A few professional sports teams are as well known as the team’s owners. The Dallas Cowboys and Jerry Jones. Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The list goes on and on. When it comes to the NBA, the most infamous owner is Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers, for both good and bad reasons.
Like Gilbert, the Cavaliers are also linked to the greatest player of all time in Lebron James. Between both figures entwined in Cavaliers history, the relationship between Gilbert and James has always been a point of interest amongst fans. Many blamed Gilbert for being the one who drove away James when he took his talents to South Beach, and Gilbert stoked the flames with his now-infamous letter.
But, despite the letter, James found it in his heart to mend the relationship with Gilbert and return to Cleveland after four years with the Miami Heat.
When James made his decision to come home, the expectation was championship or bust after the team acquired Kevin Love.
This is because of the pressure James carries with him to chase Michael Jordan, and the pressure was even greater back in Cleveland. In order to achieve the goal of winning the franchise’s first title, Gilbert had to step up to the plate. And he did exactly that. Gilbert opened his checkbook on numerous occasions, in order to field the league’s most expensive roster with a tax so severe it would make the President turn red-orange.
And in 2016, it was all worth it, as the team was able to pull this off:
James will get all the credit for his heroic actions on the floor that night in Oakland. He delivered on his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland, something the city had not experienced in over five decades. But Gilbert opening his bank vault is what made this championship possible. But, after winning the 2016 Championship and coming up short in 2017, Gilbert began to ruin the Cavaliers.
Maybe it was the fact that everyone referred to the Cavs as James’ team. Maybe it was short-sightedness. Whatever it was, Dan Gilbert could resist meddling in the team’s affairs. Soon after the team lost 4-1 to the Golden State Warriors in the 2017 NBA Finals, Gilbert decided to part ways with former GM David Griffin, the man who built the championship roster and was a favorite of King James. Gilbert then decided to promote Griffin’s assistant Koby Altman, who some view as a bit of a yes man to Gilbert.
In Altman’s first move as general manager, he traded disgruntled point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for an injured Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the infamous 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick.
Gilbert was supposedly the one who wanted the trade to happen, despite James’ wishes, all to get a chance at getting a young prospect. And at the time, it seemed like an awesome trade for Cleveland as they got an MVP-caliber player in Thomas, a stout defensive forward in Crowder, a promising prospect in Zizic, and future assets as well.
But, as the season played on it looked more and more that Gilbert and the Cavs were made the fool by the Celtics. Thomas, who was the replacement for Irving, was a shell of himself upon his return and became so toxic with the team that they shipped him off to the Los Angeles Lakers. Crowder was a dud for the entirety of his Cleveland career and conveniently enough found himself again after being traded to the Utah Jazz. Zizic spent most of his time with the team’s G-League affiliate, the Canton Charge, and the jury is still out on him. Finally, the coveted pick, that the Cavaliers flat-out refused to trade, ended up falling to eighth overall and the Cavs missed out on future superstars like DeAndre Ayton or Mo Bamba.
Irving, meanwhile, was a superstar in Boston just like he was in Cleveland. Before falling to injury, Irving was putting together an MVP worthy season and rubbed salt in Cavs fans’ wounds as the Celtics soared while the Cavs faltered. This move made by the Gilbert-led front office provoked James to post this infamous meme on Instagram:
The short-sighted move to ship away Irving, instead of allowing James to mend the relationship with Irving and the team, will go down as one of the worst in Dan Gilbert’s time as owner. The Irving trade likely played a part in James choosing to leave the Cavs for a second time for the Los Angeles Lakers, as James signed a four-year deal versus the two-year deals Gilbert would at most get.
But hey, at least Gilbert got his team back, right?
Off the court, Gilbert’s actions caused fans to sour even more on him. Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Cavs released renderings of an arena renovation plan that would modernize Quicken Loans Arena and even allow them to host March Madness and most of all the NBA All-Star Game. The $140-million upgrade to the Q would be evenly split between both Cavs ownership and taxpayers.
Naturally, residents of Cuyahoga County and the city of Cleveland were opposed to this since the money — for both the city or county — could be better used to improve infrastructure. Daily protests eventually forced Gilbert and the Cavs to pull out at the last second and after the fear of the team leaving like the Browns did struck the city, citizens quickly silenced and the renovation plans continued. But, because of Gilbert thumbing his nose at Cleveland, the team lost their chance to host the All-Star Game for at least the next few seasons, and with the Cavs now rebuilding that fancy arena now feels like a hollow victory for Gilbert.
When James first returned to Cleveland, many were nervous what exactly Gilbert would do to try and ruin a championship team. Thankfully, he kept his checkbook open and his mouth shut, and the Cavs were able to pull off the improbable in 2016. But, after staying uninvolved for mostly three seasons, Gilbert did everything possible in the last year to both push the franchise’s best ever away and cause the fanbase to sour on him in the process.
Heading into the 2018-19 season and beyond, the way the Cavs rebuild will be viewed under a microscope all because of Gilbert’s actions. If he does not want to entirely lose the fanbase, hopefully it goes well.