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Why did David Griffin step down as Cavaliers GM? Because of Dan Gilbert

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Gilbert’s never extended a GM’s contract. This decision fits his track record.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

David Griffin walked away from his post as Cavaliers general manager on Monday. Griffin made it known in a text to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that he and team owner Dan Gilbert didn’t have the same vision of the future, citing a difference in opinion on “fit” moving forward.

The decision was made the same day Griffin entered trade negotiations with the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler and came on the one-year anniversary of the franchise’s first-ever championship. It was a move so unexpected, even Cavaliers players were thrown back, and LeBron James tweeted his appreciation of the former GM just before midnight:

Griffin wasn’t fired. His contract was set to expire June 30. Now the Cavaliers are reportedly discussing Chauncey Billups as president of basketball operations. But after Griffin put together a perennial contender in Cleveland — a team that won the championship in 2016 and came two untimely injuries short in 2014 — one question still remains:

Why?

Why allow a GM known best for his masterful manipulation of the collective bargaining agreement to walk at the end of the year? Why not extend a GM credited most for putting together the Cavs roster that defeated the 73-win Warriors two seasons ago?

The answer to that question is Dan Gilbert.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Just recently in February, Gilbert shook up Cleveland’s organizational structure. He fired Jeff Cohen as one of the Cavaliers’ vice chairmen and reduced Nathan Forbes, also a chairman, to duties away from the business aspect of basketball, according to cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon. Those two were once considered extensions of Gilbert within the front office. Now they’re on the outside looking in.

Gilbert’s decision not to keep Griffin — a front office exec highly regarded as a cap wizard around the league —didn’t come out of the blue. Rather, it follows a trend of Gilbert’s status quo of past years.

Look at his track record with past GMs

When Gilbert took control as Cavs majority owner in 2005, he hired Danny Ferry as general manager. Under Ferry (and LeBron James, of course), Cleveland flourished. The Cavaliers made an NBA Finals appearance in 2007 but ultimately didn’t have the firepower to get back within championship contention.

Cleveland was 272-138 under Ferry’s lead as GM. Then a month before his contract was set to expire, the Cavaliers released a statement: The two sides had parted ways.

Chris Grant was the next general manager to take control after Ferry’s departure. Grant was credited with drafting Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson in 2011 and Dion Waiters in 2012. He also selected Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall in 2013.

But Gilbert was impatient as Grant put together assets for the Cavaliers to build forward. He fired his second general manager halfway into the 2013-14 season and elevated Griffin into the lead role.

Griffin’s track record speaks for itself.

He drafted Andrew Wiggins in 2014 then traded him for Kevin Love to put another All-Star in Cleveland for LeBron’s return. He took advantage of the New York Knicks and acquired J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert for a pair of conditional second-round picks. He gave Smith and Thompson big contracts at the behest of his superstar and traded for Channing Frye last season. And when LeBron demanded more firepower this year, Griffin signed Deron Williams and traded for Kyle Korver.

There wasn’t much more Griffin could have done to put the Cavaliers in optimal position for success. After all, the Cavaliers fell short of repeating as champions to one of the best teams in league history. But he consistently appeased his star player while steering Cleveland out of the dull days following LeBron’s first decision to leave.

Gilbert robbed Griffin of job opportunities, too

It’s odd to hear about GMs defecting, especially not from the defending champions. But both the Hawks and the Magic requested access to interview Griffin for their own front office openings in May.

Gilbert declined those requests. Orlando hired Jeff Weltman in May, and the Hawks put Travis Schlenk in charge in June. Now Griffin doesn’t have a job, and the market’s dried up.

Gilbert also let Griffin’s assistant GM Trent Redden go ahead of his June 30 expiration date, according to cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon. Redden stayed on board with Griffin in a show of loyalty despite offers to join other teams.

In truth, the Cavs’ owner screwed Griffin out of the chance to lead another franchise to prominence. Gilbert wanted to keep Griffin on his own terms and was determined to do it his way. When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, he sucked the air out of potential jobs before kicking his GM out of the office.

Now, Cleveland’s future is in question

When it comes to the Cavaliers, it’s easy to say LeBron James is the ultimate decision-maker. And that may indeed be the case.

When LeBron wants something done, it gets done. And it’s usually Griffin who pulls the trigger on those deals, as he’s done each of his three seasons in Cleveland.

James liked Griffin. He suggested as much in April, when he said, “It makes no sense why [Griffin] shouldn’t get an extension.” Instead of heeding his star’s advice, Gilbert pushed the general manager out.

Now, it’s clear Gilbert is going to do things his way. He’s had GM after GM after GM, none of whom stuck around to see a second contract. He squeezed Griffin’s opportunities elsewhere only to let him walk two weeks before his contract expired.

This was unexpected to some, but it’s the way Gilbert operates.