To preview the NBA playoffs, we hopped on the phone with David Griffin, a former Turner Sports NBA analyst who, as of Friday, is the Executive VP of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Pelicans. This interview was conducted one day before news of that hire broke.
“The vast majority of the jobs that open aren’t attractive because they don’t fit who I am,” Griffin said then. “So if one were to be available that does fit who I am, I would be really excited to pursue it.”
Evidently, the Pelicans offered that type of job.
Outside of Griffin’s own future, we covered his thoughts on the upcoming NBA playoffs, why he’s bummed the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz are meeting so early on, how the Golden State Warriors overcome mental fatigue, scouting the Milwaukee Bucks, Kyrie Irving’s mindset, what it’s like to work with LeBron James, and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SB Nation: From your perspective, working over two decades in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers, how would you describe life on the front lines right now?
David Griffin: What happens during any NBA season is there’s a lull before the playoffs when you know you’re a playoff team. If the mark of success for your franchise is ‘we’re competing for championships’, the march to the playoffs feels totally different, much heavier. There’s a real drain on people emotionally heading into the playoffs because you just want it to hurry up and get here.
For teams for whom winning a championship isn’t a goal set, teams that acquitted themselves well by making the playoffs, it’s exciting coming down the stretch. You’re paying attention to what everybody else is doing, which is a lot of fun.
And it just becomes the NBA equivalent of March Madness for teams that are attempting to be in the playoffs, because every game matters so much. That’s fun. And it’s particularly fun when you have a young team and you’re seeing them grow within the cauldron that is expectations. It’s so much fun to see guys respond to pressure, and that’s a huge step that you need to see. You need to watch that happen and know that your young kids can do it. So from a front-office perspective, it’s exciting because you learn so much about what you’re really about.
Once you’re in the playoffs, oh my god, you hang on to everything. Every call is bad that goes against you. Every decision that gets made by anybody outside of your control is staggeringly difficult to accept. The league suspends somebody. The league fines somebody. Everything becomes so magnified in terms of its significance to you. It’s a very revealing process in and of itself.
And I think people tend to – when I say people, I mean fans and casual basketball fans – focus so much on results and outcome that they don’t focus on how much you learn about your team and the direction of your team in the process of competing.
SB: How interested are you in working in the NBA again?
Editor’s Note: This question was asked before the news that Griffin took a job as the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations.
DG: In the right environment, with the right ownership, I’m very interested.
I really feel like these jobs, for someone like me, are very much about finding your owner. And most situations recruit themselves. When you build a team and you build it well, it recruits itself. I feel like, in my situation, my career has sort of recruited itself. I’m really grateful that for literally every job that opens, somebody writes that I’m a candidate.
But the vast majority of the jobs that open aren’t attractive because they don’t fit who I am. So if one were to be available that does fit who I am, I would be really excited to pursue it.
SB: What is it like to be the GM of a team that employs LeBron James?
DG: The presence of a LeBron James is fantastic because it raises the stakes for everyone. For someone who does what I do, if you are consumed by winning and by championships, you’re a lot closer to one if he’s on your roster. From that standpoint, the excitement level ratchets up because you know you’re really playing for something.
That also means the pressure ratchets up, because failure is my fault. It’s not his. LeBron is someone who wants to hear what he needs to hear, because he’s consumed by winning. And that’s a great situation, when your best player is going to be your best worker, that’s a really significant issue.
SB: How significant is it when a really talented team—and you worked inside a few—doesn’t really flex their muscles throughout the regular season.
DG: So, teams that struggle their way through the regular season vs. expectations?
SB: Right. Throughout your time with the Cavs, everyone expected you to go to the Finals, and there would be slippage in the regular season. How much does something like that matter?
DG: It matters mightily if you’re planning on competing for a championship, because winning championships means that you had to be building positive habits.
When you’re not doing that, you’re just trying to make it to the finish line, like Golden State was this year, by way of example. They’ve been to four straight Finals, they’ve won three out of four, which means by definition they’ve had the shortest turnaround of every team in the league because they’ve done three parades. They’re the team that’s going to wear down the most as the season goes along, and so as a result, most of the time they’re not getting better. They’re not improving in areas that really matter.
So just limping into the playoffs as a team with high expectations is not a comfortable thing for the front office, because you want to see improvement in areas. Even if you’re losing games, it doesn’t matter. There are times that you can go into a game – and I’ve seen some of the better coaches in our league do this – [and say], ‘Listen, we’re gonna work on what it might look like to defend Milwaukee. So today we’re going to sag off of a non-shooter and we’re going to do X, Y, Z.’
And if you try that for a week of games and you lose them all, you can still be better coming out of that.
SB: That sounds like what the Houston Rockets did last year. They weren’t losing games, but their defensive principles were established to defeat one team.
DG: Yes, correct. And I think if you’re invested in that type of thing, you have a chance potentially, to get better even if you’re not winning games.
Unfortunately, with teams like Golden State, and like we were in Cleveland, it’s such a given that you will make it as far as you intend to in terms of your final matchup. A lot of people err on the side of health, and I was one of these franchises. We very much were erring on the side of health, because if we could get our three main guys to the finish line healthy and full of energy, we had a chance to win because we were so talented. Fully locked in and loaded, we were really, really, good.
I see Golden State as one of those teams now. To a lesser degree, I think Boston has struggled with that, really mightily. They’re so talented that I think they struggle with two different things: Lack of role acceptance and motivation. ‘Look we’re in the playoffs, let’s just get there, let’s be healthy and prove how good we are.’ And then Marcus Smart gets hurt.
So there’s things that are out of your control, but I do think their overall approach has been impacted negatively by the fact that they’re pretty young from a leadership perspective. And they just want to get to the part that mattered.
SB: You spent years with the Phoenix Suns, during a time when the narrative was that their playing style couldn’t succeed in the playoffs. Do you see any parallels to that, where people are skeptical of a system or a team that had a lot of success in the regular season, but there’s a belief they can’t get it done in the playoffs? I’m thinking about someone like Utah.
DG: Utah, Denver, and even Houston, to a lesser degree. It’s not an accident that Mike D’Antoni is the head coach in Houston and he was in Phoenix as well. He’s really bright. He’s very experimental. And he has intellectual curiosity. So he and [general manager Daryl Morey] are a perfect combination with the perfect player in James Harden.
They have literally reverse engineered the game of basketball to be that, ‘we will beat you possession by possession. And if James has the ball for 22 seconds on the shot clock, the shot he gets will be more efficient than the shot you get.’
And they’re right. They’re going to take a step-back three with very few passes involved, or they’re going to go to the free-throw line with very few passes involved. They’ll put you in the bonus and they’ll just beat you by the math. And people look at that and say ‘OK that’s fine but in the playoffs, the longer the season goes, the harder it is for James to carry the load.’ That’s a system that’s being questioned because of how much is asked of him.
But the two that stand out to me the most are Utah and Denver, and it’s because they’re zagging while everybody else zigs. They’re playing two traditional bigs a very large amount of their rotational minutes, and that’s really significant.
People say that it can’t work for Denver, because their best playmaker is their center. In Utah, people think it can’t work because they really only have one ball-dominant play creator and they don’t have a ton of floor space in shooting around him. So they’re trying to beat you with defense. So it’s really unfortunate that they’ve got to play the team they’ve got to play in the first round [laughs].
SB: Draymond Green said this thing about 16-game players vs. 82-game players. Would you say Utah is an 82-game team?
DG: Utah is a better playoff team because they don’t defend without fouling over the 82-game span as well as they can in a playoff setting. It’s a more physical brand of basketball that the officials let you play. So I feel like they’re potentially in a better position as a playoff team.
That’s why I’m so disappointed as a fan that they have to play who they have to play in the first round. If they got a more favorable draw, they could’ve won two rounds.
SB: What other differences do you notice between the regular season and playoff basketball?
DG: Pace. Physicality. The best players take you the furthest. It’s why when you have a true MVP candidate, it really reveals itself in the playoffs, and it’s why the award shouldn’t be voted on until after the playoffs. You can be an 82-game player and put up huge numbers and not win when it matters most. You’re not dictating outcome. The best players in this league dictate outcome in the playoff, and you really, really notice it when you’re locked in on a series.
When we played Indiana when Paul George was there his last year, every time he touched the ball, I thought he was going to score. He’s so good. It was mind numbing to me. And at the time, I said ‘Wow he might be the most underrated superstar in the league.’ Because he dictates outcome when it matters most.
When everybody’s revved up, when all the game planning is designed to stop them, you really see the translation of greatness. You see the gap between very good players who were called great before the playoffs, and great players who are transcendent in the playoffs.
SB: What do you expect out of Kyrie Irving in these playoffs, especially now that Marcus Smart is expected to miss a couple rounds? What do you focus on whenever you watch him play, both now and when you both were in Cleveland?
DG: When he was with us, I watched whether or not he avoided screens defensively. I was really locked in his playmaking aspect for others, when he could. Kyrie is a great player who made a transcendent shot in a series, and I’m hoping now that in the environment he’s in, he’s going to rise to the challenge of being a great winner.
I love the kid. I’m a huge, huge Kyrie fan. And I think he’s a truly great player, who will be transcendently good in these playoffs. I think people have not seen him be Kyrie, and what he’s capable of, for a long time, because the pressure and grind of being the front and center voice of a team is one he’s not natively good at doing, and that’s taken away his energy for what he loves to do.
When the playoffs start, you’re going to see Kyrie doing what he loves to do, when winning is the only thing that matters. I think he’ll be a killer.
SB: I want to go back to the style-related question I asked earlier about the Suns, but shift it towards the Milwaukee Bucks. What are your thoughts on that system, particularly on defense, and if it can work through four playoff rounds?
DG: The defensive side will translate for sure. Where I think they have exposure is through four playoff rounds of scouting and game-planning, you might be able to neutralize them offensively because their best ball-dominant play creator is not a shooter. That’s potentially a real weak spot, because the longer you give great coaches in our league to watch you play, and start to scheme to take away something that you do, the more vulnerability you have.
So in my opinion Milwaukee is a team that needs to put their first-round opponent away quick, and leave less on tape.
I felt the exact opposite about Cleveland going into the playoffs last year. I said before the playoffs started that Cleveland’s biggest threat was going to come in the first round. Because they had added so many bodies at the trade deadline that they didn’t know what it was going to look like. And they damn near lost in the first round. They had to go seven games to win. But because they had to play seven games to be galvanized, each subsequent series until they made it to the Finals was easier for them to be cohesive.
They needed that many games to find themselves. Milwaukee is the opposite. Milwaukee needs to put people away quickly and leave less evidence of how to guard them.
SB: Are there any series you have your eye on, be it for upset potential or matchup-related intrigue?
DG: I can tell you that Houston-Utah is really compelling to me. Not in terms of the potential for an upset, but in terms of the contrast in styles. These are two of the most stylistically unique teams in our league, and them playing against each other is fascinating.
San Antonio beating Denver is something that a lot of people will tell you is possible because of how veteran Popovich is. How veteran that Spurs team is. How young Denver is. That’s one I think is really compelling because it’s young vs. old. It’s the upstart vs. the grizzled vet. So that excites me.
The one that I look at and go ‘huh, that could be really interesting,’ is Toronto-Orlando.
SB: I’ve heard that from a couple people now.
DG: Orlando is young, but Clifford is not a terribly young, inexperienced coach. [Nikola] Vucevic is really, really talented and skilled. Their young kids are long and athletic and they can defend. They’re not going to be physically overwhelmed. I don’t think they beat Toronto, but I think they give Toronto more than they bargained for [laughs].
SB: As someone who faced the Warriors in three straight NBA Finals, how do you feel about that team today, now that you don’t have to compete against them?
DG: So even when I did compete against them, I thought they were a joy engine. When they’re at their best, Steph [Curry] makes a 34-foot three, he does the shoulder shimmy, has the big smile, everybody else smiles. Everybody looks at each other on the bench like. ‘Holy shit did you see what he just did?’ They function on joy.
This group has functioned on drama. They’ve been galvanized by negatives. This is a unique Warriors edition, and it’s because personal agenda has supplanted joy there. They’re so talented they may live to tell the tale, but I always believe truly great teams’ greatest threat comes from within. I think you’ve seen that all year with them. They’re vulnerable. And they’re vulnerable because they’re not entirely together yet, emotionally. That has been what it seems to me.
Now, having said that, they’re so talented. Kevin Durant is a two times in a row Finals MVP, dominating the other best player in the world. That’s a pretty powerful indication of how good you really are. He is redonkulously good. And because his drama is the drama everyone was relating to their struggles, he’s going to be the seven-foot version of Kyrie, only he’ll protect the rim.
SB: That sounds terrifying.
DG: He’s gonna put on a show in the playoffs.