Who’s Calling the Shots in Cleveland?

Since he entered the league, LeBron James has snubbed his nose at the status quo at every turn. Whether it be forming his own management team with his childhood buddies, empowering his friends Rich Paul and Maverick Carter, or looking America in the eye and turning his back on the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron has made it clear he has the power.

After returning to Cleveland last year, James recruited former Heat teammates James Jones and Mike Miller, known LBJ favorites in Miami, leading some to believe management might be taking cues from their most valuable superstar. Many have speculated that LeBron isn’t simply the starting small forward for the Cavs, but also their pseudo coach and general manager.

As training camp approaches this week, the defending Eastern Conference champions remain in a contract stalemate with power forward Tristan Thompson. The two sides are reported to be $14 million apart in negotiations, the Cavs offering a five year, $80 million contract, while Thompson’s agent Rich Paul, LeBron’s friend and agent, proposed a five year, $94 million max contract.

Reports of an agreement on a three year, $53 million deal surfaced last Wednesday afternoon, only to be quickly quashed and corrected by another report which said Thompson and his camp would accept a deal of this kind, and that the deal had not been agreed upon by both parties.

While this most recently rumored three year deal includes less salary overall than the five year max previously reported, the two contracts are essentially the same annually, differing by less than a million dollars per year. To put these numbers into perspective, Tristan Thompson and company are asking for a contract worth more than $1.2 million dollars annually than the five year, $82 million contract recently signed by Golden State forward Draymond Green.

When put side-by-side, it’s hard to argue Thompson deserves a deal comparable to Green’s. Tristan Thompson really made his hay in the playoffs after starting power forward Kevin Love sustained a season-ending injury in the first round against the Boston Celtics, so we’ll compare his playoff numbers against Green’s, since the two averaged similar minutes in the postseason.

 

PER

 

PPG

 

RBG

Tristan Thompson

15.4

9.6

10..8

Draymond Green

16.6

13.7

10.1

 

So while playing and defending positions three through five, Green still managed to average more than four points more per game, and rebounded at a rate comparable to Thompson.

Another factor to be taken into account in Cleveland’s contract negotiations with Thompson is his redundancy once Love returns to the starting lineup. Thompson served admirably as the Cavs starting power forward in the playoffs, but after signing his five year, $110 million contract this offseason, there’s little doubt as to whom Cleveland envisions at the four in the future, and that’s Kevin Love. At $17.7 million per year, Thompson would be one of the most expensive bench players in the league.

So what gives? Why do Rich Paul and Thompson remain steadfast that he and his client are worth more than a defending NBA champion who served a far more prominent role on his team than Thompson did and will on his? The answer may well lie in LeBron James and his management team.

Last offseason, after James signed with the Cavs, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, reported that “there was a tax – spoken or unspoken – that would come with James’ return, that would manifest itself in an above-market deal for Thompson.”

LeBron has also been outspoken in support of Thompson’s return to Cleveland saying:

Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career…This guy is 24 years old, he’s played in 340-plus straight games, and he’s gotten better every single season. It’s almost like ‘What more can you ask out of a guy?'”

LeBron’s multifaceted role has begged the following questions: Which LeBron James is vying for Tristan’s return? The teammate, the GM, or the friend? Further, who does it serve?

LeBron has played his cards well, signing one year deals until next year’s salary cap boom when he can cash in for a historic $40 million/year deal, and in the process hold the Cavs to the fire year-by-year with the threat of his departure.

Cavs management has to choose between placating its superstar and doing what’s in the best financial interest of the franchise. It seems apparent that the market does not bear what Thompson is asking, and the team will have to either hold strong in the face of Rich Paul and LeBron’s management team, or bow down and mortgage their future.

follow Ryan on Twitter: @rgthorner

photo via Wikimedia.org