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David Griffin on How the NBA’s Batman-and-Robin Effect Broke Up Kyrie Irving and LeBron James

Plus: The former Cavaliers GM explains the frenzy around a LeBron free-agency period

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Former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin joined The Bill Simmons Podcast this week to discuss all things Cavs, including the different levels of LeBron James’s game, how the NBA’s Batman-and-Robin dynamic led to Kyrie Irving’s trade to Boston, and what LeBron James could end up doing in free agency this summer.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

The Build-up to the Kyrie Irving Trade

Bill Simmons: [LeBron James’s] inability to figure out how to keep Kyrie happy, I think, was his biggest teammate failure of the last 10 years. Now, I’ve heard you talk about this on different platforms, and you’re pretty adamant that [trading Kyrie] was a Kyrie thing and it didn’t have anything to do with [the relationship between] Kyrie and LeBron, and yet we’ve seen this situation over and over again in NBA history. ...You basically need two great guys to keep winning multiple titles, and at some point, somebody’s Batman and somebody’s Robin. And how the person adjusts to being Robin, that decides whether it’s gonna work long term or not. I think the most famous example of this is Kobe Bryant. Shaq was the best guy on [the Lakers’] three Finals teams … but Kobe was the Robin and Kobe didn’t want to be Robin anymore. And that’s why that sort of combusted. Why couldn’t Kyrie have stayed as the Robin? What was it in Kyrie’s makeup that made him want to be Batman?

David Griffin: I think part of it is the dynamic. I’ve seen a lot written about the Kobe-Shaq dynamic, and we watched it when [I was] in Phoenix. … [It] felt like they had a greater level of malice and [pettiness] toward each other on a human level—from a distance, at least—than I ever felt like Kyrie and Lebron had. I really think it was a situational thing for us. Somebody has to be Pippen, and somebody has to be Jordan, and I think that’s true. But Scottie Pippen got to the league because he was a freakishly gifted defensive player, and everything that he became offensively—certainly not the passing; he had that, he was an ancillary playmaker—but everything he had that brought him to the league helped him grow and evolve to the point where he was as good as he was. But it wasn’t like the situation in Chicago precluded him from showing those things. Michael needed everything that Scottie was, so they fit together.

And I think the fit of LeBron and Kyrie was difficult because Kyrie was so good offensively. [He] had been carrying the load offensively for a bad team … [but] hadn’t been given the opportunity [to lead] yet, and just when we’re gonna be good, LeBron shows up and it’s his team. So he never got the chance to take the natural progression in his career where he had to try to carry the load and see how good he could be. And he really wanted that. He’d been doing it on a bad team. He wanted a chance to do it on a good team. And it wasn’t about being the man—it’s: “How good can I be? What am I capable of? LeBron can score; he doesn’t need me to score. LeBron can make all the passes; he doesn’t need me to do that. I’m not a better defender than he is.” So I think you get to the point where the fit and the need LeBron had for Kyrie wasn’t going to allow him to become Scottie because he didn’t need Kyrie to fill in the gaps, necessarily. Now … would it have been better if they could’ve tricked each other into recognizing, “Hey, look, just make it until we get to the Finals and then you take over?” Yeah, that would’ve been great, but I just don’t think that’s a very realistic outcome when you’re talking about guys as talented as those guys.

Simmons: I was surprised when [Irving] got to Boston—and I obviously know a lot of people in the Boston organization, and I think all of them were surprised by what an alpha Kyrie was, and how similar he was in personality to [Kevin Garnett]. They were surprised that Kyrie lasted in LeBron’s shadow that long—he really wanted to be the guy. But I think if there is a basketball bummer for LeBron’s career, the stuff Kyrie brought to the table in a weird way really did complement him. … This was the first year I got to really watch him carefully week after week, and what’s really incredible about him is how he ... can get involved any time he wants and can stay at a certain level of hotness and get his shot basically on any play and isn’t one of those guys who needs to score 50 [or think,] “Oh, shit, I’m feeling it tonight, I’m gonna go for 70.” He just doesn’t care. He establishes whatever he wants to establish on one play in the first quarter to remind whoever’s guarding him that he can go to the basket whenever he wants, and then he gets everyone involved. And that’s kind of the perfect guy to play with LeBron, right? On paper? But it’s almost like he was overqualified for it.

Griffin: Yeah, it’s funny—he’s perfect, and I’ll think of it as one of the biggest failures of my time in Cleveland that I couldn’t grow that to a level of individual accountability where they felt that beholden to each other. I think one of the things that really separates Kyrie, LeBron, KG, I think they all have this: They’re all superstar-talented, but they desperately want to be told what they need to hear. And I think Kyrie really was searching for an environment like Boston, relative to [head coach] Brad [Stevens], the way he’d raised that young team. They have such ridiculous personal accountability to one another that in that environment, Kyrie was more than willing to stand off on the side and wait.

And I think KG didn’t really become KG until he was put in a situation where somebody else would call him out and tell him what he needed to hear, and my role with LeBron was very much to do that, and I don’t think I recognized the degree to which I could’ve impacted Kyrie positively. And we were very close, I love the guy, and I don’t think I realized at the time the degree to which we could’ve shaped and impacted his willingness to be patient with the way the environment was being developed.

Simmons: It almost seems like a Brady-Garoppolo story, as weird as that analogy is, where Kyrie probably thought, “Well, nobody stays great for 15 years. At some point, LeBron’s gonna start breaking down a little bit and then I’ll become the guy and it’ll switch.” And it became clear last year that that was never happening and that LeBron is obviously gonna play until he’s 75 years old. And I’m sure Kyrie was probably looking at that like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” But I do think there are parallels with [Kyrie] and [Kevin] Durant where part of why they wanted to leave is because they knew there was a better basketball situation out there, and that seems weird to say because Kyrie was playing with somebody who’s probably the second-best player of all time. … But I’m sure Kyrie saw this whole world where it wasn’t just your turn, my turn. … He probably saw all the stuff Stevens did and once he knew Boston was on the table, he was like, “I wanna go there. It’s a great organization, a great coach, that’ll be awesome. I’ll be a better basketball player.” And I do think Durant was like that too with Golden State—that’s a better place for me to develop as a basketball player. You buy that?

Griffin: Yeah, for sure I do, and I think the reason is, certainly in the situation of Kyrie ... the situation in Boston fit what he had grown to be able to do before LeBron got [to Cleveland]. When we sat down with Kyrie and he made the decision to stay with us [in 2014], he recruited every free agent that we were going to bring in and successfully so. Everyone was willing to play with him and was excited to play with him. And we were waiting on LeBron to make his decision—and obviously if LeBron wants to come back, and you’re gonna get the greatest player of this generation, you’re gonna bring in LeBron—but Kyrie was really engaged in building a team around him. ... We had gotten commitments from a lot of guys who were waiting on LeBron to make a decision.

So you’re Kyrie, you’ve been carrying a very bad team, you now re-sign, you successfully recruit a bunch of All-American–, Team USA–kind-of players that you’re ready to win with, you’re gonna be the man on that team, and then you’re not. So I think his development was stunted from what he was led to believe, it was going to be just by virtue of the situation. And that’s really unique. I don’t think that’s true of Durant’s situation, [but] at the same time, I think you’re right—Durant had to leave to really be in the situation that was the ultimate expression of his greatness, and I think that’s what Kyrie chose to do.

What LeBron Will Do in Free Agency

Simmons: If [LeBron] leaves [Cleveland now], there’s no safety net whatsoever other than the Brooklyn pick. ... I think [the pick has the eighth-best odds]. But [the Cavaliers are] in salary cap hell and there’s no real way for them to bounce out of it. … Now if LeBron makes the Finals, it becomes much more unrealistic, I think, for him to leave. And it also doesn’t really seem like there’s the right team for him [in free agency]. Philly’s had a lot of buzz, I would say since January, February, and I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s some overlapping friendships and business relationships, and Ben Simmons is there, and obviously it’s a possibility. What you know of LeBron, could you see him joining someone else’s team like that again—to basically join the Simmons-Embiid-Process thing and kind of insert himself in this? Because he did it that one other time with Dwyane Wade, and even though it worked out all right that first year, he took so much shit for it. I just find it hard to believe he’s going to do that again at this point of his career. What do you think?

Griffin: I think he’s as likely to join Bill Simmons in L.A. as he is Philly. The reason I say that is, knowing LeBron like I do, when he makes his mind up that something is the main thing for him, it is. And he can bring about whatever reality he wants to. He’s a savant as well—he believes his presence anywhere makes them at least a cocontender, so I don’t think he’s going to make his decision necessarily based on where he has the best chance to win. I think it’s going to be about what’s the best expression for what he wants the next phase of his legacy to look like. And I don’t have any idea what that is. I really don’t. But I don’t think we know any of the things he’s going to [base] the decision on.

It’s funny: I think the trade [deadline] thing and Hail Mary are some things that actually work in [the Cavaliers’] favor to this extent. When LeBron’s on a one-year contract every year, you don’t get to be long-term sustainable. … You have to win right now and put him in a position or frame of mind where he believes he’s going to win in the future. ... So to some degree, he puts himself in that situation as well. And I think he appreciates that because it’s what gives him the ability to make Cleveland do what they did—he doesn’t care whether Cleveland has nothing left if he walks. He cares that Cleveland believes in him enough to invest in him, and I think they did that. So the message they’re sending to him is, “Look, we still get it.” That’s meaningful, and if you’re Dan Gilbert, you really have to do that.

Simmons: I’m torn on it, because on the one hand, there’s no loyalty in sports anymore. And there never was, and I think Isaiah Thomas getting traded from Boston, and how OKC so quickly turned on Durant—we’re just sort of reminded over and over again that there’s no loyalty in sports. So for LeBron to take these series of one-year deals, which are really damaging for a team—how many first-round picks did you trade when he showed up? Five? Five in three years? You basically gutted the future of the team because he was holding this carrot: “We need to be good now.” ... But on the other hand, I don’t blame him for doing that. He had all the power, and players never have power. So basically I don’t know how to feel about it.

Griffin: I don’t know how many picks it was to be honest with you. ... I think relative to the future of the team, it’s one thing to give up protected first-round picks and to bring in guys that fit [LeBron] really well and fit your timeline and all of that. It’s another thing to give up an unprotected pick or to do what Brooklyn did where they genuinely gave themselves no future of any kind. That’s not what happened with the LeBron existence. But because Kyrie was lost in the process, the one piece that was going to be absolutely transcendent is gone, so now when you’re building in the absence of Kyrie, it looks like you really left it barren.