During the 2015 off-season, there was no new contract more polarizing than the one awarded to Tristan Thompson.
A player who had previously come off as agreeable and team-first during his nearly five-year tenure in the NBA, the power forward and his representatives engaged in a lengthy holdout for a contract extension that was so contested by the Cleveland Cavaliers organization that it dragged into the team’s training camp during the early fall.
A restricted free agent, Thompson sought a max contract offer in the neighborhood of $94 million over five years. Cavs general manager David Griffin, who opted to play the long game in talking down Thompson’s agent and LeBron James business partner Rich Paul, came to an $82 million agreement for the same time frame.
The deal, signed in October, had many critics. Thompson, after all, had career averages of 10 points and 8.4 rebounds, hardly standout numbers for a guy about to make just north of $14.2 million for the 2015-16 season. By comparison, more productive players at the same position around the league, such as Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah and Zach Randolph, wound up making less.
His 31 starts in 70 games this season also don’t help Thompson’s cause when it comes to justifying monetary value. But the argument can also be made that his value to these Cavs, in particular, makes the numbers more palatable.
Even at an escalating price, Thompson, a former No. 4 overall draft pick, has been a major factor in the Cavs’ nearly two-year run of winning basketball.
For starters, Thompson is durable. The 6-foot-9, 238-pound Toronto native hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. He played in 60 games during the 2011-12 season, then started all 82 regular season contests the next two years. With James’ return to Cleveland in July 2014, the rest of the roster was improved in order to try to meet new championship expectations. Thompson moved to the bench, where he again played in all 82 games, but made just 15 starts.
Through coaching changes (Byron Scott to David Blatt to Tyronn Lue) and a complete overhaul of the franchise’s mindset and goals, Thompson managed to maintain a similar workload despite moving to a reserve role. After averaging just over 31 minutes per game as a starter, he has played 26.8 and 28.2 minutes per game the past two seasons—not a major dip in court time. His rebounding, likely his greatest strength, has also remained steady. He averaged 8.0 per game last year, and is currently tying his career-high of 9.4 per game this season. His 6.1 defensive boards per game this year are a career-high.
Along with his durability has come versatility. The past two seasons have seen him used as a starter and as a reserve, but his ability to play either post position has made him an asset. When the Cavs go with a smaller lineup, Thompson can play center and spend his time crashing the glass, seeking opportunities to create new possessions via offensive rebounds. He also has had value as a power forward in a bigger lineup, where his athletic brand of defense (nearly one block per game) and quickness for his size allow him to switch onto guards without hurting the team on that end of the floor.
He has also been a reliable crunch time player for the Cavs. This was especially true during last season’s playoff run, when he averaged 36.4 minutes per game for an injury-depleted roster and started 15 of 20 games. He was important at both ends and averaged 9.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
The one major knock left for Thompson—at least when it comes to his new contract—is his scoring, which has never been his strong suit. He has a career average of 9.8 points per game, and has a career-high of 11.7 points. This season, the number sits at 8.0.
Keep in mind, however: he plays in lineups that routinely feature the likes of James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith—all offensive weapons who take a lot of shots. For his part, Thompson is taking an average of five shots per game (a career low), though his 58 percent field goal percentage is actually the highest of his career. He also has 21 double-doubles this season, tied for 27th in the league with San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge.
On the surface, Thompson held out and the Cavs paid him a giant sum. After all, $82 million is a lot of money for a role player, even in a league in which the salary cap is poised to increase, and teams often overpay for free agents. But beneath that, Thompson’s ability to adapt and blend into the team’s changing dynamic the past two years without hassle, while also playing a pivotal role in the team’s nightly defense and rebounding, have made him valuable even at such a high price.
Consider it a win for all parties involved.