The NBA trade deadline is less than 24 hours away. Execs across the country are hammering the phone lines, looking at game tape and throwing together last ditch efforts to improve their teams before we delve into the unofficial second half of the season. Nobody may have a more difficult job than David Griffin, General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Stuck between a billionaire owner who will spare no expense to win, a King who is required to win by his people, and a fan base that is totally desperate for any type of athletic success that they are practically gnawing on the wood floors on the court, David Griffin has to find a way to do the one thing that will satisfy all parties involved: win an NBA championship. Anything less than that would be a total bust.
In his early 40’s, from Phoenix, Arizona, Griffin looks like the kind of guy who would go out of his way to return your wallet that you left in a crowded restaurant. Not to say that others would not do the same, but he looks “upbeat” and “pleasant”, two words that probably would not be befitting of many of his hardened and grizzled counterparts like Pat Riley or Danny Ainge. Starting his career as an intern with the Phoenix Suns, he worked his way up the ranks over his 17-year tenure with the team. He left the title of “Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations” with the Suns for “Vice President of Basketball Operations with the Cavaliers in 2010. Griffin was promoted to General Manager for the Cavaliers in 2013, inheriting a team with some young talent, attractive draft picks, and a rising star of a point guard named Kyrie Irving.
Make no mistake about it; Griffin pulled one of the biggest coups in sports by bringing King James back home to Northeast Ohio. It was not nearly as simple as LeBron wanting to “come home”. Griffin had to clear enough cap room to accommodate Kyrie’s $90M contract extension, LeBron’s sizable deal to return to Cleveland, and finagle a deal shipping #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for superstar Kevin Love to round out Cleveland’s “Big 3”, all in one summer! Despite his shrewd work in crunching numbers and acquiring talent, the unit he put together has still not demonstrated the dominance that many around the league expected from such a talent-laden team. In addition to laying the infrastructure that could make this roster overhaul possible, he had to mend the channels of communication that would lend to a Gilbert-James meeting in summer 2014. Despite creating the feel good story of the year, don’t let the ginger with the sensible glasses fool you. GM Griffin is playing for keeps and is not afraid to swing his ax in the process. Don’t believe me? Ask David Blatt.
Blatt, the credentialed coach from Europe had the team at .732, the highest win percentage of any coach at the time they were fired. Ever. Despite their success, the Cavs have had little cohesion and team unity. It had less to do with how many losses the team has had this season, and more to do with who they lost to, and how. After falling to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last year, the Cavs have tasted bitter losses to the Warriors and the Spurs their biggest Western Conference competition. Cleveland appeared fragile, disorganized and played with no sense of urgency in their 2016 matchups. Being outclassed by elite talent was the red flag that called Griffin to take action. Turning over the keys to assistant coach Tyronn Lue, David Griffin hopes to cultivate a level of trust and respect that the players never seemed to fully embrace in Blatt.
Dan Gilbert has made it clear he will spare no expense to bring his city a championship. The team is already swimming in red ink as the Cavs have the largest payroll in the NBA by a substantial margin, blowing by #2 Oklahoma City by a cool $10M. Gilbert, from Michigan, has invested heavily in Cleveland, owning the sister minor league hockey sister organization the Lake Erie Monsters, and building the city’s first Casino in 2012. Though he’s spending a ton on the team, Gilbert understands with the exposure that comes from having stars like Kyrie, Kevin and LeBron, it can lead to “strings” as he calls them. Strings are the opportunities to cross-promote and expose other business ventures because of the success and exposure of one. This has resulted in Gilbert getting national exposure for his other businesses (Quicken Loans, and Fat Head decals to name a couple). While he is most assuredly enjoying the ride, Gilbert knows that the window to win a ring with LeBron is not infinite. He wants to win and win now. Gilbert entrusted Griffin to be the team’s General Manager and has backed him all the way. Just like his predecessor, Chris Grant, there is one metric in which is success is measured: championships.
The pride of Akron, the King of Northeast Ohio, LeBron James made his triumphant return to Cleveland in 2014. Well, maybe not so “triumphant”. Despite making the NBA Finals last season and having the best record in the entire Eastern Conference, Cavs fans are demanding that “the best player on earth” brings the team and the city at least one title. After faintly sniffing the Finals and being swept by the Spurs in 2007 and watching the Miami Heat and James flaunt back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. Cavs fans have eagerly awaited their “turn” since James vowed to bring a ring home; easier said than done.
Injuries, and inconsistent play haunted the team through the Finals and they were dismissed by NBA darling Stephen Curry and the Warriors 4-2. James is a once in a generation type of player, but he also has a once in a generation sized ego to boot. As we have seen throughout his career, LeBron is not the type of player to work inside of a system— a system needs to be constructed around him. That being said, LBJ has always had an inordinate amount of influence on personnel decisions. Griffin has had the daunting task of appeasing James’ desires for the team (and LeBron’s pressure from his Cleveland fanbase). This was exemplified by the team trading (future) NBA Rookie of the Year/hoops prodigy Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love in a deal that also costs the Cavs a first round pick in 2015.
Wiggins went on to average 16.9 points per game with the T-Wolves, while Love has at times struggled to find his rhythm with his new squad. That is certainly not to say that the Cavs would be better off with Wiggins, but the Cavs were forced into the trade by LeBron and the ominous cloud of him electing to leave again for greener pastures (under the short term contract he signed with the team, reportedly for collective bargaining agreement reasons). Gilbert has spared no expense in constructing a winner and Griffin has more or less turned water in to wine (and gold) surrounding LeBron with enough elite level talent to get the job done. LeBron’s legacy and Griffin’s as well are hanging in the balance. If Griffin cannot win a championship with the best player of this era, it’s not a given that he will get another chance to be an NBA GM.
The city of Cleveland has not won a title since 1964… IN ANYTHING. The Cleveland Indians, Browns and Cavaliers have not hoisted any trophies on Euclid Ave in so long, that there are generations of homers who have not known what it feels like to be a winner. That being said, the town is literally salivating for a winner to call its own. Despite much consternation over the team’s every move, the Cavs still sit atop the East and are in great position to make a run at an NBA title. While it remains to be seen if Cleveland can emerge victorious in the East (let alone the whole league), the fans have already booked the trip to the Finals and anything short of that would be a huge disappointment.
Simply put, Griffin needs to deliver a winner with LeBron James regardless on his personal philosophies on team building. He needs to satisfy an owner who is highly competitive and a star who is so ingrained in the community that he will likely be buried one day within an hour of the arena. As we wind down these past few hours until the trade deadline expires, Griffin will undoubtedly be burning the midnight oils and working the phone lines trying to find the one key that will turn the Cavs from an elite team into a champion, even if that includes (apparently) moving a superstar like Love.
We may not see the fruits of his labor until June, but as the pressure rises to a fever pitch, David Griffin, much like his on-court counterpart who dons #23, will try to answer the bell in the clutch to help his team reach the NBA’s mountain top.