To say it was an "eventful" day for the Cleveland Cavaliers was an understatement. Running the entire gamut of emotions, the Cavs started the day seemingly in pole position to get either Jimmy Butler or Paul George; they ended the day having to deal with a massive backlash spawning from parting ways with David Griffin, the GM who built the team that had won the NBA Championship just one year prior.
With or without Griffin, the Cavaliers were already in a tepid spot in the NBA heirarchy. It's no surprise that the Golden State Warriors, even if their depth begins to vanish, will have the best starting lineup in the NBA next season; the Spurs are aiming to add a 3rd viable star to their lineup; and the Celtics have completely changed the landscape of the association for the next several years with an amassing of assets to move to obtain their forwards of choice. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are still paying Mike Brown and David Blatt, they're well over the Luxury tax with little flexibility to add new pieces without giving up some of the ones they do have, are struggling to obtain long term depth, and now have a looming threat of LeBron James potentially leaving in 2018.
First, let's part with the idea of LeBron leaving in 2018 before we go any further; he may, but why? The "super teams" that could afford him are few and inbetween. Going West puts him right into the fire with two teams that are already going to be built and rolling towards title contention in San Antonio and Golden State. And he could make $230 million over 4 years in Cleveland; which would make him the richest NBA player of all time. Even if he took a slight pay dip in order to make the team better, there's not much incentive for him to leave at this point, unless he truly believes he can find a team willing to dump all of its assets to assemble his "Banana Boat" squad.
What the Griffin situation did do for LeBron, however, is provide him a viable exit alibi were he to want out. When LeBron left Cleveland in 2010, there was some behind-the-scenes issues where LeBron felt clearly jerked around, but by the same token, none of this was as public or in as much of a fervor through the social channels as what we've seen regarding Griffin. Even the floating statements from LeBron seem to indicate his unhappiness already with owner Dan Gilbert.
This begs the question of what Dan Gilbert's role was in the release of Griffin, especially as news came out suggesting that there was a divide regarding their visions and if Kyrie Irving was on the trading block. Me personally, I think it's much simpler; Dan Gilbert needed to find an asset he could part with in order to save some cash. People forget that Gilbert (in spite of putting a lot of it on tax-payers in the cities he's working with) is building a stadium in Detroit, renovating the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and has a number of additional revitalization projects currently running through both cities, in addition to eating all that luxury tax money.
Is Gilbert "strapped" for cash? Probably not. But you can't just keep throwing money around in the NBA and praying it works out if you're not in a situation where you feel you'll win a championship. And since the Cavs couldn't simply dump the salaries and contracts of JR Smith ($12 million), Iman Shumpert ($9 million), or Channing Frye ($7 million) to free up cap space and space in Gilbert's pockets, the only asset that could be removed was Griffin, in not paying him what would likely be a salary to make him the richest NBA GM of all time.
Of course, that doesn't make it the "right" move, but context is always key. What exactly did Griffin provide for the Cavaliers in his tenure with the team, specifically in the past 3 years in the new LeBron era? Griffin became the permanent GM in 2014, and since then, was responsible for the following moves:
1. June 26th, 2014 - Drafted Andrew Wiggins. This would become the catalyst for a bigger move down the line, but it begs a lot of questions, which we'll get to later.
2. July 10th, 2014 - Traded Tyler Zeller and Cleveland's 2016 1st (CONDITIONAL) to Boston for Boston's 2015 2nd (CONDITIONAL) and a TPE. You're going to see a lot of future draft picks moving in these moves. Zeller had outstayed his welcome, but to dump him for the TPE and to remove a first rounder, one day before...well, you know what comes the next day, now seems quite short sighted.
3. July 11th, 2014 - Signed LeBron James. Of course, how much of this you actually credit to Griffin is debatable, but he obviously had to be part of the process here, so I offer at least some credit in this.
4. August 23rd, 2014 - Traded Andrew Wiggins, a 2015 1st (MIA), and Anthony Bennett to MIN for Kevin Love. Okay, so here's where the question lies; yes, Anthony Bennett has been bad, so he's not much of a loss on the whole. My question is moreso, what would have happened had the Cavs stood pat and retained Andrew Wiggins? Could they have offered Dion Waiters instead to Minnesota, perhaps packaging in Joe Harris or Anderson Varejao, in order to make the trade instead? Or not make the trade at all, wait out the year, and sign Love in 2015? Or make a trade mid-year once Waiters' value had increased? I'm not sure. But moves such as this, mortgaging the future and future high-impact assets like this draft pick, were made to win an NBA Championship immediately. The Cavs did this, but set a bad precedence for many of the rest of the moves the Cavs would be making under Griffin.
5. January 5th, 2015 - Traded Dion Waiters and a TPE in a three-way trade with OKC and NYK for a conditional 2015 1st (OKC), JR Smith, and Iman Shumpert. Now, on the surface, this move is pretty much brilliant. The Knicks basically gave away Iman Shumpert and JR Smith for peanuts, and both proved to be great role players for the Cavs. They also obtained a free 1st rounder out of the ordeal, but then two days later...
6. January 7th, 2015 - Traded 2 2015 1st round picks (OKC and MEM) and a TPE for Timofey Mozgov and a 2015 2nd. When Mozgov was acquired, it was a lauded move that was characterized as an overpay, but a necessary one. Really? The role of the C in the NBA has completely evolved in just the two years since Mozgov was obtained, and then got an absurd contract after the fact from Los Angeles. I'm not saying Cleveland could have flipped one of those 2015 firsts into a viable starter, but the Mozgov move, especially now, looks rather meaningless, considering his lack of play time or presence in the 2016 championship campaign.
7. June 25th, 2015 - Drafted Tyus Jones, then traded Tyus Jones to MIN for Rakeem Christmas, Cedi Osman, and a MIN 2019 2nd. On the one hand, this move did nothing, and Jones and Christmas are essentially non-factors in the NBA at this point. On the other, Cedi Osman has become a lauded "stash-and-grab" prospect in the last year or so. If the Cavs can flip him for future assets, or if they can call him into the league and if he can perform, it will be a big steal in either scenario.
8. Summer 2015 - Completed re-signings of LeBron James, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, JR Smith, and Tristan Thompson. On the one hand, part of this was a pain, because Tristan was not resigned until October. On the other hand, dealing with 6 major player contracts is not necessarily easily, and all 6 became key cogs in the Championship squad. The problem mostly comes down to the cash involved. Thompson received a larger contract than some anticipated, but it was obvious he needed to be brought back; the same could be said for Smith and Shumpert, who now account for over $20 million on the cap.
9. July 27th, 2015 - Traded Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, and 2019 and 2020 2nd round picks to Portland for TPE's and cash. While it was necessary for the Cavs to start getting some cap breathing room, they once again move draft picks to do so; it won't become a dual-edged sword just yet, but it will pretty soon.
10. January 12, 2016 - Traded Joe Harris, a 2017 2nd, and cash to Orlando for a 2020 2nd and cash. Griffin's strategy towards acquiring depth and cap relief was to pile up TPE's, even if that meant losing long-term draft flexibility. But that move was a necessary evil, because the Cavs are heading into the deadline with more moves to come.
11. February 18th, 2016 - Traded a 2018 1st and Anderson Varejao to Portland for a 2020 2nd and a TPE. Again, stock-piling TPE's, Cleveland now gives up another first rounder in order to take Anderson Varejao off the cap. Which would be fine, if not for the fact that both teams involved (Portland too) are still completely in cap hell at the moment. But the Cavs weren't done on this day...
12. February 18th, 2016 - Traded Jared Cunningham, a 2020 2nd, and a TPE to Orlando for a TPE and Channing Frye. Channing Frye was actually a pretty important piece to the puzzle in 2016, but since has become a literal albatross on the cap, partly because Griffin really didn't have a choice. In essence, Griffin turned a 2018 1st, Anderson Varejao, and Jared Cunningham into Channing Frye, which doesn't sound as potentially damaging as it is; but again, to the credit of the GM, Frye fit well.
13. July 7th, 2016 - Traded Matthew Dellavedova and a TPE to Milwaukee for Albert Miralles; traded Albert Miralles to Chicago for Mike Dunleavy and Vladimir Veremeenko. In essence, Griffin swapped out Dellavedova for Dunleavy, and this worked out absolutely horribly on all sides. Yes, Dunleavy would have worth down the line, but he didn't mesh, he couldn't hit shots, and was a bad precipice which forced a lot of panic "depth moves" later in the year by Griffin.
14. October 15th, 2016 - Signed JR Smith to a multi-year deal. JR Smith is now making $12 million a year, and is an unfortunate cap albatross even when he plays up to it. Having 5 players over $12 million on the roster is typically a recipe for a nightmare on cap space and flexibility, so Smith, even as well as he's played in Cleveland, was far overpaid. But that's not his fault; it is Griffin's fault for not trying to work out a more team-friendly deal in the end.
15. January 7th, 2017 - Traded a 2019 1st, Mike Dunleavy and Mo Williams for Kyle Korver and TPE's. Oh boy. So if you're keeping track, the Cavs have no first rounders in 2017, 2018, or 2019, and also have few 2nd rounders to boot. Now, yes, Kyle Korver is a sharp-shooter, but he added very little in the end, becoming a role-player off the bench in rotation with Shumpert and Smith, and now will likely be a forced resigning for even more cash against the cap considering the cost to obtain him.
This doesn't even account for the FA signings during Griffin's reign, which have included: James Jones, Mike Miller, Alex Kirk, Dwight Powell, Shawn Marion, AJ Price, Lou Admundson, Shane Edwards, Chris Crawford, Stephen Holt, Will Cherry, Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, DJ Stephens, Dionte Christmas, Jordan McRae, Chris Andersen, Dahntay Jones, DeAndre Liggins, Derrick Williams, Deron Williams, and Larry Sanders. Very few were terribly successful, but a lot of that group is bent to the will and whim of LeBron James.
I shouldn't need to say it, but I will: David Griffin, whether by assignment or by his own volition, built a team that had little depth, meant to push a 3-4 year window for an NBA championship at all costs. Did they succeed? Yes, but now for the next several years, the Cavaliers have no pieces to make moves with. They enter 2017 where their first priority will be tying down a 36 year old off-the-bench SG (Kyle Korver) to a long term deal. Their second priority will likely be determining if Derrick Williams will be worth a contract for next year, after coming in to some success but never fully geling with the team. And they'll be needing to do that without Griffin at the helm, making things all the more messy.
Did David Griffin necessarily kill the Cavaliers with his moves? No. Again, when you win an NBA Championship, and your goal is to win an NBA Championship in a short window, especially at a time when the West has one of the greatest NBA teams ever assembled, you've essentially done the job correctly. His moves have, however, put the Cavaliers at an uncomfortable impasse; should they begin trying to move assets to get back draft picks for the next several seasons? Who can they possibly move to get a 4th star? Is it worth dropping Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, or even to trade Kyrie Irving, if it means another title, or at the very least keeping LeBron? What in the world would happen if LeBron James leaves for a second time?
And, would this team look different if the Cavs didn't give up assets to obtain Mozgov? Perhaps, but the Cavaliers had no choice. What about if they had retained Matthew Dellavedova? It likely would have kept the 2019 pick used on Kyle Korver in play, and added some much needed bench energy, but not much else. Or, the biggest question, what if the Cavs had retained Andrew Wiggins? Well, yes, they would have a second young piece to build around, but there would also be a heavy chance that Kevin Love would not be a Cavalier. Could that have led the way for a different member of the Big 3 to be found? It's certainly possible. Maybe the Cavaliers would have traded less away for a lesser piece (such as Kenneth Faried), or traded equal value for a piece that could have fit better (say...LaMarcus Aldridge?). Nothing is guaranteed, though, and this is pure masturbatory speculation at this point. The Cavs are what they are, and were going to be what they were, because it's what they had to do for LeBron James. So now what?
One of the deals that had been floating prior to Griffin's exit was that the Cavs were attempting to make a deal for Jimmy Butler. I'd imagine that's far preferable to any deal regarding Paul George, mainly because it shows some kind of future sight. Signing George only guarantees a one-year rental, and you'd immediately have to pay him even more to keep him in Cleveland afterwards; Butler would have a controllable contract, which, if you had managed to find a deal which kept Love and Irving in Cleveland, would give at least a stable enough core to build off of in the wake of a potential LeBron exit.
Is there any way to replace Griffin as the trade processes begin? I think Gilbert, on the one smart move in all of this, made the wise move of ridding the team of Griffin prior to the free agency period opening and the trades getting too far under-way. Gilbert clearly does have a vision, as well as LeBron James, so it isn't as though the organization has no idea what they're aiming to do. It would be far worse, in my view, if the Cavaliers had gone ahead and completed a massive trade or a big FA coup, but then turned around and fired Griffin afterwards, making it seem as though they didn't support his decision.
But regardless of any panic over LeBron James leaving, over who they can add, over who could be moving, and over what the Cavs can possibly do to get younger over the next 3 seasons, this will be a very interesting litmus test for the NBA. Stability in sports is considered to be a paragon of a team's successful vision. Yet the Cavaliers have scrap-hauled the organization in one fell swoop in this case, almost putting all blind faith in their ability to get a championship regardless of any other factor because they have LeBron James. Now, yes, this did work out in 2016, in the acquisition of Ty Lue, but even that is starting to come under fire after his seemingly lost gameplan during the NBA Finals this past year.
That leaves us asking, is LeBron James, in his own gumption, control, and persona, enough to lead the Cavaliers both on and off the court to challenge an NBA that is marginalizing itself? Can LeBron James actually be the controlling force that can overpower the lack of a consistent front office core to challenge the Golden State Warriors? Or did Dan Gilbert just make the move that is going to take the franchise down a far darker path than they ever intended?
We're two days shy of free agency, so Griffin or no Griffin, cap space or no cap space, draft picks or no draft picks, the NBA is about to find out.