Assets are a great thing to have. Look no further than Ryan’s piece to show that the Cavaliers have plenty of them. The pantry isn’t barren. There are a number of quality ingredients in this organization, but good ingredients alone don’t bake a delicious cake or fix a good cocktail. Asset accumulation and talent acquisition were a big part of Chris Grant’s job description. It was the portion that he performed to a satisfactory or even above-average degree. However, it’s the team-building aspect of how all those assets— how all those ingredients are measured, at what stage they’re added, and how long they’re allowed to mix together before going into the fiery oven of expectations, or the ice-filled glass of criticism—where Chris Grant failed.
A lot of people seem confused or worse at Dan Gilbert’s remarks from Thursday following the news of Grant’s firingbeing made public. Gilbert stated that he believed the Cavs have the talent and the coaching required to be a successful team. People took that statement as saying the team which Chris Grant assembled is simply under-performing. Most would point the finger at Mike Brown for such an occurrence. While Mike Brown’s not exempt from criticism, and his day may very well come before Opening Night 2014, it’s not as simple as that. What I think Dan Gilbert was saying is that Brown has talent, but it clearly doesn’t fit together. In that regard, there’s only so much that a coach can do in terms of motivation, playing time, and lineup shuffling. Gilbert has made his statement, assigning Grant the most blame for the predicament in which his team currently is. Still, that doesn’t mean that if Brown can’t get his team, in whatever permutation it is in following the trade deadline to consistently play well—if he can’t prevent the embarrassing losses from occurring on a weekly basis—that he won’t be gone too.
The two most damning quotes for Grant were interlaced among a lot of things that Gilbert wanted to make sure he got across about culture, championship aspirations, and improvement during the rest of the season. At one point, Gilbert said, “Clearly, we have had some issues putting it all together.” He followed that up a few minutes later by saying “I think we’ll be aggressive at the trade deadline.” If the team is planning on being aggressive, it’s understandable why you make this move now, even given Grant’s track record of winning most of the trades that he makes.
“We have what we need,” Gilbert added. “That’s why there’s such a gap and the disappointment is so large. Versus what we have and the expectation which I think is rational, based on what we have, clearly the win-loss record is nowhere where anyone thought it would be.”
There is absolutely no good reason for this team to be playing at the same clip as last season having added three rotational free agents, two first-round picks, and an All-Star to support a young core of first-round picks. This is all while staying remarkably healthy.
“You had better be right” is something I heard my father utter more than once on NBA Draft nights over the past three years. It happened with the Tristan Thompson pick that came on the heels of him rocketing up the draft board from the middle teens; then it was the Dion Waiters pick that reportedly had heavy Byron Scott involvement, and came without an interview; and finally, the pièce de résistance in the overweight, injured, and apnea-stricken Anthony Bennett. Each time, it was Chris Grant doubling down on his approach to the draft, going for that home run pick. If Dion Waiters becomes a backcourt sensation alongside Irving, if Tristan Thompson rounds out offensively, or if Anthony Bennett becomes Larry Johnson, Grant rises to the level of superhuman genius and people no longer question his methods.
I can’t really blame Grant for any of his picks in a vacuum. I preferred both Jonas Valanciunas and Harrison Barnes over Thompson and Waiters, respectively, at the time. Part of that was the Cavaliers had J.J. Hickson at the time of drafting Thompson, and already had a smaller guard that dominated the ball in Irving. But I trusted the Cavs front office that they knew these guys better than I did, and had good reason for making those selections. When it came to Bennett, you had injury situations aplenty, and even more positional clashes to navigate at the top of the board. But the simple fact that Grant got next-to-nothing out of a fairly healthy Bennett for the first half of the season was the final straw.
Grant built this team like he was flipping a house. Outside of Kyrie, it seemed like he wanted to acquire young, high-upside players who could be traded for a huge piece to pair with Irving. But, the thing one can forget about when reducing players to assets is the risk of those pieces not fitting on the current roster, inherently driving down the value of guys who may flourish in another situation. Wouldn’t Dion Waiters be much better off with a point guard who didn’t constantly need the ball in his hands or with a strong perimeter defender to play alongside? Wouldn’t Tristan Thompson benefit from playing in conjunction with a more traditional center, one who blocks shots, finishes strong, and bodies up players? Tell me that if Grant had, instead invested in a legitimate small forward earlier in this season or any year prior, that this team wouldn’t have a different feel right now. Instead, the Cavs will end up trading one of their young players at the market price of what they’ve shown on this toxic team rather than being based on what their potential is. I fully believe that Waiters and Thompson will be good NBA players for a long time, but I don’t know if they’ll ever maximize their potential as Cavaliers. That’s on Grant.
Winning trades is just one part of being a general manager. You also have to draft well. You have to assemble those assets—those winning pieces—in the right order, and at the right time. You see it all the time when players change jerseys only to suddenly be a better “fit” with another team. The exact opposite often happens too (Hello, Jarrett Jack!). As Sam Vecenie so eloquently pointed out over at Fear The Sword, you can’t damn Grant alone for choosing Tristan over Valanciunas, or Waiters over Drummond, but when both have panned out and proved to be better long-term center prospects than anything that you have, it hurts.
Grant’s failures have left this team with no shortage of questions. Can Mike Brown and Kyrie Irving coexist? Can Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving coexist? Can the Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving coexist? The last thing Dan Gilbert wants to do is look like an idiot and fire Mike Brown after one year. Mike Brown has his shortcomings (like inbound plays and offensive X’s and O’s, for instance), but to me it’s even more irresponsible that Grant both hired Mike Brown and then failed to give him any elite defenders. Drafting Victor Oladipo would have done that. Signing players that could defend in free agency would have done that.1 Grant knew exactly the type of players who Mike Brown needed to have an effective defense, yet he drafted (and then kept in place once Brown was hired on) core players with either defensive shortcomings or size issues at their position—and in some cases, both.
Ultimately, it comes down to what Chris Grant failed to give this team (three point shooting, great defenders to cover for Kyrie) and what he overvalued (ball-dominant guards and athletic-but-undersized big men) that sealed his fate. It will be up to David Griffin in the short term, and probably someone else in the long term, to take the asset inventory and turn it into something resembling a more fitting picture, rather than jamming pieces together until they lay flat on the puzzle board.
(Image via David Liam Kyle/NBAE Getty)
- Jack could be the team’s worst defender, Bynum at a step or two slow was getting killed in pick and rolls, and Clark is only average when forced to toggle between covering small and power forwards. [↩]