Forsberg: Should Celtics bring back Tristan Thompson?


The Boston Celtics brought in Tristan Thompson this season with hopes that his playoff experience could help a young core get over a postseason hump. Alas, Boston didn’t hang around long enough to find out.

The question now is do the Celtics bring back Thompson to be Robert Williams’ tag-team partner at the center position, or use Thompson’s contract as a possible trade asset in hopes of upgrading elsewhere?

Like most of Boston’s offseason decisions, the question boils down to this: Does Thompson accentuate the talents of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, particularly if thrust into an elevated role if Williams cannot stay healthy.

The answer: It's complicated.

The Thompson/Brown/Tatum trio logged 1,210 possessions together this season and had a good-but-not-great net rating of plus-3.8. That still ranked in the 75th percentile among all three-man lineups with at least 100 possessions played, per Cleaning the Glass. But nearly 40 percent of those possessions came in double-big lineups that also featured deadline-dealt Daniel Theis.

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When we zoom in on solo-big lineups featuring Thompson and the Jays, there’s only one five-man unit north of 100 possessions -- a Kemba Walker/Marcus Smart/Brown/Tatum/Thompson lineup that played 115 possessions and had a minus-3.2 net rating. That’s particularly wild considering that the lineup generated 133.9 points per 100 possessions -- an insane number -- but was an abomination on the defensive end.

It felt like the eye test sometimes suggested the opposite, that Thompson’s traditional-big ways often clogged things up a bit and, while his work on the offensive glass aided an inconsistent offense, he was slow to embrace kicking the ball out to open 3-point shooters after collecting those caroms. For the season, Boston averaged just 111.9 points per 100 possessions -- or a hair below the season average for a 10th-ranked offense -- in Thompson’s 1,287 minutes.

Boston’s path forward might hinge on what’s available this summer. The Celtics could utilize the rest of the Gordon Hayward trade exception (roughly $11 million) to pursue size on the trade market, or maybe utilize the $5.9 taxpayer midlevel to pursue a lower-cost big.

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Thompson’s salary is pretty digestible for any team in need of a veteran big (hey there, Portland, desire another former Celtics big man?) If the Celtics have tough decisions about trimming salary, Thompson could be bundled with, say, Smart’s contract (only if the team isn’t prepared to pay his next contract with Smart in the final year of his deal) in pursuit of the sort of high-cost player that Boston has no other pathway to pursue.

The philosophy of the next coach could also play a big part in Thompson’s future in green. Stevens often leaned on small-ball lineups with bigs that could spread the floor. If the new coach prefers an offense with a more traditional big who can set screens and work the glass, then Thompson could get another opportunity. He’s entering the final year of the two-year pact he signed with Boston.

Thompson undoubtedly finished the year stronger than he started it, this after missing most of training camp with hamstring issues while already coming off an eight-month basketball hiatus due to the pandemic. He missed extended time during the year while in COVID protocol.

Boston’s core yearned for a Thompson-like presence going into last season and, despite some midseason rumblings, teammates spoke highly of his presence in the locker room.

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Questions about Thompson’s future might be easier to answer if Williams was healthier or if Boston had other options to lean on. The team traded away Theis at the deadline to get below the tax (and to free more playing time for Williams) and that bit them a bit when Williams battled ankle and toe injuries late in the year.

The Celtics could consider bringing Luke Kornet back as a low-cost third big and floor-stretcher. The team might be better suited to use a 2-way slot to find a big who isn’t quite the project that Tacko Fall has been at the center spot, in case injury woes invade again.

We do know that Brad Stevens the coach loved veteran presences. Will Stevens the president feel the same way as he builds his first roster at the helm of basketball operations?

Thompson’s future is just part of the puzzle that Stevens needs to put together this summer and there are no easy answers.

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