Cleveland wasn’t that home. The pressures of annually supplementing LeBron James with a contending roster mounted endlessly. “Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable,” Griffin says. “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.”
As champagne popped in the Cavs’ locker room, Griffin privately wept in an Oakland broom closet. A one-track mind had removed anything but delivering the city’s first championship in 52 years from consciousness. “I didn’t watch the league, and I didn’t love the game anymore,” Griffin says. “I was so fixated on outcome that I just totally lost my joy.” His NBA TV sidestep proved therapeutic. He rediscovered his passion for the game. An appetite to steer a franchise returned, the lingering bad taste from Cleveland crystalizing Griffin’s ideal next destination. “I was kind of chomping at the bit to do it right,” he says.
He was elevated to GM in February 2014, although everything pivoted once LeBron James decided to rejoin the Cavs that July. Griffin celebrated at first, then collapsed on his office floor in tears after James’ letter ran on SI.com, overwhelmed by the sudden pressure to deliver The King’s coveted ring. Noise around a superteam is deafening. It can cause combustible conditions. “The reason is LeBron is getting all the credit and none of the blame. And that’s not fun for people,” Griffin says. “They don’t like being part of that world.”
James’ string of one-year contracts held the franchise captive. Anything short of a championship was unsatisfactory. To chase those aspirations, Cleveland refurbished its bench with champions like Kendrick Perkins and Mike Miller, rather than replenishing its roster with hungry veterans still hankering for that first taste of a deep postseason run. Maneuvering the league’s most expensive cap sheet was nothing short of daunting. Gilbert loomed. Griffin’s misery creeped on top of the stress. “We won despite our culture to a huge degree. And I knew it. I knew what we weren’t doing,” he says. “There were so many things during that period of time that I wanted to do differently. If you make everything about, ‘It’s a destination. Damn the torpedos, I gotta get there,’ that might be the only time you get there.”
They of course found vindication in 2016, historically overcoming a 3-1 series deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. The following season, however, brought that fantasy summer crashing back to reality. James’ contagious hunger to deliver a championship for Northeast Ohio dissipated. “There wasn’t a lot else for him,” Griffin says. “I don’t think he’s the same animal anymore about winning.” Many in the NBA now suggest James harbors two priorities: enduring to team with his eldest son, Bronny, and one day owning a franchise.