Dan Gilbert has been the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers since 2005, and in that time the franchise has enjoyed its most success ever. Since Gilbert took over, the Cavaliers have made nine trips to the playoffs, which was highlighted by their first and only NBA Title in 2016. But to give Gilbert credit for this run would be asinine being that he has done more to stand in the way of his own team’s success.
The Cavs lucked out in 2003 when they received the first overall pick in the NBA Draft which allowed them to select small forward LeBron James. James would forever change the fortunes of this moribund franchise as he put this team as well as the City of Cleveland on his back. And James did this in spite of Gilbert.
In 2010, James would send shockwaves throughout the basketball world when he decided to leave in free agency in order to join the Miami Heat. James’ departure was due to his growing frustration of being unable to win a title win a title with the Cavaliers, and he felt that his chances of winning would immensely increase with the Heat. That theory would come true in Miami as James would win consecutive titles with the Heat in 2012 and 2013.
But while James was tasting championship glory in Miami, the Cavs were at the opposite end of the spectrum. Cleveland once again became a lottery team which was far from being competitive. Without James, the Cavaliers never won more than 33 games which was not good enough for them to qualify for the postseason in a weak Eastern Conference. And the struggles of Cleveland gave us an opportunity to see the true colors of Gilbert.
Immediately following James’ departure to Miami, Gilbert publicly criticized the move, and even referred to the star player as being “gutless”. Gilbert’s frustration didn’t stop there as he also claimed that his Cavaliers would win an NBA Championship before James won one with Miami. Gilbert even displayed a letter disparaging James on the team’s official website, and he was also critical of the superstar leaving without him getting anything back in return. However James left Cleveland via a sign-and-trade which actually netted the Cavaliers multiple draft picks. And in an unprecedented move, the Cavs would “luck” out and receive the first overall pick in the draft an unprecedented three times in four years.
This new arsenal of young talent in Cleveland would catch the eye of James which would entice him to leave Miami in 2014 as a free agent and rejoin the Cavaliers as draft selections such as small forward Andrew Wiggins were used as trade bait in order to acquire power forward Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. And in the process, fences were mended as James and Gilbert would work things out in order for the superstar to return to Cleveland.
James’ return to Cavaliers would immediately boost the image of the team. The Cavs were once again a title contender, and his first season back in Cleveland would see them return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007. In total, the Cavaliers would make four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals where they would clash with the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, they would come up short against the Warriors in three of those four meetings with the most recent showdown last month resulting in a sweep by Golden State. And as James exited the court towards the end of Game 4 at the Quicken Loans Arena, you knew that it would be the last time that he’d be wearing a Cavaliers jersey.
When James opted out his contract with the Cavaliers recently, he didn’t even meet with the team to talk about a new deal. James would ultimately decide to join the Los Angeles Lakers as both sides agreed to a four-year deal for $154 million which marked the end of his run in Cleveland. And thus the Cavaliers now have to deal with the indubitable notion that they ran off the best player in the NBA not once, but twice. And that blame for that starts and ends with Gilbert.
Under Gilbert’s ownership, the Cavaliers have never renewed the contract of a general manager. This is the result of Gilbert not wanting to have to pay his general managers who are always among the lowest paid executives at their position in the NBA.
A prime example of this can be found with David Griffin who began his tenure with the Cavaliers in 2010 as the team’s vice president of basketball operations. In 2014, Griffin would become the Cavaliers general manager following the firing of Chris Grant.
With Griffin calling the shots, the Cavaliers were able to win the NBA Championship in 2016 which was the result of several key signings in free agency as well as trades. However after the Cavs won it all, Gilbert would lament the fact that he had to pay the luxury tax due to the team’s large payroll. And when Griffin’s contract with the Cavaliers was up last summer, Gilbert allowed him to walk which came at the most inopportune time.
Griffin was attempting to work out potential deals to acquire either small forward Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, or swingman Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls when he was let go. And while the Cavs didn’t have a general manager, George would get traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, while Butler would be shipped to the Minnesota Timberwolves. During this time point guard Kyrie Irving also let Gilbert know that he wanted to be traded which resulted in him being dealt to the Boston Celtics. This inability to land another All-Star, while also losing Irving was the result of not having a general manager who could call the shots and smooth things out. These moves drew the ire of James who went to bat publicly for Griffin to get a new contract, and it all but solidified the fact that he would leave town this summer which is what happened.
All of this was the result of Gilbert being cheap as he like most business owners that operate under the banner of capitalism feel that they can put anyone in a position and the business will remain successful. However that is not always the case which you can clearly see with the current state of the Cavs.
So Gilbert is going to get his wish as he wanted to “regain control” of his franchise since he was tired of spending money and giving in to James and some his request that would keep the Cavs competitive. Instead Gilbert is going down the road that most owners of professional sports franchises choose to go which is that they don’t care about winning, as it more about making money.
There is no replacing a player of the caliber of James as he is a once in a lifetime talent. Gilbert decided to take the high road this time around as instead of criticizing James, he thanked him publicly. And rightfully so as the franchise value of the Cavaliers has increased immensely in James’ two runs in Cleveland.
Former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had his fair share of critics due to some of his tactics in the way that he operated, but you could never question his dedication to winning which began with him spending money. For every Steinbrenner, there are 50 Gilberts who would much rather allow players to leave in free agency, rake in revenue from lucrative television contracts, and in the case of a small market team such as the Cavaliers, benefit from revenue sharing.
This time around there won’t be any hope of James returning to Cleveland to play for the Cavaliers as he has now been burned by Gilbert twice, and in actuality he should have learned his lesson the first time around. The Cavaliers will once again be bottom feeders. There won’t be anymore sellouts at Quicken Loans, but it won’t matter to Gilbert who’ll continue to make money, while running a no-frills franchise with second rate talent, coaches, and executives.
James’ two runs in Cleveland should be a shining example to everyone why certain franchises don’t win titles, and players become disgruntled. This is the reason why the Celtics, Lakers, Warriors, Chicago Bulls, and San Antonio Spurs have combined to win 50 of the 72 NBA Championships as there are only a few franchises that are committed to winning. The Cavaliers lucked out in getting the one title they got: Gilbert refused to sustain that success, and the folks of Cleveland may never see another parade up close to honor a title winning NBA franchise ever again.