I once remember reading a story that inferred somewhere that owners of sports teams sometimes (or often times) operate their franchise as their own “real life” fantasy sports teams. When reading this, the gears in my brain began to turn. It made me wonder … this could not all be true, or could it?
As the wheels turned in my mind, I thought of Jimmy Haslam — the drafting of Johnny Manziel, the constant hiring/firings, and the plethora of stories referencing Mr. Haslam’s imprints on key football-related decisions that he should have kept his hands off of (which we later learned via the results). Then, the more I thought — as the Browns began to get better and the Cavs tumbled down the standings quickly after LeBron left a second time — another owner in Cleveland has kept his hands well gripped in his team’s key decisions. That, of course, would be Dan Gilbert.
If it were not for the one championship this franchise finally won in the ninth year of LeBron’s 11-year tenure in Cleveland, Gilbert would be viewed much differently — and even then he has received his fair share of pushback from fans and local media from his occasional but sometimes often unsolicited adjudication. This column is not meant to suggest Gilbert should sell the team, become a ghost and disappear from the organization’s operations, or even leave all decisions to those paid to make them, but rather to suggest that the moves he has made have been overpowering and sometimes spurred.
I will give Mr. Gilbert this, he has always put winning basketball games above all else. No matter how much he and LeBron clashed or how many numbers were above his signature on a check, Gilbert was never satisfied until a championship banner was hung from the rafters of (now) Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Even then, one championship never seemed like enough — accepting the penalty of overpaying Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith as one example to weather the storm of LeBron to keep key pieces to the puzzle in James’ eyes a part of the roster. Of course, the luxury tax, which should receive consideration to be renamed in Gilbert’s honor.
The issue here is not because of Gilbert’s willingness to win at all costs but the expense of his determination to override or influence decisions with his sometimes autocratic authoritative power. From allowing well-respected NBA executive David Griffin — who is credited with having a great working relationship with LeBron and responsible for keeping three years of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron even-keeled — walk away because of conflicting views of team direction, to voluntarily endorsing Collin Sexton, to giving the green light to trade Irving against LeBron’s word, and plenty more instances, Gilbert has often made the wrong decisions despite having the right decisions in plain sight. And he has done so in lieu of his decisions makers suggestions or ideas.
As the Cavaliers have turned the page on another completed season without LeBron, looking back, perhaps that chapter should have begun with Gilbert being the forward of the story, not the author; but from the get-go, it has not been the case. Gilbert felt that this Cavs team would compete for the playoffs without James and that tide turned quickly due to a number of circumstances, some of which were unforeseen, such as Kevin Love surgery. One of the many waves moving away from the shore was the decision to fire Ty Lue, which of course led to a head coach vacancy. And that coaching vacancy has proved the story of Gilbert once again with their latest franchise-altering move.
The Cavaliers officially announced on Monday that former University of Michigan head basketball coach John Beilein will be the next coach of the franchise. Not only have the Cavs done extensive work on current NBA assistants, but they have also stayed away from the college ranks — much to the discretion of general manager Koby Altman. Considering there were no leaks/reports that Beilein was in consideration for the Cavs coaching gig, something smelled funny … And sure enough, it reeked of Gilbert striking once again.
According to both ESPN and the Athletic, the decision to hire Beilein had essentially been made by the Cavs owner. “Beilein met face to face with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert,” Joe Vardon of the Athletic reports. “After the Beilein-Gilbert meeting, Beilein emerged as the Cavs’ choice. On Mother’s Day, the decision was made to move forward with the offer, which is for five years.”
So here is what we know (according to multiple reports.): The Cavs set out to hire a well-established assistant coach currently in the NBA, with Altman and his team leading the search. Here is what we ended up with: a head coach from the collegiate level that has no experience at the professional level and that has never been an assistant before at any level. And of course, the move was (once again) made with the final touches of Gilbert.
At least Altman and a few members of the Cavs contingent reportedly interviewed Beilein earlier in the week but the general manager was in Denver wrapping up interviews on assistants when Gilbert supposedly made the final call to hire Michigan’s Beilein. Once again, the case of a classic executive decision made by Gilbert.
Who knows? Maybe Altman gave Gilbert a ring this past weekend saying that Beilein should be chosen after potentially underwhelming interviews in Denver? I just do not get that impression, considering the circumstances of the hire. Which has me questioning what exactly kind of power Altman has in the organization, specifically the rate of him being a yes man to Gilbert.
Although it was initially a shock that Beilein would be the next head coach of the Cavs, it all added together upon learning that Gilbert made the final call. It is not necessarily the most stunning hire in the world, considering Gilbert’s affinity for Kentucky’s John Calipari — another college coach — over past coaching searches. What made it a surprise was yet again the Cavs had gone off-script because of their controlling owner.
I actually like the hiring of Beilein. I think he is an intelligent basketball mind and earns the respect of his players. The negative spin is he is 66 years old and taking his first crack of the NBA. The Cavs have tried to go outside the box before (see David Blatt) but that train fell off the tracks immediately when LeBron announced he was coming home. Unlike Blatt, Beilein will have the opportunity to develop one of the league’s youngest team’s going under one of its most crucial rebuilds.
Maybe that whole analogy that owners run their sports teams as a fantasy football owner would run his team is a little skewed, but on the surface the comparison is fair. If I owned a sports franchise, I would likely want to make my mark on decisions too. Except, I do not and Gilbert does. It is not always (probably most the time) necessarily the decisions he makes, it’s the way he makes them.
Now, one key decision remains in the crosshairs for the Cavaliers: Where they will pick in this year’s draft and who they will take. If Cleveland ever wants to become a championship contender, it starts with hitting on that pick. Although Altman still has little credibility, he was hired to make these decisions and should be the primary voice moving forward. Gilbert needs to stay in his lane, for better, or for worse.