There were no winners when LeBron James and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert parted ways in 2010, only dueling off-putting caricatures that took years to fade. On one side, James was painted as a me-first superstar who thought nothing of embarrassing his home team and state on national television. On the other, Gilbert lived down to the worst stereotypes of an entitled and scorned billionaire owner by publicly lobbing personal potshots at his former franchise player.
But if James decides to leave Cleveland for a second time, he will not find himself stuck in another public relations stalemate with the Quicken Loans founder. No, by refusing to re-sign David Griffin, Cleveland's popular GM, Gilbert just gave James the perfect cover story if he wants to bail for LA or parts unknown next summer.
While Gilbert painted the decision as “mutual” in a press release and Griffin copped to “fit” issues in a text to ESPN.com, this one can't be swept under the rug. Not when James publicly endorsed Griffin in recent months. Not when Gilbert prevented Griffin from interviewing for other since-filled front office vacancies around the league. Not when Gilbert has once again parted with an executive during an ownership tenure marked by persistent front-office turnover. Not when an organization whose very motto is “All In” apparently couldn't come to terms financially with the executive who constructed the only title-winner in the franchise's 47-year history. And not when James followed up reports that he was “disappointed” and “shocked” by Griffin's departure with a read-between-the-lines message of support.
“If no one appreciated you Griff, I did,” James wrote. “And hopefully all the people of Cleveland! Thanks for what [you] did for the team for three years. We got us one.”
Griffin's track record – headlined by James' 2014 return, Cleveland's 2016 title, and a second-place finish in the 2015 Executive of the Year race — speaks for itself. He succeeded in big ways and small, swinging the Kevin Love blockbuster and acquiring a laundry list of useful vets like Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye. Certainly, Griffin benefited from James' extraordinary play and magnetic ability to attract talent, but he never took those advantages for granted. He parted with multiple picks to land Timofey Mozgov in a move that proved crucial to Cleveland's run to the 2015 Finals, he fleeced New York for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and he made the critical decision to dump unbearable coach David Blatt midway through the 2015-16 season. During Griffin's three full seasons at the helm, Cleveland led the East in regular-season wins and accumulated an overwhelming 36-5 postseason record against conference foes.
As it became clear that the Warriors were changing the way basketball is played, Griffin modernized the Cavaliers' focus from the bump-and-grind of 2015 to a pace-and-space approach 2017. This season, James led the most efficient offense of his career, as Cleveland's shooter-heavy roster managed to make and attempt more threes than Golden State. June proved that the Warriors won this round of the arms race by adding Kevin Durant, but the Finals also revealed that the Cavaliers would have prevailed over any of the league's other 28 teams. True to form, Griffin proactively responded to the second-place finish by pursuing trades for All-Stars Paul George and Jimmy Butler this week, according to reports, even as his own future remained uncertain. Griffin therefore leaves Cleveland with peace of mind, knowing that he chased a title from the moment James decided to return in 2014 right up until his last few hours on the job.
Gilbert, on the other hand, should be headed for some sleepless nights. Initial reports indicate that he is targeting former NBA All-Star turned commentator Chauncey Billups as Griffin's replacement, a bold and risky move given that James is entering a contract year, Cleveland has limited salary-cap flexibility, trade talks involving big names have bene ongoing, and there are less than two weeks before free agency opens. There is no time for a first-timer like Billups to learn on the job or get up to speed. Griffin's replacement will face immediate and unrelenting pressure to keep pace with Golden State and appease James, but ultimately the blame for any managerial shortcomings will be passed up the chain to Gilbert.
Think about it. Who is truly at fault if Billups does something idiotic like trade for Carmelo Anthony? The rookie GM trying to make a splash or the experienced owner who broke up a good thing with little notice and no clear justification?
Although James might be bewildered in this moment, he knows better than anyone that he's come a long way since the jersey burnings in 2010. Whether one believes he needed to atone for The Decision, James put the traitor charges to bet for good with his spectacular performance in last year's Finals. The unprecedented comeback. The upset of a 73-win juggernaut. Cleveland's first title in a half-century. The Block. They eye-popping championship parade. Those memories define James' legacy now. “There isn't anything I have left to prove,” he said in May.
Gilbert made nice with James in 2014, tasted the champagne, ordered the ostentatious championship rings and shelled out monster luxury-tax payments, but the public will never view bankrolling a title team in the same light as leading one on the court. James has thoroughly rewritten his reputation over the last seven years. Gilbert's decision to part with Griffin and hang him out to dry only encourages observers to conclude that he's still the same petty, erratic man he was in 2010.
Earlier this month, the James-backed “Uninterrupted” released footage of the four-time MVP reflecting on his 2010 tiff with Gilbert, who famously accused James of a “cowardly betrayal” in comic sans. James said that his mother and wife were both initially against the idea of a return to Cleveland due to Gilbert's “disrespectful” comments in The Letter. “Let's not worry about the small s—,” James reasoned, before pointing to his ability to impact communities in Ohio. “Let's worry about trying to build something that's bigger than our name.”
By effectively forgiving Gilbert and swallowing his pride, James took the high road. By delivering a championship, James claimed carte blanche for any future free-agency decisions. Gilbert isn't exactly in position to roll out The Letter II next summer, is he? And who would have legitimate cause to blame James if he changed zip codes to chase another title? Not the Cavaliers fans who cheered him so passionately these past three years.
It's far too early to know what James will do next summer, whether he will re-up with the Cavaliers, chase Hollywood dreams with the Lakers or Clippers, or shock the world by assembling another Superteam in an as-yet-unannounced locale. But if he does leave, all he needs to do is point back to Griffin's dismissal and make a simple argument: “I grew. I changed. I tried not to worry about the small s— and I delivered the title. I'm trying to beat the Warriors and chase Michael Jordan. But Gilbert is still Gilbert and I'm not going to let him hold me back.”