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?
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.”
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.
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].”