After losing the NBA Finals in June, the Cleveland Cavaliers had to quickly turn their attention away from the court and toward their bank account. LeBron James was a free agent! (He re-signed with Cleveland for two years and $47 million.) Ditto Kevin Love! (He re-upped for five years and $110 million.) Not to mention Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, James Jones and finals folk hero Matthew Dellavedova, all of whom were brought back by the Cavs over the summer.
But amid all the returnees was a glaring absence: power forward Tristan Thompson.
Thompson, who made a name for himself during the Cavs’ playoff run with a solid performance in place of the injured Love, has turned down Cleveland’s contract offers all year long. He reportedly declined a four-year, $52 million extension in January and an offer of five years and $80 million this summer, supposedly because he wanted the league maximum of five years and $94 million. (He would later reportedly request — and be denied — a three-year, $53 million deal.) And despite threats that he’d accept Cleveland’s one-year qualifying offer of $6.8 million in order to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Thompson eventually turned that down, too. Now Thompson is officially holding out, refusing to play until he gets a new contract.1
You can appreciate Thompson’s dilemma. He became a free agent the summer before huge increases will reshape the NBA’s salary cap and maximum salary, thanks to the league’s gargantuan new TV contract. If Thompson takes the Cavs’ offers now, he’ll potentially be leaving a lot of money on the table, compared with what his peers will make starting next year. His holdout is the last resort in an attempt to inject what little leverage he can into his current situation.
But all this talk kind of ignores the elephant in the room when it comes to Thompson: He isn’t all that good. Or at least, that’s the opinion of CARMELO, our new player-projection system.
CARMELO looks at a player’s closest historical comparables to get a sense of how he will develop going forward, and it doesn’t see Thompson being anything more than an average player over the next few years.
For instance, Thompson’s wins above replacement (WAR) projection over the next five years (9.1 WAR) ranks 114th among NBA players for whom we have a projection. At the league’s going rate per win (which adjusts for the coming salary-cap spike), that amount of WAR is worth a mere $36.1 million, a far (far!) cry from the $80 million that Cleveland offered — and Thompson rejected — for the same span of seasons. CARMELO also thinks Thompson’s next three years will be worth only $23.4 million, less than half of the $53 million he was seeking for the same term.
With practically no leverage, Thompson will probably return to the Cavs sooner rather than later, and at a lower price than he’d previously been offered. But according to CARMELO, any cost higher than about $7.5 million per season will be too much for his services. Thompson isn’t a bad player, but he is a deeply average one — and was never worth even half the maximum contract he was seeking this summer.