When Tristan Thompson left the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was in pursuit of winning. Joining the Boston Celtics after the 2019-20 season was, in his words, about pursuing a championship.
Spending the first nine years of my career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, obviously being drafted there at 19 and winning a championship, and having a lot of success but also going through the process of what it takes to get to the mountain top, of course it’s tough,” Thompson said at his intro press conference, per NBC Sports Boston. “But it’s a chapter in life. I think in life, you go through different phases and different chapters like a book. I had an amazing opportunity to play for a franchise for nine years … at the end of the day it’s a business.
“I think this is the best decision for me in my career in the point I’m at to join a team that’s trying to do something special. For me, going to four straight NBA Finals and winning a championship, knowing what the (Celtics) want to achieve and get to the promised land, if I can come here and help be a part of that and get them over the hump that would be an honor.”
Cleveland, at the time, was just starting a rebuild. Darius Garland has just completed his rookie season. Evan Mobley was still in high school. Donovan Mitchell played for the Utah Jazz. In the 2019-20 season, the Cavs won 19 games in a pandemic shortened season. For part of the year, they were coached by John Beilein. It was, arguably, their lowest point since LeBron James left for a second time.
A lot has changed since then. Cleveland hasn’t proven itself as a title contender yet. But last year’s first round playoff exit aside, this is a good team that has expectations to win. They have gone from being one of the league’s worst teams in 2019-20 to being one of the best teams in the league heading into the 2023-24 season.
Thompson, meanwhile, did not win in Boston. He spent a year with the Celtics before being traded to the Sacramento Kings in the summer of 2021. In February 2022, he was dealt to the Indiana Pacers as part of the Tyrese Haliburton-Domantas Sabonis swap. He played four games for the Pacers before being bought out. He then finished that season with the Chicago Bulls, appearing in 23 games.
Last season, he worked much of the season on ESPN as an analyst before cameoing with LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. He is not who he was when he left Cleveland in 2020. Thompson is not someone who can be depended upon to be a rotation player anymore.
So what is he, now that he’s back in Cleveland on a one-year deal for the veteran minimum? To be a veteran leader. Someone who can speak to the locker room and say what needs to be said, even if it’s uncomfortable. To help this group that came together after he left take the next step.
“Tristan embodies every trait we want as part of our team culture, and we couldn’t be more excited to bring his experience and character back into our franchise,” said Cavs president of basketball operations Koby Altman in the team’s announcement of the Thompson deal. “His impact both on and off the court is immeasurable, and his history with our team adds a layer of familiarity, leadership and physicality that will undoubtedly make a positive impact with our younger players. An integral part of our four consecutive NBA Finals trips and an NBA Championship in 2016, Tristan represented the organization with the utmost charm and professionalism during his nine seasons in Northeast Ohio. We are thrilled to reunite with Tristan and welcome him and his family back to the Cavaliers family.”
That first sentence is key. Team culture has been a talking point of Altman and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff since Bickerstaff took over for Beilein. Last season, Bickerstaff and the players sometimes talked about the lack of someone bringing an edge, that the group maybe needed someone to be a vocal leader.
Thompson may not be what he was as a player anymore. It would be surprise if he played regular minutes next season. He might be the third choice backup center behind Damian Jones and two-way player Isaiah Mobley. What he can be is the veteran, and one time title winner, that those players are not. Cleveland is betting that has value on a team looking to take the next step.