clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Tristan Thompson and the Cavs still haven't agreed on a contract

And why it's okay

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Restricted free agency is a weird spot for nearly all the parties involved. Oftentimes acrimony develops. There is very little freedom for the players. They can go visit other teams and get pitched appealing offers. Sometimes, like the case with Eric Gordon and the Phoenix Suns, the player can fall in love with a spot. It doesn't ultimately matter, though, if the offer just gets matched. Gordon returned, unhappily, to the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Cavs find themselves in a peculiar position with Tristan Thompson. Oftentimes, restricted free agency can last well into September. It seems unlikely that talks would drag out that long in this case, but negotiations have failed to lead to a contract agreement in the first four days of free agency. It seems silly to call it a stalemate this early in the proceedings. Aside from an early report that the Cavs were close with Thompson on a five year, $80 million deal, we have no idea what specific part of the negotiations are holding things up. It could be money, it could be a player option, it could be that the Cavs want a team option on the fifth year. There are trade kickers, all kinds of things that could be the difference between a deal or no deal.

But that doesn't explain why there hasn't been a deal. Neither side has a ton of leverage in the situation, which means that both sides have quite a bit. What does that mean? Let's try and unpack it.

1) Tristan is a restricted free agent, which necessarily limits his leverage. He can take the qualifying offer and play next season for $7 million or so and then be an unrestricted free agent next summer, but he'd probably be turning down a lot of guaranteed money. Thompson hasn't missed a game to injury in years, but it's still a risk. The most Thompson could sign with another team is for four years and just under $70 million. The Cavs would match that immediately, but

2) Most teams around the league are a) running out of cap space and b) are well aware that the Cavs will match. What do they get out of signing Thompson for a three days and tying up their space? If Thompson tried to schedule meetings with other teams, I'm sure he would get them, but how seriously would they be taken? Almost no observer thinks Tristan will be anywhere but Cleveland next year.

3) The Cavs are over the salary cap, indeed, in the luxury tax, with or without Tristan Thompson on the books next year. Thompson could leave and the Cavs would have the $3.4 million mini-midlevel exception and veteran minimums to spend on a player who averaged 36+ minutes a game in the playoffs, outplayed Paul Millsap, and played Draymond Green to a draw. Even with Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, and potentially David West and whatever Anderson Varejao can give, the Cavs can't feel like they can let their 24 year old big walk for nothing.

4) Put in shorter form: there isn't a way to replace Tristan Thompson as a player, and there isn't a way to stay young while trying to find a viable replacement. That's just the Cavs' situation. Thompson and his agent Rich Paul are aware of this.

5) This will shock you, but Tristan Thompson and LeBron James share an agent. James is on record as saying Thompson should be a Cavalier for life, and it seems as though he won't re-sign with the Cavs until Thompson is brought back. On one hand, it's not great seeing James wield influence like this. On the other hand, he's using his leverage to make sure the Cavs bring back a valuable piece.

6) So what's the worst case scenario? Perhaps Thompson gets a two year offer of around $30 million or so from a rebuilding team and he accepts it. The Cavs will match, of course, but they lose out on having him under team control for four or five years. He's improved every year in the league. If he comes up for a deal with the Cavs after the cap has exploded, he'll be in a position to ask for even more. LeBron and all these factors will probably still be in play.

Okay, let's take a step back. This is unlikely to happen. The Cavs have until the beginning of August to use the Brendan Haywood contract. It's likely they'll want resolution on Thompson before then. Despite all the talk of Rich Paul and LeBron terrorizing Dan Gilbert by pumping up Thompson's salary demands, there is only evidence that Paul and Gilbert are very close. Dan Gilbert even nominated Paul for the ice bucket challenge when that was having it's big moment.

There is a brief hiccup here because the Cavs can't let Thompson walk, both for pure basketball reasons involving Thompson's play and external ones regarding LeBron James. The rest of the league is out of cap space or not interested or not interested because they know Thompson is going to be in Cleveland anyway or some combination of all these things, so Thompson will find it hard to find offers. All the parties get along. It's just a matter of time.