Despite his place in Cleveland Cavaliers history, Tristan Thompson is too easily replaceable.
Is there a scenario in which bringing Tristan Thompson back next season makes sense? Well, sure, if Andre Drummond declines his option, Kevin Love gets traded and Larry Nance joins a monastery. It might also make sense if Thompson is willing to sign for a deep discount or a one-year deal. That would be a bit surprising since the biggest selling point the Cleveland Cavaliers have is their ability to pay Thompson more than anyone else. It’s possible that Thompson harbors a deep affection for Cleveland, although that would be more plausible if there were fewer tabloid photos that showed him cavorting in other time zones.
Oh, and his agent is Rich Paul, not known as a guy who leaves money on the table in negotiations.
A one-year contract for big money might make sense, but that would throw Thompson smack into the loaded 2021 free-agent class, not to mention an uncertain salary cap due to the games canceled this season. A longer contract, regardless of value, would allocate cap space to Thompson that would not be available for Drummond when he becomes a free agent next year.
Thompson is clearly the fourth-best big on this roster. He is older than Drummond or Nance. He is an interior player whose forte is defense, yet he averages less than one block per game. The nine threes TT made this season were the first of his career. Six of the nine threes came after the Cavs acquired Drummond, so it is possible Thompson saw the trade as a sign he should branch out a little. More likely, they were a fluke, and general managers who base decisions on small sample sizes usually end up pursuing careers in broadcasting.
Nance seems almost certain to be on the roster next year. Drummond seems likely to exercise his option; the Cavs will know his answer before they have to decide what to do with Thompson. They will also know what they have acquired in the draft; if they get a big that looks like a core piece, it would make Thompson less attractive. The draft will also inspire a lot of trade activity, which may provide an opportunity to create a market for Love.
By the time all of that plays out, the Cavs will have more clarity about how badly they need Thompson. Even if all the roster churning results in a much less crowded frontcourt picture, I can’t see giving him more than a two-year deal, which would take him past his 31st birthday. If this rebuild is going to bear fruit, we should be seeing some results by then, which means there will be young players looking for contract extensions. Having cap space tied up in a 31-year-old backup center at that point would be unfortunate, to say the least.
Beyond that, guys like Thompson don’t age well. Anderson Varejao was probably the most similar player to Thompson in recent Cavs history. In his age 31 season, Varejao was an integral part of the rotation, delivering 5.4 win shares in 65 games (Thompson has averaged 4.8 win shares per season in his career). As it turned out, though, Andy played fewer than a hundred games after that season. Injuries were a factor, but those things happen when your signature skill is throwing your body around, especially after you turn thirty. When that skill diminishes, guys like Andy and TT have nothing else to fall back on that provides value to a team.