When the Boston Celtics lost star forward Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets in free agency early Saturday afternoon, the 2020 Eastern Conference runner-ups were in trouble of regressing in depth and talent.
The Celtics had already traded Enes Kanter back to the Portland Trail Blazers, shortening their already thin frontcourt rotation. The loss of Hayward crossed off another key player that helped things click when he was healthy.
Later Saturday night, Yahoo Sports Chris Haynes came through with a notification that saved Boston's offseason, reporting the Celtics had signed Tristan Thompson to a two-year, $19 million deal.
You might think "saved Boston's offseason" is hyperbole for the signing of the 29-year-old centre, but it's not. Adding a player with Thompson's experience is exactly what the Celtics need to get over the roadblock that has ended their season in three of the last for years - the Eastern Conference Finals.
The former No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft has 78 games of playoff experience to his name, playing in four NBA Finals with a championship ring to show for it. He was the interior anchor of those Cleveland Cavaliers teams that Boston is so familiar with, falling short to Thompson's former team in two of those four Conference Finals appearances.
At 6-foot-9, 254 lbs. with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Thompson adds some much-needed size to the Celtics lacking frontcourt. While last season's starting centre Daniel Theis proved he's more than serviceable in that role, exceeding all expectations to help lead Boston as far into the postseason as it went, it's clear that help was needed. Knowing that you'll likely have to go through some order of Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Bam Adebayo to win the East is enough to clarify why the Thompson signing is so crucial.
Thompson is coming off of a career-year in Cleveland, averaging 12.0 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. While rebounding wasn't a huge issue for Boston's undersized roster last season (ranking eighth in the NBA in rebounds per game and 11th in opponent rebounds per game), losing one of the league's best boardsmen in Kanter gets washed by adding another top-tier rebounder in Thompson. Thompson is a bonafide rebounding machine that might allow Boston to rely less on team rebounding and getting out more in the open floor. They haven't had that option in quite some time. In fact, according to ESPN Stats and Info., the C's haven't had anyone average double figures in rebounds since Al Jefferson in 2006-07 - 13 long seasons. While Thompson's rebounding (particularly on the offensive end) will surely create a number of second chances and extra possessions, defensively is where Thompson helps the most.
The numbers don't tell the entire story, because Boston was one of the best defensive teams in the league last season. Despite not having an intimidating frontcourt presence - again, no disrespect to Theis who was incredibly solid in his role as a rim protector - the Celtics still only allowed 43.4 points in the paint per game, the third-best mark in the league.
Thompson isn't a known elite rim protector (he hasn't averaged over one block per game since 2016-17) but he's extremely physical, immediately adding an imposing big to anchor the defence. More importantly, Boston gets that size and length without sacrificing athleticism, as Thompson is still a capable defender in a switch-heavy defence like the one head coach Brad Stevens operates.
While the starting centre spot is to be determined, one thing that's certain is the rotation of Thompson and Theis with bursts of the energetic and athletic Robert Williams gives the Celtics three viable options to defend the best bigs in the East with a trio of different looks.
Where Theis and Williams are great options if Boston wants to go smaller and quicker, Thompson's physicality makes life more difficult for players like Adebayo or Embiid.
Watch this possession from last season where Thompson stonewalls Adebayo, forcing a contested hook shot.
Adebayo is typically quicker than the opposing big matched up with him, but you see there that he respects Thompson's mobility because he doesn't immediately attempt to blow by him to get to the rim. After deciding to attack with a post-move, Thompson halts Adebayo's momentum, using his length to disrupt a clear look at the basket while staying grounded on any fakes. When Adebayo tries to go through Thompson, he stands his ground to force a miss.
With Adebayo that close to the rim against a smaller defender like Theis, a slower defender like Kanter or an inexperienced defender like Williams, that's likely two points for the Heat. That's where Thompson helps fill one of the Celtics' biggest voids.
You'll see it here against the monstrous Embiid, too.
Using last year's centre rotation as an example again: that initial backdown likely gets Embiid to the rim against Theis or Williams. While Kanter may have absorbed that contact, it's hard to believe he shuffles his feet as quick as Thompson did to get a good contest on Embiid's fadeaway jumper. Of course, Thompson had help here as Jordan Clarkson doubles down, but it's Joel Embiid, a little bit of help is always going to be necessary. Thompson defends this attempt perfectly, forcing the 7-foot, 280-pounder to attempt a contested shot falling away 15 feet from the rim - a shot you'll live with every day of the week.
Boston's frontcourt was the team's biggest question mark heading into last season and they still found a way to return to the Conference Finals. In adding a player with championship DNA, plenty of playoff experience and a physical presence on the glass and on defence, the Celtics have found the missing piece to a team that has NBA title potential.
If Boston clears the Conference Finals hurdle and returns to the NBA Finals, the signing of Tristan Thompson will certainly have played a vital role.
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