-- Editor's Note: This column, originally posted in August, has been updated to reflect the Cleveland Cavaliers and Tristan Thompson agreeing to a five-year, $82 million contract on Wednesday.
The Tristan Thompson contract negotiations had to be a first in modern NBA history: a protracted showdown over the services of a player who averaged 8.5 points 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. And yet there was still reason for the Cleveland Cavaliers to fear Thompson departing via restricted free agency 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 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 and 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 part 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 shots 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.
As the Cavaliers valued Thompson, they had to consider the defensive trade-off required to play him primarily at center. Thompson is a below-average rim protector, having blocked only 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 his value is likely to increase, Thompson's production is still valued around $11 million-$12 million per season as the cap rises -- less than the $16.4 million he'll make per season on this contract.
Cleveland's limited options
Given that Thompson isn't worth the money he wanted, the Cavaliers should have just let him walk, 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 were limited. The Cavaliers' best hope would have been 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 have allowed 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 probably would 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 have used their exception to acquire a player as good as Thompson.
It's understandable Cleveland would squeeze any concession possible out of negotiations with Thompson. Because the Cavaliers are deep into the tax, getting Thompson for less than the maximum salary will save them more than $11 million this season. (More than $2 million in salary, but also more than $9 million in the taxes, which penalize Cleveland several dollars in tax for each they spend in salary.)
Both Thompson and the Cavaliers were taking risks the longer the negotiations continued. Thompson stood to forfeit salary with no assurance he would make it up if he returned to the market as a restricted free agent next summer and the possibility no team offered him any more than $82 million. Meanwhile, Cleveland needed Thompson back in a lineup that is already depleted by injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert. So consider this deal a win-win. The Cavaliers may have overpaid for what Thompson's production was worth, but they're a better team with him on the roster.