Covered the Lakers and NBA for ESPNLosAngeles.com from 2009-14 and the NBA for NBA.com from 2005-09
On a makeshift stage in a corner of TD Garden after defeating the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, Cleveland Cavaliers players wearing fresh, white T-shirts with crisp “The NBA Finals 2017” lettering called David Griffin to join them. TNT’s Ernie Johnson shifted to make room right up front for Griffin, as the smallest man in the huddle sheepishly joined the group.
Moments later, when it was time for a group photo, an assistant coach saw team owner Dan Gilbert standing behind the cameras and called for him to join, too. Gilbert smiled and shook his head and declined, staying away.
LeBron James carried the Cavs, Griffin built them and Gilbert paid for them to the tune of $150 million this season, including luxury taxes. But Gilbert didn’t want to be a part of one of the NBA’s rare glory moments, backing up from the awkwardness of posing alongside his general manager, who parted ways with the Cavs on Monday.
For months as the Cavs battled to assemble rhythm on the court and then hit their stride as they blitzed through the Eastern Conference playoffs, there was a growing tension within the team’s executive offices. Griffin was on the final year of his contract and nervous. Gilbert had never extended the contract of a general manager — he’d had four of them in his 12 years as owner — and never felt pressured by the coming end of a contract.
Griffin had turned pessimistic about his future with the Cavs over the last months of the season, telling people he didn’t think he’d be in the chair for very long. He was concerned enough that he started to keep an eye on other jobs that opened.
In part, Griffin was frustrated he was still one of the lowest-paid GMs in the league at less than $2 million per year on one of the shortest contracts, just three years after accepting under duress in 2014. After acting as interim for several months, on the day he officially got the job, Griffin had to announce the firing of coach Mike Brown. Gilbert didn’t attend the news conference. Within days, Gilbert had offered John Calipari a job that would have made him Griffin’s boss.
As such, Griffin also didn’t have the power others in his position had. Most other executives who had won a championship had been promoted to president of basketball operations or similar titles if they hadn’t had them already, from Bob Myers in Golden State to Donnie Nelson in Dallas to R.C. Buford in San Antonio to Danny Ainge in Boston.
Last season, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue received a five-year contract extension worth $7 million annually after helping the Cavs to a championship. Over the course of the summer, Griffin signed the coaching staff to new and, in some cases, lucrative extensions that brought their compensation toward the top of the league. Almost every player in the locker room was on a rich contract, Griffin having signed or re-signed six players to deals averaging $10 million or more per season.
Griffin had one of the best but hardest GM jobs in the league. His owner was willing to spend and willing to gamble, allowing him to operate in a position of strength in trades as he built the team. But he also had to deal with Gilbert’s management style, which vacillated between overbearing and absent. Sometimes Gilbert would insert himself into trade talks, calling another owner directly, and derailing Griffin’s plans. Sometimes he’d send scathing emails on subjects within and outside Griffin’s control. And other times he was nowhere to be found, unreachable or distant at key moments.
Griffin balanced it all the past couple of seasons while dealing with his third bout of cancer since first being diagnosed in 2006. There were long treatment sessions. His signature red hair all but disappeared. Griffin hardly ever let on publicly, offering only a few clues along the way, such as the lapel pin he wore to his news conference after the dismissal of David Blatt, meant to show solidarity to others with the disease.
So when the Orlando Magic needed a new voice for their front office after firing Rob Hennigan the day after the regular season ended, Griffin was interested. Both in the job itself — which was going to be the president role that Griffin desired and portended to pay handsomely, more than double his current salary — and in the possible leverage it might get him with Gilbert when the time came.
When the Magic contacted Gilbert to ask for permission to speak to Griffin during the playoffs, he did not grant it. The Magic were quite interested, sources said, and eager to get an executive with experience, and their due diligence told them Griffin wasn’t happy in Cleveland.
Despite not having formal permission, Griffin met with an intermediary of the Magic to discuss the job when the Cavs were off preparing for the Eastern Conference finals, sources said. The talks did not progress and the Magic moved on, hiring Jeff Weltman away from the Toronto Raptors and giving him the exact type of job and long-term contract Griffin had sought in Cleveland.
The Atlanta Hawks also reached out to Griffin and asked Gilbert for permission when their GM job opened in May. Gilbert declined to give it. When the Milwaukee Bucks lost GM John Hammond and opened their search, Griffin made it known through back channels he’d be interested in that job, too, if he couldn’t get a deal in Cleveland.
All of the interest and talk irritated Gilbert, who wasn’t pleased an employee had eyes elsewhere — even if many people in the league probably would’ve done the same in Griffin’s unsteady position.
What became apparent as the Magic, Hawks and Bucks filled their jobs, however, is that Griffin might have overplayed his hand. When the Cavs lost in the Finals, his only leverage was to threaten to walk away, which he was prepared to do.
It came to a head over the past weekend. Gilbert and Griffin had a long meeting on Friday and discussed the future. The conversation did not go well, sources said. Griffin wanted a large pay raise and an upgrade in power. Gilbert wanted better communication and more aggression from Griffin as the team licked its wounds after a 4-1 loss in the Finals.
On Monday, Gilbert came to the team’s practice facility from his home in Detroit. It was the fourth time the owner and GM would meet to try to come to a resolution. There were times in his tenure when Griffin dealt more directly with Cavs minority owner Nate Forbes. After Forbes and Gilbert nearly had a falling out during the 2016-17 season, Griffin worked on strengthening communication with Gilbert directly. Yet Griffin never got the sense Gilbert truly knew the lengths he went to try to lift up all parts of the Cavs organization. At one point in negotiations during the 2017 playoffs, an exasperated Griffin implored Gilbert to talk to people in different departments for the Cavs to see what they had to say about Griffin, hoping a sea of voices could drown out any preconceived notions Gilbert had developed about his GM.
From his office during the day, Griffin burned up the phone lines as he attempted to engage teams in a blockbuster trade. He knew his contract was due to expire at the end of the month, but he wasn’t acting like it, even though many trade calls had to start with questions about what was happening with his future.
He’d had discussions over the weekend with the Indiana Pacers about Paul George. But on Monday, he was trying to find a way to trade for a lottery pick. He called several teams, including the Chicago Bulls, and told them he might be able to get his hands on a top-five pick if they’d be willing to do a deal for Jimmy Butler, sources said.
The Cavs were trying to work a three-team trade using Kevin Love and the No. 4 pick belonging to the Phoenix Suns, sources said. When the talks leaked in the media, some wondered whether Griffin was attempting to create a buzz. Gilbert is often influenced by media reports, and here his general manager was out trying to be aggressive, which the owner indicated he wanted. Late into the afternoon, Griffin was still on the phone trying to put something together.
But finally, after a monthslong dance, the end of the road came. The deal Gilbert was willing to offer wasn’t going to get it done. Griffin was not interested in agreeing to something he wasn’t comfortable with. Just like that, it was over.
Gilbert didn’t consult James on the decision. Despite assumptions to the contrary even within the NBA, James doesn’t have much say in major franchise decisions. James did get a courtesy heads-up before an official announcement, and he was upset, sources said.
James knew there was a possibility Griffin would leave but expected it would get worked out. He’d developed a trust with Griffin, especially following the acquisition of JR Smith, whom James advocated Griffin to trade for in 2015. Griffin didn’t want to do it, afraid of Smith’s reputation, but he trusted James. It ended up being a domino in the run to a title.
It was Griffin who had the guts to fire Blatt a season earlier, when the team was in first place, and he did his best to keep James out of it, despite what many assumed. It helped set the stage for a run to a championship.
It was Griffin who worked with James to keep a positive attitude when the Cavs fell down 3-1 in the Finals in 2016, their uplifting messages helping spur the team toward a historic comeback. James pressed Griffin hard, demanding upgrades to the roster at every turn, and Griffin almost always delivered. And he did it in the face of James sometimes publicly questioning the direction of the franchise, as he did after a road loss to New Orleans in January. James’ comments to the media not only put the Cavs’ business out there for 29 other league executives to see, but it also could be seen as a dig at his teammates as James described Cleveland as having a “top-heavy” roster.
Griffin met with James one-on-one about it shortly thereafter, having a very direct and open conversation about his plans and why James wasn’t helping when he went to the media with his displeasure. It was the type of dialogue that takes trust on both sides to engage in. And it was precisely the type of dialogue that Gilbert — for all of his apparent desire to dabble in GM duties even though he was the owner — couldn’t have with James because of the history between them, dating to James’ departure from the team in 2010.
In April, James knew exactly what he was doing when he went on the record in an interview with ESPN about Griffin’s contract situation: “It makes no sense why he shouldn’t get an extension. He’s pulled every move — he’s tried to make every move happen — to better this team to be able to compete for a championship. So we wouldn’t be in this position, obviously, without him and without the guys that are here.”
Several hours after Monday’s news broke, James, who is about to enter the final year of his contract, sent out a tweet in support of Griffin:
Lue was also in the dark, finding out after the fact. Also let go was Trent Redden, the popular VP of basketball operations who had been with the team for 11 years. He started out as an intern in 2006 and so impressed the staff that they started sending him out to scout college games within a few months. Redden was one of the longest-tenured employees in basketball operations — there to see James lead the Cavs to the Finals in 2007, the team suffer through a 26-game losing streak, and to win the title.
Like Redden, Griffin cut his teeth as an intern with the Suns’ public relations department in the early ’90s. Some 25 years later he worked his way up to be the guy who helped put together the most successful team in Cleveland franchise history.
As the news was relayed to staff members at the Cavs’ facility in suburban Cleveland, many came into Griffin’s and Redden’s offices in tears. They knew it might happen for months, but the shock stung just the same.
The championship euphoria that that gave everyone in the organization just a little extra sense of purpose was all but sapped.
“It speaks to the uncertainty of the business of basketball,” a Cavs player told ESPN. “That’s the business. That’s the business at its core.”