The Cleveland Cavaliers Should Not Give Tristan Thompson a Maximum Extension
The Tristan Thompson contract saga continues to drag on.
If you're not up-to-date with the proceedings, you've basically missed a ton of posturing from both sides but still absolutely no ink being put to paper. The Cleveland Cavaliers started it all off by offering the fourth-year forward a five-year deal worth in the vicinity of $80 million, which both sides seemed to have agreed upon in July. Thompson's camp pulled back, though, seeking the 5-year, $94 million max extension instead.
The $14 million difference hung over negotiations all summer, until it looked like the two sides had agreed on a new three-year, $53 million deal just last week. Now, that doesn't seem to be happening, as Thompson was not present at the Cavs' media day on Monday and missed the team's first practice on Tuesday.
There's still a month left before the October 31st deadline for the extension, but the Cavaliers' $6.8 million, one-year qualifying offer expires today. The team can extend their own deadline on that, but we're officially getting to the point where something has to give.
All parties involved want Thompson to stay in Cleveland -- especially his biggest supporter, LeBron James -- but someone is going to have to give up several million dollars before that can happen. Thompson's agent, Rich Paul, has said that his client will not play with the Cavaliers beyond this year if the qualifying offer is ultimately all the two sides can work out.
This could all end very badly if the two don't come to an agreement soon. Should the Cavaliers cave and give the young man his first big contract, or test the resolve of Thompson and his camp by holding steady with their original price?
Well, if you look at Thompson's numbers, it's hard to understand how the word "max" even came into the conversation in the first place.
A Beacon of Consistency
Last season, Thompson averaged 8.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.4 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 26.8 minutes per game, while shooting 54.7% from the field and 64.1% from the free throw line. It was the third straight season that he played in all 82 games for the Cavaliers, but he started in only 15 -- compared to all 82 the two previous seasons -- due to the arrival of Kevin Love.
Thompson's playing time dropped nearly five minutes per contest with the demotion to the bench, but his per-36 numbers stayed pretty steady. In fact, in each of his four NBA seasons to date, he has averaged pretty close to his career per-36 numbers of 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 1.0 block.
|Season||PTS (per-36)||OREB (per-36)||DREB (per-36)||TREB (per-36)||BLK (per-36)|
That's about as consistent as you could hope for from a 24-year-old.
The thing that comes with that kind of consistency, however, is that everyone pretty much knows what Tristan Thompson is. There's upside that comes with his age, but his strengths and weaknesses are starting to look pretty well defined. He's an above average rebounder -- elite on the offensive glass, as evidenced by his 14.5% Offensive Rebound Percentage last season, fourth in the Association -- and a guy that can give you a dozen semi-efficient points with the right minutes.
As far as defense is concerned, Thompson isn't really making his keep on that end. He allowed a 52.2% field goal percentage on 6.5 attempts faced around the rim last season. For comparison's sake, that's nearly identical to Kevin Love's 52.6% allowed on 7.1 attempts faced, and Love has a reputation as a horrible defender.
In terms of Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Thompson's mark of -0.48 from last season placed him 118th among centers and power forwards. Again, for comparison, Love was 68th at 0.96.
The goal isn't really to say that Thompson is a worse defender than Love specifically -- just that he performs about as well or worse on that end as someone who is known for being a below average defender.
Production versus Salary
Thompson's total contributions add up to a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 15.68, placing him 68th in that category among qualified power forwards and centers. Given that the league average for PER is 15.00, Thompson is pretty much the definition of an average big man by that metric: an average scorer, an above average rebounder, and a below average defender.
So, what from all that would convince the Cleveland Cavaliers to pay up with maximum money?
Thompson would make an average annual salary of $18.8 million if given the $94 million max over five years that he's seeking. Even if he took the original offer of $80 million over five, he'd be making an average of $16 million per year. Given that the Cavaliers already have $95.2 million committed to the other 14 players on their roster for 2015-16, those figures would represent 16.5% and 14.4% of the Cavaliers' total payroll this coming season, respectively.
Thompson is a key cog for Cleveland -- he showed as much in the 2015 NBA Playoffs especially, with Love and Kyrie Irving sidelined for most of their run to the NBA Finals -- but he might not be worth that much. Last season, in the same backup role that he would occupy this year, Thompson put up 6.8 Win Shares. That's roughly 12.8% of the team's 53 wins that he was responsible for, so to speak, yet he's scoffing at 14.4% of the team's salary and demanding 16.5%?
Yes, you pay young guys with upside, but as previously mentioned, it really seems like we know what Tristan Thompson's going to be as an NBA player. Throw in the fact that he's playing behind Love -- who just re-signed for five years and $110 million himself -- and Timofey Mozgov, and the number starts to look pretty inflated, even with the salary cap about to skyrocket.
Sure, Mozgov is on the last year of his contract and the Cavaliers could go with Love and Thompson as their frontcourt of the future, but then they're right back to the rim protection problems they had before trading for Mozgov in January of last season.
The $16 million annual salary would make Thompson the 12th-highest paid big man in the league and easily the highest-paid backup, while the $18.8 he's seeking would make him the 10th-highest paid overall. The next highest price for a projected backup big this season is Nikola Pekovic at $12.1 million in 2015-16. Of course, the circumstances are different, as Pek earned that at the time he got it and it at least made sense when he was an entrenched starter for the Minnesota Timberwolves, before they drafted Karl-Anthony Towns.
Paying top dollar for a player that isn't projected into a starting spot for the foreseeable future just doesn't seem like good business. Especially when a max signing for Thompson would push the Cavaliers luxury tax bill up to $46.1 million for the 2015-16 season.
The Clock Is Ticking...
Cleveland is faced with a very difficult decision. If Thompson doesn't come down on his price, the Cavs can either pay top dollar for an admittedly average backup big man, or they can call Thompson's bluff on the qualifying offer. If they play that game of chicken, a lot will depend on if another team is willing to pay him a max contract. His agent claims there are at least three teams lined up, but that's what agents say. Assuming these teams have solid analytics departments, that's probably not true.
The clock is running out on this situation, and a decision should surface at any given moment, with that qualifying offer expiring at 11:59 p.m. tonight.