Prior to his life as an NBA general manager, Chris Grant had a part-time job selling women’s shoes at Nordstrom. He didn’t realize it at the time, but those sales skills have been crucial during his first 2½ years running the Cavaliers.
He sold Dan Gilbert — typically viewed as an impatient, aggressive owner — on the idea of a rebuilding project that will take years to complete. He convinced his coach, Byron Scott, to buy into the plan despite his agent insisting two years ago Scott had no interest in another rebuilding effort. And he sold the Los Angeles Clippers on the idea of trading an unprotected lottery pick to the Cavaliers, ultimately giving this town Kyrie Irving and triggering a new era of basketball in Cleveland.
As the Cavs prepare to open their 43rd season on Tuesday, Grant remains committed to his disciplined blueprint that includes high draft picks, timely trades, an aversion to free agency and — for now — losing. Lots and lots of losing. It’s a gutsy route for a first-time general manager to take.
“It was pretty clear from Chris and from all our perspectives, you don’t want to be stuck in the middle,” Gilbert said. “You have to suck it up for hopefully a short period of time. I think this year is important to see progress. I don’t even know what the definition of that is, but you’ll know it when you see it.”
A 40-108 record the past two seasons would get most general managers and coaches fired. But the Cavs are thrilled with what Scott is accomplishing and already picked up his option for next season. Similarly, Grant has the full support of his owner and is under no intense pressure to win now.
“He already had a prior relationship with Dan and I think Dan trusts him,” Scott said. “When CG laid it all out, Dan was like, ‘I’m on board.’ It’s going to take us some time to get back, but it shows how much faith Dan has in him.”
Entering his third year in charge, Grant is intensely private. He shies away from media interviews and does his best to remain hidden behind the scenes, believing the general managers for the league’s most successful teams rarely do business in front of cameras and microphones.
Yet when he wants to be, Grant is an excellent communicator who has effectively laid out his plan for the entire organization.
Now he just has to hope it works.
Selecting a general manager
Less than 24 hours after Danny Ferry and Gilbert agreed to part ways, Grant was promoted to general manager. He had spent the previous five seasons as an assistant to Ferry, and given the quick hiring, it’s clear no other candidates were seriously considered.
The Cavs had another assistant GM in Lance Blanks who was qualified — Blanks left soon after Grant’s appointment to take the GM job in Phoenix — but Gilbert knew immediately whom he wanted to succeed Ferry.
“As soon as Danny was gone, to me there was not much doubt that Chris would be our guy,” Gilbert said. “I think Lance had a lot of great player-personnel skills and definitely knew basketball because he was a player in the league. Chris had the whole other side, the whole cap side and metrics side and a deep understanding of how the mechanics of the league worked.”
Grant’s first objective was to hire a new coach while balancing LeBron James’ pending free agency. Following Tom Izzo’s very public withdrawal from consideration, the Cavs were fearful of another public relations blow so close to James’ decision.
When the Cavs interviewed Scott during Father’s Day weekend in Michigan, all of ownership and the front office were present, including Gilbert and team co-owners Nate Forbes and Jeff Cohen — whom Gilbert affectionately refers to as “the tan guy” (Forbes) and “the bald guy” (Cohen).
All of the men brought their families, cooked out and chatted casually, but rarely was basketball discussed, and Scott wasn’t offered the job. Soon he and his agent, Brian McInerney, were confused by the Cavs’ intentions. A few days later, Scott called Grant and tersely demanded an explanation — either the team wanted him as their coach or not. If they did, it was time to offer him the job.
Grant reassured an upset Scott, and within days of that phone call, Grant hired Scott as his first coach. The two men barely knew each other and really didn’t have much of a relationship, except for a brief encounter in Atlanta in 2000 when Grant was working as an intern for the Hawks when Scott interviewed for the vacant coaching job.
Now Scott considers his relationship with Grant one of the best a coach and general manager can share. They argue and debate constantly, but both men prefer it that way. There are no “yes men” in the organization, and everyone’s input counts.
Part of the reason the Cavs drafted Dion Waiters was because Scott fell in love with his game.
That pick, along with the selection of Tristan Thompson the summer before, raised eyebrows across the league. Both choices were criticized as being reaches for the fourth overall pick, but everyone within the organization staunchly defends the selections.
Grant, however, views his drafting of Kyrie Irving as perhaps his gutsiest call. Irving was coming off a toe injury and played little more than 300 minutes during his one season at Duke.
The Cavs’ research revealed no other player has ever been drafted No. 1 overall in any sport after playing so little the previous season. It seems like a no-brainer now, given Irving’s accomplishments and potential, but the organization was divided prior to the draft. There were at least a few people within the Cavs who wanted them to select Derrick Williams first overall and come back to take Brandon Knight fourth.
Grant wouldn’t hear it. On this topic, there was no arguing or healthy debating. His mind was made up. He wanted Irving.
He is viewed as a tough negotiator who has angered agents and executives around the league for refusing to budge on terms. One of his goals is to never negotiate with an unrestricted free agent. The climate and small-market feel of Cleveland will always force the team to overpay for free agents, which eventually destroys cap space and sabotages the cap flexibility Grant seemingly mentions at every news conference.
That limits the Cavs’ focus to players on rookie scale contracts or trades targeting players under a team’s control for at least a few years. As a result, the Cavs pour more resources into the draft than most teams around the league.
If guys like Thompson and Waiters are busts, it’s the type of misses that would get most general managers fired. But Gilbert remains a firm believer in Grant and his process.
“I never really looked at it that way, although I definitely see where we could go either way for the next several years depending on how they play,” Gilbert said. “But I think on both of those, he truly made the best decision he could’ve made at the time.”
Grant’s positive attitude
Grant’s psychology degree proved crucial when James departed a month after Grant took the GM job. A team that won 61 games the season before was suddenly detonated overnight. The Cavs’ practice facility, the Cleveland Clinic Courts, had the feel of a morgue. It was Grant’s job to catch the bodies as they jumped.
“The fact he had been here for five years and everybody knew him really helped,” Gilbert said. “It wasn’t like there was this new person coming in who, based on the uncertainty of the times, people would’ve been skeptical. Everyone already knew him and liked him.”
In the weeks and months after James left, Grant was called into sales meetings to boost morale of Cavs employees and hold everyone together. Ticket sales were lagging, and no one really knew where to turn or what to do. Grant was seemingly alone in trying to lift the barge off the bottom of Lake Erie.
“He’s always a very positive guy. I can’t think of a guy around this league that’s as positive as him,” Gilbert said. “Some guys will always flinch, even myself, wondering if this is going to work. He’s always up, he’s always positive. That was a big thing that summer.”
Gilbert is famous for his knee-jerk reactions, beginning with his letter to fans after James departed and extending to his hostile email to Commissioner David Stern last winter that was ultimately leaked to the media.
When Gilbert first heard Irving was having his wisdom teeth extracted and was questionable for Tuesday’s opener, he quickly called Grant and blasted him.
“It’s the most nuts I’ve ever gone on him. I was the worst I’ve ever been in seven years,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t have the right information, I had half information. I said, ‘C’mon, it’s wisdom teeth! You can’t do this now. These fans, this city, these people are waiting for this, and we’re going to go out on a frickin’ wisdom tooth? Are you kidding me?’ ”
Grant took the barrage and waited for Gilbert to finish.
“He’s going to make opening day no problem,” Grant said calmly.
Gilbert chuckled sheepishly.
“You had to wait ’til I did all that to tell me that?” Gilbert said.
How much longer?
The Cavs consider this the second year of the rebuild, since they had no draft picks and no time to shop in free agency the summer James departed. Within a span of three years, the Cavs delivered a league MVP, one miserable season, and then the Rookie of the Year.
Three of their expected starters on Tuesday (Irving, Waiters and Thompson) were selected with No. 4 overall picks or higher. Yet the Cavs believe they’re still one more year and one more high lottery pick away from real contention in an improving Eastern Conference.
It’s fair to wonder how long Gilbert is willing to let this go, how long he will be patient before demanding on-court success and a return to the playoffs. Fans’ clocks may have been expedited last summer when they watched James win his championship, but Gilbert remains committed to Grant and Grant’s process.
There is no demand or ultimatum yet to win big. There isn’t even a requisite to make the playoffs. Gilbert is committed to Grant, the man in his first job as GM, and Grant is firmly committed to building this team his way.
“I can’t say this about the prior era, but there’s not a single, unlikable, spectacle-making person in the front office, coaching staff or among the players,” Gilbert said. “You might disagree with people, but no one has cooties or weird [stuff] going on. Ultimately, it’s all about winning and losing. I just believe the good guys will get there quicker.”
And he believes in Grant, the shoe salesman with the psychology degree committed to taking the Cavaliers back to the top.
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.