Cleveland Cavaliers

Tristan Thompson’s impending return leaves Tyronn Lue with difficult choice: Chris Fedor

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ latest win, a 116-111 nail-biter against the Memphis Grizzlies to extend their winning streak to 11 games, head coach Tyronn Lue sidestepped the question about Tristan Thompson going back in the starting lineup.

“We’ll see,” he said.

Thompson likely won’t play Monday night against the Chicago Bulls. The Cavs are hoping to get him some practice time first, wanting him to be more game ready before he’s re-inserted into the lineup. They have a planned day off before heading to Chicago in the middle of the afternoon.

“It’s been our routine and guys are getting in a pretty good rhythm putting in the work,” Lue said. “Guys are coming in, getting their shots up, getting their treatment and getting out. It’s really about the guys that are putting in the work. They’ve been putting in the work every single day, on off days they come in and continue to work. Right now we’re going to keep our same flow we’ve been having and stay with it.”

Thompson, who has missed the last 14 games with a strained left calf, is eyeing a return at some point next week, which leaves Lue with challenging choice.

Will he go with his original starting frontcourt, keeping Kevin Love at center while bringing Thompson off the bench, riding the lineup that’s played a large role in Cleveland’s best stretch of basketball this season? That way small-ball power forward Jae Crowder can stay with the starters and the spaced-out offense, which features five shooters, can continue to overwhelm opponents.

In eight games, the quintet of Jose Calderon (starting at point guard by default), J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Crowder and Love is averaging 34.1 points on 49.7 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from 3-point range in 14.7 minutes per night. That’s an offensive rating of 118.3 and an overall net rating of 6.2.

There are certainly issues defensively, especially with Love at center, but Lue’s thinking all along has centered on what he gains on offense with Love at center.

As Lue got off his seat, exited the postgame meeting room and strutted down the hallway, he had something to say for anyone still listening.

“Hey, we’re 15-3 with Kevin starting at center,” he said.

Yes, the Love-at-center experiment has been validated during this winning streak. The Cavs have gotten back to their old ways, bombing 3’s and attacking with a spread court, forcing the opponent into that nightmarish pick-your-poison conundrum.

Against Marc Gasol, another traditional center Saturday night, Love’s inside-outside game created numerous problems for Memphis, which ended up junking up the game by using smalls on bigs and vice versa — similar to what the Hawks tried. It was about doing anything to get the Cavs out of their offensive rhythm. It worked for stretches, but the Cavs made the right counters.

When guarded by big men, Love flared out to the 3-point line. When the mismatch was there near the hoop, he exploited it — just as he has done over the last 11 games. In the win against Memphis, Love finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 from the field and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc to go with 11 rebounds.

On defense, the Cavs have been able to blitz with the 5-man — either Love or Frye — while switching 1-4. A Love-Thompson frontcourt can’t execute that specific tactic. Switching Love often leads to breakdowns. 

It would be really easy for Lue to justify keeping Love at center. 

The other option is to go back to what he wanted prior to Thompson’s injury, moving Love back to his customary power forward position to limit the added wear and tear with him at center, and add Thompson to the starting group. Love doesn’t particularly like playing out of position so he would sign up for that. 

Still, Thompson in the starting lineup would create a bit of a nasty domino effect. 

It would threaten to restrict the offense, especiallhy with Thompson’s continued struggles on that end. While these numbers also coincide with the Cavs’ early-season problems, the team has an offensive rating of 106.6 with Thompson on the floor and an effective field goal percentage of 53.1. With him off the floor, both metrics improve, with the offensive rating going to 113.4 and 55 percent effective field goal percentage. The spacing is better. 

The other issue: What happens with Crowder? He said recently that he’s finally starting to get comfortable after his head was swimming in the first weeks of the regular season. How would he adjust to being a reserve once again? And what would that mean for the second unit?

As has been the case this season, the Dwyane Wade-led group helped the Cavaliers recover from a sluggish start against the Grizzlies, scoring 40 points in the win.

The four mainstays have been Wade, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Jeff Green. The last piece of that unit has rotated between Iman Shumpert (when healthy), Cedi Osman, Smith or James — depending on what Lue wants and where the game is.

Where would Crowder fit? Would that even matter to Lue? And if Thompson moves back to the bench, whose spot does he take, how many minutes will he get and will that one small move shake up one the league’s best second unit?

Thompson’s injury opened up opportunities for others to step up and helped simplify things for Lue. It gave each player a better understanding of how many minutes they would get and what role they would play. That’s a lingering question again. 

Changing anything is a risky proposition, especially for a team that found a working identity and lethal lineup combinations during Thompson’s absence. But Lue doesn’t have much of a choice. This is his next challenge in a season that has already been dotted with plenty of them. 

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