Perhaps more than any other rookie scale extension candidate, Tristan Thompson‘s fate with the Cavaliers could be decided by variables outside of his play. Both the return of LeBron James and the pending acquisition of Kevin Love should factor heavily into Cleveland’s decision to either extend the power forward or let him hit restricted free agency next summer.
On the court, Thompson has been a solid but unspectacular player, posting career averages of 11.7 PPG and 9.2 RPG in three seasons since being selected No. 4 by the Cavs in the 2011 draft. His production has been very steady in those years, without major spikes in hardly any category. The most significant changes have come in his blocks (down from 1.6 per-36 as a rookie to just 0.5 per-36 last season) and free throw proficiency. Thompson switched shooting hands in 2013/14, a rare shift for a professional to pull off. His free throw shooting benefited, jumping to a respectable .693, but his percentage from the floor dropped. His career slash line is .474/.000/.630.
Averaging a near double-double in the NBA is no small feat, but of the 19 players that scored over 10 points and collected at least 9 rebounds per game in 2013/14, Thompson ranked near the bottom in win shares (16th), PER (19th), effective field goal percentage (16th), and defensive rating (17th). Defense is a particularly concerning area for Thompson, as he gave up a generous 59.1% while defending the rim last year.
Three frontcourt players from Thompson’s draft class received extensions prior to this summer, and the production and/or potential for DeMarcus Cousins, Larry Sanders, and Derrick Favors earned each annual salaries of at least $11MM in those deals. Sanders was on the low-end of those extensions, inking it after a 2012/13 season in which his per-36 numbers were significantly better than Thompson’s were this year. Sanders is also an athletic phenom in an altogether different class than Thompson, who is reportedly looking for salary in the $10MM range for an extension.
In a vacuum, Thompson’s market value would make it debatable he would even get an extension, let alone something in the ballpark of some of the league’s young post players with higher upside. Our own Chuck Myron predicted that Thompson will end up with no extension by the deadline in the Hoops Rumors Rookie Extension Primer, and how other teams would value Thompson as a free agent is unknown. The Warriors did see Thompson as a potential trade piece for a deal involving Harrison Barnes, although those were very preliminary rumblings that wouldn’t necessarily indicate a one-to-one valuation of the players, or any long-term salary considerations.
Thompson’s game doesn’t compare favorably to some fellow extension candidates that Chuck deemed long shots to receive a deal from their respective teams: Enes Kanter is a more effective low-post scorer; Markieff Morris a better all-around offensive force; and Bismack Biyombo a much more intimidating interior presence. Thompson’s agent might argue that it’s more relevant to compare his counting stats to those of Kenneth Faried, whose per-game averages aren’t significantly greater than Thompsons, but Faried was much more efficient, contributing similar numbers in fewer minutes per game. And again, Faried’s athletic prowess dwarfs that of Thompson.
With Love’s arrival, Cleveland has no shortage of offensive firepower, nor will they lack for rebounding ability with one of the game’s premier rebounding talents suiting up in wine and gold. Thompson’s moderate production in those categories is redundant to Love’s, to say the least. The Cavs’ biggest uncertainty is defense, especially after giving up Andrew Wiggins in the Love deal as expected. While LeBron is capable of playing elite defense and guarding every position on the court, center Anderson Varejao is a constant health risk, and if Love is capable of providing average interior defense, he hasn’t shown it in his time with Minnesota. New coach David Blatt is known as an offensive whiz, but whether his transition from Euroleague to the NBA will include effective defensive schematics remains to be seen.
So the presence of Love would appear to weigh heavily against Cleveland’s decision to invest in Thompson, as he is a superfluous cog on offense and a below-average defender on a team with major defensive concerns. However, Love’s arrival also speaks to one factor in Thompson’s favor: the influence of LeBron. James is said to have been instrumental in working between Love and Cleveland’s front office leading up to the trade, and he shares an agent with Thompson in Rich Paul.
Before LeBron’s return, Thompson was a trade candidate. As we noted prior to James’ return, the four-time MVP’s arrival would give Thompson leverage in seeking an extension. Sure enough, Thompson’s name was absent from trade rumblings involving Love following LeBron’s return, despite being a young, frontcourt talent whom the team was open to dealing in prior months. In an appearance on the B.S. Report podcast, Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com speculated that the Cavs will “probably” give Thompson an extension above his market value because of his shared representation with James. He suggests it will have been a “wink-wink” investment that would have been informally agreed upon to go along with LeBron’s signing in Cleveland. Such an agreement would be illegal under the CBA, but this wouldn’t be the first case of a convenient side-deal. Last summer, John Wall‘s agency negotiated a surprisingly lucrative four-year contract for teammate Martell Webster just before wrapping up a max extension for Wall in Washington.
If Thompson does receive an extension, it could be an indicator of just how influential LeBron’s management team is for the Cavs. While James isn’t expected to leave Cleveland anytime soon, his two-year deal, which includes a player option next season, gives him continued leverage with the organization. If James wields far-reaching power in Cleveland, it wouldn’t be the first case of a superstar doing as much. Phil Jackson‘s recent hiring as Knicks president ended an era in New York in which Creative Artists Agency, representing Carmelo Anthony, had its tentacles throughout the franchise, even getting J.R. Smith‘s brother an eyebrow-raising contract last season.
With plans of keeping James, Kyrie Irving, and Love for the long term, a multiyear commitment to Thompson would be a huge gamble. That All-Star trio is already slated to take up around $60MM in cap space in the coming years, and the team also faces a decision on whether to extend Dion Waiters to a rookie scale extension by next fall. On paper, the wise choice seems to be straightforward: don’t tie up most of your remaining long-term money to a player that doesn’t project to bolster your title hopes. Even if James’ camp exerts pressure on the Cavs to extend Thompson, Cleveland brass would do well to remember that the Heat just lost James in part due to cap limitations that prevented them from improving around the world’s best player, and he walked away as their championship window appeared to be closing.