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David Griffin’s future in Cleveland: While We’re Waiting

Chris Grant was relieved of his duties as general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 6, 2014. Grant was to be the architect of the post-LeBron era, amassing a truck load of assets to parlay in to something bigger and better once his team, anchored by No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving, had enough games under his drawstring to once again become a contender.

What transpired was a sequence of seasons and draft selections that left a bit to be desired, bottoming out as his team lost a game to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was forced to play a man who had fouled out, allowed to continue playing solely because he was the last healthy, active player available.

On the morning of February 6, the Cavaliers named David Griffin “acting” general manager. Griffin had served as Grant’s right-hand man, and was highly instrumental in many of the trades (draft picks for Luol Deng), acquisitions (The Andrew Bynum Experience) and draft selections (Anthony Bennett, anyone?) that had been made over the three years prior. That subsequent April, as the Cavs’ season had come to a painful, drawn-out end. Rumors were swirling that team owner Dan Gilbert had his eyes on making a splash of a hire, of the belief that it would be that that would right the ship. Nevertheless, Griffin sat in front of the local media, defiant in the belief that he was deserving of the team removing the “interim” tag from his title, stating he was not going to campaign for the job—”I’m not running for mayor,” he stated.

Is it possible, though with the Cavaliers doing nothing but win since that very day, that we could re-live a press conference with Griffin’s future shrouded with uncertainty?

Back in April, murmurs of Griffin’s impending free agency began to bubble up when The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Orlando Magic having interest in the Cavs’ mind-bending general manager. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst took things a step further roughly one week later reporting the Magic would offer Griffin a promotion, putting him in line with the Pat Rileys of the world as president of basketball operations. Then just last week, former ESPN newsbreaker Marc Stein reported, in a bit of irony, that the Atlanta Hawks would consider offering a similar role to Griffin. The latter is especially interesting for a later of reasons including Atlanta being the destination of Danny Ferry, the last Cavs general manager to not have his contract renewed, as well as it being a last ditch effort to Paul Millsap after his season ended abruptly large in part to the overarching success of the Cavaliers. Former Cavs assistant GM Wes Wilcox recently stepped down from Hawks GM into what’s being called “an advisory role.”

While many will want to short-change Griffin as the beneficiary of geography and storybook narrative, this would also short-change the word the general manager had to do in order to land LeBron James just three months later. “Return of the King,” the excellent book by Windhorst and ESPN colleague Dave McMenamin, details discussions surrounding James where Griffin told agent Rich Paul that if he could guarantee James’ return, he would clear the space. Paul quickly shot back, telling Griffin to clear the space and then they would consider Cleveland a possibility.

In the press conference mentioned earlier, Griffin dropped one of the best lines in recent GM history, saying his team needed to “get bigger, get smarter, shoot better, and be tougher.” He was armed with $26 million in cap space and a slew of draft selections, and had his sights set on Utah’s Gordon Hayward. This quickly changed, however, when Griffin found ways to deal Jarrett Jack’s bloated contract along with the likes of Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev to clear even more room. The rest, as they say, was history, but the kind of history that had fans glued to Twitter and refreshing web browsers with a never-before seen fervor until an essay hit Sports Illustrated on July 11.

While James’ presence has played an insurmountable role in Cleveland’s success since Griffin’s hiring, it seems myopic to ignore franchise-altering deals like acquiring Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov for Andrew Wiggins, Bennett, Dion Waiters and some late draft picks. Moving Anderson Varejao for Channing Frye midway through last season is oftentimes discussed as the move that brought the Cavaliers’ locker room together in a way that propelled them into the NBA Finals. This season, as the Cavaliers are coming off of their sixth playoffs sweep in the last three years, it was the mid-year acquisition of Kyle Korver from (ironically) the Hawks that has proven to be ever-so vital, the veteran coming up huge in Games 3 and 4. Griffin managed to trade two players who were injured and would provide the acquiring team with zero value. Let that sink in.1

There’s a chance this consternation is all for naught. It’s the perfect storm of an incredibly successful general manager in the final year of his deal and several teams interested in prying him away from the team which he helped guide toward a championship. It’s worth noting that Lue was also a bit of a free agent heading into the end of last season, spurning a mid-year deal to bet on himself, ultimately securing a five-year, $35 million extension this past summer. But its also worth noting that the Cavaliers have a bit of a history in paying coaches (many, many coaches) a lot of money, while not locking up front office members who construct the rosters that pave the way. Ferry left Cleveland for Atlanta in what was arguably the team’s most crucial summer to that point.

Griffin hasn’t spoken of this uncertainty much this season, focusing on the task at hand. Even if asked, he would say something very similar to what he did three years early, feeling he doesn’t need to campaign for a job he deserves. In 2014, Griffin hitched this belief to one where he felt he and ownership were on the same page in turning the team around. This time, he can let his body of work speak for itself.

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  1. Let’s also not forget the decision to swap Ty Lue in for David Blatt. []
  2. Your reminder that recaps, too, can be #ActualSportswriting. One of the better ledes I’ve read in a while. []