As NBA season nears, Thompson’s fate hangs in the balance

The NBA is almost back. Kobe is eating entire shot clocks for turn-around 17-footers in preseason games (actually happened). Stephen A. Smith is making headlines by expressing opinions. And Lebron James is preparing to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers in pursuit of a championship once again. As usual though, there is an intrigue-filled catch to King James’ title hopes.

This year, the question mark comes in the shape of Tristan Thompson’s unresolved contract dispute. Thompson became a restricted free agent after this past season, and spent most of the summer angling for a max-level deal with Cleveland, which would be for five years and worth roughly $94 million. Reportedly, the Cavs were thinking more in the range of five years and $80 million. The two sides went back and forth until the deadline at the eve of training camp, when Thompson could have signed the one-year qualifying offer, worth $6.8 million, and become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. 

However, the deadline came and went without Thompson putting pen to paper, so now the two sides are left with only a long-term deal as an option at this point, with Thompson literally unable to participate in team activities until he is under contract. So we wait, with this shaking out a couple of ways. 

The first, obviously, is one side or the other caving and agreeing to the terms the other wants. But even with Thompson’s side coming down to a three-year, $53 million deal, but a shorter deal at the max level is not what the Cavs are interested in. Teams get value out of max contracts when the player has a year or two left so they can work a trade, so a shorter deal with the same cap hit isn’t exactly appealing to them. So until one side makes an offer that the other is willing to talk about, we will likely be witnessing something we don’t often get the chance to see in the NBA — a holdout. 

The precedent for a holdout is there, with Anderson Varejao sitting out 21 games in 2007 before the Cavs opened up the checkbook for him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the same thing in this situation. Thompson is an athletic big who is an active defender, particularly skilled at stopping pick-and-rolls. And he can rebound the ever-loving crap out of the ball. His combination of skills make him a solid front-court fit with either Kevin Love or Timofey Mosgov. 

Lebron has called the situation a distraction in recent days, and called out the Cavs organization to “Get it done!” Clearly James sees Thompson’s value, and you know the idea of keeping Lebron happy is on the organization’s mind 24/7. I think the two sides will come to a deal by December at the absolute latest, and I wouldn’t rule out an 11th hour deal right before the season starts either. The Cavs need Thompson and Thompson wants to play. And if they never come to terms and he sits out the entire season, the Cavs can extend another qualifying offer on June 31 of 2016, and the whole dance starts over. And I can think of about 80 million reasons why Thompson wouldn’t want to push it that far.