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NBA AM: Cavaliers Have To Pay Thompson, Right?

The Cleveland Cavaliers are one game away from the NBA Finals, they also have a tough decision or two this summer… With Draft workouts getting underway, there are some thing to know about the process.

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The Cavaliers’ Quandary: Our own Moke Hamilton wrote on Sunday about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ decision to trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love.

Hindsight is always a brutal evaluator of decisions. In the case of Kevin Love and the Cavaliers, it couldn’t be more true.

Love has never really connected or fit in with the group in Cleveland, hence all the rumors that he may leave this summer or that he and LeBron James are not close. So far in the playoffs, Love really has not been missed despite his season-ending shoulder injury sustained in the first round against Boston.

In his absence, Tristan Thompson has emerged as a defensive and rebounding machine, and now the Cavaliers face a tough decision this summer. What is Thompson really worth, especially if Love stays in his current contract?

Love has one more season, a player option worth $16.74 million left on his deal. If he were to opt out, he becomes eligible for 30 percent of the salary cap, which is expected to clock in just north of $67 million, making that first year of a new deal worth $20.1 million. Despite comments to the contrary, it’s always been expected that Love would opt-out this summer and sign a new deal. However, with the severity of his shoulder injury it’s more of a 50/50 decision at this point.

Which brings us back to Thompson, who will likely be a restricted free agent assuming the Cavaliers issue the required $6.77 million qualifying offer.

It’s commonly believed among player agents that, with the massive escalation in the salary cap coming soon, maximum contract offers or near max offers will be flowing like crazy this summer. As many as 14 NBA teams are expected to have ample cap space ($14 million or more to play with), and with the cap expected to jump up almost $20 million to just under $90 million in 2016, no one is overly concerned about luxury tax.

This puts the Cavaliers, who currently have just $26.34 million in guaranteed contracts and $101.743 in possible cap commitments if all their contract options are exercised, in a tough spot.

The Cavaliers already gave away Wiggins to obtain Love. If Love does stay in his contract, there are no guarantees he’ll do a new deal in Cleveland in 2016. Equally, Love’s $16.74 million, combined will James’ $21.573 million option, Kyrie Irving’s $15.856 million and Anderson Varejao’s $9.63 million puts the Cavaliers at $63.799 million.

That’s also not counting J.R. Smith’s $6.399 million player options or the $4.9 million team option on Timofey Mozgov.

While spending money, especially when LeBron is on the roster, has never been an issue for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, it does hamper a team’s ability to do trades and sign additional free agents if a team is over the luxury tax line. Brendan Haywood’s $10.52 million non-guaranteed deal and the cap hold on Iman Shumpert do just that and will make adding to the team an uphill climb and that’s before the Cavaliers deal with Thompson.

Thompson’s camp turned away a four-year, $52 million extension this past October, and you can bet that given his play as of late that his camp is going to start with a max number and try to force the Cavaliers’ hand.

Can the Cavs afford not to meet whatever price is attached to Thompson in the free agent process, especially with Love’s fit and future being so unclear?

The Cavs gave away a future star in Wiggins to obtain Love; can they afford to even consider not matching Thompson too?

Here is the complete breakdown of the Cavaliers salary cap picture for the next five seasons.

The Floor, The Promise and The Grind:  The 2015 NBA Draft gets underway in about 31 days. For the next month, NBA teams and would-be NBA players are going to have a flurry of activities including a ton of individual workouts as teams try and figure out which guys they will ultimately commit to.

There are a few concepts worth understanding.

The Floor

Every player in the draft process is looking for one thing: his floor. This is the team he will not fall past and at what pick. The scariest thing for an agent is not knowing where his client will land in a worst-case scenario. The best case happens all by itself, but the worst case is what gets an agent fired.

In the workout process, agents try to arrange workouts to establish a range for his player, with a heavy emphasis on the bottom, not the top. It’s always great to get drafted at the top, but understanding how many workouts you have to do below your range to ensure you get drafted is the nature of the process.

The Promise

Everyone is looking for a commitment – for a NBA team to say, ‘You are our guy,’ and those get made all the time. Some teams are little more aggressive with the commitment; some are a little more vague.

It is not at all uncommon for a team to say to an agent, ‘If your guy is there when we pick, we’ll take him’ – that means absolutely nothing. The kind of commitment an agent is looking for is, ‘Will you shut down workouts if we commit to your guy?’ That’s the one you take to the bank. Again there are no guarantees or binding commitments to that kind of promise, but for the most part when a team asks an agent to shut down workouts, that means that player is their usually their guy unless something crazy happens in the draft process.

But a funny thing usually happens when a promise is made. Other teams get curious.

In 2012, Dion Waiters had just gotten off the plane for the Combine in Chicago when his agent got a commitment from the Phoenix Suns, who were drafting at 13. They wanted him to skip the Combine and shut down workouts. All involved agreed that was a good fit for Waiters and he turned around and got on a plane and never set foot at the Combine. This sparked a lot of teams to dig into Waiters, who ultimately got drafted with the fourth pick despite doing almost no workouts.

Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder zeroed in on Josh Huestis. They wanted a player to agree to play in the D-League for a season and agreed to draft a little bit of a rawer player in exchange for a first round pick that was basically deferred. Huestis’ camp was willing and the Thunder made the commitment.

The beauty of the promise is it removes a little bit of pressure from the player and the agent, and lets them focus on preparing for a rookie season rather than jet setting the NBA looking for a better commitment.

While many people in the process get caught up in where a player gets picked numerically – for the player the best situation should matter more.

If a player gets a commitment from the ideal playing situation, most will take the proverbial bird in the hand, even if it’s a few spots lower than expected, because landing somewhere that’s ideal for you as a player means more in the long run than going several spots higher.

The Workouts

Most players have started workouts, and some players – especially in the middle of the draft – have been asked to do a crazy amount of workouts. Syracuse big man Rakeem Christmas has more workout requests than he can fit on his schedule. His camp has already turned away a large number of requests and he still has more than 17 workouts on his schedule.

This is not uncommon. It’s also one of the reasons the NBA Draft Combine has so little value. Most teams are going to bring in between 25 to 40 players for individual workouts. Some are brought in to be considered for their pick. Some are brought in so the players they like have someone to compete against. Some are brought in as second round candidates. Some are brought in to be considered for Summer League or D-League spots.

Each team approaches the draft workout process differently. The Houston Rockets are notorious for bringing in as many players as they can. They establish baselines for guys, not only for draft consideration but as players they may target in trade down the road as a free agents. The Rockets love data, and try and gather as much as they can as often as they can. Philadelphia does much of the same.

Workouts are an expense. Teams pay for guys to fly in and they will put guys up in hotels. So when you start to factor in flights, plus lodging times X number of workouts, it does become a number, but more and more teams see that expense as nominal considering the miss rate and value of draft picks, especially in the first round.

No two teams conduct the workouts the same way.

The Boston Celtics have an infamous drill they run at the end of workouts called the “Celtic Run” where prospects are asked to run baseline to baseline as many times as they can for three minutes. The object is to gauge how guys respond when physically exhausted.

There are also rules about what prospects can do in workouts. A workout can never have more than six players, and none of them can be current NBA players. The most a team can organize is three-on-three, but they are permitted to do two-on-two, one-on-one or one-on-zero workouts. There is also a limit of how many players a team can work out in a single day.

Another point to know about workouts is that teams have routinely drafted players they have not worked out. This happens a lot at the top of the draft when someone’s draft stock starts to fall.

Most agents won’t let their guy’s workout with teams outside of a certain range. For example it’s highly unlikely that top overall pick candidates Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor workout for more than the Minnesota Timberwolves (#1), L.A. Lakers (#2) and Philadelphia Sixers (#3). As the draft gets closer if there is uncertainty on a floor for either, the New York Knicks (#4) might get a workout, especially if there are indication of a trade-up scenario on the table.

Mock Drafts

The last thing to know is to toss out the Mock Drafts. We create one every week to illustrate how we see the draft based on what we are hearing from teams, players and agents, but historically gauging a player’s true range based on mock drafts has been epically wrong.

On average, ESPN gets 8 to 10 picks exactly right and usually 25 to 28 of the players picked in the first round accurate. Draft Express carries a similar accuracy, as do we here at Basketball Insiders.

The Draft pundits are usually pretty good at getting the first round talent right, but we’re always way off when it comes to predicting the exact order, so throw the exact order out the window. None of the pundits are making picks; none of the teams are disclosing exactly who they will pick, so saying that this guy has to go fourth because the Mock Drafts say so means absolutely nothing.

Look at the recent history for the draft. No one had Anthony Bennett going number one overall, which started a downward spiral that killed everyone’s Mock Draft that year. No one had Aaron Gordon going fourth to the Orlando Magic last year, which caused a downward spiral as did the real draft position of Noah Vonleh.

Keep in mind NBA teams do their own Mock Drafts, typically daily, as the process starts. They too are trying to project out where they think certain players are going to land so they can get players in their range in for workouts or meetings.

The point here isn’t to say Mock Drafts are of no value – they are fun for readers and fans to speculate on and be captivated by, but they in no way influence the process.

Teams value talent very differently than pundits do, even the really good ones like Jonathan Givony.

There is one final nugget to consider, draft night is simply one night.

For as much hype and preparation that goes into the NBA Draft, once it’s over, most of it means nothing. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler was the 30th pick. He was an All-Star this year and will get a maximum contract this summer. Anthony Bennett was the top overall pick and has started three games in his NBA career. Greg Oden was the top pick in 2007 and he played just 105 games in the NBA due to injuries. The 15th pick has produced a Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and a two-time MVP and future Hall of Famer in Steve Nash.

The NBA Draft is one of the the worst predictors of success in the NBA. It’s simply one night that gets over analyzed and scrutinized because of the potential a small handful of players represent to the balance of power in the NBA.

It’s a great night for fans, but keep in perspective that since 2003, more than 25 players drafted in the first round are no longer in the NBA. Getting drafted doesn’t guarantee anything more than a chance to play, and routinely history has proven the process to be far from exact or scientific.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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