Why Cavs' upheaval could spell trouble for LeBron James' future with franchise

LeBron James supported David Griffin’s work with the Cavs. (AP)
LeBron James supported David Griffin’s work with the Cavs. (AP)

David Griffin assembled a team that won 161 games the last three seasons, went to three NBA Finals and won a championship.

He deserved an extension.

On Monday, he was shown the door.

Welcome to Cleveland, where success is rewarded with a pink slip. Former coach David Blatt led the Cavs to the Finals in his first season. He was fired after posting a 31-10 record midway through his second. Officially, Griffin, the Cavaliers’ general manager, wasn’t fired – the team and Griffin “mutually decided not to extend [Griffin’s] contract,” owner Dan Gilbert said in a statement – but the decision, according to a statement from Griffin, came after a determination that owner and GM “are now at a point where the fit is not right for us to continue with one another.”

In short: The owner, whose most significant NBA achievement to date has been buying a team geographically desirable to one of the greatest players of all time, and a GM with decades of NBA experience clashed over a vision for the future.

Griffin’s critics will say he was the GM in name only. It’s not entirely unfair. LeBron James wields tremendous power within the Cavaliers’ organization, more than any player with any other team. His influence played a role in the Cavs’ decision to trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love in 2014, as well as the above-market-value contracts handed out to Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. James isn’t shy about voicing his opinion on personnel issues – and he often gets his way.

Griffin deserves no credit for bringing James back to Cleveland, but he deserves a lot of it for the savvy moves he’s made to build the team around him. In 2015, Griffin traded Dion Waiters in a three-team deal that brought back Smith, Iman Shumpert and a first-round pick. When Matthew Dellavedova signed an offer sheet with Milwaukee last summer, Griffin swung a deal that landed the Cavs a trade exception. That exception was used to acquire Mike Dunleavy, who was later flipped for Kyle Korver.

Critics cite Cleveland’s dearth of defenders and its aging bench. Again, fair. But the Cavs went 12-1 in the conference playoffs before running into arguably the greatest team of all time in the Finals. In Games 3-5, Cleveland played at a level that would have beaten 28 other teams. Against Golden State, it went 1-2. The Cavaliers were a super team last season. They just ran into one that was better.

Dan Gilbert is making his presence felt with the Cavs. (AP)
Dan Gilbert is making his presence felt with the Cavs. (AP)

Is Griffin to blame for that? LeBron James doesn’t think so. Late Monday night James tweeted, “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.” The subtweet couldn’t have been less subtle. If no one appreciated you Griff I did. Translation: If Gilbert didn’t think you knew what you were doing, just know that I did.

This is where Cavs fans have to be nervous. Gilbert and James have always been a forced marriage. Gilbert wants to win, and James wanted to play for the only team in Northeast Ohio. James has never forgotten how Gilbert napalmed him in the aftermath of his decision to sign with Miami in 2010. “He didn’t just disrespect me as an individual,” James said in a recent video for his website Uninterrupted. “He disrespected my name.”

“Some people were [on] the fence,” James continued. “My wife was like, ‘I ain’t with that.’ My mom was definitely like, ‘[Expletive] that, we ain’t going back.’ For me, I had to say, ‘You know what, it ain’t about that. It’s more of a bigger picture. It’s more [about] all these kids and all these people who need inspiration and need a way to get out. And I believe I’m that way out.’”

Gilbert and James shared a kumbaya moment in 2014, but the differences between the two remain deep-seated and will never go away. Only now James has a Cleveland championship in his pocket. He has fulfilled his promise. He has the freedom to leave once more.

There has to be a part of James that wants to end his career in Cleveland. He loves the area. A significant ownership stake in the team when he retires could be there. Any blowback he receives for opting out of his contract and leaving next summer will pale in comparison to the vitriol he experienced in 2010. Yet his relationship with the team, with the region will be damaged.

But he wants to win. And James knows that the Cavs, as constructed, will be heavy underdogs to Golden State next season. Changes are needed. And right now, the Cavs are rudderless. Griffin is gone. A top lieutenant, vice president of basketball operations Trent Redden, is going with him. Over the last few days, Griffin had been aggressively pursuing significant deals, with Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and Indiana’s Paul George in the middle of them. Those pursuits fall to assistant GM Koby Altman – for now.

Gilbert will need to act quickly. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Chauncey Billups is being targeted as team president, with an experienced executive to be hired beneath him. But who? The runners-up from the Milwaukee GM search? A veteran exec like Stu Jackson or Billy King?

The next few weeks are critical for the future of the Cavs’ franchise, and Gilbert has removed the most experienced decision-maker from it. He has made a power move and once again placed himself in James’ crosshairs. James publicly supported Griffin, and Gilbert elected to let him go. James will be watching what Gilbert does next. The future of the franchise player may be riding on it.

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