CLEVELAND—Chris Grant watches the Finals on TV from his home in Shaker Heights with his three sons. When he moved to Cleveland, as an assistant general manager under Danny Ferry in 2005, two of the boys weren’t born and the other was a year old. Now, they are 10, 8 and 5, old enough to care about their home team. “We can root for the Cavs,” Grant tells them. “We’re happy for the Cavs.”
Grant was named GM in June 2010, at age 38, and a month later LeBron James left for Miami. His job went from one of the most alluring in pro sports to one of the most challenging. “We started from 0,” Grant said, “with a plan to build around good draft picks, good young talent, and flexibility—in short time.”
He traded disgruntled point guard Mo Williams to the Clippers for Baron Davis and an unprotected first-round draft choice, which turned into Kyrie Irving, thanks to some fortuitous ping pong balls. He drafted Tristan Thompson, a workhorse from the University of Texas, who happened to share an agent with James. He acquired six first-round picks, plus a right to swap another, and five seconds. And he took a flier on an undrafted Australian named Matthew Dellavedova, who played at St. Mary’s for Randy Bennett, one of Grant’s coaches back when he anchored the front line for the University of San Diego. “Our scouting department did a good job,” Grant said.
But the GM gets the credit, along with the blame, and there were misses as well: Anthony Bennett with the first pick in a bad draft, Dion Waiters with the fourth pick in a better one, Andrew Bynum on a short-term contract. Cleveland entered 2013-14 with playoffs hopes, but Anderson Varejao tore his Achilles tendon, and the team faltered. In February ’14, Grant was fired, just five months before James returned and everything changed.
No NBA executive had a better year than Grant’s successor, David Griffin, who saved the Cavaliers with midseason trades for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. But the Mozgov deal was made possible because of a pick Grant extracted two years ago from Memphis, for Jon Leuer, and Smith and Shumpert came in a three-way swap involving Waiters. Contenders are built with moves on top of moves, and sometimes, regimes on top of regimes. Would James have returned without Irving in place and a bevy of assets to add elsewhere? He is sentimental, but not stupid.
Grant wants to work in the NBA again and he has spent his sabbatical traveling to visit teams in other sports: a Major League Baseball team, an NFL team, a college basketball team. He believes he can learn from different approaches. He has also deepened his relationship with his sons, taking them on bike rides and ski trips, to tennis practices and soccer matches. They understand why he is around more than he used to be. “I think it is important talk to them about this, how you go through adversity in life, and how that’s okay,” Grant said. “You grow from it. You don’t let it define you. Sure, you’re disappointed, but you don’t live in the past. I’ve moved on, but I’m happy for the Cavs. I’m excited for them.”
He smiles when he sees Delly hit another three or Thompson chase another rebound. He wishes Irving were healthy. He thinks back to 2010-11, when Cleveland lost 26 games in a row, and the future looked bleak. Four years later, the Cavaliers have completed a historic turnaround, and no shortage of people made it possible. James heads the list, of course, with Griffin close behind. But Grant is on there as well. He kept the cap sheet clean and the war chest full, for the moment the Cavs would need it. “You’re proud it all came together for the team,” Grant said. “But more than anything, you’re happy for the people who are still there.”