Dr. J was not impressed. The 6-foot-6-inch Doctor of Dunk stood in the center of the dais with the most stoic of looks, arms crossed across his barrel chest. Representing a team that was among the worst in the league, Erving was flanked by an 18-year-old who was in the midst of becoming an Internet celebrity amongst male NBA fans, and her antithesis—a middle-aged, balding, bespectacled red head with a bow tie crammed into his chest pocket, a love for numbers and a knack for comic book references.
Though Erving was the largest man on the stage, the narrative was suffocating. The young lady, Mallory Edens, was the child of Milwaukee Bucks new co-owner. If recent history has told us anything in this copycat league, it’s that sending children to represent your NBA franchise tends to yield quality returns. When the pendulum swung the other way, David Griffin, the Cavaliers new general manager, represented a team that has done everything wrong, but continues to flourish—somehow—once ping-pong balls are introduced into the equation. The fact that Griffin was even invited to be among the final three was odds defying in and of itself1. That he would eventually walk away with a fist full of numbered plastic balls and a square placard with the numeral “1” on it—well, Dr. J’s look says it all.
The NBA Lottery has turned into professional sports’ version of a nationally televised court case. There is incredible innate curiosity amongst fans, but those in the room were not invited for their successes or right-doing. The league chooses to make the Lottery into an event, but to many others, it’s a nationally televised celebration of dysfunction. The in-Lottery diaglogues often come off as forced, focusing on anecdotal items like good luck charms as representatives sit behind podiums that appear to have been lifted from a late-80s presidential debate. Being chosen to represent your team is typically an honor, but one look at Phoenix’ Markieff Morris will tell you that his pastel suit wasn’t exactly worn with pride. There is tireless debate about the Lottery and which teams deserve what and how their peers should be slotted for the draft—a debate that only rages on amongst NBA fans who seem to forget how the other two leagues have effectively decided such slotting. And once the verdict is finally read, very few people—if any—actually win.
When the Cavaliers were deemed “winners” of the 2013 NBA Lottery, fans league-wide slapped the collective wrists of those who were representing Cleveland as the contingent dared celebrate the proclamation. A year later, with far fewer individuals in tow, the moment of the evening may have come when the No. 2 pick—which was awarded to the Milwaukee Bucks—where Griffin wasn’t exactly sure how to react. He began clapping feverishly above his head only to quickly realize that he was alone in his jubilation—there was no shouting from the crowd; there would be no ATTABOY DAVEYS. Bringing his applause to a slower pace and closer to his person, Griffin’s next reaction was to abruptly place his hands back behind his person and return his face to it’s previous emotionless form, as if he had never begun clapping in the first place. He turned to his left, looked up at the towering Erving and patted him on the back. Once Erving had extended his hand, a smile of relief graced the GMs face—it was OK to be happy.
The Cavaliers, as a team, finished with a record of 33-49. A marked improvement over seasons past, but one that was amassed in a manner antithetical to the immediate post-LeBron years. After compiling a roster full of rookie contracts and D-League hopefuls, the Cavaliers flipped the switch to Compete Mode and still fell short. Griffin’s predecessor, Chris Grant, was ousted after his team bottomed out against a lifeless Los Angeles Lakers team; Griffin’s reign would see the Cavs go 17-16 in a stretch that included the team’s All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving returning from an injury that the team very well could have let carry them—or limp—into the off-season. In his post-season addresses, Griffin spoke of needing players who were bigger, tougher and could hit open shots—these characteristics were, by no means, any revelation into new-fangled basketball thought as much as they were a referendum on the players he had been provided to this point. While Griffin would also say that his team was in “Targeted Acquisition Mode,” and that the NBA Draft was no longer the answer to his team’s problems, he was damned glad to leave Secaucus, New Jersey with the biggest asset of them all.
The Ghosts of Lotteries Past
“So, wow, that was fun,” Griffin said with a tone of someone who was the subject of a surprise party. When asked why he didn’t wear Nick Gilbert’s famous bow tie, opting to stuff in the chest pocket of his suit coat, he stated that “nobody else can swing Thor’s hammer.” But just as he had with his applause, the focus quickly turned to basketball and the future of the franchise now on his watch. “It’s a really defining moment for us,” he said. “We’re going to try to get radically better much quicker.”
Just as it has in years past, the next month will feature plenty of discussion around who the Cavaliers should take with their No. 1 pick. There’s the much-discussed Andrew Wiggins, the shooting guard who would have went No. 1 overall last season had he been able to leap to the NBA out of high school. There’s Jabari Parker, the small forward who, just a year ago, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the Next Big Thing. Don’t forget Joel Embiid, the center who has shown flashes of talent that usurp those of a young Dwight Howard. Or the team could deal the selection—if there’s any way to get “radically better much quicker” it’s to acquire a power forward with range who has played alongside your two-time All-Star point guard as members of Team USA.
And just as it has in years past, the next several months will feature those who want to make Tuesday night’s outcome some sort of referendum on the Cavaliers as represented by their front office or, worse yet, majority owner Dan Gilbert2 when in fact all luck or discussion of who deserves what should be turned to the fans who have packed Quicken Loans Arena for the last four years while the team they root for has perpetually tripped over themselves. Soon after the 2014 NBA Lottery came to a close, ESPN’s Bill Simmons proclaimed that the league needs “new rules,” which was essentially code for “anything that doesn’t reward any franchise other than the Boston Celtics.” He was tired of the “Karma for Cleveland,” he stated, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was not the fans who fired, re-hired and fired Mike Brown; it wasn’t the fans who passed on a bevy of big men in NBA Drafts past; and it surely wasn’t the fans who took the floor while the Cavaliers were losing 26 straight games in 2011.
David Griffin is a smart man. He may not have the legs of young Miss Edens3. He certainly doesn’t have the wingspan of Julius Erving4. But in his short tenure at the top of the Cavaliers’ front office, he managed to acquire a space-creating center. When his team fell short of their ultimate destination, he pulled no punches, calling spades spades and declaring that his team needs a massive overhaul, and quickly, because at the end of the day, it’s the fans of Cleveland who deserve a better product. In turn, while the Cavaliers’ ownership team searched for potential replacements as a general manager, they ultimately came back to Griffin who has married analytics with the eyes and ears required to find talent that not only plays well in isolation, but fits with the other pieces of the puzzle already in tow.
Philadelphia may have sent a legend; Milwaukee may have sent the next cast member of Dancing With the Stars. But it is Griffin who now holds all the cards. The team, deep in the rut of a four-year rebuild, will explore all of their options. They’ll bring every top prospect into Independence, working them out behind closed doors while one of the best hospitals in the country examines their potential medical issues. But the entire time, that balding, bespectacled middle-aged, red-headed man will keep his cards closer to his vest than ever before and will drain every resource he has to increase his odds of ensuring whatever decision the Cavs make is the right one. “I don’t think we’ll ever rule anything out,” said Griffin. “There is no such thing as an untouchable.”
We have officially seen what the Cavaliers can do when the odds are stacked against them. For the first time in a long time, it’s safe to say they’re finally in their favor. One can’t fault any Cavalier fans for being nervous. After all, this team has managed to make a mess of things in the past. But in the same, just as it was shortly after that No. 1 envelope revealed a Cavaliers logo, it’s OK to be happy.
The Bucks and 76ers had 64.2 and 55.8 percent shot at being in the top three, respectively. Cleveland, conversely, had just a 6.1 percent chance. [↩]
Who had to be notified of the Lottery’s outcome after he completed a speech he was giving at an event. [↩]
As reported by Mary Schmitt Boyer, growing up in Phoenix, Griffin’s biggest treat every year was going to the Suns game when Philadelphia and Julius Erving came to town. Tuesday night, Griffin stood next to Erving on the stage—and beat him in the lottery. Talk about a suffocating narrative. [↩]