Monday we found out that LeBron James doesn’t actually run the Cleveland Cavaliers. We’d joked that he does over the years — it seemed like whenever he wanted a player signed, it happened, and when he wanted David Blatt fired, he was soon gone. But in spite of James’s public support for general manager David Griffin, Griffin was not offered a new contract, leading to a message of disappointment from James.
The person who actually runs the Cavaliers is their owner, Dan Gilbert. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin, Gilbert was not interested in extending Griffin’s contract, giving him a raise, or letting him interview with any other teams. This fits with what we know of how Gilbert deals with GMs: He has never extended a general manager’s contract in 12-plus years as the team’s owner.
But it’s strange. Gilbert has been more than willing to open his pockets to make roster moves. They have one of the largest wage bills in the league, well over the NBA’s luxury tax, and they’ll soon trigger the repeat offender tax for teams that stay over the luxury tax. Why would he get stingy with Griffin, who gets paid $6 million less than deep Cavs reserve Channing Frye?
Gilbert must know Griffin was not solely responsible for the Cavaliers’ recent stretch of success — the greatest span in the franchise’s history. They’ve been good because they have LeBron, who chose to rejoin the team a few months after Griffin’s promotion to general manager. What does it matter who the GM is? Anybody could build a contender around LeBron.
But I’d argue that’s exactly why they needed the GM they had — the one who LeBron was comfortable with.
The success of the Cavaliers is not linked to what Gilbert does. When he bought the team, they were already good, because they had LeBron James. Then LeBron James left, and they became bad. Gilbert wrote in Comic Sans that they would win a championship before James did — they never made the playoffs without him while James won two championships in Miami. Then LeBron James came back, and they won Cleveland’s first pro sports title in decades.
The Cavaliers’ success is entirely due to the preposterously good basketball player who happened to be born in the same quadrant of the state Gilbert owns a basketball team, and whether or not that player wants to play for Gilbert’s basketball team. And that player will be a free agent in 2018. There is talk of him leaving for the West Coast.
Griffin was not a perfect GM. Cleveland just lost the NBA Finals despite James’s historically incredible performance, and that’s partially because Griffin couldn’t build a good enough team around James to back up his superhuman play. They hemorrhaged points every time James left the floor. Griffin traded for Kyle Korver and signed Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut to prop that bench up; Korver missed some big shots in the Finals while Williams missed pretty much every shot and Bogut got injured immediately after signing with the team.
But he was definitely a GM who showed an active interest in improving the team when James thought it wasn’t quite good enough. And he did this by adding vets LeBron likes. He acquired Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, who helped the team to their first championship, and while Korver and Williams and Bogut didn’t help the team, they were just about the best options available midseason for a team with no salary cap space.
The day Griffin and the Cavs parted ways, he was reportedly on the phone trying to make a deal for Jimmy Butler happen. Looking at their roster, upgrading from Love to a better star is one of the few ways they can conceivably compete with the Warriors superteam. And Gilbert let him go, while he was trying to make it happen, three days before the NBA draft, at the height of trade season, with free agency just around the corner. Borat had better timing when he tried to learn how to tell a "… not!" joke. I have better timing and I’m referencing Borat in 2017.
The Cavs should be bending over backward for LeBron James right now. His departure would immediately end the most successful stretch in franchise history. And Cleveland just fired one of the people he trusts to give him the best chance to win a championship.
We now know that Dan Gilbert runs the Cavaliers, and not LeBron James. How can Gilbert be foolish enough not to realize it should be the other way around?