Tristan Thompson remains the biggest fish in this summer’s free agent sea, as noted in our updated rankings.
In fact, LeBron James has called Thompson a “key piece” to Cleveland’s hopes of winning a title this season.
So why the elongated stalemate between the two sides?
It comes down to leverage. Cleveland has it for the upcoming season, but Thompson has it afterward.
Confused? Let me explain.
As a result, Cleveland doesn’t want to compete against itself and overpay Thompson with looming luxury tax implications. That being said, a league source told Chris Sheridan last week that the sides are not as far apart on money as many have been led to believe.
If the Cavaliers gave Thompson a five-year max offer, they’d be on the hook for $104.5 million in salaries and an additional $44.2 million in taxes next season, as Bobby Marks noted.
On the other hand, signing Thompson to the qualifying offer would provide Cleveland savings in the immediate future. The Cavaliers would be on the hook for $94.8 million in salaries and only $16.5 million in taxes next season.
However, despite the savings, Cleveland would only have Thompson as a one-year rental and wouldn’t be able to sign him to a long-term deal next summer — if agent Rich Paul is to be believed. That was the threat Paul made last week when the contract impasse kept Thompson from joining the Canadian National Team.
A year ago, the Pistons and Monroe couldn’t come to terms on a long-term deal. Monroe played under the qualifying offer, and then Detroit lost the young frontcourt piece in the prime of his career for nothing.
Detroit’s loss was a major gain for Milwaukee, which added another talented young piece to a core that hopes to compete with James and the Cavaliers in a few years for supremacy of the East.
Keep in mind, Thompson and James share the same agent — Paul.
James, who will also be an unrestricted free agent next summer, has confidently maintained that he believes the sides will strike a deal before the summer ends.
Paul is considered a hard-nosed negotiator around the league with his client’s best interests at heart. Some questioned why Paul would turn down a four-year, $52 million contract extension in October, but in retrospect the move made sense thanks to the inflated salary cap looming.
With roughly two-thirds of the league having enough room to sign one maximum-level free agent next summer, Thompson could easily cash in as the youngest player with the most upside in a free agent class that is predominantly on the wrong side of their 30s.
Therefore, Cleveland’s potential five-year, $94 million maximum offer would be devalued. The cap will rise to nearly $90 million salary cap next summer and Thompson would hit the market at 25 in the prime of his career. He could break the bank and get a four-year, $100 million deal as our Joe Kotoch tweeted.
With that said, playing out the one-year qualifying offer poses some risks for Thompson. There’s always the threat of a devastating injury — although that didn’t stop Wesley Matthews from getting paid by the Dallas Mavericks. In addition, Thompson will be backing up Kevin Love heading into the season and his playing time will be limited as a result.
Eventually, the stalemate will be resolved one of three ways:
1. Thompson and the Cavaliers agree to a five-year, $94 million maximum deal.
2. Thompson takes the one-year, $6.8 million qualifying offer and will leave Cleveland next summer as an unrestricted free agent.
3. Thompson holds out, which is the worst case scenario.
While it’s uncertain whether Thompson will hit the market again in 2016 as an unrestricted free agent, here’s a preview of the top players that will become free agents next summer:
1. Kevin Durant, F, Thunder (Unrestricted): It seemed like yesterday when the Oklahoma City Thunder were destined to become the next great dynasty with Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka forming an exciting young core. However, when James Harden was traded it spelled the end of the talented young core. There will be more pressure than ever on Oklahoma City to return to the NBA Finals, with the Washington Wizards, and numerous other teams in the league, preparing sales pitches to lure Durant. The Thunder and Wizards are the early favorites to land Durant.
2. LeBron James, F, Cavaliers (Unrestricted): This won’t be the next coming of “The Decision.” James and the Cavaliers have supremacy in the East locked up for the next three to five seasons on paper. The best player in the game will be paid handsomely with a projected max salary starting at nearly $30 million. One thing to monitor is Thompson’s situation with Cleveland. James has publicly made it clear he wants Thompson back and the two share a bond. If Thompson isn’t brought back for the long haul, James won’t be pleased.
3. Dwight Howard, C, Rockets (Player Option): He may not be Superman anymore, but Howard remains one of the best centers in the game at a position with a dearth of talent. In 17 playoff games, Howard asserted his dominance averaging 14 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game despite facing several small ball lineups. If Howard can remain healthy for the majority of the season and produce his usual numbers, it makes sense for him to opt out of his $23.3 million player option with a higher salary cap and the benefit of long-term financial security from Houston. Howard made eight straight All-Star teams before injuries limited him last season.
4. Mike Conley, G, Grizzlies (Unrestricted): Conley is in the midst of his prime at nearly 28 and remains a borderline All-Star in the vaunted West. In a league where point guard is the preeminent position, Conley will have no shortage of suitors. However, I expect the Grizzlies to lock up Conley to a long-term deal as they did with Marc Gasol this summer. The two players form a solid foundation for Memphis to build around. Jeff Green will be a big question mark as he also enters free agency.
5. Dwyane Wade, G, Heat (Unrestricted): He may not be Flash anymore, but Wade is still a highly efficient scorer — when healthy. Wade has been an All-Star for 11 straight seasons averaging 24 points, six assists and five rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent for his career. At 33, Wade’s biggest knock is his inability to stay on the floor over the past four seasons missing a combined 94 games. It’s hard to imagine Wade anywhere else but Miami.
6. DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors (Player Option): DeRozan was limited by injuries last season, but the former All-Star is only 26 and his best years are ahead of him. As long as he stays healthy and produces similarly to the past five seasons, I expect DeRozan to opt out of his $10.1 player option. The Raptors have held discussions with Jonas Valanciunas on a long-term deal. (More on contract extensions here.) Next up will be DeRozan to continue building with the young core in place.
7. Al Horford, C/F, Hawks (Unrestricted): Horford returned to All-Star form last season, but has missed a large majority of time in two of the past five seasons. While his numbers have dipped over the past three seasons, Horford will see more time at power forward with the addition of Tiago Splitter this season. Less banging on the block should help keep Horford on the court longer. Horford has been dangled as trade bait before last season. Will the Hawks cut bait with Paul Millsap signed long-term and Splitter in the fold?
8. Pau Gasol, F, Bulls (Player Option): An All-Star last season, Gasol became the oldest player to lead the league in double-doubles at 34. Gasol averaged 18.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and two blocks per game. If he approaches similar production, expect Gasol to opt out of his $7.8 million player option. At this stage of his career, Gasol is focused on chasing another title. If the Bulls regress, Gasol may cut bait similar to David West at a discounted price to join an elite contender.
9. Timofey Mozgov, C, Cavaliers (Unrestricted): Mozgov played his best basketball of the season when it mattered most during the NBA Finals when he recorded three double-doubles. Mozgov stole the show in Game 4 with a 28-point, 10-rebound performance. At 29, Mozgov is in the midst of his prime with a stretch forward in Kevin Love and one of the best pick-and-roll passers in LeBron James to maximize his potential. Mozgov will earn $5 million this season, but he could triple that salary annually in his next contract in 2016.
10. Joakim Noah, C, Bulls (Unrestricted): After consecutive All-Star seasons, Noah regressed last season due to injuries and a minutes restriction for much of the regular season. Despite being banged up, Noah’s effort and hustle was never in question. He remains the best passing center in the league by far and can still rebound and blocks shots effectively on defense. If Tyson Chandler can get a four-year, $52 million contract, Noah can blow that number away if he averages close to a double-double. The question is whether the Bulls are willing to pay up to retain him?
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