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Why Tristan Thompson’s Going to Get Paid

Tristan Thompson still hasn’t signed a new contract after it looked like he was closing in on a five-year, $80 million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers at the outset of free agency, and Thompson is likely going to wind up with a new contract that’s close to a max deal. Part of this is because of the insistence of LeBron James that Cleveland should do what it takes to lock up the 24-year-old big man long term. The Cavs want to make LeBron happy, as he could potentially leave in free agency at the end of next season, so they’re going to listen to his ideas about the direction of the team.

A lot of people have noted that James and Thompson share an agent (Rich Paul) and suggested that this link is the cause of James going to bat for Thompson, but this isn’t the reason LeBron wants to keep him on the team and isn’t the reason Thompson is going to get a near-max contract. The Cavs are going to give him a lot of money because they don’t have any other choice.

Cleveland is already well over the cap and therefore cannot sign free agents that weren’t on the roster last season. That limits them to re-signing last year’s players or trading for replacements. Cleveland needs Thompson if it wants to have any semblance of frontcourt depth because there isn’t a great way to replace what he brings to the table. His work on the boards, especially the offensive glass, is invaluable, and his improvements on the defensive end of the floor helped the short-handed Cavs reach the Finals.

The Cavs have Brendan Haywood’s bloated non-guaranteed contract that can be used as a trade piece, but Cleveland also needs to address its free agents in the backcourt. Matthew Dellavedova and J.R. Smith are both free agents, and if Cleveland uses the Haywood contract to obtain a power forward, the team loses any leverage it had with the two guards, who would then become Cleveland’s only option of adding depth to the backcourt. The Cavs want to make sure they have the horses needed at all spots on the floor after a lack of quality depth hurt them in the Finals. (Losing those guys named Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love obviously hurt as well.)

LeBron is a smart basketball player. He isn’t going to press the Cavs to make a move that doesn’t help them win a championship. He’ll push them to spend more money than they’d otherwise like, but a championship will always be at the forefront of James’s mind. People have been saying James wants the Cavs to pay Thompson because they share an agent, to which I ask: Why? What does LeBron get if his agent makes more money from another player? Why does James have to appease, or look out, for his agent at all? LeBron is good friends with Paul and wants to help him do well, but I refuse to believe LeBron would do so at the expense of winning.

LeBron almost certainly won’t leave the Cavs. He has the option in his contract to do so, but really, he can’t leave and keep any sort of esteem in the public eye. The Sports Illustrated letter and everything people liked about his return would be seen as insincere and duplicitous. He’d still make plenty of money, but his image would be a smoking crater on par with A-Rod.

LeBron’s fate is tied with Cleveland’s, and he wants the front office to do everything it takes to help the Cavs win their first championship. The fact that LeBron and Thompson share an agent helps the big man in this case, but it also helps that he’s crucial to those championship dreams.

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