Tristan Thompson has emerged as a vital player for the Cleveland Cavaliers this postseason.
Following Kevin Love’s season-ending injury, Thompson’s minutes have jumped to 39 per game, and he’s averaging nine points, 10 rebounds, and one block on 57% shooting.
Because of the Cavs’ lack of depth, Thompson is hugely important, and he’s producing in his big minutes. With Thompson on the floor, the Cavs are outscoring opponent by 10 points per 100 possessions, and their offensive rating improves from 107.6 to 109.8.
However, Cleveland will be in an awkward position this summer when Thompson becomes a restricted free agent. Early in the season, the Cavs attempted to retain Thompson long term by offering him a four-year, $US52 million extension. Amazingly, Thompson turned it down.
This kind of move has worked for players in the past. Jimmy Butler looks like a genius for turning down a $US40 million extension in October since he’ll receive a max contract this summer. However, Butler is one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Thompson is a serviceable big man, a rebounding savant who’s limited on the offensive end and decent on defence. For as well-paid as big men in the NBA are, committing any more than $US13 million a season to Thompson is pushing the boundaries on what he’s worth.
As a restricted free agent, the Cavs can match any offer Thompson receives. However, the Cavaliers are in a tough spot because Iman Shumpert will also be a restricted free agent, and J.R. Smith and Kevin Love both have player options this summer, which they can choose to take or become free agents (however, they’d both be smart to opt in and become free agents in 2016 when the salary cap jumps when the NBA’s new TV deal kicks in).
If the Cavs retain all of these players at market value (along with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on max deals), their payroll will skyrocket into luxury tax territory, resulting in harsh financial penalties from the NBA and little flexibility to make roster improvements in free agency.
Making matters more awkward, LeBron is already campaigning for Thompson, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. James told reporters:
“Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career… There’s no reason why he shouldn’t… This guy is 24 years old. He’s played in 340-plus straight games, and he’s gotten better every single season. It’s almost like what more can you ask out of a guy, even though we ask for more out of him.”
“He plays his heart out every single night, and he has zero sense of entitlement in this league. All he cares about is coming into work. Whatever is given to him, he relishes the opportunity, and he’s a great teammate. So he’ll be here for a long time.”
James wields an unprecedented amount of power with the Cavaliers, and is basically putting the onus on the Cavs to re-sign Thompson.
Cleveland would obviously love to re-sign Thompson, as noted by their big offer before the season, but doing so will either require a big financial commitment to their current core of players or letting go of one of Shumpert, Smith, or Love.
Even with the huge salary cap jump down the road, the Cavs risk overpaying Thompson if they try to re-sign him before other teams come calling this summer. The ideal situation for the Cavs may be to let Thompson dangle in free agency, wait until a team offers him a contract, and then match it.
Though a team might intentionally offer Thompson a bloated contract to try and lure him from the Cavs, it likely wouldn’t be much higher than the $US13 million per season he was offered at the beginning of the year. The most an opposing team could offer Thompson is about four years, $US71 million, and that’s assuming any team would want to give a somewhat limited role player a max contract.
The bigger problem for Cleveland is that they’re now under pressure from James to re-sign Thompson, and they may be forced to implicate their long-term financial flexibility to do so.
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