UPDATE: After reportedly being on the brink of an agreement, the Cavaliers and Tristan Thompson are currently at odds in contract discussions. ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reports talks have stalled and teammate LeBron James won't re-sign until they're resolved.
The Cleveland Cavaliers began free agency by diving headfirst into what will be an astounding luxury tax payout. In addition to the five-year, $110 million deal doled out to Kevin Love and impending contracts for LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Matthew Dellavedova, Cleveland has reportedly closed in on an $80 million agreement to bring back big man Tristan Thompson. Given the size of the deal, it will almost certainly span five years with a starting salary of around $14 million.
At this point, the virtues of Thompson’s game are almost beside the point. The fact that he shares representation with James all but ensured this kind of payday; the point of James’ opt-out power play is to keep the team spending toward contention. Thompson, whose possible departure would not have opened up any actionable cap space for the Cavs, is a means to do so.
This was true even before his postseason breakout. With that precedent on record, Thompson has legitimately played his way into this kind of raise. Rare are players of his defensive versatility. While Thompson isn’t a high-caliber rim protector, his combined ability to challenge shots, wall off the basket, and keep up with quicker players off the dribble makes him a helpful utility option. In a context where defenders like Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov have more specific roles, Thompson is the systemic mortar.
Thompson also demonstrated the benefit of his offensive rebounding throughout the postseason. His skill set isn’t all that robust, truth be told—most of his touches manifest through second-chance opportunities and other immediate scoring tries. Yet Thompson offers both of those in enough volume to make his minutes worthwhile and does a nice job of keeping active within the offense. There’s some game-to-game inconsistency, in part due to Thompson’s malleable role in the offense. The constants—energy, rebounding, defensive positioning—are worthwhile all the same. Thompson was an interesting prospect before, but now he’s a real player.
Whether his performance merits what he’ll ultimately be paid is moot. Cleveland will be loaded next season with Love and Thompson back in the fold, not to mention an unplayed card in Brendan Haywood’s unguaranteed (and imminently tradeable) contract. Dan Gilbert opened his wallet to preserve the value of his roster. When all that was really at stake is the size of the team's inevitable luxury tax bill, what's the harm in committing market-appropriate, movable money.