It wasn’t until Wednesday—about a week shy of opening night—that the NBA’s free agency period finally came to a close. Tristan Thompson’s contract holdout has finally been resolved. According to multiple reports on Wednesday, Thompson and the Cavs agreed to a fully guaranteed five-year, $82 million deal. That figure is well short of the max offer Thompson was reportedly demanding and a slight bump above the five-year, $80 million offer that had been on the table for Thompson all along. Call it a compromise. It only took 3 1/2 months, the majority of training camp, and a lingering pain in Timofey Mozgov’s knee to get there.
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, Cleveland re-upped LeBron James for the full max, re-signed Iman Shumpert to a four-year, $40 million contract, and brought back J.R. Smith for two years at $10 million. Assuming that Thompson’s deal begins at $14.3 million, it will cost the Cavs more than $40 million in additional tax costs in his first year alone, per the projections of cap guru Bobby Marks.
At this point, weighing the virtues of Thompson’s game against those costs is almost beside the point. He’ll be paid $82 million because the Cavs, the prohibitive favorites in the Eastern Conference, need Thompson in a way that Love, Mozgov, and Anderson Varejao cannot erase. Rare are players of Thompson’s defensive versatility. While he 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 Mozgov have more specific roles, Thompson is the systemic mortar. In the context of a fully healthy Cavs team, he gives coach David Blatt options—another active contributor, another lineup possibility, another way to win.
Thompson also demonstrated the benefit of his offensive rebounding throughout the postseason. His skill set on that end 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.
That said, Thompson will have almost no capacity to validate the deal he’s just signed as a member of this season’s Cavaliers. Thompson will be a reserve, slotted behind two more essential bigs in Love and Mozgov. Last year, Thompson 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 (and pull this kind of contract) had Love been healthy and available.
Now Love is back and Thompson will return 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 that much time warrants the max would be ludicrous. Fortunately for Thompson and his representation (coincidentally shared by James), they never had to refute that claim. All that mattered in this case was the threat of a holdout and another extended free-agent episode next summer. The very possibility, however unusual, of losing Thompson for the season and beyond created a form of leverage that had to be respected.
Cleveland wasn’t so threatened as to give in fully to Thompson’s demands, though the leverage in play was enough to squeeze a few million out of the Cavs. Thompson will be paid handsomely for what amounts to a single, breakout playoff run. Yet if there were a time for the Cavs to spend, it's now. Owner Dan Gilbert had already signed off on what would have been an exorbitant roster and luxury tax bill for the sake of fielding the best team possible. Giving Thompson $82 million over five years served as an extension of that same philosophy. A statement of worth far more complex than comparing bottom-line output to dollar amount paid.