When Tristan Thompson turned down a reported $52 million dollar contract from the Cavs in October, there was some general confusion as to why. After all, $52 million is a lot for a player who can't really shoot.
Statistically speaking, Thompson's 2014-15 season doesn't look particularly impressive either. He averaged just 8.5 points per game, the second lowest total of his career. On top of that, he played less minutes and blocked less than a shot per game.
In retrospect, this was a short-sited way to look at Thompson. He truly can't shoot - Thompson shot 27 percent outside of three feet last season - but on this Cavs team, that doesn't matter. What Thompson is good at - rebounding, defending quicker players in space and creating second chances - made him perfectly suited to thrive and become a player worth a deal worth upwards of $80 million. He is a situational superstar and he would not be as valuable with most other teams as he is to the Cavs.
It's hard to see how Thompson would have grown were he not on this Cavs team. During his three seasons, Thompson didn't always look like this player. With the Cavs switching coaches and not really building towards anything - yet another example of LeBron James' impact - Thompson's development suffered. First under Byron Scott and then Mike Brown, Thompson showed flashes of dominance one night and was nowhere to be found the next. He was good enough to establish a role for himself, but never consistently put it all together.
He shone as a rebounder - this was the skill Thompson was expected be excellent at - but his offense was limited. Thompson's most effective plays - catching alley-oops in particular - came because someone else created an opening for him. When he dominated other players and played up to his vast potential - think of how Thompson dominated Denver's Kenneth Faried, for instance - it was because he played within strengths and largely came off his rebounding abilities.
Those dominant performances were a teaser of what was to come. When the Cavs added LeBron, it set the Cavs on a path towards the top. It also sent Thompson on his own upward journey. When the Cavs added Kevin Love, it took all of the pressure of Thompson to be an offensive minded big. As the Cavs added more pieces, Thompson's role became more and more specialized. He thrived as a result. The acquisition of center Timofey Mozgov, in particular, had an impact on Thompson, as it lead him to playing more center next to Love as he came off the bench as the Cavs' sixth man. Thompson really shines as a center, where he's often quicker than whomever he's matched up against without giving up too much bulk.
It helps too that Thompson gives the Cavs some defensive flexibility, which is hugely important where two of the three best players struggle defensively. Thompson can defend almost all fours and fives - to date, there hasn't been a player who has totally overwhelmed Thompson for an entire game - and he's improved drastically as a defender in space. This allows the Cavs to switch Thompson onto guards in space without any concern and, to date, only elite guards like Steph Curry and Chris Paul have toasted Thompson is space. This is a huge improvement in a short amount of time, as it really wasn't that long ago that J.R. Smith broke Thompson's ankles with a crossover.
The stats back up the idea that Thompson improved in a non-flashy way. Thompson may have shot less, but he shot over 50 percent from the field for the first time in his career. In addition, he posted the second highest rebounding percentage of his career and had a TS% of 58 percent, by far the highest of his career. Perhaps most importantly, Thompson played in all 82 games and committed just 2.3 fouls per game. Thompson was healthy and on the court, two traits that were essential for a Cavs team that was ravaged by injury during the playoffs.
His rebounding, too, is improved and became borderline sensational on certain nights. Just look at how he snatches this offensive rebound of a James Jones miss:
He's far away from the paint when the shot goes up and yet gets inside position on Pau Gasol, then tips it away from Derrick Rose and beats everyone else to the ball. This rebound is the work of a non-stop motor and it results in another chance for the Cavs to score. That's incredibly valuable for a team that was - and will be - insanely good on offense. When Thompson gets an offensive rebound, he's forcing the opposing team to defend LeBron, Love and Kyrie Irving again. If you're the Cavs a player who creates, on average, 3.3 extra offensive possessions per game is a skill worth ponying up for. For the season. Thompson was fourth in offensive rebound percentage and fourth in total offensive rebounds.
This isn't to suggest that Thompson is a finished product at age 24; in fact he is far from fully and properly developed. As he starts his new deal - whatever it dollar amount it ends up being worth - Thompson will ideally to continue to grow, particularly on offense. In a perfect world, Thompson will become a slightly better free throw shooter and develop a semi-consistent jumper over the next season or so, forcing defenses to defend him closer than they do now. He also could work on his finishing around the rim, as he has a habit of catching a pass and dribbling instead of going straight up for a dunk. These are small, but impactful, improvements. They also might not be necessary.
But Thompson is probably going to grow again and it will probably be soon. Even if he doesn't improve all that much, he's proven to have a high floor and elite skills in a few facets of the game. It isn't likely that Thompson will ever not be worth his big deal, especially with the cap set to increase. For this Cavs team, he is worth every bit of the $80 million-plus is he is about to earn. It's largely due to the fact that Thompson played a role that emphasized his strengths and hid his weaknesses.