When Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert parted ways with general manager David Griffin just after the Finals, people around the league already speculated its significance. They were right. He and LeBron had formed a strong relationship during the King’s first stint and Cleveland, and that relationship only became stronger in his second stint.
Gilbert actually may have played a bigger role in LeBron’s return than first thought. When LeBron announced his return on July 11th, 2014, Cleveland wasn’t a championship team. A Kyrie-Waiters-James-Thompson-Varejão lineup wasn’t winning anything. Yet in the three years since, Griffin has molded Cleveland to fit LeBron’s. Kevin Love and JR Smith were two of the most important players in the 2016 title run, Timofey Mozgov was the second leading scorer in the 2015 Finals, and Kyle Korver will play a key role in next year’s run. LeBron put his faith in Griffin, and he delivered.
The King wished Griffin goodbye via Twitter, where he took a subtle shot at Dan Gilbert.
If no one appreciated you Griff I did, and hopefully all the people of Cleveland! Thanks for what u did for the team for 3 yrs! We got us 1🏆
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 20, 2017
Griffin’s departure left a bitter taste in the mouth of most of the players, not just LeBron. And it happened at the worst time. He left just three days before the NBA draft, when the biggest fish in the pond were still available. Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Carmelo Anthony were all on the table. And if the ESPN reports are correct, Cleveland would’ve scored at least one.
Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne reported that just before his departure, Griffin was inching closer to a three-team deal that would’ve sent Paul George to Cleveland, Kevin Love to Denver, and Gary Harris (along with some other minor pieces) to Indiana. The deal was so close to happening the, according to ESPN, “The front office began making other plans to complement George as free agency was about to begin”.
Adrian Wojnarowski said that Larry Bird “was about to give permission to Paul George to get on the phone with Dan Gilbert”.
Moreover, on the exact day that Gilbert was let go, USA Today reported that the Cavaliers had a backup plan in place if the George trade fell through, in Chicago Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler.
While the whole Kyrie Irving incident may have been unavoidable–especially if George was acquired– Cleveland was considered one of the big losers of the offseason before the incident even occurred. Through the early part of July, George and Butler were still on the market, but the Cavs were too busy looking for a general manager to acquire a difference maker.
Cleveland has been one of the offseason’s biggest losers, but it may not have been this way if had they stuck with the architect of the team that went to three straight Finals.