Some holes never fill and Dan Gilbert let David Griffin walk on Monday. Griffin cited fit as the reason contract extension talks fell apart, and the Cavs have been mumbly and mostly silent, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a good old fashioned myopic squabble over a couple million bucks. That sounds glib, but Gilbert paid $166 million for the Cavs’ roster last season. That he can’t bring himself to properly compensate Griffin—at what, five, maybe six million dollars per year?—is a particular type of rich guy skinflintiness that Gilbert embodies more perfectly than any other owner in the league. For him, it’s about money and it’s not. He understands negotiation, not as uneasy give and take, but as a means to set terms and exert power. This is a guy who has made his billions selling mortgages and cutting favorable, taxpayer-bilking real estate deals. The only gunfights he enters are ambushes. If NBA player salaries were uncapped, Gilbert surely would have run LeBron James out of town long before he left of his own volition.
It’s worth mentioning that David Griffin was exceedingly good at his difficult job, which principally involved flipping assets of negligible value for players who could help the Cavs compete for titles. He was given the general manager gig on an interim basis in February of 2014 after Chris Grant was fired, and the franchise gave him the position on a permanent basis the following May. It was a no-brainer to clear out cap space that summer and trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love to facilitate LeBron’s return to Cleveland, but since then, Griffin has found inventive ways to improve the Cavs in the middle of every season. In 2015, he essentially used Dion Waiters and a late first-rounder to acquire J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov. The next winter, he offloaded Anderson Varejao to Portland, then used the trade exception and Jared Cunningham to nab Channing Frye from the Magic. This past season, he took Kyle Korver off the Hawks’ hands and signed Deron Williams after he was bought out by the Mavericks. These are incremental moves, but each has been consequential and helped the Cavaliers in some small-to-medium way. They don’t post the absurd offensive numbers they did in 2017 without Korver and Frye bombing threes, and their don’t win their 2016 title without Smith.
Putting to one side Griffin’s great track record, the Cavs let him go at the absolute worst time. Following a whooping in The Finals at the hands of the Warriors, the team needs significant rejiggering that’s probably going to involve shipping Kevin Love somewhere for either a star or a couple rangy, athletic wing types who can chase Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson around. In the days leading up to his non-renewal Griffin was working the phones trying to bring Jimmy Butler to Cleveland in a delicate three-team deal. We can assume those talks are now dead or on hold. Paul George also recently told the Pacers he’s leaving Indiana next summer no matter what. A Love-for-George swap makes some amount of sense for both teams, and the Pacers are reportedly eager to move George before this Thursday’s draft, but who in the Cavs’ front office has the authority to ring up Kevin Pritchard and pitch that move? Are they still trying to make stuff happen over there or has everything been paused until a new general manager is brought aboard?
Rumors are that the new general manager might be Chauncey Billups, who has no front office experience and a little while back floated the idea of the Cavs sending Kevin Love to New York for Carmelo Anthony, which is fine panel show banter that would be ruinous to Cleveland’s slim 2018 title hopes. Billups doesn’t really have any qualifications other than being friendly with Gilbert and Tyronn Lue. The fact that he was a terrific point guard on a championship team hardly matters, though that is the exact sort of thing foolish owners think. If Billups is hired, you can bet his winning pedigree will be cited at the press conference. You can also bet he won’t have a better handle on the job than David Griffin did.
A lot has been made of the fact that the Cavs didn’t consult LeBron James on their decision not to bring Griffin back, but they probably wouldn’t have given him a call if they had re-signed Griffin either, and anyway, LeBron might not have taken it. It’s well-established that in June and July, he is minimally communicative with whatever franchise he’s playing for. The GM LeBron meme is powerful, but it’s not entirely accurate. It seems that he exerts his influence by expressing his preferences, sometimes cryptically, and then leaving the team to do their work without his guidance. This is not to get too bogged down in semantics: LeBron wanted Griffin to return, and he more or less tweeted as much when the news of his departure was announced.
None of this means LeBron is going to leave Cleveland next summer when he can become a free agent again, but step one in that process is getting rid of an executive who made sure the Cavs were as talented as they could possibly be every year. Though David Griffin isn’t the only suit capable of accomplishing that feat, it’s self-defeating to send him packing and roll the dice with someone else. But Dan Gilbert is hubristic enough to think he can get away with doing so, because his entire career is built upon getting his way and having it work out splendidly. The Cavs could have a fine offseason and retool themselves to give the Warriors a closer run next year, or this might be the beginning of their implosion. Whatever happens will happen on Gilbert’s terms. The man can’t stand feeling like a spectator to his own success, and that could be what sinks him, for the second time.