David Griffin and LeBron James spent three successful seasons together with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but despite the championship that they won, it is not a time that Griffin remembers particularly fondly. He told Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated that he "was miserable" during his tenure running the Cavaliers, and that he knew he was going to leave the team "literally the moment we won the championship."
The issue, as Griffin described it, boiled down to the impact James had on the franchise. He called everything the team did in hastily constructing a roster around James "inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun." In the traditional sense of building a roster, Griffin had a point. The Cavaliers missed the playoffs the year before James arrived. They were expected to win the championship the moment that he signed rather than following the more traditional path of developing over several years.
They eventually won that championship, but Griffin questioned James' dedication after that. "I don't think he's the same animal anymore about winning," Griffin told Sports Illustrated. James reportedly took umbrage with that notion. Sources close to James told ESPN that they were shocked by Griffin's words, and the superstar himself tweeted the following message just hours after the story was released.
Griffin was not pleased about the news cycle that the story generated, and he appeared on Friday's episode of "The Jump" on ESPN in attempt to clarify what he felt were quotes that were taken out of context. In Griffin's mind, the controversy surrounding the story is proof itself of what made him so uncomfortable with the Cavaliers.
"Well, first of all, the fact I am even needing to do this at all, or felt compelled to do this, really speaks to the original point I was trying to make in the piece and, obviously, did it very poorly. The whole backdrop of that conversation was about the noise around that Cavaliers team and the media portrayal of all of it. The fact that there was so much scrutiny in everything that we did. When I was speaking about being uncomfortable and, quote, being miserable it was my inability to deal with that media scrutiny. It wasn't the man himself. It was everything that came with a team led by LeBron James. It had nothing to do with being miserable with LeBron. We had and have a very positive relationship so that was one issue."
As far as James' desire to win goes, Griffin took some degree of responsibility in terms of motivating his team, but also noted that James has acknowledged himself that things changed after that championship.
"One of those things I took ownership while talking about this, and I have done so, I believe even on Woj's pod, is that I failed miserably in getting everyone to the right sense of urgency following the championship. My belief at that time was there's no way anyone can be born in Akron, Ohio, deliver the first championship in 52 years to Cleveland, Ohio and be the same human being. It's not possible. You're a person. You're a human being. My fear at that time was that he wouldn't have that same animal-like desire to win and what we've seen, obviously, is he's gone to multiple Finals since. So, it was an unfounded fear I had at the time. But the article doesn't give you the context that I was talking about that particular point in time. And, again, ironically LeBron, himself, has addressed this subsequently to that point in time and said he doesn't have anything left to prove and things similar to that. So, again, this wasn't new information it was just presented in such a way that made it sound like I'm currently saying that and that is not at all what took place."
For Griffin, the attention and criticism of leading a team that became the NBA's marquee franchise overnight simply grew overwhelming.
"Again, it was my inability to deal with all of the scrutiny around that team. Everything was so much in the public eye all the time. That was not an enjoyable process. When the only thing that marks success for an organization is winning a championship, that's not a terribly enjoyable thing. Now, having said that, nobody cares whether or not someone's miserable, enjoys what they're doing. We were really blessed to have people in our lives like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and LeBron that were playing at a really high level and a coach like Ty Lue. That was obviously a journey that was well worth going on. But all of the noise around it really sapped a lot of the joy from it and the piece does touch on some of the things about you become so caught up in results every single day that your joy for the game of basketball got sapped a little bit. I learned a lot from that.
But it was very inorganic because what we did, and Dave you were with us in Cleveland and saw it happen firsthand, we went from a team that was in the lottery multiple years to a team LeBron comes back to and you must win a championship right now. Well, you can't do that in a sustainable way. It's damn the torpedoes, let's go win right now. That's not an enjoyable process from a team-building perspective because it's not sustainable and it is totally inorganic. The piece goes into some detail about comparing and contrasting, by way of example, how Golden State got to go through the process. Learning how to win together. Learning how to lose together and deal with that and then go forward. We didn't get that opportunity and so that was not a terribly enjoyable aspect of things."
Griffin now gets to build a team organically. New Orleans is one of the NBA's smallest markets. He used the Anthony Davis trade to load up on draft picks. Not much is expected of the Pelicans in a loaded Western Conference in 2019-20 but he has a young core that can be developed over time and supplemented with the kinds of veterans that Griffin sought out this season.
Griffin has made it clear in multiple interviews that this is the sort of situation that he wanted. It is the one that most general managers get. Having James is a blessing in many ways, but patience is not one of them. Even if James himself isn't causing problems, the circus that surrounds him ultimately threatened to engulf Griffin. He took extreme steps to clarify the difference in this interview.