What’s Next: Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson


In our “What’s Next” series, a Right Down Euclid writer will look at each individual member of the Cleveland Cavaliers by analyzing what their future looks like and/or what’s the next step in their development. In this piece, RDE editor Chris Manning looks at Cavs power forward Tristan Thompson. 

Editor’s Note: RDE’s Trevor Magnotti already wrote a piece evaluating Tristan Thompson, which you can read here. As such, Manning will focus on Thompson’s value and ideal role.

Tristan Thompson has value as an NBA player. He can rebound, is an above-average defender in the low post and is good for a few garbage buckets a game. A few times a year, Thompson shows flashes of being a starting caliber NBA power forward. At 23 with less than a decade of basketball experience under his belt, Thompson has still has room to grow. While he didn’t take the third-year leap that many hoped he would, it is conceivable that Thompson makes noticeable strides in the next few seasons.

But he is inching towards the first crossroads of his NBA career. Thompson is still on his rookie deal. This past season, Thompson made an affordable $4.062 million, which was over $1 million less than top-overall pick Anthony Bennett. Next season, he will make a still affordable $5.138 million. The year after, the 2015-2016 season, Thompson will be due a qualifying offer of around $6.7 million. [1]

A qualifying offer is essentially a one-year contract offer. If a team offers a player a qualifying offer, that player becomes a restricted free agent. The amount of the qualifying offer is based on where the player is drafted. For Thompson, this means his qualifying offer is a 31.9 percent increase over his fourth year salary.

For what he is right now, and what he still might be, $6.7 million is a good value for Thompson – just not in his current role. A lot of Thompson’s flaws – his lack of scoring ability, his inability to protect the rim, his struggles in space, etc. – are more scrutinized because he’s a starter. It’s also because he was the No. 4 overall pick in 2011, the same year the Cavaliers took Kyrie Irving No. 1 overall.

In this three NBA seasons, Thompson has averaged 29.4 minutes per game, a starter’s share of minutes on most teams. In the past two seasons, in which he started all 82 games both years, Thompson averaged 31.3 MPG and 31.6 MPG in 2012-13 and 2013-14, respectively.

This past season, Thompson’s per game averages and his per 36 minutes were down almost across the board. His PER went down from 16.1 to 14.9. The only tow notable statistics that went up were his free-throw percentage (60.8 percent in 2012-2013, 69.3 percent last season) and his offensive rating (108 to 110). His defensive rating remained at 108.

Considering where he is at now, Thompson is best served as an energy big off the bench. He can come in, rebound and score the occasional bucket. Again, he can make improvements, but those improvements aren’t going to turn him into a Paul Millsap clone.  He’s never going to be a consistently high scorer, even when his jump shot improves, and his lack of laterally quickness means he might never be able to effectively defend the more athletic power forwards in the NBA.

Still, $6.7 million a season is a good value for Thompson. Even $8 million per year would be acceptable. But anything more likely would be an overpay. After all, Millsap made $9.5 million this past season and he’s the type of player (double-double machine, good overall defender, decent offensive threat) you want Thompson to evolve into.

It doesn’t help Thompson’s value that he is an inconsistent player. For every game he abuses a J.J. Hickson or slows down a Blake Griffin  a Terrence Jones or David Lee lays waste to him. But you can hide these deficiencies by playing him less and strategically playing him in the moments, and against the teams, his skill set allows him to be most successful against.

It would help if Bennett was ready to be an NBA starter next season. But he’s not and unless the Cavaliers are comfortable throwing him into the deep end right now [2], Thompson is likely the starting power forward next season if he’s back. Adding another power forward might only create more problems. But Thompson has a future in this league and it can be with the Cavaliers. It just needs to be in the right role and the right price.

[1] Of course, Thompson could be traded this summer and this all moot. 

[2] They shouldn’t be.