How David Griffin Rebuilt the Pelicans and His World

How David Griffin Rebuilt the Pelicans and His World

After a miserable exit in Cleveland, David Griffin found a new home in New Orleans where he took on the task of rebuilding Gayle Benson's Pelicans during the Anthony Davis trade saga. With phenom Zion Williamson on board and a core of veterans hungry for a playoff push, the team down in the Bayou will be one of the most talked about in the NBA this upcoming season.
August 01, 2019

Somewhere amid her husband’s countless roundtrips from Sonoma to Atlanta for NBA TV appearances, Meredith Hale-Griffin issued an ultimatum. A two-year sabbatical from basketball operations had deeply benefited David Griffin. Building the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship team both accomplished his greatest achievement and tortured his soul. Now, complete rejuvenation required the ultimate change. By the end of the 2018-19 season, Meredith declared Griffin needed to either claim the reins of another NBA front office, or the couple would be taking on a different endeavor: adopting their first child. 

Seven years younger than her husband, Meredith had already suffered two miscarriages. Phoenix’s team doctor diagnosed Griffin with testicular cancer in 2006, leading to the removal of the affected organ and the affectionate nickname “Lefty.” Griffin faced two more bouts of testicular cancer in 2011 and 2017. Having children wouldn’t exactly be a layup. “We were gonna have to do everything through IVF,” Griffin says. “And she had different challenges. We went to the nth degree in technology five times and it didn’t work.” 

They’ve found opportunities within the NBA to fill the void in their lives. In Cleveland, Meredith spearheaded the Cavs’ Better Halves program, organizing viewing parties and shopping trips for the players’ wives and baking events for their kids. The team quickly referred to her as “BossLady.” Griffin guided younger Cavs front office members as if they were his own. Adoption always loomed as a possibility. Yet it’s a rather difficult notion when a family isn’t rooted to a base. 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. 

Then Anthony Davis requested a trade from the Pelicans in January. On Feb. 15, New Orleans relieved general manager Dell Demps of his responsibilities. One of the game’s premier talents still needed to be dealt, and head coach Alvin Gentry lobbied ownership to task an old Suns running mate with the job. While Griffin, then a burgeoning Suns exec, recuperated from his 2006 surgery, Gentry served as an assistant among Phoenix’s coaching staff, where kinship ruled the day as much as pace and space. 

“Culturally, I’ve always wanted to raise a family at a team,” Griffin says. In May, the Pelicans’ new executive vice president of basketball operations left the NBA draft lottery holding the No. 1 pick—and the right to select Zion Williamson, a monstrous, franchise-altering phenom with a charm as boyish as his baby face. Griffin and the Pelicans instantly added a prodigy to their rebuild. And while the Griffin family itself didn’t expand this summer, David and Meredith will assuredly assist with Williamson’s maturation in New Orleans. “The need to nurture is part of that,” Griffin says. The Pelicans could become their future and their family. Why not both all in one?


Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Gayle Benson, 72, took Anthony Davis’ trade request this winter personally. The All-Star not only sought the Lakers, he spurned her native city of New Orleans and its basketball environment she played an integral role in building. Benson’s late husband, Tom, solely purchased the Pelicans in 2012 at his wife’s request, preventing the franchise from leaving town, grooming her to one day assume control. And now their brightest star demanded to flee her nest. Self-reflection was in order, beginning with Benson, now the principal owner. How could they prevent their next MVP candidate’s eyes from wandering? “She made it clear that she was going to go hire a basketball person and someone that is gonna put us in position to win,” Gentry said. 

A belief exists amongst Pelicans staffers that Demps’ biggest failure came by simply sticking to status quo. The franchise indeed spent years palled as the Saints’ ugly step brother. Yet when Benson assumed control in 2017, she did so willing to invest deeper into basketball. Some suggest Demps merely failed to seek greater financial commitment from the new principal owner. “We could have been more aggressive. We could have done things. We could have asked for things,” Gentry says. “We didn’t.” Griffin made those requests while interviewing for his post. Benson and team president Dennis Lauscha responded with a proverbial blank check, if it will one day bring a championship within reach of New Orleans. “I was just, immediately—” Griffin pauses, slapping the back of his right hand into his left palm for emphasis. “I gotta be there.”

Injuries ravaged the Pelicans throughout Davis’ tenure. In the 2015-16 season alone, New Orleans players missed 351 games—11 individuals sat over 10 games and six missed over 20—the second-highest, single-season total of any team in the last decade. Former Pelicans guard Eric Gordon made less than 65 appearances during each of his five seasons with the franchise. “It was a weird time, a weird tale for me,” he says. Ryan Anderson never exceeded 66 outings during his three years, once knocking heads with Gerald Wallace in Jan. 2014, causing a potential career-ending herniated cervical disc. “If there is such a thing as voodoo,” Anderson says, “it’s in New Orleans.” Instead of lamenting bizarre circumstances, Griffin scapegoated the Pelicans’ substandard training facility, a shadow of what the Saints enjoy across the hall. He poached Aaron Nelson, the fabled czar from Phoenix, to revamp the Pelicans’ medical department. Benson’s ownership group craves a complete about-face from the Anthony Davis era. “They sort of look at themselves as a start-up right now,” Griffin says. “We really are like an entirely new entity.” The Pelicans are a blank canvas for his optimal franchise design. 

Griffin hopes New Orleans blends the best from his stints in Phoenix and Cleveland. The Suns accrued the best talent in the league in 2005 but failed to turn Steve Nash’s consecutive MVP campaigns into rings. Phoenix lacked attention to detail when maintaining its roster. Griffin marked the only analytics-leaning executive on staff. He coded the team’s scouting database himself, writing a now obsolete system in Access. “I’m almost 50, so it’s old,” he quips. The familial energy prominent amongst the team hardly extended into the front office. Ownership wouldn’t front necessary bills. Trying the same, largely-unadapted method on the court—despite repeated postseason failure—still always yields one result: insanity. “There were a lot of things we didn’t do in terms of infrastructure, there were a lot of things we didn’t do in terms of culture within the staff,” Griffin says. “I know why we didn’t win championships, so it’s hard for me.” 

The legendary Jerry West handpicked Griffin as his replacement for the Memphis Grizzlies’ general manager in 2007. Yet Griffin’s thirst for a winning title with his hometown franchise prevented him from accepting the job. Griffin then declined opportunities to pilot the Bucks in 2008 and Nuggets in 2010, eventually joining Cleveland that September under Chris Grant. The Cavs boasted an expansive analytics department with a shiny database and constructed a glimmering practice facility. An unsparing owner opened new possibilities. “Dan Gilbert was willing to spend so much money on process,” Griffin 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.”

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

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 torpedoes, I gotta get there,’ that might be the only time you get there.” Even still, James accepted the GM’s feedback along the way. “He knew I could help him win,” Griffin says. And so James approved of Griffin as a basketball decision–maker, allowing a steady dialogue. “You’ve got to be willing to have very difficult conversations with LeBron,” Griffin says. “I always was, which is why we had a great relationship, because I would tell him what he needed to hear and he respected that I was telling him that for the right reasons.” 

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. The rest of the Cavaliers, in kind, hibernated on their laurels. After sporting the league’s 10th best defense the season prior, Cleveland plummeted to dead last as defending champions. The Cavs believed they could sleepwalk through the Eastern Conference—although to be fair, they practically did. “There was somebody better than me at keeping them on task after we won,” Griffin says. “I did a really s****y job of bringing enough urgency to the next year.”

Across the aisle, Golden State repeatedly regrouped. Draymond Green recruited none other than Kevin Durant. Head coach Steve Kerr, Griffin’s former mentor in Phoenix, prohibited lethargy in his system. The front office gambled on high-upside draft prospects and cultivated a winning G-League affiliate in Santa Cruz. Stephen Curry’s selfless leadership threaded throughout the organization in direct contrast to the environment brewing in Cleveland’s kingdom. “And we don’t want to raise a family like that,” Griffin says now. A 6’7” gravity-defying No. 1 pick from Duke is the main audience for that message. In a sense, the most-hyped prospect since James, cast by many as The King’s heir apparent, is joining the antithesis to the franchise his predecessor once created. 


The NBA arranged a private meeting between Griffin’s staff and Williamson two hours after the Pelicans won the lottery. In walked Zion’s mother Sharonda Sampson and stepfather Lee Anderson soon after. If you choose us, Griffin offered, we’ll choose you. The teen’s charisma struck the Pelicans as much as his talent, his humility as much as his artistry. “He’s this guy who’s touched by the hand of God to be an ‘Ooh Ahh!’ athlete, and all he wants to do are the things that help teams win,” Griffin says. “I think he looks at it like, ‘If I’m Draymond Green with rockets in my ass, then ok.’ I don’t think he cares.”

The Pelicans would soon be dealing Anthony Davis to, of all places, LeBron’s Lakers, paving the way for an unfettered changing of the guard in the Louisiana. There will be cries for Williamson to rescue New Orleans just as James once resuscitated Cleveland. Popeyes briefly offered a ludicrous promotion dubbed “The Wingspan Box,” which stretched as wide as Williamson’s 6’10” reach, containing 77 boneless wings, 11 biscuits and 11 servings of fries—priced at $74.69. Zion floats will undoubtedly roll down St. Charles during Mardis Gras. “There better be Jrue Holiday floats,” Griffin pleads. During that May huddle in Chicago, New Orleans brass sung what’s become a deafening tune. The Pelicans are not Williamson’s team. This new family, for the time being, belongs to their All-Star point guard in Holiday. “It’s not Zion’s world,” Griffin sells. “He’s not Superman,” adds Gentry. “He’s not coming to save our franchise.” Every strong home has foundational rules. 

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

They will combat the rumbling undercurrent of social media. Instagram highlights fueled Williamson’s star turn. Gentry’s scheme will help stem that tide. In adding Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart from L.A. to a seasoned backcourt of Holiday and free agent splash J.J. Redick, the Pelicans should have a minimum of four ball handlers on the floor at all times, allowing everyone to rev and start the break. “If we don’t lead the league in pace next year, I’ll be disappointed,” Gentry says. Griffin does one better: “We’ll probably play the fastest style of ball that’s been played, maybe ever,” he says. Zippy teams spell doom when their roster can’t guard at the speed an offense requires. New Orleans boasts switchable, long perimeter hounds across its lineups. “We’re going to be able to defend at an alarming pace,” Griffin says. 

Instead of chasing ping pong balls, they expect to battle despite the West’s stingy field. Griffin warns New Orleans will play buyer at the trade deadline if the playoffs are within his grasp. “People are gonna be like, ‘What the f--- are they doing?’” he says. “We’re trying to win basketball games!” He knows vying for victory most often ends in defeat. But teams that overcome losing together—like Griffin’s Suns, unlike Griffin’s Cavs—grow together. Redick has reached the postseason in each of his 13 seasons. Yet he and new starting center Derrick Favors are both still seeking the ultimate goal. “We don’t have guys that are complacent champions,” Griffin says. “We’ve got really f---ing hungry winners.” One afternoon following Davis’ trade request, Gentry and Holiday banded together. “I’m not a tanker,” the guard declared. Gentry approved. “I don’t see it,” the coach says. “It takes you from 6.8% to 7% [lottery odds].” 

The Nets just proved tanking isn’t a prerequisite to landing stars. Griffin promptly plucked Brooklyn’s assistant GM Trajan Langdon, a two-time Euroleague champion who worked alongside him in Cleveland, to serve as his general manager. Griffin met Swin Cash during his dalliance with television, and struck by her unique viewpoint, minted the three-time WNBA champion and two-time league MVP as New Orleans’ vice president of basketball ops and team development. “You don’t cut corners when you hire at any position,” Langdon says. “You try to find the best people and grow as a group.” That extends to every corner of New Orleans’ facility. “The cocoon we can put around our young guys, they’re going to grow in an environment where winning matters, with the types of human beings I would want them to model,” Griffin says. The Pelicans inked their free agents to multi-year contracts. They’re far from hard-capped, but they’re locked into this core. “This is the family,” Griffin says. “Let’s see what we can do.”

Brotherhood will contribute a key element to that success. New Orleans employs five Duke products in Williamson, Redick, Ingram, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Jackson. Langdon once sat Redick down in Coach K’s office during an early 2000s summer camp in Durham, the elder marksman espousing wisdoms of surviving the pro ranks. It’s a fabric of the program. “We always look out for each other,” Redick says. “We take that very seriously.” He watched Williamson’s Duke games in wonder, both at the young marvel’s explosion and his Blue Devils’ lack of shooting around him. At the next level, deadeyes would surely free space Zion’s aerial attack on the rim. “I didn’t actually think at the time that would be me,” Redick says. 

Predicting Williamson’s backdrop was murky for all involved. The Pelicans also acquired the No. 4 pick in the Davis trade, but didn’t value the selection as opposed to trading down for several options. “We wanted to get multiples of great kids,” Griffin says. They found a natural partner with Atlanta and New Orleans quickly prioritized Texas center Jaxson Hayes at No. 8. With the green room invitees already in Manhattan, the Pelicans flew director of basketball operations Shane Kupperman and Stan Williams from their performance team to New York one day before the draft. They evaluated Hayes via Skype from New Orleans’ war room, running the giant through a performance assessment and then evaluating his heart. “They wanted to know how I was as a person,” Hayes says. “We felt like the draft was really deep on caliber of human,” Griffin adds. New Orleans eagerly scooped Nickeil Alexander-Walker at No. 17, some members of its scouting department having ranked him as high as fourth on their boards. 

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
 

The Pelicans additionally targeted Arizona State’s Zylan Cheatham, signing the undrafted pogostick to a two-way contract. Although second-round pick Didi Silva will spend this winter stashed in Australia, Griffin will roster a massive rookie class by design. “It’s all of us,” Hayes says. “We kind of feel like a recruiting class.” The camaraderie is another buffer for the Williamson media machine. He’ll have fellow newbies to shield some of the hysteria. Forget about Rookie of the Year, too. New Orleans hopes Williamson is merely one rookie of three lottery-level newcomers, like any good parent refusing to pick a favorite. “If you start there, and Zion is just one of that ‘recruiting class,’ then what you hope, if you get really lucky, if you’re successful, they become our Tim [Duncan], Manu [Ginobili] and Tony [Parker] that lay the groundwork for what it means to be one of us 11 years from now,” Griffin says. “And Jrue, JJ and Derrick are gonna be the ones that teach these kids what it is today. You hope it’s something that continues to feed itself.” 


Sitting in the lobby bar at the Vdara, just inside the Las Vegas hotel’s curving driveway, Griffin knocks his bald dome in lieu of wood, a superstition he developed throughout his medical battles. “I have a deeper appreciation for everything now,” he says. He’s wrapped in a navy Pelicans polo and black trousers. Equally blue glasses frame his pale face. He once planned to master international finance and minor in Chinese, only to spurn an opportunity studying at Taiwan International University on Foot Locker Asia’s dime to intern in his cherished Suns’ public relations department. The brash volunteer vowed he would one day transition into basketball ops and build a champion. The prophecy didn’t call for the chance to do it twice, but Griffin never truly felt comfortable in his Cleveland skin. “And I knew it. I vibrate at a totally different frequency than that group, from an ownership perspective,” he says. “Getting away from it made me find who I really am. It’s funny: Bagger Vance, you know, ‘Your authentic swing?’ I know now, authentically, who I’m meant to be as a leader.” 

He wants his new family to feel collaborative. Nearly the entire Pelicans organization attended New Orleans’ morning practices at UNLV’s student rec center, the hardwood overflowing with navy and scarlett team swag. “Doing it the right way with the right people,” Langdon explains. “Not skipping steps.” Zion Williamson’s Friday night debut shook the Thomas & Mack Center before a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Southern California literally did the job, halting the game in the fourth quarter. Jaxson Hayes delivered his own quake a few games later, baptizing a Bulls defender with a vicious poster dunk off a gorgeous no-look feed from Nickeil Alexander-Walker. “What I love about these kids,” Griffin says. “Jaxson couldn’t wait to tell people how good the pass was. Nickeil couldn’t wait to tell people how easy it is to throw a ball to a guy who can catch anything, anywhere.” Alexander-Walker dazzled en route to first-team All-Summer League honors. Despite rostering Ball, New Orleans plans to develop the rookie as a point guard. That’s what he prefers, too. “It’s easier to play when someone doesn’t just see you as an asset,” Alexander-Walker says. “When they value you and who you are and what you do at multiple levels.” 

The Pelicans know their DNA. Williamson has arrived. The team’s experienced trio will pace their locker room and playoff push. Should the experiment one day yield positive results, when the next dissatisfied superstar like Anthony Davis surveys for greener pastures, New Orleans will have both founded an inviting destination while stockpiling the future draft assets to pull the trigger. “We’re going to put a different energy in the universe. It’s going to attract who it’s meant to,” Griffin says. “You won’t get everybody, but that’s OK. Get the right ones.” Perhaps the recipe will bring the championship Benson appears willing to finance. And if New Orleans finally hoists the trophy, David and Meredith Griffin will do so amongst a family they fostered, in a situation that finally feels worthy of one-day adopting their own. “I couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere else,” he says.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)