There was plenty of star power in last year’s NBA Finals, but it was Andre Iguodala, a reserve in three of the six games between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, who won the MVP. While most eyes will be on LeBron James and Stephen Curry ahead of Game 1 on Thursday night, the outcome of the series could once again be determined by a far less prominent player.
The Warriors' Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are expected to be major contributors, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise, since both players have better than 9/1 odds to win the finals MVP award, via Bovada.lv. The play of streaky Cavs guard J.R. Smith often swings the outcome of Cleveland’s game, and he might be a worthy bet at 40/1.
Tristan Thompson, however, might have the most value at 100/1, considering the kind of impact he can have on the series. The mild-mannered big man often doesn't exhibit much of a killer instinct, but that doesn't mean he isn't appreciated on a roster of big-name players.
“I don’t care what other teams think (or) what other people think about him,” head coach Tyronn Lue said of Thompson in April after he finished just 10th in Sixth Man of the Year voting. “This team and myself, (we) value him at a high level. He’s the pulse of our team as far as what we want to do offensively and defensively. To me, he’s way bigger than that.”
Thompson posted improved numbers in the 2015 NBA Finals when facing a smaller lineup. He had double-digit rebound totals in every game, with averages of 10 points and 13 rebounds per contest. Cleveland rewarded him with a max contract in the offseason worth $82 million over five years, though he hasn’t been as consistent as the team had hoped. The 25-year-old averaged 5.4 points and 7.0 rebounds on 51.4 percent shooting in regular-season losses, but he averaged 8.9 points and 9.9 rebounds while shooting 61.3 percent from the field in 57 wins.
Even in the playoffs, Thompson totaled just two points in Cleveland’s two losses against Toronto. He’s grabbed at least 10 rebounds in six playoff games with the Cavs winning those contests by an average of 15.3 points.
What Thompson lacks in scoring, he makes up for in rebounds and the intangibles. He has raised his field-goal percentage dramatically in his fifth season (55.8) from his rookie season (43.9), and has been effective in helping James and the Cavs guards score when he sets screens. He was also tied for second in the regular season with 268 offensive rebounds, and he’s second in the playoffs to only Steven Adams.
Adams helped the Oklahoma City Thunder dominate the glass in the Western Conference finals, giving them a 3-1 series lead before they wilted under Golden State’s onslaught of three-pointers over the final three games. If Cleveland is going to have a chance to upset the Warriors, Thompson may have to play a similar role, controlling the glass and giving the Cavaliers the edge in shot attempts.
Cleveland has a better chance to defeat Golden State this year now that both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are both healthy. But they are defensive liabilities, and the Cavs won’t be able to simply outscore the Warriors in high-scoring games for the entire series. With Timofey Mozgov seeing limited time on the court this postseason, Cleveland have turned towards Thompson to be their rim protector.
The durable Thompson isn’t a traditional center at just 6’9, and he only averages 0.6 blocks per game. But he can provide the Cavs with a big defensive lift against the Warriors, especially when Golden State plays Green in the paint.
Thompson won’t put up big offensive numbers, but with his 7'1.25'' wingspan he can change the series by being a force on the glass and playing an heightened role on defense. It's a big stretch to expect Thompson to somehow take home the MVP like Iguodala did last year, but it wouldn't be surprising if the Cavs win a title because of Thompson's contributions.