Tristan Thompson’s contract holdout was apparently more about a weak attempt at symbolism than acquiring a tangible result. After Thompson and agent Rich Paul had routinely rejected a 5-year, $80 million standing offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers in pursuit of a max deal, Thompson agreed to a new five-year contract worth $82 million on Wednesday, just six days before the team’s regular season is set to begin.
How on Earth did we even arrive at this point? Thompson is a talented player, but he is not irreplaceable. When early speculation existed about what Thompson might land on his next deal, a price tag of $10-$12 million annually seemed like an unfathomable projection. And now, after a season in which Thompson averaged 8.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in about 27 minutes per game, he is the fresh recipient of a bloated contract that presents more questions than answers about Cleveland’s future.
What was the point of enduring this for Thompson and Paul? It’s not something that helps either of their personal brands, and it certainly wasn’t worth what amounts to be an average of an additional $400K per season. There were no alternative spots for Thompson to land, no alternative paths for the two to travel down and little—if any—leverage during negotiations. This was never a battle where Thompson’s camp was going to come favorably, and now an entirely new set of expectations has been born out of Thompson’s previous indecision.
If the two sides had simply come together during the offseason as so many expected following Cleveland’s run to the Finals where Thompson played an integral role without Kevin Love (shoulder) healthy, it would be entirely different for the big fella as he enters 2015-16 with the Cavs. But because the process was drawn out unnecessarily, Thompson will begin this season under a spotlight that was previously shone in a different direction.
Heretofore viewed as a role player extraordinaire and judged through that lens alone, Thompson will now be forced to endure the star treatment. Our perception is built from reality when we watch our favorite athletes play on the game’s biggest stage, and the reality is that Thompson is now among the league’s highest-paid players at his position. That would have been true if Thompson signed the original $80 million deal the Cavs floated in front of him, and it’s especially accurate now that everyone was exposed to an individual distraction that only detracted from the group’s ultimate goal. A contract holdout is typically supposed to send a statement, but that’s not what happened here. Earning an extra $2 million over the course of five years, Thompson’s holdout looks funky, smells terrible and will now be a topic of discussion around a Cavs team that is only supposed to have one singular focus: Chasing a championship.
Paul, who has been through this song and dance before, did not benefit now like he did back then. When Eric Bledsoe rejected a four-year, $48 million offer from the Phoenix Suns and parlayed it into a five-year, $70 million deal, there was actual leverage to be had at the negotiating table. The Suns had just traded for Bledsoe, deemed him their franchise star and could not afford to lose him after a short stay in the heated desert. Bledsoe got an additional year and another $22 million as a result of his standoff. The length of Thompson’s contract was never in question, and his threat earned just an additional $2 million. There’s a certain way to do business in the NBA, and haggling over less than half of a million dollars per season for a player of Thompson’s stature really isn’t one of them.
There is clear value in Cleveland getting this deal done beyond simply eliminating the off-court conversation. By signing Thompson to a lucrative long-term deal with both PG Kyrie Irving and PF Kevin Love locked up, the Cavs are sending the clearest message yet to LeBron James that they’re dedicated to winning every year.
Thompson should be able to work his way back into the good graces of the fans with little ease, and he’ll have no problem with his teammates given LeBron’s backing. But Thompson is going to face scrutiny he never has, will be subjected to an unrelenting analysis of his game and be forced to take a responsibility that previously belonged solely to a few select others on the roster.
Was that really worth an additional $2 million?