The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the driver's seat with Tristan Thompson. The 23 year old power forward is one year removed from restricted free agency. The Cavaliers can sign him to a contract extension right now, or let him play out the year before he hits the market. Should the Cavs not extend him before the start of the season, they will have the option of offering him a one year qualifying offer to officially make him that restricted free agent. At that point, Cleveland will have the ability to match any deal he signs. Should a market fail to develop, he could ultimately accept the one year deal.
Players tend to value financial security, so I think it's unlikely that Thompson accepts the qualifying offer, and I think it's likely he would like to sign an extension now. Thompson is in a weird place. He wasn't good last season, though there are tangible things you can claim to for optimism. There is some cause for worry as well. So I want to present some things that are either facts, or things I feel strongly about, because Thompson inspires some pretty strong views.
1) The Cavaliers have a lot invested in Tristan Thompson. He's played almost 6600 minutes in his first three seasons. He has more minutes played than any Cavalier in the last four years combined. But beyond the time they have spent trying to develop him on the floor, they spent the fourth overall pick in a draft on him. If they were to let him walk or trade him for very little, that would be a serious miscue. These things happen, and it's not the end of the world, but losing a guy you drafted as a project big before he turns 25 for nothing is not desirable.
2) His agent is Rich Paul, who represents LeBron James. Paul is something of a wild card here. Dan Gilbert has talked openly about how professional Paul is. It's clear that the organization has a good relationship with Paul, and, for now at least, LeBron James. This feels like a good thing.
3) Players like Tristan Thompson are not valued by much of the NBA community right now. Bigs who cannot guard centers, protect the rim, or stretch the floor are tough to fit in.
On the other hand, Thompson is about to enter his age 23 season. Zach Lowe mentions in that article that teams often bet on improvement from young players when thinking about extensions. Thompson has shown some ability to protect the rim as a rookie. He has shown that he can guard the pick and roll pretty effectively. We have no idea what to expect from him shooting, but his true shooting improved significantly for the last 2/3 of his age 23 season. His form when he can set his feet is good, and it showed as he shot 75% from the line in his last 36 games.
4) The Cavaliers are very thin in the frontcourt, even with Kevin Love. LeBron James is slimming down, Brendan Haywood didn't play a minute last season, and Anderson Varejao is not exactly the most reliable guy to soak up minutes over a season. Anthony Bennett failed to maintain a rotation spot last season, and will likely be part of a Kevin Love trade.
So even if Thompson is not in the opening night starting lineup, he is going to play a ton of minutes. It's likely that if Love or Varejao miss time, he will start. As the third big, without a credible fourth big, he will likely play quite a bit of center (though positions are largely meaningless). Starting or not, Thompson is going to play.
5) Thompson is by all accounts a very hard worker and great in the locker room. He is durable; he hasn't missed a game in the last two seasons.
6) After two years of starting every game despite being selected as an energy/project type player, all the while being surrounded by bad basketball players and questionable coaches, Thompson, like the rest of the Cavaliers, finds himself in a great situation.
He's likely going to play a lot, and he's likely to share the floor with at least two of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron James. He won't be asked to create offense. He will get handoff dunks. His trademark mountie move, which he takes from an area of the court that he shoots above league average, will be uncontested more than ever. Teams are going to give him wide open 15 footers that he will get off catch and shoot opportunities. He might be able to make them.
He will get continuity within a defense, probably, and play with smart defensive players in LeBron and Varejao. I actually think Love and Thompson can be a fine defensive combination, especially if Blatt can get Thompson to contest layups and other shots at the rim. He is getting closer to the age when bigs start defending at a higher level.
So building off of this, I'll editorialize a bit. One, the Cavaliers need a durable big who can soak up minutes next to Love and Varejao. The Cavaliers need young players that can improve while James ages. Thompson was likely to progress a bit as a player regardless of the moves the Cavs made, but now gets the benefit of playing with James and probably Love. At the same time, guys around the league with Thompson's skillset aren't getting paid big money.
If Thompson gets to restricted free agency next summer, I can't pretend to know how it will go. Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe (also represented by Rich Paul) are languishing, and a market hasn't materialized for him. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, among others, have gotten paid in restricted free agency. But I am guessing that Thompson will have a good year. And I do think he's exactly the type of player the Cavs should want supplementing Love and Varejao.
So what's he worth? I would offer him a four year, $32 million deal. It won't kick in until after this season, so he makes $5.14 million this year regardless. That both bets on some growth from Thompson, and protects you some if he does have a really nice year. It guarantees the Cavaliers get his prime, age 24-28. If the new television deal really does increase the salary cap, you don't hurt the team's financial flexibility moving forward. With Love, LeBron and Irving, the team will likely be over the cap anyway.
There's risk if you lose him, there's risk if you extend him. Without him, you have to look for other avenues to get a quality young big. Draft picks? The mid-level exception next summer, which should be a little over $6 million? I don't see any easy answers.
For Thompson, he is financially set for life if he gets that deal. He might think he should get more. I think ultimately he may be worth more than that, but it's pretty easy to make the argument that he won't perform up to that money. If the Cavaliers can lock him up at the price I mentioned above, I'd do it. Otherwise you can roll the dice and see how things go this year. I'm fine either way, but I'd make that offer.