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NBA Saturday: Tristan Thompson Has Been Key for Cavaliers

Tristan Thompson is making life miserable for the Warriors over the last few games.

Jesse Blancarte

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When the Golden State Warriors won the 2014-15 NBA championship, many people complained that they were fortunate to avoid several top-level Western Conference foes and that their NBA Finals victory came against a decimated Cleveland Cavaliers team. The Warriors certainly heard the criticism from people inside and outside of the league and subsequently spent this entire season destroying teams at a historic rate in an attempt to prove last season was no fluke.

The Warriors sure did grab the NBA’s collective attention this season. Stephen Curry put together one of the best individual seasons of all-time. Klay Thompson continued to improve his overall game, while putting together some timely clutch performances during the regular season and the playoffs. Draymond Green also improved his overall game and is now firmly established as one of the best overall players in the league. In addition, the Warriors’ role players have collectively stepped up all season and provided the sort of depth that most teams have no hope of competing with over 48 minutes on any given night.

As a reward for all of their achievements this season, the Warriors earned another shot at beating the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals – and this time Cleveland would have a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. After six games, everything comes down to Sunday when the Warriors will host the Cavaliers in a decisive Game 7 at Oracle Arena. However, while Irving has had some big performances for the Cavaliers, they have received little production from Love on either end of the court. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, Tristan Thompson has filled in for Love and provided a little bit of everything for Cleveland in this series.

In Game 6, Thompson contributed 15 points, 16 rebounds and three assists, while making all six of his field goal attempts and three of his four free throw attempts. Additionally, Thompson led the Cavaliers with a plus-minus rating of +32, ahead of even LeBron James (who had a +26 rating).

However, Thompson was even better in Game 6 than his box score statistics suggest. Thompson has managed to impact the game by setting effective screens, finding multiple ways to get James space to attack the rim, running the court in transition and being opportunistic when the Warriors lose track of him among many other things.

In this first clip, we see James call for a screen from Richard Jefferson so he can switch off of Andre Iguodala and onto Curry. This leaves James in a one-on-one matchup with Curry, though Iguodala and Green allow Jefferson to go to the opposite corner so they can focus on protecting the rim. Thompson recognizes that Iguodala is waiting for James, so he darts into the lane and clears Iguodala out. As a result, Green gets stuck behind the scuffle, Iguodala is out of position and James gets an easy shot directly over Curry. Thompson easily could have been called for a foul on this play, but the refs missed it and the Cavs get two easy points.

In the second clip, Thompson again sees an opportunity to free James from Iguodala by setting a screen at the three-point line. Again, Thompson’s positioning is on point and the angle he takes gives James enough space to get around Iguodala and past Festus Ezeli.

The box score won’t show that Thompson was responsible for getting James open on both of these plays, but a player like Thompson likely isn’t too concerned about that. After Game 6, Thompson explained his role and what his role is and how he tries to impact the game.

“(You’ve got to) do your job. Do it at a high level. Give it everything you’ve got,” Thompson said after Thursday night’s game. “This is it. This is it. This is The Finals. There’s not much more to say about that.

“Like LeBron and Kyrie said, be a star in your role. And for me that’s high energy, use my motor, just play hard. Play hard be relentless on the glass. And that’s what I bring to this team. That’s my job … and I try to do that every night.”

Thompson has definitely been a star in his role over the last few games. His ability to set effective screens has freed James to attack the rim relentlessly and penetrate the Warriors’ defense, allowing him to either score at the rim or kick the ball out to open shooters. Additionally, Thompson is making himself a target by clearing out James’ defender and staying ready for easy scoring opportunities, as we see in this clip.

Thompson played a game-high 43 minutes in Game 6, but still managed to be play physically and never lost pace. He even was able to be a weapon in transition by filling a lane and running hard down the court. With James often handling the ball and multiple shooters on the court, Thompson likely isn’t the Warriors’ number one priority in these situations. Knowing this, Thompson was able to run to the rim and find easy alley oops from James.

“Amazing,” is how J.R. Smith described Thompson’s night. “He hasn’t been having the series he wanted to. Tonight, the last two games actually, was huge. The way he’s been playing, hustling down, getting loose balls, rebounds, knocking down his free throws when they try and foul him to slow the game down. He’s been doing a hell of a job. He’s worth every penny he’s got.”

It’s notable that Smith mentioned that Thompson is “worth every penny.” Thompson and the Cavaliers were at a stalemate before this season started as Thompson wanted a max-level contract. It was a divisive issue, but the Cavaliers stepped up and brought Thompson back into the fold. The Cavaliers are now reaping the benefits of having Thompson on the squad as he has been a key figure in keeping Cleveland’s season alive in these last two games.

Considering that Thompson has been doing all of the little things to help his team win, and Love has been less than stellar, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Cavaliers’ best lineups in this series feature Thompson. This is true despite the fact that Thompson still has little range and can only score around the rim, as we can see in his shot chart:

Despite this significant limitation, Thompson has managed to be opportunistic, punishing the Warriors whenever they cheat off of him or don’t pay attention to him.

In this clip, Thompson finds himself on the weak-side of the court as J.R. Smith aggressively attacks the rim. Smith draws three defenders, finding Thompson open for an easy alley oop. Thompson is the beneficiary of Smith’s decisive attack on the basket, but this sort of play underscores what Thompson has contributed over the last few games.

Between setting tough (though arguably illegal) screens, opening up space for James, running the floor in transition, gobbling up rebounds, guarding Curry and other wings on the perimeter effectively and finding spots on the court for opportunistic baskets, Thompson has been giving the Warriors the sort of headaches that Draymond Green tends to give his opponents.

“His physicality every night, guarding one through five and on the glass, it’s critical to who we are,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “Tristan is the heart and soul of this team.”

That sort of description is what we usually hear when Green’s teammates and coaches talk about his style of play and contributions. Thompson may not be as big of a contributor as Green overall, but his effectiveness in the last few games is undeniable. The Cavaliers are still underdogs heading into Game 7, but if they pull off the biggest Finals comeback in history, you can bet that Thompson will be one of the key reasons why.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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