$120 million for Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert. You'll be forgiven for needing some time to get used to this new NBA reality. On the first day of NBA free agency, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced they were extending Thompson and Shumpert. There would be no one year qualifying offers accepted, like Greg Monroe did last season. There would be no offer sheet matched after they signed with another team, as the Jazz did with Gordon Hayward last summer. No drama, just money.
Forget the salary cap exploding for a minute. In a league that values rim protection and shooting, the Cavs just promised $120 million to two guys who do neither particularly well. You can't survive making those types of decisions in the NBA, right?
Wrong. The league is getting smaller and quicker in the interior, and longer and stronger on the perimeter. Thompson and Shumpert have quick feet, excellent strength, and can each guard three positions. Shumpert is a well above average defensive rebounder for a guard, which will serve the Cavs well when they go with a one-big lineup. Thompson holds his own as a rebounder as a small-ball center, and can get out on the perimeter to chase guards back behind the three point line off pick and rolls. He seems to relish being left one-on-one for isolations with guards.
The value in these guys isn't derived so much by what they do well, but instead by the few things in which they do poorly. Thompson's ability to finish out of the pick and roll, find space along the baseline, and get offensive rebounds while making free throws at an acceptable rate makes him a very good offensive center in today's NBA climate. Not serviceable, good. The Cavs are betting that eventually he can add some range with this deal, but at the same time, Kevin Love just signed a five year deal as well; it isn't a foregone conclusion he can add one, but it probably isn't going to make or break the Cavs title hopes in the next couple years.
Shumpert probably makes just enough threes to stretch the defense, but his contract will be earned on the defensive side of the ball. You could see LeBron James' admiration for Shumpert grow throughout the playoffs as the former Knick played through injury and worked his tail off. He helped stifle Klay Thompson in the Finals and had Kyle Korver out of sorts before his untimely injury. Shumpert's reputation as a defender in New York outstripped his actual performance on that end. In Cleveland, though, Shumpert was versatile and consistent.
Thompson's defense is good, but will need to get better if he's to earn this deal. He can switch out to guards with the best of them, though Steph Curry showed him that he still can be better. Seth Partnow's rim protection metric rated Thompson 59th of 120 bigs in rim protection during the regular season. For a 23 year old big who still did spend a bit of time as a power forward and is an undersized center, this isn't bad. Given his low foul rate, and Partnow's metric not accounting for foul shots (a lot of the players who do well in the metric have a propensity to foul quite a bit) this isn't bad. It's not good though. Thompson is a good pick and roll defender who shows flashes of being great in those situations.
All of this is to be expected from a big who turned 24 at the end of the season, who has played with multiple different coaches and seen heavy roster turnover around him. Thompson's biggest upside may be on the defensive end. Getting to know Love defensively, getting to know Mozgov. Improving from competent in a variety of areas to good in a variety of areas and perhaps becoming great at just one. He isn't Tyson Chandler's rim protection and pick and roll defense. This doesn't mean he can't be or won't be or isn't incredibly valuable.
Both contracts are a bit more palatable due to the presence of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love. These are guys willing to do the dirty work that are great in the locker room, and are young. You don't need them to create offense when even two of the Big 3 are healthy. And how likely is it that you'd see two or more of the Big 3 go down at once? And of course, the salary cap will jump up, eventually to around $100 million or so. By the midpoints of their contracts each will be in their primes, and the cap will be at heights heretofore unseen.
That's a copout though. Tristan Thompson doesn't want to be a LeBron James charity case. Iman Shumpert wants to be a help offensively. They don't want the circumstances around them to be the reason they get paid. They'll get every chance to prove to the NBA that they deserve every penny.