There aren't many silver linings for the Cleveland Cavaliers this year. The team's a shell of what it once was, LeBron James is gone and all signs point to a lengthy rebuild.
That said, one surprise we've been able to enjoy this season is the play of power forward Tristan Thompson. The Cavs' big man is currently enjoying his best season in the pros, averaging a double-double for the first time in his career. It's quite an eye-opener, especially considering he's one year removed from a season which was a let-down across the board.
Thompson's improved performance also puts Cleveland in quite a bind. Simply put, the team has to decide between trading him now while his stock is higher than ever, or keeping him as a key piece of their rebuild.
Frankly, you can make a solid argument for both sides of this.
Many Cavs fans spent the past few years lobbying for a trade of Thompson, mainly when the team was trying to find more help for James. However, his production never aligned with the amount of money he was getting paid. Thompson was making $16.4 million last year despite averaging a career-low 5.8 PPG and struggling through nagging injuries.
Essentially, trading him was nearly impossible, and any returns would’ve been underwhelming.
This year, while he's still being paid handsomely ($17.4 million), he's producing far better numbers. Thompson is currently averaging as many points per game as he is rebounds (11.8). He's nabbed 19 rebounds twice in the last three games, coupling each effort with double-digit points.
While these numbers haven't been helping Cleveland in the win column, they've certainly helped improve Thompson's trade value. He's still owed a good amount of money, but he's only on the books through next season, making contract issues less of a concern.
Knowing this, and knowing how important it is for the Cavs to pile up draft picks, the idea of selling high with Thompson is undoubtedly appealing to the front office.
On the flip side, Thompson gives this team something it didn't have the last time James fled town – a young, productive veteran willing to stick it out through the rebuild.
The importance of this has been hammered home by a few people, especially Jason Lloyd of The Athletic. Part of the reason Cleveland's previous attempt to build in a post-LeBron world was such a sideshow was a lack of any legitimate vet presence. Some guys (Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark) didn't play well enough to be taken seriously. Others (Andrew Bynum) did far more harm than good. More often than not, chaos ensued on and off the court.
Just as they were back then, the Cavs are once again trying to build around a young core. Only now, they have a player in Thompson who's not only playing well, but is also willing to lead despite the fact the team's current goal is to pile up far more losses than wins.
This is admittedly surprising, especially considering he spent the past four years in the NBA Finals. There'd be no arguing with Thompson if he wasn't on board with returning to the constant losing he endured during his first few years in Cleveland. However, this doesn't appear to be his mindset.
As you can see, determining Thompson's fate is no easy feat. There's significant value in having him along for the ride while this team tries to pick up the pieces after James' departure. However, there's never been a better time to try and test the market to see what Cleveland could fetch from trading him.
It isn’t a decision the Cavs need to make today. However, it’s one they’ll need to put serious thought into. At the end of the day, they have to determine how Thompson can help them the most – on the court, or through a trade.
Right now, an easy answer isn’t available.