At the start of the 2015-16 season, Tristan Thompson's status as the Cavaliers' "iron man" was called into question. With less than a week remaining before the 2015-16 regular season, General Manager David Griffin had worked to bring back almost every player of the Cavaliers 2015 Eastern Conference Champion roster, a bill that looked to surpass $100 million. Except he was missing one piece of the starting five in Thompson.
Thomspon and his agent, Rich Paul, had let the restricted free agent's qualifying offer expire and looked prepared to sit out the start of the season. Initial reports showed a wide gap in estimated value between Thompson and the Cleveland front office (five years, $94 million versus five years, $80 million). Through four seasons in the NBA, Thompson had played in every Cavaliers game since February 8, 2012.
His value as an iron man was assisted by dominant performance on the offensive glass in the Finals (32 ORBs, the ninth highest in the history of the Finals). But the question for a player seeking to be one of the higher paid role players in the league remained, what else can you do? The Golden State Warriors defeated Thompson and the Cavaliers in the Finals behind the rebounding, defense, and floor spacing of Draymond Green at center. Thompson seemed to have show his limits, a rebounder and not much else, which left questions as to how he could fit in an evolving game.
On October 22, five days before the season opener, Thompson and the Cavaliers agreed to terms on a five year, $82 million dollar contract. In an offseason that had sent a max contract to Enes Kanter, $30 million for Al-Farouq Aminu, and $80 million for Reggie Jackson, it set up a season where Thompson had to answer one question: Is he really worth $82 million?
103 games and one NBA Championship later, the answer appears to be yes.
In the regular season, Thompson was the only Cavalier to play all 82 games, although he spent a significant portion of the season coming off the bench as the Cavaliers tried to make Timofey Mozgov work as a starting center. Thompson averaged 7.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game on 27.7 minutes. He led the team in offensive rebounds (268, more than the James and Love combined), but a quick look at his shot chart shows his limits as an offensive player.
Where Thompson lacked outside of his rebounding ability, he showed restraint in shot shot selection, averaging just 5 attempts from the field a game (and only 30 shots outside the restricted area all season). He had 20 games with 12 or more rebounds and 23 double-doubles, with a true shooting percentage of 61.1, the highest of his career. But his value really came from his minutes. He passed DeAndre Jordan as the longest active streak of games played, now at 370 games.
In the playoffs, Thompson played a limited role through a 10 game win streak to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a four game sweep against the Atlanta Hawks, he and Love did outrebound Al Horford and Paul Millsap, while holding Millsap to 39.3 percent from the field. But against the Raptors, both Thompson and Love found themselves on the bench in the close of Games 3 and 4, after failing to contain Bismack Biyombo. For a moment, the 10-0 streak turned 2-2 tied series looked to be handing Biyombo a max contract and Thompson a dose of reality. It appeared the Cavaliers had spent $82 million on an undersized center whose gravity to the basket proved unplayable with James and Irving, two players who required spacing to score at the rim. With Thompson as a ball screener, Biyombo had no trouble falling back to the rim to contest James and Irving.
And there's the core of the question of Thompson's value. Looking at the offensive rebounds per game and offensive rebounding percentage, Thompson is one of two players in the 2016 NBA Playoffs to average above four ORBs per game with a offensive rebounding rate above 16 percent. The other player to match this feat? The player the Cavaliers passed on for Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas.
Now, it can be argued that Thompson is as valuable if not more than Valanciunas for his health throughout the past five years. When the Cavaliers needed him most in this playoff run, he was providing meaningful minutes while Valanciunas watched in a suit on the sidelines. But the reality with Thompson is that among NBA centers that have dominated the offensive glass (Valanciunas, Jordan and Dwight Howard) he's averaged just 6.7 points per game. Instead, this puts him in a class of supporting players with similar rebounding ability such as Kanter, Chris Anderson, Kris Humphries, and Dwight Powell. Even amongst these players, his points total is average if not low.
And, when looking at overall rebounding in the playoffs, Thompson's defensive rebounds pull him back to a more middling group of front court players with Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Steven Adams. Certainly still highly valued, but below that of Valanciunas, Howard, and Jordan on the glass.
So that is the question for Thompson. Can rebounding be enough to be a starting member of a championship team? He knows not to shoot from outside, mostly because the offense is designed to prevent this, but when going against teams that average close to 110 points per 100 possessions, can a player that averages just over six points per game be kept on the court? The series against the Raptors exploited his spacing difficulties and almost put an end to the Cavaliers run.
Still, against the Warriors in the Finals, Thompson's $82 million value showed out. He outrebounded Draymond Green 71-62 through seven games (and 27-5 on the offensive glass) and only James had a higher total on the boards. And while Thompson attempted just two shots per game outside the restricted area, his 64.3 percent shooting at the rim, including a six-for-six 15 point 16 rebound Game 6, proved to be a key piece of the Cavs comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. The Cavaliers moved the ball effectively and took advantage of the Warriors' switching defense and James double teams to find Thompson in cuts to the basket. The results may have been just the edge the Cavaliers needed.
In the end, Thompson's seven games against the Warriors and his dominant Game 6 performance made a strong case for his $82 million contract. With a league cap growing to $94 million next season, the value of fringe players like Thompson continues to be hashed out. His critics can still say that he only does one thing, but he does it well. But in the end, it was his regular season games, his shot selection, and edge against the Warriors that has shown for an NBA championship, $82 million isn't all that bad.