As the deadline for Cleveland forward Tristan Thompson to sign a one-year, $6.8 million qualifying offer expired Thursday, he now stands in NBA purgatory.
The 6-foot-9 forward is officially holding out for a long-term deal, meaning he has yet to participate in any team functions, including the opening portion of training camp.
In response, as part of a league mandated policy involving players not under contract, the Cavaliers have removed any images of Thompson from Quicken Loans Arena, their practice facility and pulled any merchandise featuring his name from the teams’ official website.
Since the Cavaliers defeated in the 2015 NBA Finals by Golden State, Thompson has been trying to negotiate a long-term contract, but the two sides remain far apart.
Originally, Thompson’s agent — Rich Paul — requested a five-year, $94 million deal to remain with the team. Cleveland countered with a five-year, $80 million deal.
To make the bartering process even more difficult, when the negotiations entered their second month, Paul declared his client will not remain with the team if a long-term contract isn’t in place.
Only Thompson lost a bit of negotiating power, as he could have signed the one-year qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
In the open market, Thompson could command the maximum contract he is seeking, as he thrived in the place of injured forward Kevin Love in his first post season appearance.
The 24-year-old led all playoff performers with 88 offensive rebounds as he averaged 9.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game during Cleveland’s march to the NBA Finals.
The Cavaliers selected Thompson with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft because of his incredible ability to rebound the ball.
In each of his first four seasons, the former Texas star has averaged at least three offensive rebounds per game. Last season, he ranked fourth in the league in offensive rebounding percentage last year, despite making just 15 starts and averaging 26.4 minutes a night.
Cleveland is able to capitalize on his versatility defensively, either going small by sliding him over to the center position, or he can anchor the middle when LeBron James takes over at power forward.
The uncertainty surrounding Thompson’s inclusion on the 2015-16 roster for Cleveland comes with several implications for the future.
Thompson and James are represented by the same agent and they have presented the team with another offer, this one a short term deal.
Instead of the five-year contract originally proposed, a counteroffer, this time a three-year, $53 million deal from Paul was reported by various media outlets. The Cavaliers have yet to respond.
James broke his silence Saturday night, taking to social media to vent his frustrations about the lack of progress between the two sides.
The two teammates were together in Miami for a wedding and James uploaded a photograph of the two on Instagram with the caption “Get it done!!!!” and added the hashtag “#MissMyBrother.”
If the Cavaliers fail to bring back Thompson, a move that originally seemed inevitable, could jeopardize the future of James with the team.
The tactic for James each season appears to be to opt out of his one-year deals, in an effort to land more money as the salary cap continually increases.
The risky part of that strategy for the Cavaliers is that James is eligible for unrestricted free agency each summer, meaning another team could lure him away.
If the perception is that Cleveland is unwilling to surround him with a championship caliber roster, there could come a point when James leaves in free agency, again.
Thompson has already missed the first four days of training camp and for a team seeking its first championship in franchise history, continuity is going to be key going forward.
Cleveland certainly has enough talent, plus the Eastern Conference provides little resistance, so a return trip to the NBA Finals is a strong possibility.
The opening odds in Las Vegas peg the Cavaliers as the favorites to win the 2016 NBA championship, with their 5/2 odds the best of the 30 teams in the league.
For Cleveland to live up to its potential, it needs a complete roster. The absence of Thompson could be the first fracture in the dismantling of one of the most dominant teams in the Eastern Conference.