Cleveland Cavs' Tristan Thompson Is Already Worth His Huge New Contract

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterNovember 6, 2015

Jun 9, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson addresses the media after game three of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland won 96-91. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

CLEVELAND — Tristan Thompson's return to the Cleveland Cavaliers was supposed to be quick and easy.

After all, Thompson is viewed as nothing more than a role player to most. A backup with little-to-no offensive game. A poor shooter and shot-blocker who has a lot of room to develop.

A max-money type of player? Don't make us laugh.

Such were the opinions often shared on Thompson's social media pages and in comment sections Internet-wide this past summer.

How dare he want more money than we deem reasonable!

Nearly four months into free agency, Thompson and the Cavs eventually settled on $82 million over the next five years. More than the Cavaliers originally offered ($80 million over five) but far less than he reportedly wanted (a max $94 million).

Thompson's value to the Cavaliers is tough to measure in dollars. On a rebuilding team that needs to keep a flexible payroll in the future, Thompson's deal could be crippling.

On this Cleveland squad with a championship-or-bust mantra and a sky-rocketing salary cap, he's well worth it.

With messy contract negotiations in the past, it's time to move on and realize Thompson shouldn't be judged on his paycheck but rather all the positives he brings to the Cavs instead.

 

Versatility and Reliability

Nov 2, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) defends the shot attempt of Philadelphia 76ers guard Hollis Thompson (31) during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Spor
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Thompson's skill set is pretty defined by this point.

He's one of the NBA's best offensive rebounders, bringing a non-stop motor to the court every single night. At 6'9" and 238 pounds, Thompson can play both post positions and is athletic enough to effectively defend the pick-and-roll.

"The thing about Tristan is that he doesn't need a whole lot to be involved and successful in the game," coach David Blatt noted. "He's going to do the things that he does regardless of the play call or what the coach is doing. He's going to rebound, be active, get his hand on the ball, deflect the ball, run to the rim and finish plays, screen well and move and facilitate through his movement."

Only DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers has appeared in more consecutive games than Thompson's 294 and counting. The last time he was unable to suit up? Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker and Luke Walton were key members of the Cavs roster.

This kind of reliability is invaluable for Cleveland.

Take a look at the other big men on the roster. Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejao have all undergone surgeries in the past year. Varejao has missed an average of 42 games over the past five seasons. Sasha Kaun, although healthy, hadn't taken part in an NBA game until about a week ago.

Most also are confined to one position. Mozgov can't defend three-point shooting power forwards. Love won't go toe-to-toe with 7-foot centers in the paint. Thompson gives the Cavaliers their most versatile, and reliable, big man.

"All the bigs, we've all got different relationships with each other. That's key, especially for us to keep moving forward and grow something special," Thompson noted after a 102-92 win over the Miami Heat on Oct. 30. On that night, the 24-year-old collected 13 points, nine rebounds and a huge block at the rim of Chris Bosh, all in 26:03 of court time.

Although TT doesn't begin games, Blatt often chooses Thompson over Mozgov during fourth quarters. Thus far, he's seeing more playing time (24.6 minutes to 21.6) than his Russian teammate, as well.

Mozgov will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, likely seeking a deal north of the $82 million Thompson secured. Should he walk, Cleveland already has a solid backup plan in place.

Not Missing a Beat

Despite missing training camp and the entire preseason, Thompson hasn't appeared winded or tired at all in the early going. He's remained in excellent physical shape throughout his five-year career, adding significant muscle to an already athletic frame.

When asked if he was surprised it didn't take Thompson much time to acclimate himself, Blatt replied in deadpan, "It took some time. It took three games."

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30:  Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbles the ball against the Miami Heat on October 30, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Perhaps, Thompson should skip preseason next year, as well, given that he's off to the best statistical start of his career.

Though five games, he's averaging 7.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.0 block and shooting a 60.7 percent clip from the field in less than 25 minutes. Per 36 minutes, that's 11.1 points and a whopping 14.9 boards. His total rebound percentage (22.3) and defensive rebound percentage (33.5) are ranked third and second, respectively, in the entire NBA.

According to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, Thompson stayed plenty busy while his contract negotiations were going on.

To understand why Tristan Thompson is playing so well without a training camp under his belt, just look at his summer workout regimen.

The rebounding machine spent his summer and holdout period working out across the country, but primarily in Miami getting in three-a-day workouts six days a week.

His agenda comprised of an early morning on-court workout followed by a rigorous core weight-lifting program and in the afternoon, a final on-court session. And outside of those training shifts, he said he "ran a lot."

This kind of grueling workout schedule is not always commonplace among athletes who hold out, so to hear Thompson's description and see the early results has been incredibly encouraging.

So much of his game is built on motor, hustle and endurance rather than shooting and passing. Thompson's body is his investment and key to success in the league.

Given what he brings to the table, Blatt noted we shouldn't be surprised to see him contributing so much so quickly:

"The big thing for me is that he would get his rhythm and feel for the game. It's come a lot faster, honestly, than I originally expected. On the other hand, it's understandable given those qualities that I just mentioned. The big thing is that Tristan took care of himself physically and came in in good shape. He didn't have a problem to run up and down the court and be active like he normally is. He's a really good basketball player and fits this unit because he gives us things that others guys don't and plays his role perfectly."

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 26: David Blatt and Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers speak during a game against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Clev
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Cavaliers stumbled to a 1-3 and 19-20 start a season ago, having to scratch and claw their way up the Eastern Conference standings all year. Getting off to a fast beginning and establishing themselves early was key.

So far, Thompson's conditioning has helped them achieve just that.

A Smart Investment

Paying Thompson $82 million may look foolish now but should turn out to be quite a worthwhile expenditure.

We know what Thompson is. What does he have the potential to be?

This new deal will cover him until age 29, allowing plenty of time for growth and development, especially on the offensive end.

We've already seen a spike in his field-goal percentage (currently eighth in the NBA, 17 percent higher than his rookie year). Although much of his offense comes around the basket, with put-backs and assisted dunks, Thompson is slowly expanding his range.

Last year, 66.4 percent of his shots came from within three feet of the cup. This season, that amount has dropped to 39.3 percent. While having Thompson move farther away from the hoop may not seem like a positive, the early results have been impressive. He's shooting 50 percent in the 3-10 foot range, up from 34.7 percent last year.

His jumpshot won't be confused for Love's anytime soon, but it's quickly becoming something opponents have to honor.

Defensively, Thompson has been very average throughout his career, despite the physical potential to become great. Thus far, he's been dominant.

The Cavaliers are an astounding 14.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor, holding opponents to an offensive rating of 88.3. His 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes would be the highest figure since Thompson's rookie season, something he admits is important to him.

"Going into the playoffs last year, they were saying we didn't have rim protectors outside of Mozzy, so I took that challenge upon myself," Thompson said. "Even this season, going in and protecting the rim with Mozzy not in, still protecting that rim and let the guards know if their guys get by them, I'll be waiting."

Meeting Thompson in the paint has not ended well for opponents this season. While players shot 52.7 percent against him within 10 feet last year, that number has plummeted to 27.3 percent now. That's a drop of 22.3 percent from their usual success rate, per NBA.com. It's worth noting that this sample size has included Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks and the Memphis Grizzlies' duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph

Thompson's game is continuing to grow on both ends, a great sign for someone under contract until the summer of 2020.

Not a Typical Deal

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 04:  LeBron James #23 and Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers speak to the media after Game One of the 2015 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on June 4, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: U
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It's easy to point at Thompson's $16.4 million annual salary and say that he's overpaid.

If the NBA salary cap was hovering around the $60 million mark it has been for years, then yes, that would be more than a fair statement.

Due to an influx of TV money, the cap already jumped to a record-high $70 million this season. By 2017-18, it's expected to reach $108 million, nearly doubling over just five years.

Salaries will balloon with a rising cap. Thompson's deal is just a sign of things to come.

By comparison, his $16.4 million projected salary with a $108 million cap can be viewed the same as an $8.2 million deal last season. Take the version of Thompson we have now, project his growth and try to say (with a straight face) that he's not worth that amount.

We need to stop worrying about Thompson's contract and focus on the ultimate goal.

Title or Bust

Cleveland is all about championships at this point and will be until LeBron James decides to hang up his sneakers.

Titles are won for a lot of reasons. Star power. Defense. Luck.

Add a strong bench to this list. The Cavaliers were one Varejao injury away from a Kaun-James Jones frontcourt without Thompson around. That kind of combo won't cut it during a grueling playoff run.

The Cavaliers not only want an adequate bench, but one that can be an area of strength come the postseason, noted Blatt:

"We want our bench to be impactful and aggressive and a source of advantage for us. I think they're doing that and taking pride in the fact that they're coming into the game and making a difference and not just treading water."

Thompson leads all NBA reserves in both rebounding and defensive rating (90.1). He's good enough to start for a number of teams, including the Cavaliers, should they need him to.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Cleveland was ripped apart by the Golden State Warriors' deep bench in the Finals, an area they've improved with Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson and this version of Thompson.

Had the team played hardball, not given Thompson his money and been exposed again in the playoffs, it would have been a grave mistake.

Should the Cavaliers come away with the title this year, or any other with Thompson making a big impact, no one will say he wasn't worth it.

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA for Bleacher Report since 2010. Follow him on Twitter, @CavsGregBR. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com.

Related

    Possible Trade Packages for Jordan Clarkson

    Cleveland Cavaliers logo
    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Possible Trade Packages for Jordan Clarkson

    King James Gospel
    via King James Gospel

    Darius Garland Season Preview

    Cleveland Cavaliers logo
    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Darius Garland Season Preview

    Hoops Habit
    via Hoops Habit

    Cavs from 2016 Title Team Wore Rings for Fred McLeod’s Funeral

    Cleveland Cavaliers logo
    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Cavs from 2016 Title Team Wore Rings for Fred McLeod’s Funeral

    Robert Marvi
    via Cavaliers Nation

    Gasol, Rubio, Spain Defeat Argentina to Win 2019 FIBA World Cup

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Gasol, Rubio, Spain Defeat Argentina to Win 2019 FIBA World Cup

    Timothy Rapp
    via Bleacher Report