David Griffin Cashes in His Chips to Assemble Cleveland Cavaliers 2.0

Ethan SkolnickNBA Senior WriterJanuary 8, 2015

B/R

CLEVELAND — The timing wasn't ideal, but that was actually appropriate for the occasion. The timing, when it comes to NBA transactions, approvals or announcements, rarely is as anyone would imagine or prefer.

And so here David Griffin was, during halftime of a game against the West-contending Houston Rockets, at nearly the halfway point of an unexpectedly rocky Cavaliers regular season, sitting behind a microphone at a podium in a makeshift event-level space enclosed by a garage door.

To unveil the update:

Cavaliers 2.0.

This after Cavaliers 1.0 was, by all accounts, a bit of a bust.

"We looked at this, and we felt that if we could identify three of our biggest holes, which we identified as consistent outside shooting that didn't necessarily need the ball, in the form of J.R. [Smith]; a wing defender, in the form of Iman [Shumpert]; and a starting-caliber center with the length and defensive identity of [Timofey] Mozgov," said Griffin, who acknowledged that the early-season roster lacked grit, toughness and intensity.

Bleacher Report Media Lab

Time to reboot and refresh, if a bit later than Griffin might have liked.

"We would have done all of these things much sooner if we could've," Griffin said. "We're fortunate that 35 games in for us, and 30-40 in for everybody else, people have now gotten to the point where they recognize the team they're going to be. If we could have done this in training camp, we would have done the same thing."

In training camp, though, no one inside or outside the Cavaliers organization expected this team, with three All-Stars combining to play 97 (of a possible 108) games, would be 19-17, stuck in the East's fifth spot, closer to eighth than fourth.

So this update—so much more than merely a patch—better work, because there won't be a version 3.0 anytime soon.

That's the primary takeaway from a whirlwind three days, in which the Cavaliers lost two games, one embarrassing (in Philadelphia) and one expected (at home to Rockets); traded three players, only one of which was anywhere near the rotation; and acquired three others, only one of which was immediately available for Wednesday's defeat, and none of which made a shot.

"I look at this deal as really one deal in aggregate," Griffin said, though he actually consummated them at different times, and with a total of three different teams.

And that is an accurate portrayal, since the most necessary piece (Mozgov) was actually acquired last, by adding a protected first-round pick from Oklahoma City to the pre-existing protected first-round pick from Memphis that hadn't been enough to appease Denver Nuggets officials.

But, actually, you can go back further, back to the summer, back to the day after the draft and the day prior to LeBron James' return, and now examine all of the Cavaliers' deals since the summer in aggregate, since everything they did before has led to the way they look now. This is likely how things will be for a while. 

INDEPENDENCE, OH - MAY 13:  David Griffin is named General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers at a press conference at The Cleveland Clinic Courts on May 13, 2014 in Independence, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Entering this summer, the Cavaliers had a plethora of assets that Griffin had helped assemble, either as Chris Grant's deputy or from the point last February that he ascended, on an interim basis, to the top spot. Some of those assets were due to four years of poor play, some to dumb lottery luck and some to smart and subtle planning.

Griffin characterized his philosophy this way Wednesday: "If you can stack up enough assets during the time that you're not really in the mode of win-the-championship-now, when you get to the point where you add a LeBron James and you have the opportunity to get a Kevin Love to pair with Kyrie [Irving], you feel like you've got the core that can do something."

Since July 1, Griffin has now unloaded many of the assets at his disposal, including two former No. 1 overall picks (Anthony Bennett and Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Wiggins); two other first-round picks (Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev, in a late move to dump Jarrett Jack and clear enough space for James); Cleveland's 2016 protected first-round pick (along with Zeller and Karasev); a former No. 4 overall pick (Dion Waiters); and the protected Memphis pick (which Grant acquired in exchange for getting the Memphis Grizzlies under the luxury tax).

It has also used two vehicles acquired after James returned: a $5.3 million trade exception (garnered while dumping Keith Bogans and a 2018 second-rounder); and a $4.9 million disabled player exception (the most recent addition to the asset pile, after Anderson Varejao's season-ending injury).

And here's the thing:

None of that truly matters if the new mix comes together and they can contend quickly. 

And it really doesn't matter that, in terms of perceived value, Denver seemed to get a massive haul for a center (Mozgov) who has started only half of his 247 games and put up respectable, but hardly remarkable, averages of 13.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. Even Griffin acknowledged that, by holding out as long as he did, "I think Denver got an unbelievably good trade out of this."

No, what you had, and what someone else got, isn't all that material. Especially if you got markedly better and you still have enough flexibility to improve if this vision doesn't come to fruition.

"We feel like we've done it without completely mortgaging the future," Griffin said. "People look at the number of picks we've given away, and everybody thinks, oh my goodness, you've given away the farm. Well, we had an unbelievable farm. So we were putting it to work. And we're really pleased with where we are now."

They better be.

Because that's how these deals, in the aggregate, will be evaluated.

That's where this could get tricky for the Cavaliers.

Griffin is correct they didn't go "all-in" with their chips. But their pockets are no longer particularly heavy either. By league rules, they can't trade their 2015 and 2017 first-round picks because they already assigned their 2016 selection.

They have only one second-round pick, the one they acquired in the Mozgov trade, prior to 2020. And the Brendan Haywood contract doesn't fulfill all of its valuable ($10.5 million) non-guaranteed glory until the summer, making it unwise to use it sooner.

The Cavaliers are essentially committed to this group in the near term, for better or worse, so the newcomers need to embody the sunniest of Griffin's assessments.

He acknowledged that Smith has been known as "volatile" but framed Smith's issues as largely off the court, not on, where "he competes on a consistent basis," adding that "from a human standpoint, we think J.R. is ready to take the next step. And everybody, I think, including J.R., would tell you this is the right place for him to do that."

(This came less than two hours after Smith described his playing philosophy succinctly and ominously: "When in doubt, shoot the ball.")

Sep 26, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt and general manager David Griffin address the media during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Griffin explained the organization's open, longstanding infatuation with Mozgov by characterizing the 28-year-old as "skilled in a way that I think people don't really understand," someone to pair with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, someone who has a relationship with coach David Blatt from the Russian national team, and mostly, someone who can battle the big centers such as Marcin Gortat and Jonas Valanciunas on the East contenders.

"I know it's not sexy," Griffin said. "Timofey fits. So his numbers don't need to be flashy. We've got three guys who are top-20 players in the NBA; those guys can be flashy. We need guys to do the [dirty] work."

And while he didn't speak much on Shumpert, except to say the Cavaliers would scale back some of the contact work as part of shoulder rehabilitation and wouldn't expect him to be ready to play for two to three weeks, James had spoken plenty about an hour earlier by comparing Shumpert's defensive potential to that of Chicago's Jimmy Butler.

No one has ever compared Waiters to him.

"We liked Dion a great deal," Griffin said. "I think what ended up happening for us is we got to a point where the fit of all the pieces we had, in terms of ball dominance, wasn't as good as what we hope this trio can be. And moving forward, the fit of this group that we just got paired with what we had should be good enough, in terms of how they meld together."

How will they all rub off on each other?

It better be the right way.

Otherwise, the Cavaliers may be stuck.

Griffin touted their contract situations as pluses in terms of creating some cohesion and continuity, notably the team's option ($4.95 million) on Mozgov next season as well as the right to match restricted free-agent offers to Shumpert. He even spoke in positive terms of Smith likely opting in to the $6.4 million he's owed next season.

The truth is, he wouldn't be in ideal position to replace any of them, not with so many assets already deployed, not with Kyrie Irving and Varejao already signed long term, and not with a need to address the futures of James, Love and, to a lesser extent, Thompson.

This is the core:

INDEPENDENCE, OH - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Love #0, Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers poses for a photo during media day on September 26, 2014 at the Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

James, Love, Irving, Mozgov, Shumpert, maybe Smith and Thompson, with role players such as Mike Miller (signed for another season), James Jones and Shawn Marion (both up after this season) likely to come and go.

Is that a championship core?

This season?

Griffin, as has been Cavaliers custom this year, pumped the brakes on those declarations, even as the Cleveland conditions are getting too slippery to bring them to a complete stop—after all these moves and after all the methods they exhausted.

"What I'm most proud of, and our front office is most excited about, is we've put together a team that can compete at the highest level, although it's going to take an awful lot of time now to get these new pieces adjusted," Griffin cautioned. "We're 13 new pieces in now. I think it's going to take a great deal of time."

It is reasonable to wait until James returns, and Shumpert after that, and perhaps a month or so longer.

Still, there should be some sort of payoff by the playoffs.

"There's a sense of urgency right now, for the second half," Griffin said. "We want to win games. Nobody in this organization is satisfied not winning. When I come up here and preach patience, I'm not saying let's accept losing. That's absolutely not what we're doing.

"But in terms of being the best team we're going to be, we have to acknowledge that it's going to take some time for all of those things to jell and to be the best we can be. But to say that it's got to look like a certain thing by a certain time, that's just not fair."

Basketball isn't, though, especially when you have arguably the planet's premier player, he's just crossed the big 3-0 and you just exercised most of your options to supplement him.

Even if the moves came with his approval—and he heartily endorsed them Wednesday—time will tick faster now.

The scrutiny will grow stronger.

Welcome to Cavaliers 2.0.

It better not have many bugs.