After three years as a starter for one of the worst teams in the NBA, Thompson looked like one of the players who would benefit from the prodigal son's return home, even getting a shout-out in LeBron's open letter in Sports Illustrated. Before the Love trade, he had a pretty secure hold on the starting PF position in Cleveland and as a lottery pick entering his fourth season in the league, he looked headed for a big extension prior to the October 31 deadline. He is represented by the same agent as LeBron and that type of quid-pro-quo happens all the time in the NBA.
With Love in town, though, all of that is thrown into question. Thompson could see his playing time from last season cut in half. Love will get 35-40 minutes a night at the PF position and his complete inability to protect the rim means he is unlikely to get much run at C, especially during the playoffs. And while Thompson could survive as a small-ball C on offense with Love stretching the floor, those two won't exactly form the most intimidating defensive front-court in the NBA. Once David Blatt figures out his rotation, it's not hard to envision a scenario where Thompson gets 15-20 minutes a night as a second unit 4/5.
He's still a 22-year old with a decent track record, but his career 15 PER doesn't exactly scream future star either. In that respect, Thompson is a bit of a jack of all trades master of none - he's not great on either side of the ball and his best skill (rebounding) is one that a lot of other PF's share. He's a bit of an anachronism - a traditional PF in a stretch 4 league - and it's still unclear whether he can hold down a starting job on a good team. It's hard to build an elite team around a PF who can't stretch the floor, command a double team in the post or play great interior defense.
If he becomes trade bait, take a look around the rest of the league and ask yourself how many teams does Thompson really improve as a starting PF? People talk a lot about the depth of PG's in the modern NBA, but PF is a pretty stacked position. Once you take out teams whose scheme requires a three-point shooter at the position, the list of suitors for Thompson becomes pretty thin. Is he an upgrade on Jared Sullinger in Boston? Cody Zeller/Noah Vonleh in Charlotte? John Henson/Ersan Ilyasova in Milwaukee? Jason Thompson in Sacramento? Enes Kanter in Utah? And those last 3 teams are still trying to figure out if they will run a 4-out offense.
If Thompson ends up as a third big man instead of a starter, that's a pretty dramatic pay decrease. Just two examples - Amir Johnson is on a 5-year $34 million deal while Trevor Booker just signed a 2-year, $10 million deal with the Utah Jazz. You would think Cleveland will take care of him, if only to keep Rich Paul happy, but they will need to manage their cap pretty carefully given how much money they have committed to their new Big Three, especially if they end up needing a rim protector. What might make sense is a deal similar to the 2-year $24 million deal Kris Humphries got with the Brooklyn Nets, which would create a salary slot the Cavs could use in a potential trade without committing them to another big long-term deal.
That's probably the biggest thing Thompson has going for him at this point. The Cavs don't have a lot of other ways to add talent to their roster given how close they will be to the cap over the next few years, so they need another salary slot they can send back in a trade. Either way, though, it's hard to see a scenario where Thompson becomes a coveted piece after his playing time and opportunities are dramatically decreased in Cleveland. Instead of riding a full season with LeBron to pad his statistics, he's going to have to scratch and claw for everything. Let's hope his much publicized decision to switch shooting hands pays off because he's going to need it.