We still don’t know exactly when NBA free agency is going to take place, but when it begins — or at some point in the lead-up to it — expect the Los Angeles Lakers to get linked to former teammate of LeBron James and unrestricted free agent Tristan Thompson.
Why? Well, aside from the Lakers’ constantly being connected to players repped by Klutch Sports and the fact that they may be in the market for a Dwight Howard replacement, there is also the fact that LeBron doesn’t do anything — especially on social media — on accident.
So take from this little exchange what you will:
More to come bro. For sure!!— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 30, 2020
Does LeBron just want to make sure he gets more dinners with his old Cleveland Cavaliers teammate in the future, and make sure they cherish their time together? Maybe! Does this mean the Lakers are definitely signing Thompson? Absolutely not. But is this tweet James’ way of letting Thompson and others know publicly that he maybe wouldn’t mind playing with him again? Probably, in all honesty.
Maybe you don’t agree with all of those answers and assumptions, and that’s fine, but if there is one thing we can agree that this means, it’s probably that LeBron is over this:
Last year was the final season of Thompson’s deal with the Cavaliers, and he is now an unrestricted free agent, so he is available. And we know that James has a history of helping his friend get a contract, although whatever deal Thompson would theoretically sign with the Lakers on would surely be a lot smaller than the $82 million deal James helped leverage Dan Gilbert into giving Thompson the last time he was a free agent. In fact, Thompson might have to take less than he’d get on the open market if he were to come to Los Angeles.
But would the pairing make some sense? I think so. Let’s go over why
The Lakers might need a big
Last year, the Lakers mainly ran with a two-headed monster at center, playing JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard the bulk of their minutes when Anthony Davis wasn’t manning the position. That plan drew skepticism early on, but paid off big time with a physically imposing defense that protected the rim, rebounded with ferocity and got L.A. out on the break, all while keeping Davis as fresh as he’s ever been for the playoffs. If the Lakers want to go with two bigs again to run it back during what will likely be a rushed regular season, it would be hard to blame them.
But there is a possibility Howard won’t be back. He is an unrestricted free agent, and at 34, the Lakers may not want to give him what could be his last multi-year deal. They will also have competition for his services from the Golden State Warriors, among other teams. McGee could also opt out of his $4.2 million player option for next season, but that seems unlikely at this point.
Howard could also stay, but if he doesn’t, the Lakers will need to replace him. They might be planning to do so with DeMarcus Cousins, who I expect to be back with the team, but given Cousins’ lengthy injury history, it may not be safe to count on him for a full season. They also might need a McGee replacement if they use him as salary ballast in a trade.
Would any of those scenarios be the type of situation where the Lakers bring in Thompson to give them some of the mobility and rebounding they might lose with Howard departing? It could make some sense, because...
Thompson would be a good fit on this roster
For an explainer on why, let’s first hear from Thompson himself. During an appearance on “The Herd” during the NBA Finals, Thompson was asked what LeBron would need going into the next season if the Lakers won the championship. His answer was interesting, to say the least, if you read between the lines:
“I think if I was LeBron, I think you look at your roster and what you’re going to go against next year. You know the guys in San Francisco (the Warriors), they got the No. 2 pick, they can trade that to get another dominant player. More than likely they’re going to try and get a big that can make plays but also play hard on both ends of the floor. So you’re know they’re coming in with that (and) Draymond Green, Steph Curry and Klay (Thompson), so you’ve got to kind of look at your Laker roster and say ‘okay, how can we match up with this Golden State team?’
“Yes, we give a lot of credit to the Clippers. The Clippers are great. But listen, the Splash Brothers are the Splash Brothers. You’ve got to kind of form your team where you’re able to match up well against them. I think for LeBron, I feel like they have the right guards, and Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have done their part. I feel like if they’re going to do any tweaks, it would be very minor ones. I don’t think it’s going to be drastic where you’re going to go in and grab a third star, especially with the cap and free agency, it’s gonna be tough... So I think for LeBron, it’s how can we tweak a couple things. Maybe get another playmaker with Rondo, or maybe some shooting, but I think that’s kind of the room that they have, so who knows. But you’ve got to form a team that can compete against the Golden State Warriors.”
Yes, Thompson mentioned getting another playmaker or shooting, but you know what kind of player would also be a minor tweak who has a proven history of helping LeBron compete against the Golden State Warriors — including a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals — and could help guard any playmaking big the Warriors did get, while also capably switching onto their guards at times?
You guessed it: The answer is Tristan Thompson.
Thompson’s contract made him a bit of a punching bag during the two post-LeBron years in Cleveland, and to be fair, he definitely wasn’t worth eight figures for a non-contender that didn’t have LeBron anymore. But that said, he’s still a very good player, and at just 29 years old and after basically a year off, he’d give the Lakers some younger, fresher legs to reinforce the team for an abbreviated regular season coming on the heels of the longest championship run in NBA history.
He’s also coming off what might be his best individual season yet, according to Justin Rowan, who covers the Cavaliers for “The Chase Down Podcast” and has been watching Thompson for his whole career:
Tristan Thompson would be a perfect fit with the Lakers. He’s still capable of defending multiple forward spots and brings consistent effort and leadership on and off the floor. He’s a very intelligent off ball player and has added playmaking to his game. He still is one of the best role players at his position with good years ahead of him.
For the Lakers, he’d be an upgrade from Dwight and McGee and give you 30 strong minutes a night. The Cavs could theoretically even have interest in bringing him back long term, considering that Andre Drummond got benched for him in multiple games. Which is impressive considering he only played eight games.
To add to Justin’s points, Thompson shot nearly 40% (on just 23 attempts, but still) from behind the arc last year, while still averaging the most points (12) and second-most rebounds (10.1) per game of his career, shooting 51.2% from the field overall. Quietly, and for a very bad team, he was pretty good at exactly the types of things the Lakers need a big man to do, and we already know he pairs well with LeBron. His shot chart last year was also exactly what the Lakers want from their big men:
As mentioned before though, said qualities might make him too expensive for the Lakers under normal circumstances. That said, these may not be normal circumstances.
Thompson might be motivated to make this happen
Not to turn this into a gossip blog, but if you were among those dunking on Kim Kardashian’s nominee for “Most Tone-Deaf Tweet of the Year” this week, you may have noticed a familiar face in the background of the first photo here:
After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time. pic.twitter.com/cIFP7Nv5bV— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) October 27, 2020
Thompson, who has a child with Khloe Kardashian, recently reconciled with the Los Angeles-based reality star. It would be naive to not think playing in L.A. and being closer to his family might be a draw for him.
And there is also the matter that on a market that features very few teams with cap space and a preponderance of big men, Thompson may not be able to get the type of deal he’d normally want in free agency. Like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before him, he may be a Klutch client who is better off taking a one-year, prove-it deal with the Lakers and re-entering free agency next summer, when there will likely be more money available. After seeing how that winning car wash worked for Caldwell-Pope in the NBA Finals, he might be amenable to using the opportunity of playing for a Lakers contender to get the lottery-team stink off of him, even if he has to take less money to do so.
Plus, in addition to his previously documented (and tweeted) close relationship with James, he’s also very friendly with his would-be frontcourt partner in Anthony Davis, recently saying that he felt like a proud cousin watching Davis succeed in the Finals. And while he may not be as bruising as Howard, he would still be more than capable of helping save Davis the wear-and-tear of guarding fives, and would be much more useful on switches against guards than McGee was, even if he’s not what he was during the 2016 Finals in that respect anymore.
In short, while Thompson is not the exact same type of big man as the guys the Lakers had last year, he does enough other things as good or better to the point that the Lakers would appear to be a seamless fit where he could give them an upgrade, chase a ring with his friends, rehabilitate his value, and get a long-term deal next summer.
And as a bonus, he and LeBron could get all the dinners and drinks together they want. Based on their recent tweets, that alone might be enough to seal this.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.