Does he stay or does he go; The David Griffin Conundrum
Yesterday, Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi wrote regarding Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin and his potential interactions with the Orlando Magic during the offseason. Bianchi wasn’t pleasant, passive aggressively referring to Griffin as “…LeBron’s sock-puppet” and “LeBron’s assistant general manager” which was especially ironic seeing that the article discussed why Griffin should come to Orlando. I personally happen to think that Griffin is a fantastic General Manager in a fantastic situation and am quick to praise his efforts, but as whispers that Cleveland are looking to extend Griffin conflict with other rumours regarding Dan Gilbert will not, now seems like an optimal time to take a look at Griffin’s peers, and figure out what kind of contract Griffin will be looking for.
My selection when putting together a peer group took three factors into account. First, Griffin is looking to match the salary of some of the wealthiest General Managers in the NBA. Guys like Doc Rivers who takes home a cool 10 million dollars a year (though is also head coach), same as Tom Thibodeau. Second Griffin is looking to have contract security. Though Masai Udrih only makes three million dollars a year, he’s locking into a five year contract which provides him with job security. Finally, I took a look at teams with comparable success to Cleveland. Guys like Golden State’s Bob Meyers and San Antonio’s RC Buford (who also notably has been the General Manager since 1999) take home 8 million and 9 million a year respectively. As a result, Griffin should look to leverage his championship pedigree as well as peer group to get Dan Gilbert to pony up a solid 8-10 Million dollars a year on a second four year contract. That being said, Griffin may look to other organizations with a different goal in mind, one where titles, not dollars truly make the man.
President of Basketball Operations (shortened PBO). Those four words should set any General Managers heart aflutter. Not only does the PBO have total roster and staff control, that individual virtually runs the organization from a top down level, reporting to no one but the team owner, and being intrusted to make shrewd decisions on behalf of said ownership group. The title holds so much power in the basketball world, that few organizations in the league even staff such a position. Cleveland is one such team that lacks this title. Griffin currently runs the operation, with a Vice President of Basketball Operations, though the title and its respective power elude him. Leveraging other high ranking execs (Budenholzer for the Atlanta Hawks, the late Flip Sanders and Tom Thibodeau for example) may provide Griffin with the needed examples to prove his value, though Griffin’s true trump cards are playing off other teams offers, and his absolutely stellar resume.
With several teams recently finding a vacant seat in the general manager position, Griffin can likely threaten taking a contract to leverage his own situation. Though Griffin is restricted from fielding contract notations until the season is over, it’s been reported that both the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic are interested in poaching the championship architect. Additionally Nate Duncan of the Dunc’ed On NBA Podcast mentioned Chicago as a potential interested party. The Kings reportedly have interest in hiring process-master Sam Hinkie as their new General Manager, there’s no reason Griffin could at least threaten talks in an attempt to pressure the Cavaliers organization. That said, it shouldn’t take Griffin negotiating off other teams to earn him a chunk of change. Griffins resume since LeBron James returned should speak for itself.
Draft wise, Griffin has done well with what tools he had. Griffin was not responsible for the greatest bust in NBA lottery history in Anthony Bennett, so that’s already a good start. His first true draft move in drafting Tyus Jones was incredibly intelligent, though it really went to show Griffin’s true skill, reading other teams. Griffin has made a name for himself by reading what other teams want, and shrewdly playing the game. Jones’ drafting resulted from notable front office scouting, which discovered Minnesota wanted Jones with the 31st overall pick. Cleveland reaching on a stretch provided Griffin the leverage to swap Tyus’ rights for picks that would become international prospect Cedi Osman and Syracuse big man Rakeem Christmas (who would subsequently be traded to Indiana for a pick used during the Channing Frye trade, we’ll get into that soon). Cedi likely joins Cleveland’s roster this offseason after two impressive seasons overseas. Otherwise, Griffin’s go ahead spending regarding Kay Felder, who cost 2.4 million for the draft pick alone, and was awarded a non-traditional rookie contract remains his only notable drafting. Cleveland was higher on Felder than most other people in the draft, reportedly expecting he’d go 19th overall, and thus far Kay looks to be a successful long-term project. He tears up the D(G)-League and if isn’t a quality backup by year three, might be at least serviceable enough to warrant a draft pick as trade return (or beef up a trade package down the line). Far more notably than his drafting skills, however, are his ability to manipulate pieces, create exceptions, and fill holes through savvy trades.
In the NFL, there is almost no doubt that Bill Belichick reigns supreme above all other football minds. His ability to find value contracts, make trades and run the Patriots organization is begrudgingly laudable. His drafting on the other hand has proven less impressive, though he curtails around this by shipping prospects and picks to other teams in exchange for known commodities he can further develop. Though the sample size on drafting mentioned above falls short of true analysis, one can extrapolate that Griffin models his win-now mentality around a similar philosophy. His resume regarding trades is sparkling, with not a single exchange on Cleveland’s end resulting in negative implications. Without spending too much time on any single exchange, lets quickly run down each move since Griffin took over the front office.
Trading Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a bevy of Philadelphia’s assets for Kevin Love perhaps stemmed from LeBron’s desires to play with the big man, though only sending off a known bust of a first round pick, and an underwhelming first overall pick (Karl Anthony Towns was far superior, with Wiggins likely ending up as a volume scorer or third option during Minnesota’s championship contention days) constitutes an impressive effort for a player considered the best power forward in the NBA at the time.
Finding a way to flip Dion Waiters and a late first round pick for Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov was borderline legendary. Seen with slight scepticism at the time, the Waiters for Shumpert and Smith trade arguably was the trade of the year, netting Cleveland two shooting guards and a first round pick that would later be used to sweeten the pot in acquiring Mozgov. Griffin was able to identify three players who didn’t fit the system and were undervalued, and added them at a discount. Most impressively, he was able to conceal his hand regarding keeping J.R. Smith on as a rotation (future starting) player, and squeeze an extra first round pick out of the deal supposedly as compensation for taking on what many saw as a toxic contract (Smith).
Flipping an aging Anderson Varajao for Channing Frye provided more much needed shooting off the bench. Frye also came to Cleveland on an affordable and long term contract, making him a piece of the regular season rotation for three years after the trade initially happened. Though limited (that might be an overstatement) on the defensive end of the floor, Frye provided Thompson and Love rest during the regular season, while keeping pace with Cleveland’s pace and space offense.
If it wasn’t for Toronto fleecing Orlando of Serge Ibaka, The Kyle Korver trade would easily shine as the best trade of the 2016-2017 season. ESPN does a better job covering this trade than I could, if you’re looking for an excellent op-ed click here.
Free agent wise, Griffin has maximized the “come play with LeBron” narrative. Shawn Marion, Richard Jefferson, James Jones, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut (rip), taking a flyer on Larry Sanders and Derrick Williams (Williams worked out alright). Liggins was a serviceable third string shooting guard when Smith went down. I never particularly liked Jordan McCrae but props for finding someone who made a little noise during garbage time. Griffin showed patience signing these individuals, not being rushed by chatter requesting a playmaker, and only signing individuals when all the pieces fell into place.
Pick any two of these paragraphs and you have yourself an average to above average GM worthy of resigning. Griffin has all five under his belt in only three years. The only real question is why would Griffin go anywhere else.
Regardless of the obvious reasons to bring Griffin back, regardless of Cleveland’s winning culture, regardless of the fact that having LeBron James on your roster makes signing vets exponentially easier, the biggest reason there should be little doubt in Griffin’s return stems from the fundamental flaws any competing team poses. Let’s take a look at those names.
I’m a recent convert to Nate Duncan’s “Dunc’ed On” Podcast, and I think his Atlanta offseason preview best surmises every single reason why Griffin would have no interest in taking a job with the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta really has no idea who’s in charge of their front office as of right now. Previously, Wes Wilcox played General Manager and Head Coach Mike Budenholzer served as President of Basketball Operations, however following their first round exit, the organization announced a front office reshuffle. That being said, apparently both Wilcox and Budenholzer will remain advisors in the front office, begging the question, who’s actually in charge? As a potential new President of Basketball Operations, there are several critical decisions to make, who to draft, what free agents to try out, what’s the plan with the coaching staff. As a new skipper, the job requires laying out a plan early with a timeline, however Griffin would be walking into this with a supreme disadvantage. First off, timeline wise Griffin would be limited to implement his vision. As mentioned before Griffin isn’t allowed to sign with any team until the Cavaliers season is over, meaning he’ll likely need to rely on the previous administration to provide scouting reports, and will be behind schedule going into both the draft and free agency. Additionally, there’s no promise that even if he did make a verbal commitment and laid out his plans that the front office would follow through. With the previous administration as Griffin’s potential top aids, there’s no guarantee the former administration give way to a newcomer. These issues, however, pale in comparison to Atlanta’s largest problem, the rut they’ve dug themselves into with Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroder.
Even if somehow the front office is Griffins to lead, Griffin would immediately be faced with a damned if you do/damned if you don’t mentality. Atlanta is at a crossroads, they can offer Millsap a max contract, but by the end of said contract Millsap may well look like the worst contract in the league. If Millsap is offered a full max, his year five salary will sit somewhere around 32 million dollars during his age 37 season. On the other hand with the departure of Al Horford last year, Millsap is arguably the only consistent above-average player on the Atlanta roster. Atlanta has made the playoffs for ten straight years, not committing to Paul Millsap likely would mean the end of that streak and draw Griffin obvious, even if not justified, criticism. Additionally, extending Dennis Schroder was a plan in the eyes of the previous front office, leaving Griffin with another three year expense that would hamper any sort of point guard signings, as well as limiting cap flexibility. Same goes for the Dwight Howard contract. A rebuild is never a popular option, though Griffin would be faced staring one down if he walked into that position. The argument is that Griffin could build a team of his own, no LeBron to tell him what to do, but when the former General Manager and President still serve in the front office, and the books are bogged down by long, expensive contracts, how much of his own team would Griffin really have available to him?
Orlando would provide Griffin with a slightly better option than Atlanta, though the Magic organization have jarring flaws of their own as well as reportedly filling the General Manager Position, meaning Griffin would need to oust sitting President of Basketball Operations, Jeff Weltman. Griffin would be walking in as the big cheese, not former general managers watching his back and likely grabbing a huge payday to leave one of the league’s best teams for a polar opposite. Similarly the time constraint limiting Griffin’s ability to lay out his future plans would be far less of an issue in Orlando. For Atlanta, since their pick is lower in the draft, scouting reports and overall big picture would be critical due to the nature of a later round pick. Atlanta would be looking to find an impact role player in the early 20’s, and scouting for smaller details isn’t a task done in a week. While normally a major flaw, Orlando being a talentless mess with a high draft pick makes drafting easy. For Orlando, all they need to do is grab the best player on the board, regardless of fit. Players like Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic , or Aaron Gordon don’t warrant avoiding a player due to a clash of positions. If Jackson, Fox, Monk or anyone else catch Orlando’s eye there is no reason for them not to draft the top talent available. Orlando doesn’t have a drafting issue, their issue stems more from lack of assets.
When rebuilding a team, the goal is as many young players and draft picks as possible, matched with a winning coach. Orlando did well to hire Frank Vogel, one of the defensive specialists in the league. Often time’s rookies enter the NBA with a score first mentality, and a defensive specialist helps work out the kinks in their game, and focus up on the defensive end. While Orlando has this sort of structure in place, Griffin would be hard-pressed to find a pleasant situation regarding acquiring said talent. A rebuild general manager has two main tasks; First and for most is drafting well. Griffin doesn’t have a huge draft history with the Cavaliers, he’s taken Cedi Osman, Rakeem Christmas (who was subsequently traded for a second round pick) and Kay Felder with his draft picks. Orlando would supposedly provide him the chance to flex his general manager chops as a draft specialist, with many a high pick due to the low quality of Orlando’s squad, however, this is where Orlando would be an off-putting choice for Griffin. There is a second goal of a rebuilding team, acquiring as many draft picks and young players as possible. Griffin would be walking into a nightmare resource wise. Orlando doesn’t have Victor Olidipo, nor Domantas Sabonis that were traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder (my new home). Mario Hezonja seems to be somewhat of a bust, or at least a long term project that might become a role-player. Draft-wise Orlando does have their own pick and Toronto’s, but their ability to get more picks is reliant on the future GM’s ability to trade their current roster out for scraps. Vuc could maybe warrant a late first round pick. Biyombo looks to be somewhat of an overpay. Aaron Gordon is injured. Evan Fournier might be a good contributor on a mid-tier contender (think Washington, Clippers, OKC) but those teams cannot provide the type of return a general manager would want from a player of his cailber. What Griffin would be inheriting would be a roster of role players with low leverage and poor trades over the past few years.
Finally, Orlando recently hired a new General Manager, John Hammond formerly of the Milwaukee Bucks. Even if he is hired on as President of Basketball Operations, there are no guarantees that it will be his vision, not Hammond’s that’s implemented. Or, once again, he could just stay with Cleveland and keep winning.
Really there won’t be any major developments regarding Griffins contract until the season ends, but with teams like Orlando already signing new a new general manager, Chicago stating they’re sticking with the three alpha’s plan and the Kings continuing to be a dysfunctional mess, the chances of Griffin sticking around are looking more and more likely.