The case against David Griffin

[This article is intended for folks who follow the Cavs closely. I assume some knowledge about the various narratives around the Cavs over the last 3 seasons.]

David Griffin did a lot of good things as the general manager of the Cavs. Obviously winning the NBA Championship in 2016 against the heavily favored Golden State Warriors was his crowning achievement. That said, I think the story that he was an indispensable and crucial part of the Cavs DNA is misguided.

I suspect Dan Gilbert’s decision to let Griffin go was rash and poorly thought out. The rumors that they disagreed on team direction are terrifying since it’s hard to imagine a scenario where I’d prefer Gilbert’s team direction choices to Griffin’s. I’m concerned Griffin’s replacement will be worse. So the news today is bad, and will probably get worse.

But if I were the owner, I may have done it for the reasons that follow:

  • Giving a 32 year-old, oft-injured Anderson Varejao a 3 year/30M contract.
  • Lighting money on fire for Chris Anderson ($1.55M), Kay Felder ($2.4M for draft rights + $543K salary + more in tax payments), and Mike Dunleavy (prorated portion of $4.8M + tax payments).
  • Failing to foresee Mo Williams retiring, which left the team with no backup point guard for much of the 2016–17 season.
  • Giving Iman Shumpert a 4 year/40M deal, a move which at best may provide some value as salary filler in a future trade.
  • Overpaying Tristan Thompson and JR Smith, players with no other suitors. The 4 year/$36M deal for JR, of which 3 years remain, is uncontroversially bad. 
    The Tristan deal requires a bit more explanation to pan properly. By the time the Cavs signed Tristan Thompson, not only had no other team made him an offer, but Tristan had waived his right to be signed by any other team. His choices were to sign whatever the Cavs offered him or to sit out the season until he became a restricted free agent again the following year. The Cavs ultimately offered him a 5 year/$82M deal which he of course signed. If Griffin had turned the screws here, forcing Tristan into, say, a 5 year/$70M deal he would have saved Dan Gilbert tens of millions of dollars (including luxury tax payments) over the course of the contract. If he really wanted to be a jerk and punished Tristan for foolishly giving up his negotiating power, he could have figured out what the present value of the cash flows Tristan could expect if he sat out the season and offered 5M more than that. That would have probably worked out to be somewhere around 5 year/$50M. Sure, it would have pissed off Tristan and by association LeBron, but it also would have saved Gilbert $100M+ (!!!) over the course of the deal.
    Instead, Griffin let the negotiations drag on until a few days before the regular season started, potentially stunting Thompson’s growth, and paid him what he wanted in the first place. Thompson’s agent Rich Paul remembered this the following year when effectively the same thing played out with JR. Yes, it’s a delicate situation because Rich Paul is part of LeBron’s inner circle. But Griffin negotiated terribly in both cases and didn’t get the players into training camp in timely fashion anyway.
  • Giving up two first round picks for Timofey Mozgov when if he would have waited a couple weeks one would have likely sufficed.
  • Trading for JR Smith and Iman Shumpert, but really just wanted Shumpert, so crediting him with some sort of genius here is not right. Side note, gave up Dion Waiters in that deal. I know, I know, he had to go, but he’s clearly the best asset in that group now.
  • Failing to convince ownership to match the restricted free agency offer to Matthew Dellavedova. Didn’t recognize Delly’s talent and sign him for cheap when he had the chance the previous offseason.

Team management:

  • Couldn’t get players to listen to Blatt. LeBron probably didn’t help here, but it’s on Griffin to chide LeBron. I don’t blame Griffin much here, the situation was very delicate, but it’s still a black mark.
  • Couldn’t get players to try on defense. By the time the Cavs finally locked in, it was far too late. Now, you might say, “hey, thats the coach’s responsibility!” and I’d agree. But once Griffin recognized that Lue wasn’t inspiring the team to try he should have stepped in.
  • Couldn’t or wouldn’t get players to rest.
  • Couldn’t get anybody in a Cavs uniform on a below market contract. They have LeBron freaking James. Yeah, it’s hard when you’re so far over the cap, but still.
  • Did not instill the culture I think the Cavs need to maximize their talent. The culture I would strive for is one of heavy rest and trying hard when playing. No player plays more than 65 games or 31 minutes per game. The goal would be to establish great habits that can translate well into longer minutes when the minutes count most in the post season. With this strategy you concede 10 regular season wins, but are far more prepared when it matters.