By Michael Hobson
Two seasons ago the Cleveland Cavaliers were a lottery team. They had the first overall pick which they used on Andrew Wiggins and the Toronto Raptors were involved in a tense playoff match with the Brooklyn Nets. Among the two thousand or so fans outside in Jurassic Park watching game seven on the big screen was the Cavs Tristan Thompson. A local boy — he was born and raised in the Toronto suburb of Brampton — Thompson had grown up as a Raptors fan. Now Thompson is a restricted free agent and the Cavs are having a hard time signing him to an extension. Could it be because Thompson harbors a desire, like LeBron James, to come home?
This past season, which saw the Cavs go to the NBA Finals, was Thompson’s coming out party. LeBron insisted the Cavs sign Thompson to a long term contract and it appeared it would occur, especially since LeBron’s agent is also Thompson’s agent. But something happened during negotiations. The Cavs thought they had an agreement on a five year $80 million extension however issues arose that have put contract talks on hold.
What issues occurred? Nobody knows since nobody’s talking, but it is interesting to note that Thompson has consistently rejected signing long term deals with Cleveland.
The Cavs offered a four-year $52 million deal before the season began — which Thompson rejected, purportedly to wait for the off-season and bank on his ability to increase his value with his play. He succeeded. Thompson was a valuable performer during the Cavs playoff run; he was offered more money and more years. Yet Thompson still has not signed.
Could Thompson be forcing the Cavs’ hands? Could he be angling for an opportunity to sign with the Raptors? Toronto has made numerous changes this off-season but the one hole they have yet to fill is starting power forward. Are they waiting until Thompson’s contract negotiations are finalized before making a decision on who should fill that role?
Thompson could go the Greg Monroe route. Monroe was not happy in Detroit and asked the Pistons to trade him after the 2013-14 season. The problem for Monroe was that at the time he was a restricted free agent just like Thompson is now. Not wanting to stay in Detroit and not having the leverage to force a trade Monroe signed a one year deal and then this off season became an unrestricted free agent. Monroe signed with Milwaukee.
Thompson could follow the same path and sign a one year deal with Cleveland. He would then be an unrestricted free agent after next year when the salary cap is expected to rise substantially. Toronto would certainly have the cap room to sign Thompson to a long term deal. But Thompson may be pushing the envelope this year, not wanting to wait another season to sign with his home town team.
For their part the Raptors could have signed Thompson to an offer sheet, but being restricted, the Cavs would have the right to match and they likely would. The Raptors have obviously decided not to make the contract offer, knowing the Cavs would match and eliminate any chance of acquiring Thompson, unless through trade, for the length of the contract.
The Cavs are well over the salary cap and over the luxury tax threshold as well. Cleveland’s ownership has shoved all their chips into the middle and are going for it all. Cleveland re-signed all their major free agents and will be paying heavy into the luxury tax for many years unless they dump contracts. The Cavs have been forced into this situation in order to keep their franchise player happy. The Cavs want a title. Cleveland has not one professional sports title since the football Browns won the NFL title in 1964 and, with LeBron, their time is now.
Cleveland is further ahead than Toronto. The Cavs are among the favorites to win next year’s title and went to the Finals while the Raptors are coming off a disappointing post season of four straight losses in the opening round. Cleveland wants to win the title while the Raptors are simply seeking some post-season success. Winning a round would be satisfactory to Raptors fans but would be a major disappointment for Cleveland.
It would seem that Thompson’s best route is to follow Greg Monroe’s path and sign a one year contract with Cleveland. He would then have all options available to him next off-season and wouldn’t be restricted.
In the meantime the Raptors wait. The best options to fill their starting power forward spot are gone unless they go the trade route.
Could a trade be worked out between Cleveland and Toronto for Thompson? Certainly, but I have a hard time believing the Cavs would simply surrender and move Thompson.
The Cavs do have some roster duplications. They have two starting centers in Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejao. If they re-sign Thompson, they will have two starting power forwards along with Kevin Love and this is where Thompson’s concern for playing time enters the picture. The Cavs signed Love to a monstrous five year deal meaning Love will be the starting power forward in Cleveland for the next five years leaving Thompson to come off the bench. Thompson obviously views himself as a starter, and rightfully so.
But the Cavs are being greedy. They want it all, at least for next year, and are willing to pay through the nose to ensure their chances at winning the title. If it means paying big money to a back-up then so be it. The difficulty for Thompson is that coming off a successful post-season run his value may never be higher. It may actually sink next year if he is coming off the bench and playing limited minutes and of course there is always the injury concern.
Thompson wants his future to be settled now. The Raptors would love to have Thompson on their team. For both to realize their dreams of a union they may have to wait one more year. Cleveland will not let Thompson go; they have his rights for one more year and fully intend to exercise those rights. They don’t care about Thompson’s wishes; they only care about winning a title. And keeping LeBron happy.
Michael Hobson, Sports columnist and author
Follow him on twitter @mhobson12
If the Cavaliers all-but-in-name general manager Lebron James isn’t insisting on Tristan Thompson’s return and simply wants to win as many NBA Championships as possible, he may have looked at the Cavs roster and realized his team needs some more depth – preferably players that aren’t as old as dirt and might actually be useful at some point.