The question is not whether Chris Grant had to be fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Barring a magical turnaround, he wasn't surviving April regardless. Not after drafting Anthony Bennett No. 1, not after spending four top-4 picks in three years to get just one obvious long-term starter. Not after putting up the NBA's worst record since he took over in the summer of 2010.
Grant's contract expired at the end of the season, and with Cleveland on track to pick near the top of the draft again, it was highly unlikely Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert would have let it happen. By doing the job now, Gilbert lets a potential Grant replacement, David Griffin, run the trade deadline war room, which is a pretty good job interview, all told.
The question for the longer term, though, is whether the Cavaliers disappointed so greatly because Gilbert's own expectations were far out of whack.
More on Grant's firing
More on Grant's firing
Grant took over as LeBron James took off and after Mike Brown and Danny Ferry were fired. Grant was an internal hire, which is pretty odd in retrospect. Everything else seemed to represent a clean break around 2010, but Gilbert hired a Ferry deputy to run the team. You can hardly claim that Grant's rebuild began in 2010. His first draft with a high pick wasn't until 2011, and he was active both at the 2011 trade deadline (swapping Mo Williams for Baron Davis and the pick that became Kyrie Irving) and around the draft, just before the lockout (sending J.J. Hickson to Sacramento for Omri Casspi and a protected pick). Really, the Cavs' rebuild began three years ago this month.
That's precious little time to go from a ruined franchise built around a guy who just left to a new team. For comparison's sake, consider Sam Presti in Seattle and Oklahoma City. He took over in June 2007, the same month the franchise had the No. 2 pick in the draft. That's a huge head start, and Presti would have three more top-5 picks over those first three years. He nailed three of the four (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden), and did pretty well with the fourth (Jeff Green). Plus he nailed a late-first pick (Serge Ibaka) during that span. And the Thunder weren't better than awful until the third year of Presti's reign.
This was Grant's fourth season in charge, but really the third year of his active rebuild. The 2010-11 season was dedicated to stripping the car and getting a high pick or two. Presti nailed his picks and got good in Year 3 of his rebuild. Grant botched at least one pick, misfired a bit and got unlucky on two others, didn't do anything with his late-firsts and the Cavs haven't gotten good.
But Presti is an outlier; no one is building a team like the Thunder. To hold Grant up to that standard is to ask for the basically impossible. If Gilbert demands that much -- if he demands the impossible -- then fine. But that means he's going to be constantly disappointed, and his team's fans will suffer. You can't just snap your fingers and demand a contender. It doesn't work.
We do have evidence that Gilbert thinks building a contender is much easier than it has proven to be, though.
This is the fuzzy reality in Cleveland: Gilbert made it clear that the Cavaliers intended to be a playoff team this year, and it was pretty clear that Grant's job depended on it. That colored all decisions made in the offseason and since, from picking Bennett No. 1 in a shocker, to signing Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum, to hiring Mike Brown, to trading for Luol Deng.
By setting such clear, immediate playoff expectations for a club that was the third worst in the league last season, didn't Cavs management put inordinate pressure on one offseason at the expense of the entire rebuild? Grant spent three years methodically building his team, made a few mistakes along the way, realized he was running out of time and panicked to finish quickly. It didn't work. It rarely works.
Sure, you have to pull your team out of the cellar at some point. You can't rebuild forever. But in this case, the attempted leap may just have been premature by a year.
If Grant did this to himself, well, let's file this one away as a case of Lame Duck GM Goes Wrong. On the other hand, if Gilbert set the expectations that resulted in this, Cleveland needs to hope he's seen the error of his ways. Based on what Gilbert has said all along, it's a good bet that he created a lot of the pressure that cracked Grant's tenure.
There's a far less interesting but potentially more important side story to all of this: That of the GM's role in building team culture. The Cavaliers' locker room is said to be a mess. There is an obvious lack of on-court chemistry. How much of that is or should be on the general manager as opposed to the owner, coach or star player? (The star player, in this case, happens to be 21 years old.) Did Grant have a hand in allowing the Cavs' spirit to eat itself? It'll be interesting to see what emphasis Gilbert puts on the team culture end of the discussion when he hires a permanent GM.