Let’s get one thing out of the way: this is not a column about how LeBron James was the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He wasn’t. The Cavs have a deep, talented front office with impressive employees ranging from the analytics department to communications. While they’ve seen turnover at the top of the organization - it was not necessary to jettison the hugely successful and popular David Griffin - they’ve also had stability within, as they simply promoted Koby Altman, someone Griffin himself had groomed and advocated for. That front office has brought in players like Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, and has roots going all the way back to drafting Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson.
This is also not a column designed primarily to question the influence of Dan Gilbert. It exists. He owns the team, and has taken a pro-active approach to managing it a lot of the time. For better or worse, his fingerprints were all over the handling of the Irving situation 16 months ago. While LeBron James and Gilbert put together a fine working relationship, things never fully came back together, and it was probably unfair to expect things to. Without Gilbert’s willingness to spend, the championship in 2016 doesn’t happen. The promise of that spending was enough to get James back a few years before that.
But LeBron James is gone, and the vacuum left extends far beyond the basketball court. The Cavs organization is full of competent people who have varying levels of control over what happens on the court. Just last summer, Tyronn Lue was instrumental in the signings of Derrick Rose and Jeff Green. James factored heavily in the signing of his friend Dwyane Wade. Gilbert reportedly wanted a “name” player back for Irving, and that might be part of why Isaiah Thomas came to Cleveland. Oh, and Koby Altman is theoretically in charge of player personnel decisions.
Even aside from personnel decisions, the balance of power within the Cavs organization will shift. Before James’s return, the team’s communication staff ran a tight ship. This isn’t a criticism. They know what they are doing, they monitor the media, make players available when players are ready, and helped you get what you wanted as a journalist in an orderly manner. With James, Irving, and Kevin Love all commanding attention, all of a sudden, in 2014 (as well as a lot more media credentialed for games), the team was forced to be a bit more flexible as James, Lue, Love and others spoke to select media on their own at times. I don’t think the communications staff really loved being as flexible as they ended up being, but the reality of the situation and demands of ESPN and James and others pushed them there. With less interest, and no James, it stands to reason that part of the organization will assert itself.
The point of that admittedly inside baseball example is to simply show where certain areas of the organization will feel emboldened to take steps appropriate to their roles. Altman no longer will add players, or need permission to ship players out because another player on the team needs friends nearby. Hopefully the value of players like James Jones and Channing Frye is a lesson learned from James’s second tenure in Cleveland, but the Cavs now have that knowledge along with a bit more flexibility in how they use it. Where the power goes won’t even be easy to predict: one might have thought that James friend Damon Jones would move on - instead, he was promoted and will now be full-fledged assistant coach.
The mix of decision-making power will be interesting to keep an eye on. For now, it seems as though the Cavs have a mandate to try and win, and that would come from Dan Gilbert. Koby Altman may know deep down that it’s a team that needs to tank, but would be fine with some wins as long as it came as a result of young players like Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman playing a substantial role in it. What happens if Lue wants to play George Hill, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Channing Frye, or any of the older vets more than Altman is excited about?
There’s no real criticism anywhere in this article. Gilbert, Lue, and Altman each have championship rings, and figure to want to show they aren’t a fluke. Lue has had health issues that seem to persist. There have been consistent whispers Dan Gilbert might not even want the team for too much longer. Altman’s a young guy with a chance to build a team from the ground up, with some young talent already in place. The hope would generally involve the basketball operations folks making basketball decisions with basketball in mind, with balances of power that reflect that priority.