INDEPENDENCE: When he was named general manager of the Cavaliers nearly four years ago, Chris Grant took possession of a burning building, was handed an ax and a hose and told to get to work.
LeBron James was gone, but his pictures were still hanging in the hallways of Quicken Loans Arena and the remnants of the Cavs’ roster no longer fit. Grant was a rookie general manager but was bold enough to convince aggressive owner Dan Gilbert that the only way to return to the top was to hit rock bottom.
Grant was fired Thursday after compiling an 80-199 record while in charge. That .287 winning percentage is the lowest in the NBA during that time, and in a vacuum, those numbers are hideous and warrant a firing. But the accurate view of this franchise the past four years requires multiple lenses.
Developing young players and acquiring high draft picks were the priority over winning. With the Cavs’ well-documented struggles to attract top free agents, Grant was convinced the only way to rebuild a winner was through preserving cap space, careful drafting and allowing enough time to let the players grow together.
When coach Byron Scott was fired last spring, Grant knew he was the new target. When Gilbert declared at the draft lottery, the Cavs were going back to the playoffs this season, the patient approach was officially over.
Ready or not, the Cavaliers were expected to win this season. They committed $40 million to Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum, then selected Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick. None of the moves had the desired effect, and Grant was fired 12 hours after a humiliating loss to a Los Angeles Lakers team that finished the game with four eligible players.
After Grant held a rare impromptu news conference last week and sharply criticized the players for their lack of effort in recent games, one player confided that he felt badly for Grant.
“He can’t control how hard we play,” he said.
And that ultimately is the root of the problem in all of this. It isn’t the talent on the roster that’s the problem, it’s the effort (or lack of) the players are producing.
“We have what we need,” Gilbert said Thursday, right after he fired the man who gave him what he needed. In that regard, it doesn’t make sense. Gilbert was firmly supportive of Grant even last spring when Scott was fired. He believed Grant had made sound decisions, which included the trade that ultimately landed Kyrie Irving and another deal that should get them a lottery pick from the Memphis Grizzlies within the next couple of years.
Grant turned the failed Bynum experiment into Luol Deng, a two-time All-Star and arguably the third-best small forward in the Eastern Conference. Gilbert spoke glowingly Thursday of the talent on the roster, while conceding the results have been bitterly disappointing. They began the day closer to the league’s second-worst record than the playoffs.
Player acquisition falls on the front office, while maximizing talent falls on coaching. Yet Gilbert made the unorthodox move to fire the GM midseason while conceding that it won’t have much impact on the game today on the road against the Washington Wizards or the foreseeable future.
“A general manager and a front office does more than just make tactical decisions on draft picks and trades and free-agent signings,” Gilbert said. “At this point after the amount of period of time the former general manager had, we just felt it was time. We needed a shift in certain cultural aspects and a different environment.”
Grant has been sharply criticized for his draft history and the selection of Bennett certainly hasn’t helped. Bennett has played better lately, but he is still struggling through a woeful rookie season. Then again, most of this draft class (as expected) has been terrible.
In fact, Grant had to rebuild this franchise through three subpar NBA quality drafts, then was turned down by his top two targets in free agency last summer. Grant aggressively pursued Kyle Korver, who took less money to return to the Atlanta Hawks. Mike Dunleavy Jr. also turned down more money from the Cavs to play for the Chicago Bulls. So Grant settled on Jack, who has also disappointed this season on the floor and as a locker room leader.
Grant was an easy target in the media because he was intensely private, shied away from interviews and rarely spoke to many national writers. But he was brilliant with trades and manipulating the NBA’s salary cap, worked incredibly long hours year-round and tirelessly scouted colleges and the world in an effort to resurrect a franchise that was once the best in the Eastern Conference.
Ultimately, his tenure with the Cavs will be declared a disappointing failure, even though various members of the organization privately wondered if this team was ready to win even after the summer’s free-agent acquisitions. Once Gilbert declared at the lottery the Cavs weren’t going back there, none of that mattered anymore. Gilbert has now parted ways with three general managers during his nine years of ownership.
“We made today’s move as a step hopefully that will be an improvement for us in the months ahead,” Gilbert said. “This is really about the next several years. When you make a move like this today, it’s not about the next game, it’s not about the game in Washington, it’s not about next week. This is really about a directional move in the franchise. The fans deserve more. It’s all we talk about when we walk in the building in the morning and the phone calls late at night is how can we deliver to the people who pay an expensive ticket and watch our games on TV value. So far this year, the bottom line is we haven’t done that, so we need to change that.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.