Pelicans general manager David Griffin is one of the toasts of the NBA these days. He will be remembered as the guy who reversed the fortunes of that franchise at the end of the Anthony Davis era, by drafting Zion Williamson and by flipping Davis for a package of useful players and valuable draft assets, hopefully setting the Pelicans up for a quick rebuild. The Pelicans went from lost, irrelevant, and embittered under Dell Demps, to suddenly brimming with potential under Griffin, over the course of just a couple weeks.
So Griffin is riding high. Encouraged by this run of success and professional acclaim, Griffin did an exhilaratingly candid and weirdly self-aggrandizing profile with Sports Illustrated, published Thursday, about his time as general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers and how he came to be in the position he’s in today. The spiciest part of this is the Cleveland stuff: by Griffin’s telling, the pressure of building a championship contender around LeBron James made him miserable, because it ran counter to some important ideas he has about the right way to run a basketball operation.
The profile mostly skirts around the word “process,” but the gist is this: while LeBron James was in Cleveland, and while he was operating on short-term contracts with early outs, Griffin’s mandate as personnel honcho was entirely outcome-focused. The job was to furnish LeBron with championship-caliber teammates, year in and year out, or he would lose LeBron. There would be no long-term planning or steady, sustainable growth. Griffin says he cried from stress the day LeBron announced his return to Cleveland, and cried from misery the night they won the title, and in between his enthusiasm for basketball dried up and died:
“Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable,” Griffin says. “Literally the moment we won the championship I knew I was gonna leave. There was no way I was gonna stay for any amount of money.”
According to Griffin, part of the challenge of building a championship roster around LeBron—which, it should be noted, was not an especially difficult thing to do during the eight straight years that LeBron made the Finals—is keeping everyone happy in the orbit of the world’s best basketball player. LeBron, you see, is never blamed for things going wrong, which will be news to anyone who’s heard or read any ten words spoken or written by Skip Bayless in the last ten years:
“The reason is LeBron is getting all the credit and none of the blame. And that’s not fun for people,” Griffin says. “They don’t like being part of that world.”
There’s more good stuff in here, about what Griffin thinks of LeBron’s move to Los Angeles, and how Griffin feels about the Pelicans, and how the rebuild in New Orleans is better suited to the nurturing instincts of a general manager dealing with, uhh, family fertility issues. The upshot is, working with LeBron sucked, and it killed Griffin’s love of the sport, and by gum he is going to do things differently in New Orleans. Inevitably, this all came to LeBron’s attention, which it would’ve even if he weren’t extraordinarily media-conscious, even by the standards of professional athletes. LeBron’s camp was reportedly “shocked” by Griffin’s comments—here’s the very best part of an ESPN report on the whole thing:
Griffin and a person close to James spoke after the SI story was published, sources told ESPN, and Griffin expressed that some context was missing behind his comments. James’ camp encouraged Griffin to clear up his stance on the record, sources said.
No word on whether LeBron was dangling Griffin by the ankle out a ninth-floor window when that “encouragement” was communicated. Either way, Griffin reportedly also said the line about LeBron getting all the credit was actually an indictment of the media, and was not meant to be read as a criticism of the man himself. Perhaps all this backtracking will save Griffin from the ethering his comments seemed to have provoked:
I have no trouble believing that being a general manager who functionally works for his team’s best player is extremely frustrating and stressful, especially if that player is LeBron James. On the other hand, it’s a little rich to hear an NBA general manager complain about how unnatural and unhealthy it is to try to win a championship every year. And on a frightening third hand that just emerged from the center of my chest [oh God], buddy, you had the best player in the world on your team, and you won a title! That is nothing to cry about.