For a league that includes not only some of the most famous athletes but also some of the most famous people in the world, the NBA’s collective fascination (or obsession, depending on who you asked) with the Tristan Thompson holdout situation in Cleveland was almost comical.
Shouldn’t have any news about Kevin Durant’s foot or James Harden’s Adidas deal or Kobe Bryant’s preparation for his 20th season been about 10 times as compelling as negotiations surrounding the Cavaliers’ sixth man?
And yet, Thompson’s place in the game — a 24-year-old, traditionally undersized big man about to enter his fifth season with ho-hum career averages of 10.1 points and 8.4 rebounds — was exactly what caused the enthrallment to begin with.
The Thompson transaction included two unprecedented factors aligning together at the same time, making it noteworthy as a historic case study, more so than just as another example of what Pat Riley calls “the disease of more,” when every role player wants a bigger piece of the pie following a successful year as a team like the Cavs had last season.
The first factor is the salary cap about to explode by an approximate 30 percent increase starting in the 2016-17 season when the new television rights deal kicks in. The salary cap has made incremental increases over the years, but never has so much new money been injected into the coffers in such a short span of time. The old paradigm of what players of a certain stature are worth has to be thrown out the window. Combine the money increase simultaneously occurring at a time when analytics have never been more influential in rendering traditional metrics for valuation (scoring average, rebounding average, etc.) obsolete and it can make your head spin.
The second, more soap opera-esque factor is Thompson’s agent, Rich Paul, just so happening to also represent LeBron James and the lingering suspicion that Paul’s connection to both players created in outsiders who questioned just how much James was leveraging his status on the team to benefit Thompson.
Throw in the fact that both Paul and Cavs general manager David Griffin are relatively new in their roles as the top dog (Paul spent years working for agent Leon Rose; Griffin spent close to two decades working his way up with the Phoenix Suns before ascending to assistant GM) and thus the result of Thompson’s deal would mean even more to each of them as they are both looking to establish their reputation in the business.
And so, now that the dust is settled on Thompson agreeing to a fully-guaranteed five-year, $82 million extension on Wednesday, ending his holdout just six days before the Cavs’ regular-season opener in Chicago, the natural reaction everyone is having around the league after paying such close attention to it for the past three months is declaring a winner and declaring a loser to the deal.
Either the Cavs overpaid and are getting fleeced by paying a bench player $16.4 million a season or Thompson and Paul caved by backing off their demand for a full max five-year, $94 million deal and accepted a lesser offer. Right? Wrong.
There is no resounding winner or loser here. This was compromise. This was also saving face, by both sides. For Thompson, even though he didn’t come close to the $94 million deal he once sought and settled for about $1.3 million less per season than the three-year, $53 million number that was also floated, Paul gets the satisfaction of the holdout for his client working out. By sitting out three weeks, Thompson earned an extra $2 million. Not bad.
For the Cavs, even though they had to come up from an already more-than-reasonable five-year, $80 million offer when they seemingly had all the control of the negotiations because (A) Thompson let their one-year, $6.8 million qualifying offer expire and (B) even if Paul could get another team like Philadelphia, Portland or Utah involved this late in the game and tender an offer, Thompson remained a restricted free agent so Cleveland could just match it to retain him. Being the first side to budge from what had become a stalemate in the past several weeks made sense.
The Cavs get to look like the bigger men here. Rather than trying to turn the screws on Thompson and jeopardize the start of the season with a roster that is already depleted by the absence of Kyrie Irving (left knee) and Iman Shumpert (right wrist) while dealing with James’ back, Kevin Love’s rust, Timofey Mozgov’s knees and Anderson Varejao’s conditioning, they get to put their best foot forward for their championship comeback campaign. Every player from last season’s NBA Finals squad that was a free agent and they wanted to bring back — James, Love, Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones and now Thompson — they brought back. A perfect 7-for-7.
Not to mention, just like in Smith’s negotiations when they held all the cards and could have squeezed him for a lower figure than $5 million, again the Cavs chose generosity over gamesmanship, hoping that the goodwill it gets them with the players will pay off tenfold when it comes to the attitudes those players bring to the group for the season.
Add in the acquisitions of Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson and Sasha Kaun and Cleveland’s management can legitimately say it did everything it possibly could to break the city’s championship drought this season. If the Cavs don’t win it all, it certainly will not be because Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert were skimping.
You could try to criticize Paul for overplaying his hand, but the saying goes if you shoot for the moon, even if you miss you land among the stars. At the end of the day, he made Thompson the sixth highest-paid power forward in the entire NBA, which is no small feat considering one of the top five highest-paid power forwards — Kevin Love –- already signed with the Cavs on a five-year deal in July. And this was after he advised Thompson to turn down a four-year, $52 million extension last October, bet on himself, and play out the final year of his contract. The bet paid off to the tune of $30 million.
You could try to criticize the Cavs for being too controlled by the influence of James and accuse them of only paying the pawn to please the king (OK, maybe Thompson’s more of a rook), but don’t forget they are getting one of the most durable big men in the league with the second-longest consecutive-games-played streak behind only DeAndre Jordan. They’re getting a relentless offensive rebounder. They’re getting a good citizen with high character off the court, something that matters in today’s pro sports scene more and more. And they’re getting a player who if he keeps improving, could even end up looking pretty cost appropriate come the latter end of his deal.
Shortly after the final terms of the deal were out there Wednesday, DeMarcus Cousins made a thinly veiled reference to the agreement with this tweet:
How much??? 😳
— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) October 21, 2015
Cousins broke the cardinal rule that states you should never count other people’s money. And he did it to another player in his shared player’s union that he could very well have to stand shoulder to shoulder with in the event of a lockout a couple years from now. It was a thoroughly foolish tweet, but a thoroughly revealing one, too. The entire league was indeed watching the Thompson negotiations play out like theater. But now that show is over.
As one source within the Cavs organization texted late Wednesday night: “Now let’s get to f—ing work.”