The Tristan Thompson Line In The Sand

The Tristan Thompson-Cleveland Cavaliers stalemate has finally reached the point of no return. One side believes they are being denied what has been earned. The other side is calmly saying, slow your roll, you are not a max player. Of course with the stakes this high, the sides have stayed in their respective corners even if they are not slamming one another in the media.

The Cavs believe Tristan Thompson isn’t a max player and- the critical part in this standoff-they have no interest in paying him like he is one. There are other things the Cavs will throw out there to buttress their point but it only matters if you believe their basic thesis of Thompson as a role player, a good player who affects the game but a complimentary piece.

Will Thompson ever be an All-Star? Professional pundits think no. Is he even the best power forward on his own team? Once again, no. He is the best rebounder, hustle player, in the paint at the rim grabbing a rebound scoring and doing it all over again player. But basketball is more than Tristan Thompson’s skill. That is how the Cavs see things.

Rich Paul has another view. His client may never dominate a game in the glamorous way social media loves to promote but what he does on defense, how he saves possessions, what his energy and hustle and effort translate into, all of the small, minute details that create excellence are taken for granted. They matter even if no one is paying attention to Thompson off ball, so seduced by the elegant talent of LeBron James. But Thompson makes the offense work.

If DeAndre Jordan is a max player because of what he can do at the rim, then Tristan Thompson is a max player too because his impact is downright stunning even if he is undervalued. Because we are Pavlovian, drawn to the scent of the dog and the ring of the bell, rather than the hunger and then the devouring, we miss the point. No one on the Thompson side of things is going to argue his flawlessness. Those soliloquys are dead on arrival. He can make shots and then he can miss a bunch of them. He doesn’t stretch the offense in the modern NBA way but he’s an efficient mid-range shooter. Forget expecting any sort of charity at the free throw line.

Thompson, if he rejects the Cavs less than max deal, will, in many ways, part the salary sea. Yes, Greg Monroe did it last year but Monroe played for the Pistons. He wasn’t coming off a NBA Finals appearance where he was a game changer. Monroe’s name recognition is a little bit higher than a mound of dirt. The Pistons don’t matter; the Cavs do. The Cavs are title contenders. The Cavs have LeBron James. The Cavs are a glamour team. The Cavs create television revenue and civic revenue. By association, Tristan Thompson willing to take the qualifying offer and then leaving to go elsewhere is a big deal for the rest of the NBA, a league of mostly conformists and non-risk takers. Tristan Thompson normalizes financial behavior many consider risky.

Paul suggested that Thompson would not play for the Cavs if he is forced to take the qualifying offer, implying the bitterness could not or would not soften, even in the glow of a NBA title. It’s hard to swallow that train of thought. Thompson has never won a title. He’s never experienced that level of exhaustion and accomplishment and euphoria and bravado. Walking away and joining a mid-level team or a contending team who has yet to win anything feels a little bit suspect after two years with LeBron James.

Tell me, was this a threat? “If Thompson is on the qualifying offer this will be his last year with the Cavs.” The intended target was the Cavs: sign him now to what we want or you are out of the loop. The advantage Paul has is that the salary cap jumps to a massive amount next year so he can pretty much assure his client a nice raise. His disadvantage is that Thompson isn’t so gifted that he isn’t replaceable. He is. Replaceable.

Rich Paul has been here before. Last year, his client Eric Bledsoe wanted a max deal and the Phoenix Suns didn’t want to give him one but at the end of the day the Suns recognized the freakish ability of Bledsoe, both on offense and defense. They blinked and in October gave Bledsoe the deal.

There is so much that’s different here because if the Cavs could get to the NBA Finals without Kevin Love and then win games in the Finals without Kyrie Irving, they can make do with Tristan Thompson on a one year deal.

Usually these stalemates are won or they are lost with the side that has the most to lose. It’s not Thompson. Playing for $7 million is hardly poverty. Then he’ll walk through an open door. The Cavs, on the other hand, will have a one year rental that may end in a championship.

In all of this LeBron James is suddenly an outsider, unable to use the force of his will and his immutable power to change the Cavs mind and so he is watching like the rest of us. He knows the one truth in all of this, the one fact to bank on. Tristan Thompson will be his teammate in 2015-16. That’s the only thing the Cavs and LeBron James know for sure.


photo via llananba