of the day I’m the leader of this team, it’s on me to punch the clock with these young guys and these new guys,” he says. “I have to set the tone with my energy and come in ready to play and not just on the court but off the floor, holding myself to a higher standard because they’re watching everything I do. I was lucky to break in with vets who did it the right way so it’s up to me to pay it forward.”
Over his career, Thompson has changed his free-throw shooting from left-handed to right-handed and worked some more nuanced skills into his tool box while matching a high basketball IQ with a world-class motor, but making his game glamourous or aesthetically appealing has never been on the agenda.
So the game might be an ungainly collection of floaters and last-man-standing put-backs, but the most beautiful thing of all is you always know what you’re going to get from the Brampton, Ont., native: a battle to the end for every rebound, speed in transition and the ability and willingness to switch out and guard on the perimeter while hustling back to the paint to protect the rim and collect the scraps.
“He’s one of those guys that has an incredible motor,” says Cavs teammate Larry Nance Jr. “He doesn’t know any better. Whether it’s practice, whether it’s a game, whether it’s pick-up, he just plays hard as hell. He doesn’t know any better. It’s impressive to see but it’s not even a decision to make, it’s who he is.
Playing against him?
“It’s a total pain in the ass to be honest with you,” says Nance Jr., having matched up with Thompson in practice and pick-up games. “But that’s just who he is, and he’s made a hell of a career out of it. I wish more people had that.”
This season with the Cavaliers will provide the ultimate test and Thompson will pass it. Two years ago, Cleveland swept the Raptors for the second straight year and played in their fourth straight NBA Finals. But when LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavaliers had no choice but to rebuild, and they showed why it’s a project with no end in sight. They allowed the Raptors to shoot 58.4 per cent from the floor – not all that unusual for a team that came into the game ranked 28th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
But Thompson still put in work. He doggedly wrestled with Marc Gasol in the paint, giving up four inches and 30 pounds and then gave the quicker and more skilled Pascal Siakam a challenge out to the three-point line.
In good times and bad, Thompson has proven reliable. From that perspective, he’s a coach’s dream.
“He has been a Cav his entire life and he has a lot of pride so he’s working really hard to lead this young team and do the best he can,” says Cleveland head coach John Beilein, an NBA rookie at age 66 after a storied NCAA coaching career.
When unnamed Cavs were complaining recently about some of their new coach’s methods, it was Thompson who spoke up in support and quelled the mini-uprising.
“He’s been a warrior. You watch him tonight, he’ll go after virtually every rebound every single time with everything he’s got.
“So it’s a wrestling match at one end, a wrestling match at the other end and by the way he has to sprint. And he’s usually going to the basket so he’s got further than everyone else to run. He’s been a warrior on so many games and has really helped us with the successes we’ve had and some of the tough losses we’ve had we wouldn’t be in it without him.”
A pending free agent Thompson’s contract status might preclude him from playing for Canada at the Olympic Qualifying tournament in Victoria, B.C., in June although if they make it through, the Olympics in Japan might be in play. Raptors and Canadian national team head coach Nick Nurse would love to have him.
“We hope he plays,” said Nurse, who spoke with Thompson during his pre-game warm-up. “He’s one of the best rebounding bigs in the world. We’re playing on the world stage. He’d look good on our team.”
He’d look good on a lot of teams. In the short term, the ultimate reward for Thompson might be a ticket out of Cleveland, his only NBA home, although there is talk that they should re-sign him as a pillar in their rebuild. In his last year of his five-year, $80-million contract, Thompson is the kind of veteran playoff-bound teams would love to add. Could his hometown Raptors use his blend of grit, size and smarts?
Absolutely, although price is always a big part of the equation. The Cavs may be holding out for a first-round pick for Thompson, but there are doubts they’ll get one for a role-playing rental.
Regardless, Thompson will be sought after because he brings certainty.
As one NBA executive put it when assessing the attractiveness of Thompson to a contender between now and the Feb. 6th NBA trade deadline: “You know what you’re getting.”
His teammates take note and try to follow his example. There aren’t many NBA players who don’t find a way to bring it when things are rolling and a long playoff run is in sight. But when things go south?
“We’re all very competitive. You don’t get to this point by losing,” said Nance Jr., who is in his third season playing alongside Thompson. “But now that you’re here, struggling, it is easy to kind of drop your head and get frustrated with what’s going on.”
But broke in with a losing Cavs team by establishing himself as one of the most energetic bigs in the NBA; Thompson earned the trust of LeBron James in Cleveland’s runs to the finals by being one of the league’s most energetic bigs and he hasn’t shifted down now that the Cavaliers are lottery bound again.
“You do it on a championship team, you do it in the playoffs, that stuff is noticed more,” he says. “But whether you’re in the playoffs or not, you have to be true to yourself. For me, what I bring to the table is play hard every night and I can’t waver regardless of what the situation is.”
Along the way he’s learned some tricks. The rookies might be drenching their waffles in maple syrup, but if they’re paying attention, they’ll notice Thompson helping himself to avocado spread on whole grain toast.
He’s the first one at the practice facility for treatment and one of the last to get more treatment after, the better to keep the motor running smoothly.
Thompson’s approach adds up. He’s one of three players to average six offensive rebounds per 100 possessions since he broke into the league; his 1,993 offensive rebounds is third in the NBA over the same period and his 17.4 total rebounding percentage is eighth among players with at least 500 games.
Thompson’s game has never been pretty and he’s never worried about making it so. The Michael B. Jordan comparisons will have to do.
“Me and Mike are cool. I know him. People always mistake us,” says Thompson.
But his consistency and commitment to his role just might earn him an elegant exit from Cleveland by the trade deadline.