Fear the Sword was able to catch up with Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin before Game 3 of the NBA Playoffs in Indiana. Griffin was gracious enough to give us the exclusive interview. He’s been the Cavaliers’ General Manager since the Spring of 2014 after being promoted from within. He is widely credited with creating a roster around LeBron James that brought Cleveland it’s first major sports championship since 1964, and is among the most respected executives in sports. Our conversation took place about an hour before tip.
Fear the Sword: How you feeling?
David Griffin: Okay. I think we’re focused on the right things, which is good.
FTS: I couldn’t tell if the guys were focused this morning at shootaround, or bored, or -
Griffin: You’ll never know. Our guys are impossible to read. I’ve been with them damn-near every game, and I’m never right.
FTS: I hate when people ask me game to game what I think because I have no idea.
Griffin: We’ve got a weird fatalistic need for people to go away, or quit. And they don’t go away in the playoffs. This building has always been tough for us. I hate playing here. Hopefully we can get it together and play the right way.
FTS: What did you do to celebrate last year? Did you have to wait until August?
Griffin: Yeah we went on vacation. I didn’t really do anything to celebrate, but we went on vacation. Yeah most everybody in the NBA’s anniversaries are in August, their weddings are in August. We waited. I did take two weeks though, which is the longest I’ve taken, so that was cool.
FTS: With a city like Cleveland, where everyone was geared toward the one title, is it hard to come back this year? Motivation-wise? It’s obviously your job.
Griffin: It’s not hard. That’s all we’re about. Organizationally. It’s the only thing that represents success. You know what you have to do to meet the minimum standard. It’s a foregone conclusion that every minute of your day has to be about getting there.
FTS: There are still teams that don’t have shooters. You obviously prioritize it. Every year we pick guys up who can. Does it surprise you that teams don’t?
Griffin: Well Houston has done a good job of doing it. I think the better teams have figured it out. I think the truly elite teams. Cotton Fitsimmons (former NBA coach for multiple teams, including the Phoenix Suns when Griffin got his start there) had a sign on his desk that said you could never have too many shooters and I think there’s a lot of validity to that. We might have one too many non-defenders on the floor from time to time, and that’s made Ty’s [Lue] job challenging. We went all in on a team designed for the playoffs. We’re not young, we’re not athletic, we’re not long. We’ve got a very fine margin for error. So if we don’t play really hard or if we’re not together, we’re not very good. It’s by design, because the thought process is when that much talent is highly motivated and you get days off in between and all that, you can absorb the fact that you’re older and not as athletic or energetic on an 82 game basis. But I think a lot of teams have figured it out, and I think there’s a lot of teams that frankly, if they had figured it out, would be more than you’d want to deal with.
FTS: When did you realize Tristan was going to be valuable? Stretch 4’s became so popular after his draft. When he was drafted he wasn’t even an undersized center, many thought he was undersized power forward.
Griffin: I think we always thought he was going to be able to play at least the 4 and probably the 5, just because of his motor. Worst case scenario, we thought he would be able to play the next 12 to 15 years, and his motor would make him effective.He’s a great kid, he was about the right things, so you felt like we would hit a double with the kid. Chris [Grant, the Cavs General Manager at the time] was obviously a big fan. But none of us projected that he would be switching onto guards in the way that he did. He has a real knack for it. We figured it out in one of the first regular season games he played, the first chance he got to do it we said “Ahh, that looked pretty good”, and he’s evolved now where he feels that’s his identity. I don’t know the first time we realized he was really high level, but we always knew he was gonna be a productive player. I don’t think we envisioned that he would be able to be what he is for as many minutes a night as he is.
FTS: I always make the analogy that LeBron James gets you in the game against anyone, and then it’s a matter of what you get from Kyrie that sort of determines what the team’s ceiling is. And there have been low points where I’ve reached out to Cavs officials wondering ‘Is he really good? Am I completely wrong about this?’ How do you evaluate Kyrie? What kind of things do you look for when you watch him?
Griffin: I think his leadership piece has come a long way. He was a really young kid, even for his age because he only played 11 college games. The onus of winning and the mantle of ‘you must deliver’ was never on him. Everybody adjusts to that differently. He didn’t embrace that much to begin with, and I think he was trying to prove what he was capable of. It was less about making other people better, and I think he’s evolved now. He had a half where he had 10 assists, you know, he can do all of it. It’s just he chooses what he’s going to do or not do. In the Finals he figured out he is capable of playing offense and defense in the same game for 40 minutes. He pushed himself hard enough to do that. Ky is like a lot of young players, they like the path of least resistance.
FTS: Millennials, right?
Griffin: He doesn’t like to push the ball, it’s just not his nature. He’s gotten by in the halfcourt his whole life because his handle is so good, he never felt the urgency to press the ball, whereas most guys develop their game as to what they need to do to succeed. Ky never had to do that. So when you’re explaining to him why it’s important to push the pace and I think he was reluctant to do that, because, well, ‘because I can get mine regardless’. Well, it’s not necessarily about you. So I think where he’s grown and evolved is he’s starting to figure that out. There’s days where he’s as good as any player in the league at his position. And there’s days where he’s the 198th-some best player adjusted plus/minus player. And there’s days where the defensive quintile that [our analytics department] has him in looks real. There’s days where, when he’s highly motivated to do it, you realize he’s special. His hands are lightning quick, his feet are lightning quick. When he wants to, he can do whatever he wants. Fortunately for us, we’ve found that in the playoffs we tend to get the best of him.
FTS: What surprises you the most about LeBron? You weren’t here for his first time around.
Griffin: He left when I came.
FTS: So what surprises you about the day to day of being around him?
Griffin: Well first of all he’s so much better than everyone else it’s ridiculous. There’s no one else even in his stratosphere in terms of how impactful they are. That first Finals run we took with our both of our other Big 3 guys down … no one will ever have a better postseason run, you can’t have a better postseason run. He took our entire identity of a team, and changed it from a team that was outscoring you and turned it into a team that was mauling you defensively. And that was all him.
FTS: Collapsing on the court after games …
Griffin: Just f***ing amazing what he did. I think this regular season none of our guys have wanted to do that. Again, the path of least resistance, let’s just make it to the Finals, the playoffs, healthy. Because they know it’s all about the Finals. We win 65 games and lose in a playoff series, we fail. Nobody takes joy in regular season victories. This team is really, to the extreme in that. But LeBron is everything to this franchise. He sets the tempo, he sets the culture. I call him ‘cheat code’ because you know you’re going to get the best of every offensive player you put him with. Defensively he’s taken a lot more plays off this year than he has in the past, but you’ve seen in these first two games he can do whatever he wants.
And I say this too, LeBron is better at being a big than all the bigs and he’s better at being a small than the smalls, and he’s the only player in the NBA that that’s true.
FTS: People will get mad at me if I don’t ask about Osman and some of the young guys.
Griffin: Really excited about Cedi. He’s about all the right things. He’s a Tristan Thompson of a swingman mold.
FTS: Have you talked to him, have you gone and seen him?
Griffin: Oh yeah, Koby Altman (Cavs Director of Pro Personnel) and our staff have done an amazing job of making him identify himself as a Cav. The kid will tell you he’s a Cleveland Cavalier. When we’ve drafted Goran Dragic in Phoenix he was like my son. This kid is that type of human being. He’s that good of a kid, and about the right things.
He’s not that athletic. He’s not that comparatively unguardable (to Dragic). But he’s going to defend and make open jump shots and knows how to play and he’s got size.
FTS: He’s like the opposite of Karasev.
Griffin: Yes, yes. He’s about all of the most substantive things, and about none of the flashy things.
FTS: Alright one more, if you have time. How do you balance everyone in the front office, your eyes, you’re in the locker room, analytics - with letting Lue do his job. Because Cleveland sort of has this reputation for the front office meddling a bit.
Griffin: We don’t do anything with Ty Lue. Since I’ve been there, meddling isn’t something that’s been said about us. It’s not something that’s been said about me. I think Ty has the pulse of the team. Ty drives the ship. Analytics are a powerful tool for us, we have great pro personnel. You know what, my job is to take all of the best ideas coalesce all of the ideas into a decision. We have an idea of what we want those ideas to be speaking to. The way you get there is very democratic. We’re probably more all hands on deck than most.