One way or another, Tristan Thompson is going to end up in Cleveland next season. After a strong postseason in which he started at power forward for much of the Cavs’ Finals run in place of the injured Kevin Love, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the sides would work out a long-term deal. That goes double when you factor in Thompson sharing an agent with LeBron James. Paying Thompson more than market value just seemed like the cost of doing business when the greatest player in the world decided to come home.
Apparently, it’s not that simple. We’re six weeks into free agency and Thompson doesn’t have a deal, and it doesn’t seem like that will change anytime soon.
There is no clear precedent for his position, which has led to a stalemate between Thompson and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It has been difficult to negotiate a middle ground, setting the stage for possible tension as training camp approaches.
Thompson, an excellent offensive rebounder and pick-and-roll player who proved valuable in the Cavs’ run to the Finals, is believed to be looking for a maximum-level contract of around $94 million over five years. The Cavs’ offers have been for significantly less.
There has been no real progress since the second week of July when talks reached an impasse and both sides dug in.
It’s tough to gauge Thompson’s value. With the salary cap rising next season, a $94 million deal won’t seem like much of an overpay going forward. But barring an injury, Thompson is not going to be a starter for the Cavs. Kevin Love re-upped on a long-term deal, and Timofey Mozgov will probably do the same next summer. Thompson doesn’t have very many options as a restricted free agent. The only teams with cap space to sign him to a max-level deal are Portland and Philadelphia, and there’s not much point in either of those teams giving him an offer sheet the Cavs will happily match.
If Thompson wants to gamble, he could sign the one-year qualifying offer for $6.8 million, as Greg Monroe did with the Pistons last summer. That would make him an unrestricted free agent next summer, when nearly every team will have cap space and he’ll be able to get an even larger max offer from somebody. It’s a huge risk — Thompson could get injured or have a down year and hurt his value. By continuing to hold their ground in these talks, the Cavs are essentially daring him to take that risk. He has no other leverage.
Another Rich Paul client, Eric Bledsoe, went through this same saga last summer. The Suns let him dangle in restricted free agency, with no other teams stepping up to make offers they knew would get matched. As it got closer to training camp, things started to get ugly and it seemed like there was a real chance he would sign the one-year qualifying offer. But one week before the start of training camp, Bledsoe and the Suns finally agreed to a five-year, $70 million deal to keep him in Phoenix. It was below the max, but still a fair deal. In both cases, there were mitigating circumstances that prevented them from being clear-cut max players. Bledsoe had an extensive injury history; Thompson probably won’t be a starter.
The rising cap works in Thompson’s favor, though. His case to the Cavs is this: max me out now under the current cap, or pay a lot more than that next summer to keep me. Eventually, they’re going to have to bite the bullet and do it, or else lose one of their most important frontcourt players a year from now.