Tristan Thompsons' contract negotiations with the Cleveland Cavaliers have turned into a three-month-long standoff that nobody saw coming.
Thompson hit restricted free agency this July, meaning the Cavs could match any offer he got, but, early into free agency, it was reported they were nearing an agreement on a five-year, $80 million contract.
However, time passed, and the deal was never announced, and nobody knew what happened.
It later came out that Thompson, after seeing the flurry of free-agency activity this summer, turned down the Cavs' offer and wanted a max contract worth $94 million. His agent, Rich Paul, who is also LeBron James' agent, threatened that Thompson would take a one-year, $6.8 million deal (known as the qualifying offer) to hit unrestricted free agency next summer if the Cavs didn't offer him a max.
Except Thompson never actually made good on that bet. The threat was supposed to pressure the Cavs into giving him the max, since they wouldn't have the money to find a replacement if he left next summer. Instead, the Cavs never caved to his demands.
Since then, it's been a downward spiral for Thompson, who's running out of options, most recently with Basketball Insider's Larry Coon stating he heard that the Cavaliers took away the $80 million offer.
This comes after Thompson reportedly lowered his overall demand to a three-year, $53 million deal — worth $17 million per year. While that's only $1 million more per year than what the Cavs offered, the short-term nature of the contract takes away the Cavs long-term leverage, particularly if they wanted to trade Thompson. If the Cavs wanted to trade Thompson on that deal, they'd have a tough time getting assets from another team, since the other team would know Thompson's contract would be ending soon.
Thompson's ability to make good on his threat is also gone. On October 1, the deadline for Thompson to take the one-year qualifying offer passed. The Cavaliers could have extended it, but they chose not to, meaning that Thompson and the Cavs are left to negotiate a deal.
As Coon said, if there were an offer sheet awaiting Thompson, he would have signed it by now. The Cavs have all of the leverage. If another team wants to make Thompson an offer — and there are only a handful with the cap space or ability to do so — the Cavs can match.
Thompson has little bargaining power since the Cavs can now offer him a lower deal, and he'll have nothing to fall back on. If Thompson wanted to just hold out the entire year, it wouldn't do him any good, because he'd remain a restricted free agent next summer.
The scenarios in which Thompson can come out a winner are few. If, somehow, another team clears the cap space to make Thompson an offer, they could consider a deal closer in yearly value to what Thompson is asking for since the Cavs pulled their $80 million off the table. In a more dramatic scenario, if Thompson held out the entire year, he might find more suitors willing to offer max money.
Next year the NBA's salary cap is set to explode because of a new TV deal, and with a lack of big-name free agents, teams will have money to spend, and Thompson would be one of the best big men available.
What seems more likely is that the Cavs will let Thompson get desperate (though the injury-riddled Cavs may feel the same as the season goes on) and force him into a lesser deal that's friendlier to their wallet.
Thompson was silly to demand a max contract in the first place. Whether his play warrants one is worth debating, but the $80 million deal the Cavs offered was similar in yearly value to what several other big men got in free agency this summer.
Unfortunately for Thompson, it is starting to look like he overplayed his hand and lost.
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