As soon as ESPN announced that David Griffin would be on “The Jump,” eager eyes turned to the former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager for his Kyrie Irving take, and he did not disappoint.
On a panel with Amin Elhassan, who worked with Griffin in the Phoenix Suns front office, and Dave McMenamin, a reporter who covers the Cavs for ESPN, the GM who parted ways with Cleveland over a contract dispute in June began the broadcast by saying, “I think Kyrie’s going to end up being traded.”
Irving, of course, requested a trade from the Cavaliers in part because he no longer wanted to play in LeBron James’ shadow, according to ESPN.com. There is some question as to when that request came, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst initially reported Irving approached Cavs owner Dan Gilbert in mid-July, and NBA.com’s David Aldridge soon cited a source who said Irving first sought a trade before the draft.
For reference sake, the Cavaliers opted not to renew Griffin’s contract on June 19 — just three days before the draft. Griffin was reportedly inquiring about then-Chicago Bulls wing Jimmy Butler’s interest in joining the Cavs, with help from both Irving and James, when he parted ways with the team.
Regardless of whether he was still in Cleveland when Irving made his intentions known, Griffin offered insight into Irving’s thinking and defended the four-time All-Star against pointed criticism from former Cavaliers point guard Ron Harper, who blamed “youth” and “ignorance” for the trade request.
“I think what Ron was saying is really unfair to Kyrie,” said Griffin. “This is a guy who handled the situation exactly like he was supposed to. He went to Dan Gilbert privately, told him that he thought he would be happier somewhere else. The absolute worst thing this guy could’ve done is pretend to be all in and sink the ship from within. Most guys don’t have the courage to do what he did. That’s not youth and ignorance. That’s a little bit more courage than people give him credit for.
“This is a guy whose list included really good coaching situations — Brad Stevens and [Gregg] Popovich. This is a guy who recruited LeBron, [Gordon] Hayward and a host of other free agents, and all of a sudden LeBron came back, so he was sold a totally different situation than he’s actually in — and he worked very well in, he won a championship in — and I see this as him looking for a fit for himself to take the next step in his career.”
The mention of Stevens came as a surprise, since the Boston Celtics were not among the teams reported to be on Irving’s list of preferred trade destinations — the New York Knicks, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves. That the team Cleveland beat in the Eastern Conference finals would appear on his list seemed like a slip-up by Griffin, until he doubled down on the mention:
“I think this is a guy who wants to know how good he can be,” Griffin said of Irving. “LeBron casts a very large shadow over an organization, and most of it is really, really positive. You know you’re expected to win a championship, by way of example, but what that doesn’t always allow is for a player like Kyrie to test his boundaries a little bit and see how good he can really be. And can I actually be the frontman of a team like that?
“Again, the teams on his list — Gordon Hayward in Boston and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio — he would be accompanied by other great players, so it’s not like he’s asking to lead a ragtag bunch. He just wanted to put himself in a position, I think, where he could find out exactly what he has as a 25-year-old entering his prime.”
Now, this could just be Griffin being confused about which teams were actually among Irving’s preferred destinations, especially if that list was presented after Griffin left Cleveland, or it could be the former Cavaliers general manager offering inside information. Make of that what you will.
While much of Gilbert’s commentary could be considered speculative, “He went to Dan Gilbert privately, told him that he thought he would be happier somewhere else,” sure sounded like direct knowledge from Gilbert, who served as current Cavs GM Koby Altman’s boss for the past five years.
Whether Boston is on Irving’s list or not is probably immaterial, since it’s hard to imagine the two East rivals making a deal, and the Cavs do not have to honor Irving’s trade request or his list of preferred destinations. For what it’s worth, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told “The Dan Patrick Show” of the Cavaliers on Monday, “We’re not reacting to things that they’re doing right now.”
What was most fascinating about Gilbert’s appearance on “The Jump” was the length to which he went to defend both Irving and James. He went so far as to blame himself for Irving’s poor record without LeBron on the floor with him, suggesting the team was geared toward James and had no game plan without him: “I don’t think I drove that very well, and I don’t think we did that in a good enough way.”
As for whether James tried to wield his influence in the front office — a criticism often levied against the four-time MVP — Griffin said, “LeBron’s a basketball savant, and you’re not doing your job if you don’t talk to him about players.” However, “He absolutely, to be clear, does not want to coach, he doesn’t want to be the GM,” added Griffin. “This is a guy trying to win championships. Being a full-time MVP-caliber player is a full-time job in and of itself. I think it’s perception more than reality.”
Now, Griffin could have just been overly complimentary of his former players in an attempt to not burn bridges on national TV and keep his options open for a return to an NBA front office. Still, he came across as sincere in his understanding of the individual desires of his former team’s two best players — all of which begs the question of why the Cavs parted ways with Griffin in the first place.
Cleveland did not officially promote Altman to the GM job until July 24 — more than a month after Griffin left. In between, ESPN analyst and former Detroit Pistons star Chauncey Billups withdrew from consideration for the position following an alleged lowball contract offer. Billups later revealed he was aware of Irving’s dissatisfaction within the organization when he interviewed for the position in early July, suggesting that the Cavs point guard’s mid-July trade request did not come as a surprise.
All the while, the Cavaliers watched as Butler, Paul George and Chris Paul were traded to the Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, respectively, while the Cavaliers front office remained without a clear direction. Griffin did not address that upheaval on Monday, although he is scheduled to join “The Jump” again on Tuesday and could elaborate on the Irving drama more.
In the meantime, the Cavaliers weren’t afraid to include Irving in their promotion of the team’s new Nike uniforms, which for some conspiracy theorists might indicate a potential trade is not imminent:
Asked where he thought Irving was most likely to end up this summer, Griffin bit his tongue and said, “I don’t even know.” Although, when told Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Andrew Wiggins was not available in a trade and would be receiving a max contract offer in the near future, Griffin added, “Scratch off one potential trade destination.” And he should know.
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