Tristan Thompson finds himself at the center of one of the most complex free agency situations of the last decade. This is why he remains the highest-profile free agent after six weeks on the market with no end in sight.
At the heart of the matter is what qualifies as leverage for Thompson as the NBA sits on the cusp of a glacial shift in salary structure.
There is no clear precedent for his position, which has led to a stalemate between Thompson and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It has been difficult to negotiate a middle ground, setting the stage for possible tension as training camp approaches.
Thompson, an excellent offensive rebounder and pick-and-roll player who proved valuable in the Cavs' run to the Finals, is believed to be looking for a maximum-level contract of around $94 million over five years. The Cavs' offers have been for significantly less.
There has been no real progress since the second week of July when talks reached an impasse and both sides dug in.
Of course, it is not unusual for a restricted free agent like Thompson to be without a deal until August or September. Typically the team has the leverage in these situations because it has the right to match offers, and that often kills the market. Most other teams that had enough space to lure Thompson with an offer sheet have already used all of their money. Only the Portland Trail Blazers, who gave an offer sheet to restricted free agent Enes Kanter only to see it matched, are still a remote option.
Meanwhile, the player has only two ways to gain an advantage, both of which are rarely used: accept what would likely be a much lower one-year qualifying offer to earn unrestricted free agency the following summer or hold out of training camp to pressure the team to budge.
Both courses of action carry unsavory risk and therefore have limited leverage. Teams often have success waiting out their restricted free agents because the bluffs are usually easy to call.
"If [Thompson] were to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and he's healthy, he probably would be one of the top free agents available." NBA general manager
However, this may not be the case for Thompson, who has two things going for him that his restricted free agent brethren in the past did not. One is the expected $20 million leap in the salary cap next season that will also drag the maximum salary levels up with it. The other is the fact that more than 20 teams are projected to have cap space for a max-level free agent next summer, making it the best summer to be a free agent perhaps in the history of American professional sports.
"The 2016 free agent class isn't very deep and it's generally older," said one NBA general manager. "It's rare to see an unrestricted free agent that's 25 or younger, especially a big. If [Thompson] were to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and he's healthy, he probably would be one of the top free agents available."
In a market awash in cash, that may mean multiple max offers if Thompson has even an average season by his standards. Unless he gets an offer he likes from the Cavs this summer, that gives Thompson an incentive to use one of his available weapons and accept a one-year qualifying offer of $6.8 million to get himself to unrestricted free agency next year.
Because the max contract for a player of his experience level may jump more than $5 million from its level this year, Thompson may be able to quickly make up the money he'd leave on the table this season and earn millions more over the long haul.
This dulls the Cavs' restricted free agency hammer and incentivizes Thompson to be more demanding in talks. The Cavs already have cost themselves some money after not being more aggressive in their offer to Thompson when he could've gotten an extension last October. If they don't make a long-term deal with him this year, then it could compound the issue, and the chance of losing Thompson after next season becomes real.
Thompson's agent, Rich Paul, ramped up that rhetoric on Monday when he told several media outlets, including ESPN, that "if [Thompson] is on the qualifying offer, [this] will be his last year with the Cavs."
In any year of the recent past, teams could use Thompson's stats and traits to judge what an appropriate contract offer would be. But there is little use comparing Thompson's relative value compared to other players signed in other years. It makes no difference that Thompson is a bench player when the Cavs are healthy in the frontcourt.
It's simple supply and demand. Next year there will be an almost incomprehensible demand, and the supply of young big men -- Thompson is two years younger than Hassan Whiteside, who could also find himself getting a giant offer in that market -- is scarce. Thompson and his agents are quite aware of this. So are the Cavs.
Considering he hasn't missed a game in three seasons and is coming off an extremely productive postseason playing alongside LeBron James, Thompson can reasonably believe he would be the subject of a bidding war if he chooses to become an unrestricted free agent next year.
As complicated as all that is, there's still more to this situation.
The Cavs have five other players (James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert and Anderson Varejao) who are starting new contracts that average at least $10 million a season. They are already about $4 million over the tax line. If they were to sign Thompson to a deal that started at $15 million, it would add more than $35 million to their tax bill this season alone, not including Thompson's salary.
However, if Thompson were to sign his qualifying offer of less than $7 million, the tax hit to the Cavs drops to around $13 million based on the team's current roster makeup. The Cavs would retain Thompson's Bird Rights and still be able to sign him to the largest possible contract next year when the cap jump would also pull up the luxury tax line and likely make it far less costly.
Deferring Thompson's big payday, even if it costs the Cavs more money in salary in a bidding war next year, potentially would make fiscal sense when evaluating the tax savings this coming year alone. This is probably not the Cavs' preferred route, especially because it may foster some acrimony. But that option may give them reason to stand fast when Thompson attempts to use the qualifying offer as leverage.
All of this was on the table when the Cavs and Thompson walked away from it earlier this summer. With all of this still in play, it's understandable why both sides have been willing to let time pass to see how the situation may change. For example, the Cavs have recently traded away Mike Miller and gotten Matthew Dellavedova to accept his qualifying offer of $1.2 million, moves that have already saved significant luxury tax.
Bottom line: Thompson is most likely going to be in a Cavs uniform for the upcoming season. But how he gets there will be interesting.