Tristan Thompson sprained his ankle and is expected to miss two weeks of action. For a team that has faced as much turmoil as the Cleveland Cavaliers have this season, you can argue that the last thing they need is another storm. But storms bring clouds and clouds have silver linings, and one of those linings is named Larry Nance Jr.
Through 10 games with the Cavs, Nance is averaging 11.3 points, 7.6 boards, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. He’s shooting 60.3 percent from the field and 74.1 percent from the stripe. He’s doing all that in just 23.1 minutes per game.
In his one start after Thompson went down, Nance dropped 22 points, 15 boards and two steals in a shade under 32 minutes. That’s not too shabby at all. In his 508 games with the Cavaliers, Thompson has had two 20-point, 15-rebound performances, with the last one coming on Feb. 12, 2014, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Nance offers more than just a box score advantage over Thompson. Nance has a versatility that Thompson doesn’t have offensively, as FanRag Sports’ Daniel O’Brien wrote about after Nance came to Cleveland.
One big factor is that while Nance isn’t a “stretch 5” by any means, he has better range than Thompson. In his first nine games, he has already hit nine shots from 10 feet or more. Thompson hit 11 in the last two years combined.
That means defenses must honor him at least a little, which means he can open up things a little more for LeBron James instead of clogging the lanes. LeBron shoots 57.1 percent when on the court with Nance compared to 51.0 percent when he’s with Thompson. Obviously, a better version of James is better for the Cavaliers.
Furthermore, the James/Nance tandem has a net rating of plus-22.0. The James Thompson duo is minus-6.1.
Part of the reason for that: Nance has been a better fit for Cleveland. He has the athleticism and footspeed to at least slow down perimeter player on switches, and he is much better at protecting the rim. Shooters within six feet of the basket shoot 6.6 percentage points better when Thompson is the closest defender, but since Nance came to Cleveland, they’re shooting 2.1 percentage points worse.
Nance is also recording 3.0 deflections per game and recovering 1.1 loose balls. He is second to Thompson in screen assists, and just barely. He’s contesting 10.2 shots per game compared with Thompson’s 9.2. In other words, Nance is doing all the “hustle” tasks Thompson does, but with better numbers and overall defense.
That has a ripple effect. The Cavs’ defensive rating with Nance on the court is 13.4 points better than when he’s not. Overall, they’re 17.7 points better. That’s the biggest difference of anyone on the team. That doesn’t mean he is the “best” player on the team, but it does mean he’s doing things no one else is doing.
Nance could be the piece that makes everything work: an athletic, two-way center who can hit jumpers, rim-run, set screens, and fill all the gaps left open by the Cavs’ big men all season. Best of all, as Kevin Love reacclimates to the lineup, he’ll probably be a better fit alongside the All-Star power forward.
Nance’s place in the starting lineup might be what the Cavs need to salvage their season and get back to the Finals. In the end, that success might keep LeBron James in town next year.
Silver linings don’t get much better than that. This one is worth the storm.