I have been frankly appalled by the simplistic analysis rendered by so many of the media after the recent decision by Dan Gilbert to fire Chris Grant. Although this type of criticism of a powerful figure sells “papers” and radio sound bites, it rings hollow when broken down with logic. I get the impression that the usually placid media in Cleveland have been reveling in the joy of second guessing struggling franchises. In most cases, I am right there with them. In this case, I can not add to the din of distrust they have spewed out.
Let’s first look at the decision itself and how it makes perfect sense. Then I will expand that by going into some specific criticisms and addressing them. I recognize that this is now “old news” but the media continues to maintain simplistic criticisms even as of last night on the radio with Bill Livingston. Not to throw Livingston under the bus as he is one of the most balanced commentators out there. It is just that the media “marvels” at the fact firing the GM might actually energize the players and allow them to play better. The GM does not coach them nor does he interact with them consistently (I will address my speculation on that later) so how could firing the GM possibly be the right move? To all of those media and fans in “wonderment”, I will do my best to explain it in a workable way.
Dan Gilbert is the CEO and majority owner of the Cavs. As a CEO and owner, you must think like an owner or CEO to make competent decisions. Most of us have never been placed in that position and are unaware of the proper way to publicly and privately portray tough decisions. It is clear that Gilbert was fed up with the status quo and felt he must step up to make a change. Most of the media felt that the obvious sacrificial lamb in this public execution needed to be the head coach. He was the one leading the team on the court and it was on the court that the Cavs had under performed and remained uninspired. The fans and media thinking that were, of course, correct about the play of the team on the court and the lack of clear and consistent effort by the players. Certainly it was not apparent that the General Manager was not performing up to expectations. so why make the GM the fall guy in this mess and not the head coach or demand that this under achieving team get broken up?
The difference here is that Dan Gilbert, no matter what you might think of him, is a very experienced and competent owner. He owns with his group dozens of companies and must find a way to navigate them to success. So, just like everyone is excited about the Indians finally getting an experienced and successful manager on the field, the Cavs have a very experienced and successful owner upon which to base their operations. As an owner, I think he saw the same on the court flaws that we all could see. Now, do you think those terrible performances were because the coach was not telling them the right things to do or because the players were not accepting the message from the coach? Or was it because they accepted the message and did not have the skill or intelligence to execute the game plans put before them? Gilbert knew Brown was a tireless worker. Many have commented on how no one outworks Mike Brown as a head coach. By all reports those who have spoken with Brown acknowledge how detailed and high level his knowledge is of the game of basketball. So Gilbert, after weighing all of those factors, decided that to fire the coach who had had less than a year to drive his message home was ill advised and would send exactly the wrong message to his players. Remember, he had seen Byron Scott preach many of the same things about heart and effort and desire for three years without any budge from the players.
So….. if it is the players that couldn’t receive the message of how to be a professional and how much effort it takes, then the message needed to be sent to the players when the ax came down. That can be done by breaking up the team and “selling low” to get the pieces rearranged. Even that may not work because if key pieces remain that don’t understand the importance of driving relentlessly at a goal, you will still fail even with some new pieces. Also, the other teams in the NBA would be perfectly happy to rip off the Cavs when they knew they had entered a “fire sale” just to change the culture of the players. That would have placed the Cavs in a terrible position of leverage and Grant would not be able to hold other teams for ransom as he had done in the past with trades. Also, Chris Grant’s reputation of “overvaluing” his players would be awful if the team needed to be broken up. Seeing all of that, Gilbert recognized that keeping the same management and breaking up the team would be messy and would devalue his team in the short and long term. That was a place that he decided he didn’t want to go.
The other way to send the message directly at the players is to fire the man who hired them. Anyone who has worked at a business knows that if the man that brought you there is terminated, you could be next. That situation is completely out of your control. In other words, you could be traded to another crappy team or a good team. If your role with the team increased compared with the Cavs, you probably got traded to a crappy team. If your role with the new team decreased substantially, it might be a good team but your standing as an individual player could drop. Since the Cavs have a ton of young players, they would have almost no say in what fate lies before them. So you need to decide, make a situation that you are already in better or keep screwing up and giving poor effort so you can suffer a completely unknown fate with a new team. You might say the veterans would see this as an opportunity to get out and that chance could be improved by playing with poor effort and going to a better team. The problem there is that the veterans on this team have matured to the point that this childish logic is not part of their DNA. Jack, Miles, Deng, and Andy simply can not bring themselves to take that coward’s way out. So, if Gilbert gauged his players maturity correctly, that result was highly unlikely.
Of course it was the GM that “hired” all of those players by trades, free agent signings and drafting. The players know this and can’t help but respect the man who “wanted” them on his team. Dion Waters said exactly that after the firing. Now they had a new GM who they didn’t know as well but were stuck with the SAME COACH. They didn’t know what the new GM thought of them and even what the owner thought of them after Grant was fired. That kind of uncertainty challenges people. They either decide to fight to make it better or sink further to the bottom. Sometimes it is this kind of a test that finally wakes talented young people up and they decide to take another path from the one they were taking. What decision the players took would become obvious fairly quickly and Gilbert was hoping that might clarify who they had to move, if anyone.
Firing the coach would have sent EXACTLY the wrong message. That would simply say that “you guys are fine” we just haven’t found the coach talented enough to lead you. We have kept all of you but fired the coach who was sending you the message about hustle and defense and effort and intensity. Gee, that was the same message sent to you from Byron Scott so it must be the wrong message. We will simply change the coach, change the message, and you guys will be just fine. We are on our way to the playoffs!! For all of you that favored firing the coach instead of the GM, can you see how that message would have been completely wrong and misguided? It is the players that needed the wake up call and not the coach! I am not a big Mike Brown fan and, in fact, was not particularly comfortable when they hired him. But I can certainly see the folly in firing him after less than one season and sending that message of acceptance to the players. It made infinitely more sense to fire the GM who brought all of those players to Cleveland and send them the message that this is not acceptable.
I can go on and on why this decision made so much sense. But I would be remiss if I didn’t address now the most illogical objection to the GM firing that has been repeated over and over and over again to the point of my nausea. It is like everyone just parroted the logic and accepted it as fact even though it is illogical itself. After the firing of the GM, Dan Gilbert said that he liked his coach (Mike Brown) and his players. That he BELIEVED in them and thought they could turn it around. That has been universally panned as illogical and a sign that Gilbert is out of touch. Again, you need to think like a CEO or owner to understand this logic. The common logic says “Well, if you like the players and the coach, why fire the man who put them together.” Here is why. After you make a dramatic decision as a CEO such as firing the man charged with running the basketball operations, you need to decide what message you want to send publicly next. If you imply that the coach might be next and you are not confident, the players continue to tune him out thinking he is a lame duck anyway. As the owner, you can’t afford to send that message or anything close to that message. So it would have made no sense to say anything negative on that topic. You want the players to know that “Mike Brown is going to be your coach so you had better get along and make the best of it.” Secondly, what sense in any way does it make to imply that you don’t like your players and that you think they will fail? What CEO does that? I can tell you that a smart CEO does not do that because the message has already been sent publicly by firing the head of basketball operations. Now you need to build up your troops and support them publicly. Privately, you will charge your new GM to do other things to send personal more individual messages to your players and coaching staff. Make no mistake about it, I am 100% certain those messages were sent. And I don’t mean all negative messages. I am sure that many of them were positive and productive.
So, while the press would have been overjoyed if the CEO took pot shots at everyone including the coach and the players in his press conference, he absolutely would have been a moron to do so. That approach would have been similar to the infamous “LeBron comic sans letter” that he wishes he had never sent. It makes for headlines but it undermines the fabric of the very organization he has spent so much money to grow and promote. As a fan, I might have liked him to challenge everyone in his presser but as a leader I realize it makes no sense at all.
Now that I hope I have debunked the most public objection to Dan Gilbert’s decision I want to talk about some of the subtleties that makes it the right first step toward placing the organization on solid footing. First of all about Grant. Most observers had no real objection to Gilbert firing Grant. It is just that they felt others were more deserving of the ax (eg Coach Brown). Grant had been with the organization longer and had placed his stamp on it more than any single individual. Despite that fact, other organizations had clearly leapfrogged the Cavs in their development with arguably fewer “assets” and certainly not as much luck. The Cavs won TWO draft lotteries under Grant’s tenure. Plus, most agree that Grant had garnered a reputation of overvaluing his players and trying to “outsmart” other GMs. Powerful people do not like to be made to look stupid and Grant, actually by accident to a degree, had done that a couple of times. Gilbert probably knows but we don’t know how many trades Grant did not make when put before him that might have propelled the Cavs forward. This is speculative but it is certainly plausible. What is less speculative is that Gilbert may have known that Grant’s reputation around the league could hinder his ability for future trades. Some GMs have been quoted as saying they would avoid talking trades with Grant. Finally, from a “culture” standpoint (something also panned by the media when Gilbert mentioned it with the firing), Gilbert probably saw it deteriorate under Grant this year. Even at his last press conference as GM, I thought Grant sounded smug, distant and detached from his and the team’s detractors. He almost acted like he was “above the crowd” on this and that he knew the way even if we didn’t. That detached attitude might have been privately manifest as well with less personal contact with the players and the coach. I think Grant had been distancing himself from this job for awhile based on what I could see. If true, Gilbert’s changing the culture comments may not have been as far off as some speculated after his press conference.
Gilbert had also gotten to know David Griffin through his several years with the organization. He knew that he was more of the “go out and touch” kind of guy in terms of his management style. I get the impression Gilbert is similar. That is a good fit. Also, Gilbert had undoubtedly asked around the league about the reputation of Griffin before making the switch. For those who think Gilbert has not been contemplating this move for awhile, I would beg to differ. He was just waiting for the proper time to pull the trigger where it would have the greatest impact. If the team had improved, he would have waited. When the team was embarrassed by a depleted Laker team, the time was right.
Griffin, who I hope Gilbert retains for the long haul, has the right approach to young players IMO. He will privately let them know what he expects of them and what might happen if they cannot produce results. I am also certain the same type conversation occurred with Mike Brown and his coaching staff. This is the “culture change” Gilbert was referring to based on what Griffin himself said about his “different” approach from Grant. He clearly distanced himself from the “hands off” approach, which implied that may have been Grant’s style. The often speculated conversations that he supposedly had with Kyrie and Dion makes perfect sense based on what we have seen since he took over. It is speculated that he took Kyrie and Dion aside separately or collectively and told them that the club had no intention of trading either one of them and he felt they BOTH were core pieces going forward. It is my opinion that Dion and Kyrie have wondered that ever since Dion was drafted. They can not help to have heard the incessant chatter in the background from ESPN and other media sources saying that they were a “bad fit” together and both needed the ball so they did not belong on the same team. Now it may turn out that it is entirely true that Dion and Kyrie can not coexist on the same roster, but Griffin sent the exact right message going forward to allow him to see if that is true. Similar to why Gilbert could not trash the coach or players after firing Grant, Griffin needs to see if Dion and Kyrie can coexist. So he told them, you WILL coexist so see if you both can make the best of it. If it fails, then one will be gone but we will all know why and can live with the result. So can Griffin and Gilbert if that happens. What has happened is a much more cohesive Kyrie and Dion on the court, a much more public display of support from each player for the other, and a private practice Friday before the All Star festivities. Those are all good first steps.
The Cavs needed to send a message of accountability throughout the organization and the clear leader of the company needed to emerge to make that happen. Gilbert did just that at the right time and sent the right message. This is just the beginning. My analysis of why Gilbert was right has no connection to the current 4 game win streak. Although welcomed, it can be just as short lived as many other signs of hope we have seen. I am absolutely certain that Griffin, Brown, and each player will be held accountable for the results. And, if the results don’t improve, then more definitive action will be taken. No one is safe. No one should be coddled. I think Gilbert sent that message loud and clear. Let’s hope he will follow-up with whatever is necessary to stabilize the ship going forward. Because the changes MIGHT have just begun.