January 16, 2019
The Cavaliers GM is all in in trying to build a title contender, but will bear the blame if they fail.

On February 6th of last year, David Griffin was named General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers. At that time Cleveland stood at 16-33, their organizational hopes for a return to the playoffs had been dashed, and the idea that LeBron James and Kevin Love would don Cavaliers jerseys this season was a pipe dream in the minds of only the most ardent Cavs fans.

Since being hired, and in just eleven short months, Griffin has helmed perhaps the most drastic roster overhaul in NBA history.

Granted, the two most crucial events of the past eleven months – being awarded the 1st overall selection in the NBA Draft lottery and LeBron’s decision to return to Cleveland – had little to do with Griffin’s skill as a GM and almost everything to do with extremely good fortune. However, Griffin has had a frantic first year as a GM, making a number of moves in an attempt to upgrade Cleveland’s roster.

While the jury is still out on the majority of his moves, Griffin has arguably already made several mistakes, including the Scotty Hopson signing and the trade that sent Keith Bogans to Philadelphia. Neither of those moves had huge repercussions, but they were poor uses of finite resources, and entirely unnecessarily so. Another decision that was curious at the time, and even more questionable in retrospect, was the November signing of Anderson Varejao to a three-year $30 million extension through the 2017-18 season. Though the final year of Varejao’s deal is non-guaranteed, committing nearly $10 million per year through 2016-17 to a player with a well-known history of injury trouble represented a significant risk, one that at this point appears to have blown up in Griffin’s face (and owner Dan Gilbert’s wallet) and one which didn’t need to be taken, given that Varejao could have signed an extension up to and including June 30th.

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In all, only four players remain on the Cleveland roster from when Griffin took over last February (Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova). In addition, during his short time in charge, Griffin has dealt four of Cleveland’s former first-round picks (Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev), three future first-round picks (Cleveland’s 2016 first-round pick to Boston, and protected 2015 first-round picks from Memphis and Oklahoma City to Denver) and seven future second-round picks.*  No matter your perspective, that’s a lot of assets going out the door, and in the wake of Griffin’s latest moves acquiring Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Timofey Mozgov, the key pieces of Cleveland’s rotation seem to be set for the rest of this season and quite possibly next.

Griffin does still have one move left to make with this season’s roster (outside of a truly blockbuster trade involving one of the Big Three, or a less-significant but perhaps just as unlikely trade of Tristan Thompson). Cleveland waived A.J. Price on Wednesday, and it now has an open roster spot that Griffin will likely try to fill by offering a minimum-salary contract to a currently-unemployed veteran such as Jermaine O’Neal, Samuel Dalembert, or, as is oft-rumored, Ray Allen. Other than that, the Cavaliers’ fortunes this season rest with the players the team currently has under contract.

Regarding next season’s roster, Griffin will have a draft pick to work with as Cleveland owns its 2015 first-round pick, though Chicago has the right to swap firsts with Cleveland, meaning Griffin will likely be making a selection in the high-20’s. The Cavaliers will also have some tough decision’s in regards to whether he should extend qualifying offers to the three players eligible for restricted free agency (Shumpert, Thompson and Dellavedova). And as can be seen from the figure below, in addition to fretting over whether LeBron James and Kevin Love decide to opt-in to another year on the shores of Lake Erie, Griffin will have to decide on whether or not to pick up the newly-acquired Mozgov’s team option for 2015-16.

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 11.02.21 AMScreen Shot 2015-01-08 at 10.50.35 AM

A ramification of the Cavaliers’ move to acquire Mozgov is that Cleveland is now firmly in the luxury tax this season. Including dead money, which is not reflected above, Cleveland’s cap number for the current season now stands at approximately $81.6 million. That number is about $5 million above the tax line and will go higher above the line when the Cavaliers sign a player to fill A.J Price’s vacated roster spot. This means Dan Gilbert is looking at a tax payment this summer somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million.

Additionally, the Cavaliers are looking at just over $100 million in committed salary next season if you assume the following: LeBron, Love, J.R. Smith, and Mike Miller decide to pick up their player options for 2015-16; Cleveland picks up the team option for Mozgov; and Cleveland extends qualifying offers to Dellavedova, Thompson, and Shumpert (and that cap number of $100 million doesn’t even account for the higher salaries that would likely be required for the Cavaliers to retain their restricted free agents). With the luxury-tax line projected to be upwards of $80 million, ownership will be paying a substantial tax penalty in the summer of 2016.

Before we get to the end of next season, Griffin will still have the ability to further add to Gilbert’s 2016 tax payment. He will of course have the option of signing minimum salary players, as well as Cleveland’s 2015 first-round pick to a deal within the rookie wage scale (remember,  Cleveland will likely have to swap picks with Chicago). Griffin will also have the option this summer of signing a free agent with the taxpayer’s mid-level exception, which will be $3.376 million next season.

Indeed, they fully intend to add yet more payroll. The most useful tool at Griffin’s disposal this summer will be the contract of Brendan Haywood, which represents $10.5 million in non-guaranteed money next season. As a taxpaying team, Cleveland is allowed to receive in any trade 125% of the outgoing salary plus $100,000, meaning that if they were to deal Haywood alone, they could trade for approximately $13.25 million in salary, a number only goes up if Cleveland is able to include additional players from their roster. Haywood was targeted by the Cavaliers and Griffin for exactly this reason, and remains, they hope, their trump card.

Complicating matters however is that opposting teams may be unwilling to deal a player with on-court value solely for the salary-cap relief offered by Haywood’s contract. Much like Denver was able to extract that second first-round pick from Cleveland in the deal for Mozgov, teams are going to do their damndest to get Griffin to include additional assets in a deal for Haywood. In light of the Cavaliers’ ever dwindling supply of future draft picks, that is something Griffin will have to think long and hard about before pulling the trigger on a Haywood deal.

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As mentioned up top, Griffin has not executed flawless decisions since stepping into the role as Cleveland’s general manager. However, he must be given credit for acting decisively and without hesitation to try to put a roster around LeBron that he hopes can compete for a championship this year and next. As things stand today, with the Cavaliers clinging to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 19-17, the doubters are out in abundance. Only time will tell if a rotation that includes the injury-riddled Iman Shumpert, former Sixth Man of the Year and perennial shot chucker J.R. Smith and Russian monolith Timofey Mozgov can give Cleveland enough of a boost to truly compete in the East, much less for a title.

Cleveland’s success or failure in winning an NBA title during LBJ’s second term will ultimately go down in the annals of NBA history as the success or failure of LeBron himself. But only their failure will reflect upon the management. If LeBron and Cleveland prove successful in this endeavor, David Griffin is not likely to receive much shine other than in the far corners of NBA geekdom, as Griffin’s good fortune thus far is undeniable. However, if the Cavaliers fail to get a title during the remainder of LeBron’s career, such a failure will not be kind to the legacy of David Griffin.

Prior to the season, LeBron told Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group that, “with every team there is a guy they want to kind of place the blame on, and it will be Dion on our team.”  Well, Dion is gone now. And there can be no doubt that after the flurry of moves he has made thus far, if Cleveland is ultimately unsuccessful in reaching the NBA mountain top, much of the blame that doesn’t fall on LeBron’s shoulders will find its way to David Griffin.


*The second-round picks Griffin has traded thus far: two 2014 second-round picks to Philadelphia in the deal for Spencer Hawes; one 2015 second-round pick to Utah in the deal for three non-guaranteed contracts; two second-round picks (2016 and 2017) to Boston in the deal acquiring Bogans; one 2018 second-round pick to Philadelphia in the deal trading Bogans; one 2019 second-round pick to the Knicks in the deal for Shumpert and Smith.

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Sean Tshikororo

I'm an attorney and teacher by trade, but my true passion is sports and above all else the NBA. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, so I didn't grow up with an allegiance to any particular team, however, my NBA fandom tends to coincide with the teams that employ alums of my beloved UC Bearcats. Here at BBallbreakdown I'll be using my legal training and love of basketball to give you the lowdown on all things related to the CBA, the salary cap, and team management. Hit me up on Twitter @HANDFULofAUGUST and be sure to check out my personal blog HANDFULofAUGUST.com for random musings on the NBA and everything else that matters!

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