CLEVELAND — Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has been rebuffed before.
In mid-June 2010, Michigan State’sTom Izzo took nine days to think about MSU alum Gilbert’s offer to coach the Cavs, which would have doubled Izzo’s salary. The uncertain future of LeBron James was a major reason Izzo didn’t leap to the NBA. His decision proved prescient as James announced he was headed to the Miami Heat less than a month later.
It happened again Monday, when Chauncey Billups — Gilbert’s top choice to head basketball operations — turned down his multiyear offer after considering it for 11 days. This rejection showed that Gilbert underestimated his toxic history with general managers, and to a lesser extent coaches, when he parted ways with GM David Griffin on June 19.
Since he took over on March 1, 2005, Gilbert has had six coaches, including Mike Brown’s two stints, and is looking for his fifth basketball chief.
The departed include coaches Paul Silas, Brown, Byron Scott, Brown and David Blatt. The latter’s ouster came at the insistence of Griffin, who replaced Blatt with top assistant Tyronn Lue. The other ex-GMs were Jim Paxson, Danny Ferry and Chris Grant.
A 17-year NBA veteran and 2004 Finals MVP, Billups has been eyeing a front office job for a long time. He has a relationship with Gilbert going back 10 years. Gilbert lives in Detroit, his companies are based there and he has an affinity for all things Michigan (except presumably the rival Wolverines).
Yet Billups had a chance at his dream job and passed, as ESPN’sAdrian Wojnarowski reported Monday, even when offered what The Athletic said was a five-year contract.
Missing his daughter’s senior year of high school in Denver can’t be Billups’ only reason.
Money played a part, with Gilbert offering between $2-3 million, according to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, and Billups wanting more. But there were also the issues of power and trust.
None of Gilbert’s general managers have received a contract extension. That history looms like a black cloud over the franchise, despite three consecutive trips to The Finals and one championship. Gilbert has also never given his general managers the influence they sought.
The parade of former Cavs coaches fall into two categories — those who couldn’t win or those who didn’t fit with James. Silas and Paxson were both gone less than two months after Gilbert took control, which was understandable after a second-half collapse cost the team a chance at the playoffs.
But Gilbert’s other general managers have had diminishing tenures. Ferry lasted five years, Grant nearly four, Griffin three. On paper, that had to look frightening to Billups.
On Feb. 27, 2005 when Gilbert hired Ferry, who played 10 years for the Cavs and was employed as the San Antonio Spurs director of basketball operations, Gilbert admitted he interviewed 22 people. The candidates included Kiki Vandeweghe and Jerry West. At that time Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown was expected to becomes team president, but Gilbert said Brown had a serious medical condition and the Cavs could not wait to move forward. The NBA draft was the next day.
That sounds similar to the structure Gilbert had proposed to Billups, who reportedly would have been able to hire his own general manager.
While Grant’s tenure came during the years without James, he set up Griffin with a stockpile of draft picks Griffin used in trades to build the roster when James returned. Grant was also the first to believe in the possibility James would come home, according to the book Return of the King by ESPN’sBrian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin. None of that carried any weight with Gilbert.
Ferry’s time with the Cavs was the second-most productive behind Griffin’s, and their breakups with Gilbert share similarities.
The Cavs went 272-138 under Ferry, reached the 2007 Finals and won 60 games in back-to-back seasons. When Gilbert and Ferry parted ways on June 4, 2010, Gilbert said, “An organization evolves and the way people (think) evolves. Everybody has to be 100 percent aligned on the path forward. Danny is mature enough and I am mature enough to see that our core beliefs aren’t lined up.”
That sounds eerily like the statement Griffin released through his agent on June 19.
“Dan and I now know that (we) are a team built largely on the concept of fit and we are now at a point where the fit is not right for us to continue with one another,” Griffin said, per McMenamin.
Those comments came seven years apart and show nothing has changed in regards to how the Cavs are run. Gilbert has the same meddling style that has made other owners pariahs in Cleveland. His hands-on approach, although not unique in professional sports, requires management from his No. 2 manager.
That’s enough to scare off a veteran basketball executive, much less a respected former player like Billups, who has no front office experience. No matter the person or his background, a relationship with Gilbert has proved to be unsustainable in the long term.
With free agency underway, Gilbert has no time to interview 22 candidates. He will have to quickly determine a Plan B, which Wojnarowski said he did not have, focusing on Billups as he pondered Griffin’s exit. Billups was also lobbying for the job during The Finals.
That may mean Gilbert will promote from within, as he did with Grant and Griffin, and hand the job to assistant GM Koby Altman, who has been second in command since Griffin’s departure. Wojnarowski said Monday that Altman is adept at putting together big deals, participating in those while working alongside Griffin. Even if Altman’s tenure is relatively short, the job would provide a good stepping stone to a more stable situation for him.
Although Billups would have been walking off the ESPN set right into the top job, I believed his leadership ability, ties with Gilbert and close friendship with Lue made his hiring a leap of faith worth taking.
Unfortunately, Billups looked at the trail of fallen general managers and couldn’t reciprocate.