By any objective statistical or mathematical measure, Tristan Thompson is being unreasonable. The restricted free agent, entering his fifth year in the Association, is reportedly seeking north of $90 million to return to Cleveland, the only NBA home he’s known to this point in his career. Thompson’s sky-high salary demands are the reason he remains as perhaps the highest-profile free agent left on the market.
Having already signed starting power forward Kevin Love to a monster deal that extends through the 2019-20 season, it would be understandable if the Cavs decided they did not want to spend that kind of cash on Love’s backup. However, by even entertaining Thompson’s position, the Cavs have shown that they are committed to trying to bring him back. This commitment is undoubtedly motivated by Thompson’s inspired play during the Cavs’ run to the finals, lingering questions about Love’s health and fit with the team, Thompson’s unique skill-set, specifically his status as the game’s foremost offensive rebounder and LeBron’s insistence on the importance of keeping Thompson in the fold.
While the Cavs are committed to Thompson, there may be reason to question whether his outlandish salary demands may be motivated by his desire to play somewhere else. The opportunity to play with a transcendent talent like Lebron and compete for a title every year is nothing to walk away from lightly, but when we look at where Thompson currently fits on the Cavs’ roster, and his likely standing in the years to come, we begin to see some method to Thompson’s salary-demand madness.
The Cavs picked Thompson with the 4th overall pick in the 2011 draft. After a solid rookie campaign, he came into his own during his sophomore season, starting every game and averaging over 31 minutes per contest. Thompson also started all 82 games in his third year, and slightly increased his playing time. Over his second and third seasons, Thompson averaged nearly 12 points per game and over 9 rebounds, turning himself into a solid, if unspectacular, post player.
Things changed dramatically for the Cavs, and for Thompson personally, last off-season. With the addition of Lebron and, more importantly for Thompson’s fortunes, Kevin Love, Thompson saw a significant fall in his importance to the team. He went from starting all 82 games to only 15, and his minutes fell by five per game. Along with his minutes, Thompson’s scoring and rebounding also fell, as did his shot attempts, dropping from 9.3 per game to a mere 6.0.
Thompson has never complained publicly about his role on the team, but with Kevin Love signing a massive, five-year deal, Thompson would be right to be concerned about the direction his career will take if he remains in Cleveland. Love will be the starting power forward in Cleveland as long as he remains a Cav. Because neither Thompson nor Love can defend elite level centres (or elite-level anythings in Love’s case) for long stretches, Thompson is unlikely to play much alongside Love. This means that Thompson’s reduced minutes and role are likely to persist as long as he remains a Cav – and potentially get worse if Love can stay healthy.
Considering that Thompson is already 24 years of age, a long-term deal in Cleveland would mean that he would be confined to the Cavs’ bench for some of what should be the most productive years of his career. This would be a hard pill to swallow for a player that clearly sees himself as a legitimate NBA starter. It would also mean that, as Thompson hits his late twenties and potentially his best and last chance at a big pay-day, he will be best known as Kevin Love’s backup and not in a position to command anywhere near the kind of money he might have been able to get as a 7 or 8 year starter. For that reason, from an individual standpoint, it’s almost a no-brainer for Thompson to get himself out of Cleveland just as fast as he can.
If Thompson does not sign a long-term deal with the Cavs’ this off-season, he is likely to end up playing on a one year qualifying offer next year before becoming a restricted free agent in the 2016 off-season. While it would cost him some money up front, this may be the best outcome of all for Thompson in the long-term. A one-year deal would keep him in Cleveland for 2015-2016, allowing him to quite possibly be a part of a championship team, which will only increase his value on the free agent market. Then, with the salary cap going through the roof in a year’s time, Thompson would likely command an even bigger deal than the one he’s reportedly seeking from Cleveland, and do so as a key part of a team – perhaps his hometown Raptors, still in need of a starting power forward – where a starting role and all the minutes he can handle are assured.
While Tristan Thompson may ultimately happily commit to Cleveland for the long-term, he should certainly do so with some trepidation regarding the impact of that decision on his career and future financial prospects. If he is going to go that route, and pass on being an unrestricted free agent in 2016, he is right to expect to be well compensated for giving up that opportunity.