It didn't shock us too much when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Tristan Thompson didn't come to a final agreement on the five-year, $80-million contract they were discussing in the early days of free agency. After all, those were the "early days of free agency," with all kinds of time between Independence Day and the start of training camp for Cleveland brass to reach agreeable terms that would keep their 24-year-old restricted free agent power forward, fresh off a near-star-making turn in helping an injury-wracked Cavs club reach the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history, in wine and gold for years to come.
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A funny thing happened on the way to adding another few dozen million in salary and luxury tax responsibilities to Dan Gilbert's running tab, though. Or, more to the point, nothing happened. It's now autumn, training camp starts next Tuesday, and there remains a yawning chasm between what Cleveland's offering and what Thompson's agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group, wants the Cavs to cough up, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:
The Cavs have held firm at an offer of five years and $80 million, with Thompson looking for a max contract of $94 million over the same span, sources said. The talks have been at a virtual standstill since early July, and there isn't much optimism on either side. [...]
The Cavs' position has been that they are offering a fair-market contract. The $16 million per year offer to Thompson, 24, would be in line with deals recently given to Draymond Green ($16.4 million annually) and Jonas Valanciunas ($16 million). It would be less than the $17.5 million per year that Enes Kanter, picked one spot ahead of Thompson in the 2011 draft, got from the Oklahoma City Thunder after he signed an offer sheet with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Thompson's position is that he expects there to be a strong market for him next summer, when more than 20 teams are expected to have more than $20 million in salary-cap space. A young big man who hasn't missed a game in more than three seasons, Thompson believes he will get multiple offers that will average $20 million per year.
You'd be forgiven for finding it kind of bonkers that Thompson — a decent but far-from-world-beating forward for his first three pro seasons bumped to the bench by the import of Kevin Love last season, a capable third big for the bulk of the Cavs' run to the East's No. 2 seed, but a murderous offensive rebounder and better-than-expected defender who helped key Cleveland's Finals push after Love's season-ending shoulder injury — would A) turn down $80 million and B) expect to draw even richer offers next year. But when you consider the context — the cap spiking to $89 million next summer thanks to the influx of revenue from the league's new $24 billion broadcast rights deal, which will leave some two-thirds of the league flush with cash and relatively few young, top-flight targets worth spending it all on — it doesn't seem quite so crazy, which is why Thompson's holding fast ... and why the Cavs might want to act fast.
See, according to the rules of restricted free agency, the qualifying offer that Cleveland made to Thompson following the NBA Finals expires on Oct. 1. The Cavs can extend it past that date if they want, but the danger is that they won't get the chance to:
As mentioned back in late July, all signs pointing towards QO for Tristan Thompson, huge gamble leaving guaranteed $$ on the table
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) September 21, 2015
Nothing wrong with a player maximizing his full worth but usually Financial security + playing on a top 3 team usually trumps everything
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) September 21, 2015
As we've discussed before, a restricted free agent can sign his qualifying offer, play out the next season and reach unrestricted free agency the following summer. Players rarely choose to sign qualifying offers rather than rookie extensions or longer-term RFA offer sheets, because players typically opt to lock up as much money as they can as soon as possible.
If an RFA doesn't like the contract offer on the table, though, and wants to shake loose from the team that drafted them, signing the qualifying offer is the one real bit of leverage he has. It's what Greg Monroe chose to do last summer, laying the groundwork for his eventual departure from Detroit; that, in turn, helped convince Pistons brass to back up the Brinks truck for point guard Reggie Jackson rather than take the chance that he could walk in a year's time.
Paul, Thompson's agent, said earlier this summer both that his client would be willing to sign the qualifying offer, which would pay him $6.8 million next season and allow him to enter unrestricted free agency next summer. That represents a major risk — Thompson's missed just six games in his NBA career, and hasn't missed one in the last three seasons, but all it takes is one major injury or a disappointing season after returning to the bench behind a healthy-again Love to make you wish you'd grabbed the guaranteed cash when you had the chance. But it's one that Thompson's evidently willing to take, preferring to bet on himself in pursuit of larger paydays, much as he did in declining the four-year, $52 million offer the Cavs made him last year.
Paul has also said that, if Thompson does so, this "will be his last year with the Cavs." That doesn't sound like something that would make another one of Paul's clients — you might've heard of him; goes by the name "LeBron James" — particularly happy.
James has said this summer that Thompson should be a Cavalier for his entire career, that Thompson "means way too much to our team success" not to re-sign long-term, and that re-signing Thompson is Cleveland's "No. 1 objective." He has not, however, wielded his considerable influence by registering public displeasure with the fact that the negotiations remain ongoing — he elected not to keep the Sword of Damocles handing over the Cavs' heads by deciding to sign his own new contract before Thompson's deal got done — as noted by Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
[...] a source close to James said Thompson's contract is a "non-discussion right now" for James as it relates to his own future, and a team source said the Cavs believe "LeBron's goals don't change relative to Tristan Thompson or anyone. Be as good as we can be for as long as we can be."
In other words, the nuclear option, or James demanding the Cavs pay Thompson what he wants or else, doesn't appear to be on the table.
[...] sources said James has not applied pressure internally for the Cavs to acquiesce to Thompson's salary demands. And, back in August, James told reporters that "things need to be worked out from his side and the Cavs." Basketball observers at the time saw James' statements as an opportunity passed for him to push Cleveland toward paying Thompson's asking price.
There is ample time for James to apply that pressure – one Tweet is all it would take – and on Monday James will take questions from reporters at the team's media day for the 2015-16 season.
Perhaps James will make that statement once the eyes of the basketball world return to the Cavaliers, and it'll put Gilbert on the spot. Perhaps the Cavs don't necessarily believe that, as important a replacement as he was last postseason, Thompson represents a necessary enough component of a championship contender going forward to be worth the additional $40 million in luxury tax spending that would come with maxing him out.
Further, perhaps they really don't believe that, year-to-year deal or not, LeBron would ever actually leave Cleveland again over something like deciding not to max out Tristan Thompson, especially after dropping $113 million on Love, re-upping Anderson Varejao and bringing back just about all the other role players on the 2014-15 Finals team. Then again, with the Cavs' existing spending putting them well over the salary cap and thus limiting the flexibility with which to add supplementary talent around their core players in the years to come, wouldn't Cleveland's chances at title contention be better served by just dropping even more cash on Thompson than by letting him walk in favor of finding a lesser talent with the taxpayer midlevel exception?
That's a complicated question, but it's one that Cleveland's braintrust will likely have to answer by next week. The longer this lingers, the more likely it is that LeBron speaks on it; while he's demurred so far, the Cavs might not like what he has to say.
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