“King” LeBron James is most certainly the king in Cleveland.
After ditching “The Land” for South Beach, LeBron was vilified in his home state. Four years later, he returned for a coronation.
James was given the keys to the kingdom, which makes it difficult to believe he had no idea General Manager David Griffin was going to be let go.
After failing to reach a contract extension with Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, Griffin’s contract was not renewed.
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.
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.
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.
One of the reasons James left Miami was because team president Pat Riley was unwilling to make certain concessions regarding accommodations for LeBron’s entourage.
When there was talk LeBron was receptive to the idea of returning to Cleveland, Dan Gilbert flew to Florida and humbled himself after just years earlier writing a public letter that was a caustic rebuke of James.
LeBron returned to Cleveland and was essentially given carte blanche.
In his public statement announcing his return, LeBron listed all of the players on the roster he was excited to work with. He notably left off 2014’s number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins was traded for Kevin Love shortly after.
He wanted J.R. Smith. The team acquired him.
LeBron didn’t get along with coach David Blatt. He was fired even after taking a depleted team to the finals.
LeBron said Tristan Thompson should be brought back. Thompson was given a huge extension despite coming off the bench; subsequently, Thompson was terrible in this year’s finals.
During this past season, LeBron complained about needing more help (despite two straight finals appearances and one victory). Soon after, sharpshooter Kyle Korver and other players were added.
The bottom line is LeBron gets what LeBron wants. This is the team he hand-picked, but it wasn’t good enough to beat Golden State.
Somebody had to pay, and it was David Griffin.