New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin detailed the challenges of his three seasons working with LeBron James as Cleveland Cavaliers general manager, saying the experience was “miserable” and questioning James’ winning instinct in Los Angeles.
Griffin told Sports Illustrated for a story published Thursday that the annual challenge of building a title contender around James was too stressful, even if it did result in a championship in 2016.
“Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable,” Griffin said. “Literally the moment we won the championship, I knew I was gonna leave. There was no way I was gonna stay for any amount of money.”
Sources close to James told ESPN on Thursday they were “shocked” at Griffin’s characterization of the superstar. James seemingly addressed the Griffin story via a tweet Thursday without mentioning him by name.
Alright alright. Enough is enough. The throne has been played with to much and I ain’t for horseplay. Ether coming soon!
Former NBA center Kendrick Perkins, who played with James in Cleveland in 2014-15 when Griffin was the general manager (and in 2017-18 when Griffin no longer worked for the team), suggested Griffin should direct his disappointment at Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, not James.
Would Griff have any credibility if he wasn’t in the front office with Lebron on team? Griff for the last 2 years you praised Lebron for buying into the Culture in Cleveland and how professional he was and now your saying it’s inorganic?! Your real problem was Dan Gilbert!!!
Griffin and a person close to James spoke to each other after the SI story was published, sources told ESPN, and Griffin expressed that some context was missing behind his comments. James’ camp encouraged Griffin to clear up his stance on the record, sources said.
James’ contract structure with the Cavs might have contributed to the “inorganic” roster construction to which Griffin alluded. Upon returning to Cleveland for a second stint with the franchise in 2014, James signed a one-year deal with a player option for the second year. In 2015, he signed a one-year deal with a player option for the following season. And in 2016, rather than pick up the option after winning the championship, he signed a two-year deal with a player option for a third season. When his option year came up on his final contract with the Cavs, James became an unrestricted free agent and signed a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers with a player option for a fourth.
Griffin told SI that he believes James winning a title in his home state has affected his mindset on the court and wondered whether James is more preoccupied with other priorities.
“There wasn’t a lot else for him,” Griffin said. “I don’t think he’s the same animal anymore about winning.”
James may have fed into that perception during the 2017 playoffs, telling Cleveland.com he has “nothing left to prove” when reflecting on the 2016 title — his third, to go along with his four MVP awards. However, if James was content, it hardly showed when he played all 82 games in 2017-18 for the first time in his career and enjoyed one of his finest postseason performances, leading the Cavs back to the Finals before they were swept by the Golden State Warriors.
Still, in February — midway through his first season with the Lakers — James again framed his career in a way that would support Griffin’s assertion that James’ “animal” side might have dissipated.
“It’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” James said at a shootaround in Boston. “So everything else for me is just like icing on the cake, even though I love the process of everything that I go through to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to compete for championships. But there’s nothing that I’m chasing or that I feel I need to end my career on.”
Griffin told SI that he privately wept the night the Cavaliers won the title, saying he was so obsessed with winning that he “didn’t love the game anymore.”
He ultimately parted ways with the Cavaliers in June 2017, with his contract set to expire at the end of that month. The Pelicans hired him this April.
Prior to the split, James endorsed Griffin’s pursuit of a contract extension, telling ESPN, “It makes no sense why he shouldn’t get an extension. He’s pulled every move — he’s tried to make every move happen — to better this team to be able to compete for a championship. So we wouldn’t be in this position, obviously, without him and without the guys that are here — from the coaching staff to the players to Griff. He’s been a big piece of it.”
Griffin told SI that being in James’ orbit created a vacuum when it came to doling out credit.
“LeBron is getting all the credit and none of the blame. And that’s not fun for people,” Griffin said of the challenge of working with and playing with James. “They don’t like being part of that world.”
A source familiar with Griffin’s thinking said the Pelicans exec’s intention was to refer to the media machine surrounding James and simply acknowledge a byproduct of his immense celebrity, rather than blame James for creating the atmosphere.
James and Griffin have maintained a positive relationship since their time together in Cleveland. James went public with his disappointment when the Cavaliers parted ways with Griffin, and as recently as July, James took to Twitter to promote the business of Griffin’s wife, Meredith Hale-Griffin, to his more than 43 million followers.
Lakers teammate Kyle Kuzma told ESPN’s Cari Champion on Thursday that James’ offseason — the lengthiest he has enjoyed since the Cavs missed the playoffs his second season in the league — has given the superstar time to refocus for 2019-20.
“This offseason, you see just people slandering his name and saying this about him, saying that,” Kuzma said. “But you know, he’s been super motivated this offseason, working. Between shooting movies he’s in the gym. He’s in the gym early, night, whatever. So just being locked in. That’s the biggest thing … being ready for it all.”
Griffin has quickly reworked the Pelicans’ roster after losing Anthony Davis by building around No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. Griffin said he will continue adding players if the postseason is within reach this coming season.
“People are gonna be like, ‘What the f— are they doing?'” he said. “We’re trying to win basketball games!”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.