SAN FRANCISCO – The running joke about the Cleveland Cavaliers is that when he’s not humiliating opponents with chase-down blocks, setting up his teammates with those sweet-and-smooth-as-cheesecake passes and continuing to defy age with those gravity-defying dunks, LeBron James is also running basketball operations for the franchise. GM LeBron, as he is known to fans on social media and elsewhere, calls the plays and calls the shots – a characterization that should offend David Griffin, the man who is actually paid to do the job and has spent the past three years aggressively making the decisions to ensure that James is always positioned to win championships.
“I take offense to it on [James’] behalf at times,” Griffin told The Vertical. “He doesn’t like that image. I don’t think he wants that image. He wants to lead his troops. He wants to be a player. He wants to lead the guys from within. He never tried to do any more than that. I think for him, it’s almost an unfair characterization of him, that he’s some kind of overlord. That’s not at all what he does.”
James’ purpose is to collect championship rings, chase the seemingly untouchable ghost of Michael Jordan and leave the game having solidified his status – or at least be in the discussion – as the best to ever lace them up. Cleveland didn’t have an established tradition of success, and Griffin had only held his first general manager job for only five months before James decided to entrust his legacy to a championship-deprived franchise that had the upper hand mostly because it was closest to his hometown of Akron.
“I had about eight seconds of bliss and then several days of sheer terror,” Griffin told The Vertical of James’ arrival in the summer of 2014, “because it was, ‘Oh, thank God, he’s coming,’ to ‘Oh, my God, how do we win a championship?’ ”
The Cavaliers were able to answer that question last June, ruining an otherwise dream, 73-win season for a Golden State Warriors team that James respects but refuses to acknowledge as a rival. Griffin felt some relief for not ruining the last few years of James’ prime. The moves Griffin has made since James arrived – trading for Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye, signing Richard Jefferson, replacing David Blatt with coach Tyronn Lue – helped yield the desired outcome, even if they had all been initially second-guessed. But rest didn’t come with that liberation for Griffin because, when it came to James, “I just think he felt a hunger for more.”
That the Cavaliers upped the ante in the NBA’s arms race with the Warriors by acquiring three-point specialist and former All-Star Kyle Korver shouldn’t come as a surprise because it continues Griffin’s annual tradition with James on the roster of shaking up the team midseason. And Griffin certainly isn’t satisfied with where the roster currently stands – even with the Cavaliers sitting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference despite occasional bouts of boredom – and not just because James has publicly stated that the team needs to find a backup point guard.
“We like our group. We think we’ve got a group that belongs together, that fits together,” Griffin told The Vertical. “But if we can improve and continue to further the cause, then we will. We’ve got that same small window to capitalize in and we’re going to do what we need to, when we can.”
Griffin has given LeBron James the pieces necessary to succeed. (Getty Images)
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert showed a spare-no-expenses mentality the first time James was with the organization, but the money wasn’t always spent in the correct way because his expensive, luxury-tax-bloated rosters never reached the pinnacle and ultimately led the greatest player in franchise history to flee. James won his first two championships in Miami but never viewed returning to his original team as a gamble. “I trust in myself,” James said Sunday. “Coming back home happened to be the place that I decided to come back to. But I trusted myself. I knew how much I’ve grown. I knew what type of basketball player I was. I knew the type of leader I am. And I knew what type of man I was. I trusted myself and the organization has rallied around me, and I appreciate that.”
Griffin’s task was to use his available, boundless resources wisely while also making some bold decisions that would’ve resulted in immense criticism had they failed. He sacrificed a No. 1 pick in Andrew Wiggins for Love, an All-Star power forward who had proven himself capable of accumulating big statistics but little else. He traded for one of the game’s most questionable characters in J.R. Smith, a mercurial talent who always managed to get in his own way. And, when he noticed that the team’s record was better than the players’ spirits, he made the stunning decision to replace Blatt with someone with no head coaching experience in Lue.
“Our ownership has something they fell back on as a saying: ‘Nothing clarifies like clarity.’ We know what we’re about. Our only goal is to win championships. Sometimes, when that’s true, decisions make themselves,” Griffin told The Vertical about the controversial move to fire Blatt last January, when the team had the best record in the Eastern Conference at 30-11. “It was not an overly difficult decision to make the move we made; it was just difficult to execute. We had a conversation like, ‘Nobody ever does this.’ And my response was, ‘You don’t know how many teams should have and where they’d be had they done it. I know no one has done it, but I can tell you somebody should have.’
“Sometimes fear is a really strong motivator. And I think most people respond to fear of looking wrong, or looking bad, and we’re blessed in the sense that we don’t have the luxury to do that. We have a very small window and we need to capitalize and that means we’re going to do whatever it takes. That helps, I think, embolden all of us.”
Griffin does have conversations with James, 32, about the team, seeks his opinions on players in the league and in college, and takes advantage of his access to “a basketball savant.” “I don’t think it’s unique for a superstar of LeBron’s magnitude to have input on things beyond just playing, but I also know how he’s treated the situation and he’s been incredibly understanding and perceptive of what we’re trying to build,” Griffin told The Vertical. “LeBron has really been a partner in all of this.”
Griffin and James haven’t always agreed on how or when certain situations are resolved – James griped publicly about the contract holdouts of Tristan Thompson and Smith dragging into training camp – but they eventually find common ground. “I think, in order to win, you have to have talent around,” James said. “It’s not like we’re one of the more talented teams ever assembled. We got guys that play their role. We’ve got a couple of stars in Kyrie [Irving] and Kev that do their job at a high level, but we’re a team that also does the dirty work when need be. But the best thing about our team is the other guys that don’t get mentioned a lot do their job at an all-time high. And I appreciate that from them.”
Frye referred to Griffin as “a magician” for his ability to always find the right complementary pieces, emphasizing the latest deal for Korver, a shooter who should benefit considerably from the open looks James and Irving tend to provide. James has been making his teammates better since he entered the league but has evolved into something much more in Year 14. “I call LeBron ‘Cheat Code’ at this point,” Griffin told The Vertical, with a laugh, “and the reason is, I know we’ll get almost all of a player’s strengths and really diminish a lot of his weaknesses, and it’s really [because of LeBron’s] presence for the most part.
“I’ve said this several times since, but you’re basically charged with the legacy of Babe Ruth, and it’s our responsibility to allow that legacy to grow and evolve,” Griffin told The Vertical. “So it’s almost like a sacred trust that the kid gives you. He’s so good, in his own right, by himself, that he sort of mandates you have to be a title contender just by his presence alone … and if you don’t capitalize on the years he has left, then shame on us.”