When the Cavaliers traded for Larry Nance Jr. on deadline day, it was difficult to believe they saw what would come next. He was a young big man that had played fairly well for the Lakers, which is nothing spectacular for a team with title aspirations. But he was someone they could use to provide a jolt of energy into a rotation that desperately needed it.
On Monday, Nance started his first game for the Cavaliers in place of the injured Tristan Thompson. He had played well up to this point, and there have already been rumblings from fans that he should be the current starter. But Thompson is a veteran. He won a championship with the Cavs and has the respect of his teammates. Players like that don't often get benched in place of a new face.
That said, the Cavs can't just ignore the production that is coming from Nance. In his first start, he scored a career-high 22 points and pulled down 15 rebounds. He's been a constant positive ever since he arrived. Through nine games, the Cavs have a net rating of 17.5 with Nance on the floor. That's spectacular and just speaks volumes to how well he is playing in this new situation. It also puts the Cavs in a rough spot.
Cleveland needs to figure out what to do with Thompson. He's expected to miss two weeks due to an ankle injury. Nance has clearly been the better player since he arrived and the Cavs are going to have a tough decision to make if he continues to play like this. This upcoming two-week period is a great opportunity for Nance to establish himself as a starter and closer for the Cavs.
There are still things that a fully-healthy Thompson should be able to do better. When the Cavs won a championship, it was largely in part because of what Thompson is capable of doing on the defensive end of the floor. When at his best, he's a superior rim protector compared to Nance, but what he really brings is pick-and-roll coverage. Thompson used to be excellent at containing guards in the pick-and-roll and allowing LeBron James to play the free safety role on defense.
However, this season has been one of Thompson's worst. He's been unable to hold up the defense and the Cavs are giving up 112.7 points every 100 possession when he's on the floor. He looks slower, he has dealt with injuries, and he has just been unable to keep up with the smaller lineups being thrown at him. These were the same lineups he used to dominate defensively.
His latest ankle injury could be an excuse for the Cavs to move him to the bench for the rest of the season. Especially if they start winning games while he's out. Cleveland isn't exactly in a situation where it can choose to be picky with what works. It only leads the Pacers by a half game in the playoff standings. Getting the best players on the floor and figuring out the rest later should be the priority, but that still doesn't fix the Thompson conundrum.
There aren't many lineups where he has been effective and he's been an absolute train wreck with George Hill so far this season. The team gives up 120.8 points every 100 possessions when they share the floor. Considering those two are going to work together in the pick-and-roll a lot, that's not great to see. But they can't afford to keep him on the bench the entire game. He needs to fill up minutes and he's still the team's best traditional center.
The solution probably exists with the return of Kevin Love from injury. When Love is healthy, the Cavs like to start big traditional lineups to avoid playing him at center. In order to get Thompson in a situation where he can succeed, this might be where he needs to be: The starting lineup.
Then, when the game speeds up and teams go smaller, the Cavs can close out with Nance. This will let the Cavs keep their size without having to sacrifice the speed needed to combat smaller lineups. As long as Nance is playing more minutes than Thompson and finishing out games, he'll be just as effective as if he were starting.
None of this can happen. however, until the Cavs are fully healthy. For now, these next two weeks will be a chance for Nance to prove that he deserves those minutes. Considering how great he's been so far, it won't take him long.