Free Agency Preview – Tristan Thompson

By Matt Esposito

Despite rumors of Tristan Thompson being a buyout candidate during the 2019–20 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers opted to hold onto their veteran big man through the end of the season. Will they retain his services for much longer, though?

With the last year of his $18.5 million contract set to expire and fellow center Andre Drummond most likely opting into his final year, Cleveland has some important decisions to make. Do they draft a big like James Wiseman in this year’s draft, freeing them to let Thompson walk? Or will Thompson take a team-friendly deal to stay with the only team he’s played for in his career?

Before I express my thoughts on Thompson’s prospective contract and suitors, his play needs to be examined. The tape on the one-time NBA champion shows a 29-year-old who still has a few good years left in him. Last season, Thompson demonstrated he could still protect the rim, create offense through dribble-handoffs and smart passes, and possibly even extend his range to the 3-point line. Let’s explore.

Defense (Weakside Rim Protection)

The overall athleticism of NBA big-men often begins to deteriorate as they transition out of their twenties and into their thirties. Specifically, both their leaping ability and foot-speed can lose a step or two. So, I watched the film on Thompson determine the current state of his athleticism and how it could impact his shot blocking.

Although he’s certainly not as spry as he once was, Thompson still has enough quickness to clean up his teammates’ mistakes. Last year, the Cavs frequently relied on him to help from the weak side and be a defensive force in the middle. His shot-blocking numbers will never wow you (his career average is less than one per game), but we’ve seen Thompson be an effective paint deterrent throughout his career.

If Thompson inks a long-term deal (3–4 years) then whichever team that signs him will likely get two strong years of weak-side help defense out of him before he becomes a step too slow to keep up. For the next couple seasons, however, the Canadian center can still be relied upon to rotate over in time to contest at-rim attempts.

Defense (IQ & Strength)

Thompson is bucking the growing league philosophy that skills like off-the-dribble shooting and playmaking have diminished the importance of physical traits like strength and height. He is one of the most immovable players in the NBA, consistently forcing solid post players into tough shots. In every game, Thompson challenges opposing bigs in a territorial dispute for paint dominance, and he comes away the victor more often than not.

Additionally, for quite some time now, Thompson has been working angles to bottle up speedier guards when switched onto them during pick-and-rolls. This is a good sign when considering that his foot-speed will only decline during his next contract. What’s more, not only does the first clip in the above video show Thompson getting a double-block on Jonas Valanciunas, but it also proves that Thompson has a little quick-twitch bounce still left in the tank.

Passing/Vision

During his first seven years in the NBA, Thompson posted an assist to usage ratio above the 25th percentile only twice, and during that time, according to Cleaning the Glass, Thompson never broke past the 50th percentile barrier. During the past two seasons, however, the 6-foot-9 center has placed in the 66th and 60th percentile, respectively. In layman’s terms, Thompson has become not only a more willing passer, but a more effective one too.

Most of Thompson’s assists come off of dribble-handoffs (a strategy we may see coaches implement more of due to the success that the Miami Heat and Bam Adebayo had with it this season). Yet, Thompson showcased other facilitating skills that can also be useful. He won’t ever be tasked with Jokic-esque distributing duties, but Thompson can be called upon to complete big-to-big lobs, backdoor-cut passes, kickouts and even the occasional fastbreak read. Whatever team lands him will not have to worry about any black hole-ishness.

Offensive Gravity & Possible Perimeter Shooting

A nerd is born every time an NBA analyst mentions the term gravity. Relax, dweebs. I will not be using data to support my claim that Tristan Thompson still has a little juice in his legs when diving towards the rim; the tape says it all. While not explosive as players like Jaxson Hayes, his teammate Andre Drummond, or the aforementioned Adebayo, Thompson still commands attention when rolling to the rim.

To be clear, his at-rim percentages are low for his position. According to Cleaning the Glass, Thompson converted only 60 percent of his rim attempts this season. Yet, the number of shots he took there were near a career-low, suggesting his ability to convert there was limited by poor point guard facilitation. On a team with a capable point guard, Thompson’s percentages should return to form. Plus, his offensive rebounding stats remain elite (95th percentile), which also draws defenders towards him when he is in the paint.

Now, onto that discussion about three-point shooting. For someone who has never been a reliable three-point shooter in his career, Thompson going 9-for-23 from deep this year might seem like a positive trend. The eye test tells a different story. His form is nightmarish, and would receive an ‘R’ rating if this were a horror film.

Even his makes look ugly.

What are we to make of this trend? Any coach that approves a deal for Thompson will not want him to shoot 3-pointers next year. It is a win for the defense when he does. Yet, his desire to drift out to the perimeter shows a player who is willing to adapt in order to extend their career. I’m skeptical that this old dog can learn new tricks, but at least we know this Cavalier (dog pun alert!) has some bite left in him.

Fits & Potential Contract

With a bevy of young talent in Cleveland and perhaps a positive trajectory, Thompson may want to stay with the only team he has ever suited up for. If not, the Los Angeles Lakers are an obvious destination. They will likely bring back both Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee, yet Dwight Howard is set to be a free agent and can be replaced.

Hoopsrumor.com broke down the Laker’s cap situation for this upcoming offseason: “while it’s plausible that the Lakers will have the full, non-taxpayer mid-level exception available, there may not be enough wiggle room to use the full MLE and bi-annual exception while staying below the tax apron.” In other words, the Lakers could give Thompson an offer just north of $9 million per year.

Still, he may turn down a chance to compete for titles with his buddy LeBron. Why? This contract will likely be Thompson’s last chance to score a solid payday. There is a chance, however, that he looks back at his career earnings of near $100 million and says, “eh, let’s chase titles, not dollars.” Considering many teams with cap space are non-contenders, there is a decent chance Thompson lands in Los Angeles instead of taking a big pay day to spend his last good  years somewhere like Detroit or Atlanta.

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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