As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” rolls on as we start to count down the top 10 stories of the year.
Between June 19 and July 24, the Cleveland Cavaliers were without a general manager. Let this soak in for a moment. For five weeks, during a hyper-crucial period within a professional league’s calendar, one of its preeminent franchises was without a general manager.
For reference, a few events that take place between June 19 and July 24 include: The NBA Draft; the start of NBA free agency; the window where free agents are allowed to sign contracts; and the Orlando, Utah, and Las Vegas Summer Leagues. It’s during this window where the rumor mill swirls with epic force, but also where most teams make decisions that will make or break the next several seasons of their existence, be it through a high-reward draft selection or overpaid, aging free agent.
It’s where teams rebuild, retool, or reload. It’s where teams acquire or offload draft picks or give LeBron James’ money to Joe Johnson after the former selects a different suitor. It was this entire five-week period where the Cavaliers, reigning Eastern Conference Champions, were without a general manager.
It was midway through the 2016-17 season where speculation began to swirl. Despite the Cleveland Cavaliers being runaway favorites to return to the NBA Finals for the third time in his three seasons as general manager, David Griffin’s future with the team was uncertain. Here was the man who was atop the front office org chart for the last three seasons, wheeling and dealing in ways that seemed unfathomable at times, using assets to procure players and trade exceptions to provide his coaching staff with the players to compete for a title. Many teams go “all in” for a year or two, capitalizing on short contention windows, yet here was David Griffin, leveraging the best player in the world to a run the city of Cleveland had not seen since the Indians in the mid 1990s.
With “Griff”, there is little room for bullshit. Named interim GM after the firing of Chris Grant during the 2013-14 season, Griffin refused to campaign for the open position that following summer. “I’m not running for mayor,” he said. He pulled zero punches when discussing a roster that, verbatim, needed to get bigger, get smarter, shoot better, and be tougher.1 What transpired, however, should have served as foreshadowing at the time as team owner Dan Gilbert flirted with a handful of others—including Kentucky coach John Calipari. Gilbert, whose team was in the NBA lottery for four consecutive summers, wanted to make a splash. Griffin, who appears more like an accountant than an NBA executive, was not going to cause one. Nevertheless, Griffin waited. While he was confident that he was the man for the job, it took several weeks before the interim tag would be removed from his name.
While fans would be perennially blown away by Griffin’s shrewd moves, league-wide respect was rarely synonymous with Griffin’s name. The year the Cavaliers won the NBA Championship, Griffin was seventh in voting for Executive of the Year, ranking behind architects of teams which finished second, fifth, and sixth in the East. Gilbert hired David Blatt as the team’s head coach, looking to make another splash with a highly decorated overseas name, but it was Griffin who talked the owner into also signing Ty Lue as the team’s top assistant. As Griffin was acquiring championship contributors like J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye, much of the credit was redirected to LeBron James who decided to return to Cleveland just weeks after Griffin was named the team’s GM. With geography and a make-good narrative on his side, thinking was it was simply Griffin’s job to make it work—a “go boy” of sorts whose task was to get the pieces to put around the four-time MVP as he’ll take care of the rest.
Not helping matters was the lack of support from the team’s owner. As the players signed would incur a jaw-dropping luxury tax bill, and head coaches—either those who were fired or the one who was on the sidelines as the team won the title—were being paid at league-high rates, the role of general manager was being internally underappreciated.
As the summer of 2017 approached, Griffin was without a contract extension. Several teams—Milwaukee, Orlando, and Atlanta among them—asked to speak with Griffin for high-level positions, some offering Team President opportunities, but were turned down. Those teams would fill their vacant roles as the Cavaliers spent the next several weeks playing in the Eastern Conference Championship and the NBA Finals, signaling an increased potential for Griffin’s return. After all: Where else would he go?
History, however, was not on his side. Since Gilbert purchased the team from Gordon Gund, no general manager worked with the team beyond a singular contract. Danny Ferry was not brought back after the team’s run in 2010. Grant was fired after the Cavaliers lost a game to a woebegone Lakers team that was forced to play with an ejected player due to not having any additional available reserves. Alas, with his contract set to expire at the end of the June, it was announced during negotiations that Griffin would not be retained. With free agency on the horizon, the Cavaliers were without their GM and one of his top assistants in Trent Redden, who would also not be retained.
That summer, not only would the Cavaliers not have exit interviews with the media, it would later be reported that the team did not hold exit interviews with the players. It was here where the Cavaliers would have known that long-time point guard Kyrie Irving was looking to be traded, the guard saying he could not get a meeting earlier in the summer. Instead, it was where Gilbert was rekindling splash-coveting memories of 2014 where Chauncey Billups was being courted as the team’s next top decision maker. Billups, after several meetings, decided to maintain his position as an analyst, giving Gilbert the “thanks, but not thanks.” Reports swirled that Gilbert low-balled the offer. Billups would say that the timing was not right. With the team’s future beyond 2017-18 was uncertain, and the Irving rumors not yet public, every reason appeared legitimate.
Roughly three weeks after Billups turned down the Cavs’ offer, the team named Koby Altman—the young and talented and hard-working former assistant executive—as the team’s next general manager. The NBA Draft came and went, the Cavs unable to acquire a pick. Paul George was traded to Oklahoma City. Chris Paul was traded to Houston. Free agency was largely in the rear view. All three summer leagues had been completed. Yet during this entire stretch, Altman remained with the team, having no guidance as to what role he would have going forward.
During his introduction to the local media, Gilbert spent the first few minutes of the press conference in attempt to dampen the narrative that going five weeks without a GM was not that big of a deal. Gilbert introduced four other individuals who had been with the team for some time. He called one a “savant”, and made it a point to say who was involved with the trades that built the championship team, doing so with the hopes of showing some form of continuity during a time where the perception was a state of flux during a crucial five-week stretch.
“I thought it would be a good idea to introduce guys who have been with us for years and years in the front office,” said Gilbert. “We thought it was important for the media, fans, and season ticket holders to know how deep our front office is. They don’t get enough credit for the work they’ve done.”
The truth was, all he did was further diminish the role of the man who was seated beside him.
- Compare this to Grant who frequently relied on “a lot of great guys” to describe the same roster. [↩]