The Cavs’ season got off to a rocky start, but the team rounded into form and looks like the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. The success this season is a far cry from the team’s results last year. The Cavs still have three games remaining this season, but with a record of 51-28, they already improved their win total by 18 games over last season’s and locked up the second seed in the conference. LeBron James returning to Cleveland was a huge factor in this year’s success, but that shouldn’t exclude GM David Griffin from winning the Executive of the Year award. Pat Riley was the co-winner of the award in 2011 after he successful recruited James in free agency, so there is some precedent involving James. Still, Griffin’s candidacy goes beyond The Decision 2.0.
Griffin was named the acting general manager of the Cavs in the middle of the 2013/14 season. His first trade brought Spencer Hawes to Cleveland in exchange for Earl Clark, Henry Sims and a pair of second round draft picks. Ownership clearly wanted to make the playoffs that season. While the move didn’t bring the Cavs closer to that goal, Griffin was able to follow the ownership’s directives without sacrificing crucial assets that would hinder the team’s ability to make moves in the future.
Leading up to James’ decision, Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com reported that he would insist upon a maximum salary contract. In order for the Cavs to have the means necessary to make the offer to James, they needed to unload salary. Griffin traded Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev to the Nets and Tyler Zeller to the Celtics in a three-way deal. Getting out of Jack’s contract was crucial to Cleveland’s long-term plan regardless of whether James ended up signing with the team or not. The move did carry an additional cost as the team had to send a first-round pick to Boston in the deal. However, given Cleveland’s likelihood of finishing with a strong record again next season, it is unlikely to be that valuable of an asset.
The day after the trade became official, James announced that he was signing with Cleveland. The news would dramatically shift the team’s objectives from hoping to become playoff-bound to winning the franchise’s first championship. That goal seemed to be in jeopardy during the early part of the season. The Cavs were struggling and James missed a stretch of eight games due to neck and back injuries. During that stretch, Griffin made two trades that turned the Cavs’ season around.
The Cavs shipped Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City in a three-way deal that netted the team J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and a future first-rounder from the Thunder. Griffin sent the Oklahoma City pick, along with Memphis’ first-rounder, which the team acquired in the 2013 Marreese Speights trade, to Denver for Timofey Mozgov and a second-round pick. Mozgov helped solidify the team’s defense and Smith and Shumpert gave it the depth necessary to compete with the league’s contenders. The Cavs have gone 32-9, which includes a 12-game win streak, since James returned to play alongside his new teammates.
The wildcard in Griffin’s case for the Executive of the Year award is the Kevin Love trade. The Cavs surrendered Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future first-round pick to acquire the UCLA product. Wiggins looks like a future star for the Wolves, while Love still doesn’t look completely integrated into Cleveland’s game plan. Love previously expressed his intention to opt in and stay in Cleveland during the 2015/16 season. However, there has been speculation that he will depart Cleveland in the offseason and over half of Hoops Rumors writers who voted in a recent poll believe he will leave town after the season. If executives around the league, who vote for the Executive of the Year award winner from among their ranks, believe that Love will leave in the offseason and Griffin gave up a potential star for a one-year rental, it will no doubt hurt his chances to take home the award.
The race for this year’s Executive of the Year award is unique in that the would-be front-runner for the award is ineligible for the honor. Because of his racially charged comments about Luol Deng, Danny Ferry, whose candidacy I previously examined, has not been nominated by the Hawks. Instead, Mike Budenholzer will be on the ballot for Atlanta, and a league source told Chuck Myron of Hoops Rumors that some GMs have spoken about abstaining from the vote because they won’t have the chance to vote for Ferry.
Regardless, some executive will win the award, and with perhaps the strongest candidate out of the running, and the potential that votes that would have gone to Ferry will simply not be cast, the door is open for another candidate to seize the award. Over the 14 months that he has held the GM position for the Cavs, Griffin has adapted to changing objectives, put together a team that has a good chance to win the Larry O’Brien trophy, and cemented himself in the conversation for the Executive of the Year award.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.