There were numerous reasons Tristan Thompson held leverage over the Cavaliers as a restricted free agent two years ago:
- Thompson was coming into his own as a player. His defensive versatility was especially important as the NBA became more reliant on small ball, and his offensive rebounding was a dangerous weapon in that paradigm. In fact, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love injured, Thompson was probably Cleveland’s second-best player during its playoff run to the Finals.
- He was just 24. At that age, he projected to remain productive throughout his next contract.
- New national TV contracts were set to kick in the following year and drastically raise the salary cap. Therefore, any deals signed in the old-money environment would look cheap overnight.
- The capped-out Cavs had no mechanism to acquire a better replacement. Whatever Thompson was worth, it was a heck of a lot more than the mid-level exception. As long as actual cost was no object — and it apparently wasn’t — Thompson’s salary wouldn’t impede salary-cap flexibility.
- Thompson had an aggressive agent who had just guided Eric Bledsoe through a lengthy restricted free agency to a lucrative contract with the Suns the year before. The agent set an early standard of a max or near-max contract, threatened with Thompson signing the qualifying offer and promised to leave Cleveland the following year if he did and spread word of teams waiting to offer Thompson the max as an unrestricted free agent.
- Oh, and that agent, Rich Paul, also represented LeBron James.
The result: Thompson signed a five-year, $82 million contract that was widely credited to LeBron.
Thompson, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
“I earned my money,” Thompson told ESPN of his five-year, $82 million extension he signed in 2015. “LeBron’s not my agent. I earned my money doing what I do; you can ask anyone around the league. I opened doors for other guys. It’s a business and you get paid what the market value is for you. I got my money and opened up doors for other guys that play hard and do the little things.”
But one presumed threat — LeBron, who was also a free agent, waiting to sign until the Cavs took care of Thompson — never came to fruition. LeBron re-signed well before Thompson.
One report even said the Cavaliers didn’t fear LeBron leaving over Thompson’s contract, though it’s up for debate how much they were just trying to regain leverage.
We can never know LeBron’s exact involvement, because the effect might have been indirect. The Cavs obviously wanted to please LeBron and on some level, maybe even explicitly, could have viewed Thompson’s deal as a factor.
Either way, Thompson is getting paid handsomely on a contract that has become good value for Cleveland as the salary cap skyrocketed. Thompson has become the Cavaliers’ starting center, and $16.4 million is fair for a starting center.
But why is Thompson minimizing LeBron’s importance?
For one, players measure themselves by their contracts. Sure, making more money is nice. But it’s also a status symbol around the league, and Thompson doesn’t want his status undermined by the perception he didn’t earn his deal.
That’s why Thompson goes a step further and declares himself a player who opened doors for others — which would increase his prestige even further. It’s a dubious claim, though Thompson’s negotiations apparently influenced Draymond Green‘s the same year. At one point, it appeared Thompson and Cleveland neared a five-year, $80 million deal. With that as a baseline, Green reportedly agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract with the Warriors. Then, Thompson had his negotiations drag on for months. But Green probably could’ve gotten a max deal if he pushed for one. So, it’s tough to credit Thompson much here — or find other players who were paid more as a result of his success.
Another reason Thompson might be loathe to credit LeBron: LeBron implicitly besmirched Thompson by calling the Cavs top-heavy with himself, Irving and Love. How do you think that sat with Thompson?