-- The Tristan Thompson contract negotiations have to be a first in modern NBA history: a protracted showdown over the services of a player who averaged 8.5 points per game the season before hitting free agency.
I know better than anyone that scoring average is a poor measure of player value, but more comprehensive metrics paint Thompson in little better light, at least in terms of his desire for a maximum-level contract as reported today by ESPN's Brian Windhorst. And yet there's still reason for the Cleveland Cavaliers to fear the threat made by Thompson's agent, Rich Paul, that if he signs the one-year qualifying offer Thompson will leave the team as an unrestricted free agent next summer. Let's break down Thompson's value, first to other suitors and then to the Cavaliers in particular.
For all the excitement about Thompson's 2014-15 season, he wasn't a dramatically different player than his first three years in the league, which were considered disappointing from a former No. 4 overall pick. Thompson posted a 15.6 PER, a modest improvement over his 2013-14 mark (14.9) and actually worse than 2012-13 (16.1).
The same goes double for Thompson's apparent postseason breakout, which was primarily a function of increased playing time with Kevin Love sidelined by shoulder surgery. During the regular season, Thompson averaged 11.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. In the playoffs, his scoring per 36 minutes declined to 9.6 points while his rebound average was identical.
The biggest thing that did change for Thompson was the quality of his teammates. Early in his career, playing on lottery teams, Thompson was frequently asked to create his own shot. More than half of his field goals were unassisted during his first two seasons, per Basketball-Reference.com, and his usage rate was not far below the league average of 20 percent.
Last season, Thompson was able to take advantage of the defensive attention created by LeBron James and his other new teammates. His usage rate dropped to 14.0 percent of Cleveland's plays during the regular season and a microscopic 11.2 percent in the playoffs, third lowest among players who saw at least 250 minutes in the postseason.
The other aspect of Thompson's role that changed was primarily playing center as opposed to power forward. That allowed Thompson to camp out in the paint rather than having to space the floor from the perimeter at times. Nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts last season came within three feet of the basket, according to Basketball-Reference.com, as compared to less than half of his shot attempts the previous two seasons.
Thanks to those two differences in his role, Thompson's shooting percentage shot up from 47.3 percent during his first three NBA seasons to 54.7 percent last season, putting him in the NBA's top 20 among players with at least 400 attempts from the field.
As other teams consider how Thompson would project as part of their lineups next summer, they'll have to understand that his improved efficiency may not be portable if he's playing with weaker teammates. And they'll also have to consider the defensive trade-off required to play him primarily at center. Thompson is a below-average rim protector, having blocked just 1.0 shot per 36 minutes last season and allowed opponents to shoot 52.2 percent on attempts within five feet of the rim, according to SportVU camera tracking available on NBA.com/Stats. Only a handful of starting centers, including Jordan Hill, Al Jefferson and Nikola Vucevic, allowed higher percentages at the rim.
Thompson's quick feet and ability to switch pick-and-rolls are unique defensive attributes at the center position. Still, because of his shortcomings as an interior defender, ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) rated him No. 54 among centers in terms of his defensive impact last season, neutralizing much of the value he provided at the other end as an offensive rebounder and finisher.
Projections based on a combination of RPM and my wins above replacement player (WARP) statistic placed Thompson outside the top 30 free agents on the market this summer. While he's likely to rank higher next season because the crop of free agents will be weaker and at 24 he figures to maintain his worth, Thompson's production is still valued around $11-12 million per season as the cap rises -- not close to this year's maximum salary, let alone next year's potential starting salary of an estimated $20.8 million.
Cleveland's limited options
Given that Thompson isn't worth the money he wants, the Cavaliers should be thrilled if he takes the qualifying offer, right? Their cap situation means it's not quite that easy. Assuming James re-signs, Cleveland can't realistically clear appreciable cap space next summer, meaning the team's options for replacing Thompson are limited if he plays 2015-16 for the qualifying offer and then leaves. The Cavaliers' best hope would be the $10.5 million trade exception they created by trading Brendan Haywood's non-guaranteed contract to the Portland Trail Blazers last month, which would allow Cleveland to take on a large salary without having to send out a player in return.
The trade exception gives the Cavaliers some flexibility, but there are strings attached. The Cavaliers would likely be in or near the luxury tax if they re-sign center Timofey Mozgov as an unrestricted free agent, making it difficult for the Cavs to acquire a free agent in a sign-and-trade. And with so many teams under the cap, there will be fewer teams looking to dump salary -- and more competition for players who are moved for salary relief. Even if Cleveland dangles draft picks in return, it's unlikely the Cavaliers could use their exception to acquire a player as good as Thompson.
It's understandable that Cleveland would want to squeeze any concession possible out of negotiations with Thompson. Because the Cavaliers are deep into the tax, every dollar they pay Thompson this season will actually cost them between $3 and $5.25, depending on what happens with fellow free agent J.R. Smith. But Cleveland can't risk letting that financial savings cost the team a key part of a championship contender.
Since only the Blazers have the ability to make Thompson a max offer sheet as a restricted free agent, and none appears forthcoming, Thompson's only negotiating leverage is convincing the Cavaliers they have to re-sign him to a multiyear deal this summer to keep him. There's a real risk to taking the qualifying offer, given Thompson's stock may not be nearly as high if he plays limited minutes as a reserve during the 2016 postseason and teams take a closer look at what they're really getting. As a result, despite today's bluster, I expect Thompson to re-sign with Cleveland long-term at some point before training camp.