If you asked people to name the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, you’d probably get a good amount of snarky responses to the effect of “LeBron James”, followed by a smirk and a chuckle.
At least, that’s how the joke goes. James traded for Kevin Love. James signed all his friends like James Jones, Dahntay Jones, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller. LeBron James, as they say, is the player, coach, and general manager.
When news broke that the Cavaliers were parting ways with their general manger, many brushed it off as no big deal. The Cavs official GM, they assumed, was merely a puppet. For the past three years, that puppet’s name was David Griffin.
David Griffin Parting a Major Mistake for Cleveland Cavaliers
Except, it’s not quite that simple. All Griffin has done since 2014 is make numerous drastic improvements to the Cavaliers roster, give James help whenever he asked for it, and turn a cellar-dwelling club the year he took over into a perennial Finals contender.
He was a pretty darn good puppet.
And yet, Griffin never received any credit, media attention or public acclaim during his tenure in Cleveland. He was endlessly ridiculed under the impression that James did his job for him. But that just makes David Griffin all the more criminally underrated, because contrary to popular belief, he actually did his job at a very high level.
Now, the Cavs got incredibly lucky winning the Draft Lottery back in 2014 with measly 1.9% odds, allowing them to select Andrew Wiggins and dangle him for Love. He also just happened to be the guy who held the general manager’s role in Cleveland when James decided it was time to come home. Plus, Griffin has absolutely benefited from owner Dan Gilbert’s significant financial commitment to the team.
Executing the Plan
But even with those convenient circumstances in his favor, Griffin still needed to execute some very important moves for the Cavs that gave James the players he wanted. Moreover, he had to do so while tip-toeing around the constrictions of the NBA’s luxury tax rules listed in the CBA.
Let’s run through Griffin’s record since the return of James. In the Love trade, Griffin had to fend off the Golden State Warriors of all teams, who were reportedly prepared to offer up Klay Thompson. And while Love has been somewhat of a disappointment in his time in Cleveland, his skill set and promise shown at the time seemed as though he would fit perfectly into the Cavaliers system.
Next up was the Timofey Mozgov deal, which gave Cleveland the legitimate rim protector they desperately needed in the wake of Anderson Varejao’s season-ending torn achilles tendon in 2014-15. Mozgov went on to be a critical piece in helping a shorthanded Cavs team reach the Finals and take the Warriors to six games.
The Trade With New York
Griffin’s best trade at the helm might have been the three-way deal with the New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder that landed the Cavaliers J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and a first round pick in exchange for Dion Waiters, Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk, and a second round pick. Let’s not beat around the bush: Griffin took Phil Jackson and the Knicks to the cleaners in this deal. Not bad for a “puppet”.
Then there was the Channing Frye trade in advance of the 2016 Trade Deadline, where Cleveland sent an aging and oft-injured Varejao and a low first round pick for a sharpshooter in Frye who would go on to be a legitimate contributor to their NBA championship. Not to mention, the move also freed up $10 million in payroll and taxes for the Cavaliers. Griffin then followed that same protocol this past season, bringing in another lethal three-point weapon for James to feed in Kyle Korver.
This Season’s Trade Deadline
Griffin’s finest stretch as general manager in Cleveland came in the second half of this past season. James went to the media to demand a playmaker. LeBron James making this demand public left Griffin in the toughest possible spot a general manager could be put in. His star player was so unhappy that he needed to let to the world know. The demand also effectively killed any sort of leverage he had in a trade. It sent a loud and clear message to the rest of the league that Griffin had to do something.
Griffin responded by bringing in the best “playmaker” on the market in Deron Williams. He was far and away the most preferable option. Sure, there were alternatives including Mario Chalmers, Baron Davis, and Nate Robinson. However they do not match up to Williams. The signing of Williams, however, wasn’t immediate. To be precise, Williams put pen to paper on February 27th. This was more than a month after James went public. Griffin was waiting out the market. He allowed the Trade Deadline to come and go. Griffin bet his stack that the Dallas Mavericks were going to buy out Williams instead of trade him.
Betting on His Plan
Griffin was right, which not only allowed Cleveland to add him without surrendering any assets, but also made it possible to squeeze Williams in underneath the cap with the remainder of his hefty contract being paid for by Mark Cuban in Dallas. And perhaps more importantly, Griffin was able to satisfy his superstar’s wishes at the same time.
He gifted James his play maker, and made another owner pay the bulk of his salary. He added a pair of deadly three-point specialists to give James the best collection of perimeter shooters he has ever had to work with. Griffin fleeced the “Zen Master”, and he beat out a Warriors team who, by their own accord are “light years ahead” of everyone else, for a rising young superstar. All of that makes Gilbert’s decision not to renew Griffin’s contract that much more perplexing.
The Real General Manager
As much as people believe this to be the case, LeBron James does not sit at a desk, work the phones, and spend his evenings wheeling and dealing. In fact, James’ presence makes David Griffin’s job more difficult. He has to answer to the constant demands made both privately and publicly by James. He also must deal with the microscope that comes with having the best player in the world.
The fact of the matter is that running an NBA front office is nowhere close to as easy as people think. There is no question Griffin was dealt a very nice hand to begin with. However, he also made nothing less than the utmost of it. Griffin did his job exceptionally well in Cleveland, despite facing sky high expectations to go along with a number of obstacles that most of his general manager counterparts didn’t have to contend with.
Support of LeBron James
James made the decision to come home in order to end Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, and he delivered on his promise back in 2016. But the Cavaliers do not win that championship without Griffin at the helm. His ability to read and sense the market was second to none. He was a salary cap and luxury tax maestro. He was the epitome of an ‘unsung hero’, and James knew it.
If no one appreciated you Griff I did, and hopefully all the people of Cleveland! Thanks for what u did for the team for 3 yrs! We got us 1🏆
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 20, 2017
Clearly, James is well aware of how his general maanger was treated. ‘Griff’ may never have been appreciated in Cleveland; but whichever team he is off to next should consider themselves very fortunate.