Tristan Thompson's Contract Standoff Reveals Limits of LeBron James' Leverage

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2015

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LeBron James' leverage over the Cleveland Cavaliers, at least as it pertains to Tristan Thompson's future, is not absolute.

Thompson, a restricted free agent, is now willing to sign his qualifying offer rather than a new long-term deal with the Cavaliers, according to Sportsnet's Michael Grange. The qualifying offer is worth nearly $6.8 million and essentially acts as a one-year contract, allowing the 24-year-old forward to enter unrestricted free agency next summer, when the salary cap is set to jump by roughly $20 million.

Traveling this route would allow Thompson to leave Cleveland in 2016 if he so chooses. And as his agent Rich Paul told Grange, that's exactly what Thompson intends to do:

Players don't typically eschew the security of a long-term pact for the right to control their own destiny the following summer. But this scenario was once inconceivable for other reasons.

Thompson proved pivotal to the Cavaliers' NBA Finals run. He was thrust into the starting lineup after Kevin Love suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against the Boston Celtics in the first round and finished second on the team in postseason win shares, behind only James.

James' long-held pro-Thompson stance was supposed to render the big man's foray into restricted free agency a formality. The four-time MVP was both ardent and definitive in his support, going as far as trying to predict the future back in May, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin:

James and Thompson share an agent in Paul. More than that, James isn't just another star to the Cavaliers. He's their savior, their lifeline. He didn't have to return as a free agent in 2014 and try to bring the franchise its first-ever NBA title.

Anything he wants, he's supposed to get. And that's what makes this so weird.

If James is high on Thompson, the Cavaliers, in theory, should do everything in their power to retain him, luxury-tax implications be damned. At the beginning of free agency, Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com even reported Thompson and Cleveland were nearing an agreement that would pay the de facto sixth man more than $80 million.

Just prior to Grange's report, however, Windhorst brought word that Thompson is actually seeking a max deal, which would pay him around $94 million over the next five years. That's a ton of money, even against a rising salary cap—especially when the Cavaliers already have $88.6 million in guaranteed commitments on next season's books before accounting for Thompson.

But the question of whether Thompson is worth a max deal shouldn't matter. There wouldn't be a conversation to have if the issue were that simple.

Thompson, in a vacuum, isn't worth a max deal.

Under normal circumstances, Thompson isn't worth a max deal.
Under normal circumstances, Thompson isn't worth a max deal.Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Never mind his plummeting usage rate or declining per-game numbers. Those are the side effects of playing for a superteam. Thompson is, at most, the Cavaliers' fourth-best player. He's not going to post gaudy stat lines regularly.

Assuming the future health of Timofey Mozgov and Love, along with James, Thompson will be lucky to even match the 26.8 minutes per game he averaged last season. And while star-studded championship contenders are usually pretty good at compensating those outside their megastar nucleus, diminished roles can drive down price tags.

Interpreting Thompson's importance is particularly difficult given he doesn't epitomize the ideal complementary player.

His offensive game is limited. More than 66 percent of his shot attempts came within three feet last season, and he shot just 36.6 percent when firing away outside that range.

Although he is valued for his glass-crashing more anything, he's not irreplaceable on that front. He ranked 29th in rebounding percentage last season—though he was admittedly a standout offensive board-hoarder, finishing fifth in offensive rebounding percentage.

There's no reason to classify Thompson as an elite defender, either. The Cavaliers allowed fewer points without him on the floor in 2014-15, and he ranked in the bottom 33 percent of rim protection among all players to face three or more shots at the iron every game.

On top of that, Thompson has never posted a positive box-score plus/minus—not even last season when, unlike his first three years in the league, he was surrounded by a surplus of top-tier talent.

Still, Thompson is supposed to have enough leverage of his own to land the contract of his choosing from Cleveland. 

Thompson has other forms of leverage, but James' kinship is supposed to be his greatest asset.
Thompson has other forms of leverage, but James' kinship is supposed to be his greatest asset.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Letting him walk doesn't put the Cavaliers in a position of financial power. They have $48.8 million in guaranteed salaries already on the ledger for the 2016-17 season. They'll need to re-sign Mozgov and James, and they could absorb another sizable contract with the trade exception created in the Brendan Haywood deal. They'll be at or above the $89 million salary-cap threshold almost by default, making it that much harder to find an adequate replacement for Thompson. 

Next year's free-agency class isn't as super as initially advertised. This summer's crop of talent prioritized long-term security over a potentially greater payoff in 2016, thinning out the possibilities considerably.

Relative to other spots, talented big men will be difficult to suss out. Al Horford will be available, as will Hassan Whiteside, but not many others. Barring a complete implosion on his behalf, Thompson will easily be among the five most coveted bigs available. 

And that, in turn, means teams will be lining up to pay him. As Windhorst underscored:

The other is the fact that more than 20 teams are projected to have cap space for a max-level free agent next summer, making it the best summer to be a free agent perhaps in the history of American professional sports. ... In a market awash in cash, that may mean multiple max offers if Thompson has even an average season by his standards.

Now, as with any predictive model, there are holes in this line of thinking, the deepest of which remains that interested suitors cannot count on Thompson to have a max-level impact. That becomes abundantly clear when put in next summer's financial terms, courtesy of Nylon Calculus' Seth Partnow:

James, though, is supposed to trump all other forms of logic. 

The Cavaliers are not supposed to fret Thompson's below-board offensive game and empty defensive value.

They are not supposed to read into his overtly finite ceiling.

They are not supposed to flinch at the contract itself or pine for the money they could save, which CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie highlighted:

On some level, Thompson could want to leave. Less talented squads will be more conducive to his individual success, offering him the chance to flourish as something other than a No. 4, 5 or 6 offensive option and as someone more than a second-string sidekick.

But this isn't an issue of Thompson's desire for a more prominent role. Even now, with the prospect of an awkward situation looming large, Grange has made it clear Thompson is willing to stay for the right price:

In the end, Cleveland may decide Thompson's price is, in fact, wrong. And in making that call, presumably against James' wishes, the Cavaliers will send a separate, more important, unequivocally surprising message.

Even James' power has its limits.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale. 

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