The question of what Tristan Thompson is worth as an NBA player is complicated by a tiny problem: Worth, in this sense, is a function of what some NBA team would be willing to pay him in the cap-rich market of 2016. Skills matter. Potential matters. The whims of the market matter more. Thompson's agent, Rich Paul, has dragged out contract negotiations by forcing the Cavaliers to measure up against a mystery suitor—one with money to burn after the cap vaults to a projected $89 million next summer.
To this end Paul and Thompson have demanded a five-year, $94 million max contract, until Thursday when it was reported that Thompson was willing to sign a three-year, $53 million deal. Cleveland, to this point, has reportedly stood pat on its original five-year offer worth $80 million. Whether that initial gap can be bridged depends on a concession beyond money. Both parties are now trading in the optics of public negotiation; Cleveland giving in would signify the team being held hostage by its own restricted free agent while Thompson accepting a smaller deal would reflect back on Paul and an empty promise that his client would rather play out a one-year qualifying offer. Thompson's actual value as a basketball player seems almost beside the point.
That much is reinforced by the fact that as a member of next season's Cavaliers, Thompson would have almost no capacity to validate the deal his representation has demanded. Thompson will be a reserve, slotted behind both incumbent center Timofey Mozgov and the newly re-signed Kevin Love. Last year he topped only Matthew Dellavedova, Shawn Marion, and Mike Miller among Cavs in usage rate—a fact illustrative of his minimal offensive role. His most impactful performance to date came from emergency; never would Thompson have had the opportunity to make the mark on the playoffs he did had Love been healthy and available.
Now Love is back and Thompson returns to the same reserve spot that yielded just 26.8 minutes per game in the regular season. To say that a player as limited as Thompson logging only that much time would warrant the max would be ludicrous. Fortunately for Thompson and Paul, they needn't make that claim; all that matters in this case is the threat of the qualifying offer and what comes after. The very possibility of losing Thompson by way of a lucrative offer in more accommodating cap conditions down the road creates a form of leverage that must be respected.
Thompson's worth is funny in that way. The possibility of him accepting the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent and (as Paul would tell it) leave next season is a distinctly worse outcome than Cleveland overpaying to retain him. Thompson might not play as much or contribute as much as a max player, but his defensive strengths and effervescent playing style make him an important ingredient to a contender. If there is a time for the Cavs to spend, it's now. Owner Dan Gilbert has already signed off on what will be an exorbitant roster and luxury tax bill for the sake of fielding the best team possible. Giving Thompson the contract he wants would serve as an extension of that same philosophy—a statement of worth far more complex than comparing bottom-line output to dollar amount paid.
The Cavs need Thompson. This is part of the reason why good teams, even those that aren't aging into irrelevance, can sometimes crumble away beneath the pressures of contention. Franchises of a certain competitive caliber tend to retain and reward core players, even as the team's success drives the price of those players upward. Thompson is in a position to command a sizable salary because he played quite well for the Eastern Conference champions. Were he to ultimately find that salary elsewhere, the Cavs would face a gap in their roster with no means to fill it. Factor in Mozgov's own impending free agency (he'll hit the market next summer and will earn a significant raise over his current $5 million salary) and Cleveland, for as stacked as it seems, would face real, considerable risk.
Such is the nature of building a winning team in a soft salary cap league. Very few franchises are able to construct elite-level rosters with built-in financial flexibility. More often, competing for a title demands stacking salary on salary with little in the way of a safety net. Losing Thompson wouldn't cave the Cavs' whole operation, though it could throw Cleveland off balance as it walks an already perilous tightrope. So much has to go right for a team to win a championship and every player like Thompson—who can slide in to fill multiple positions, defend in a way that others on the team can't, and shape games with his energy—helps to adjust the odds slightly in his team's favor.
Should he get his $94 million, Thompson would be overpaid by any reliable, objective metric. A max player he is not. His worth to the Cavs, however, would be implicitly stated on that scale for fear of what losing him could mean. Basketball value, while absolute in concept, blurs to the haze of circumstance.