David Griffin has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Bryan Colangelo. This article is the first part in a series which will evaluate Griffin’s previous performance as a General Manager.
In the fallout of Woodergate, Bryan Colangelo has resigned from his job with the Philadelphia 76ers. It has been barely more than 24 hours since the Sixers released their statement confirming Bryan’s departure, but no time is too soon to begin the search for a new chief in the front office. The 2018 NBA Draft is just around the corner (June 21), and the free agency period is traveling closely behind (July 1).
A lot of names have already been suggested, including Sachin Gupta, Mike Zarren, Danny Ferry and David Griffin. That last one, David Griffin, has been mentioned frequently by fans and experts alike. Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote, “Griffin is widely seen as the top candidate on the market and is the likely front-runner to succeed Colangelo.”
Let’s get something out of the way right now: the Sixers, should they pursue Griffin, are doing so with LeBron James in mind. LeBron James and David Griffin have built up a strong relationship from their time together (2014 to 2017) in Cleveland. Bringing Griffin on board figures to increase the chances of LeBron James coming to Philadelphia.
I don’t have any information to suggest the Sixers would hire Griffin solely because of LeBron. (I believe they’ll do their due diligence.) But what if they did? Well, it probably would actually be fine for some. If you can give yourself the strongest chance to acquire the best player in the league, you do it — so long as you are convinced that the GM is competent.
But is Griffin a good General Manager?
Adding LBJ gives you a chance to win the title immediately, for sure — but what if it doesn’t happen? The Warriors are still the best team in the league. Could the Sixers trust that Griffin would ensure long term success? I’m not suggesting signing LeBron in and of itself jeopardizes long term success. I’m wondering if hiring Griffin, theoretically hired primarily to entice LBJ, is the right move for the future of the franchise as well as the present. So let us evaluate Griffin. In part 1 of this series examining David Griffin, we’ll look at his draft performance.
(Before I begin, I wanted to note that the thought of Griffin working under the Colangelo family for over a decade at the Phoenix Suns turned me off. Some people have pointed out to me that this is a pretty flawed way of thinking. I acknowledge that. The Colangelos have had success in their careers and even when they’ve made mistakes, it’s possible Griffin learned from their mistakes or even disagreed with poor personnel moves at the time of their occurrence. So I’m not going to factor Griffin’s relations to the Colangelos into this evaluation. I’m concerned only with what Griffin’s track record as a General Manager says about him.)
Griffin’s first draft selection came in the summer of 2014, when the Cavaliers chose Andrew Wiggins #1 overall. (The Cavs would go on to trade Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to the Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love.)
Some would argue that Wiggins was selected with the intention of being traded. As sought after as he was at the time, I suppose it’s possible Griffin always knew he could move Wiggins and so Griffin didn’t worry so much about evaluating Wiggins. It’s true that it was reported that the Cavs were taking offers to trade out of the #1 pick and settled on selecting Wiggins just hours before the draft. But Wiggins wasn’t traded until two months after he’d been drafted, and LeBron James had not yet returned to the Cavs when the pick was made. In the moment of the Cavs’ selection, Griffin had to know there was a chance Wiggins would remain a core part of a rebuilding team. So I think it’s fair to grade Griffin’s evaluation of Wiggins.
And we know, of course, that Wiggins wasn’t the best prospect in the 2014 draft; that distinction belongs to one Joel Embiid. But Embiid suffered a stress fracture in his foot just before the draft, and given Embiid’s massive frame, it wasn’t crazy to be hesitant to draft Joel. Not doing so says Griffin is maybe a bit risk-averse; but Wiggins seemed to be a can’t-miss pick by most. (Even if his ceiling wasn’t as high as Embiid’s, it was more likely Wiggins got there than Embiid… right? So they thought.)
Joel Embiid was a risk. Jabari Parker has shown some things but due to injuries, we don’t know what he really is (except that he’s been bad since returning). Dante Exum, similar to Jabari, has had flashes but is consistently going down with injuries. There’s players who went late that are solid, but I’m not sure they are better than Wiggins. And of the players that maybe are better than Wiggins (could argue that any one of Dario Saric, Marcus Smart, Gary Harris or Clint Capela contribute more to winning than Wiggins), would anyone really have passed on Wiggins upside at #1 in favor of them?
I think Griffin made the right selection. Hinkie and (maybe) very few others select Joel #1. (There were rumors that the Sixers put together an impressive package to trade to #1 in the 2014 draft but were denied. I believe the objective was still to select Joel.) Wiggins hasn’t been even the 2nd best player of that draft; but on that draft night, most were selecting Wiggins or Parker at #1. And then if you factor in that Griffin moved Wiggins for Kevin Love later on as a separate evaluation? Maybe his evaluation changed, correctly I’d add, if so.
Griffin also selected Joe Harris in the 2014 NBA Draft, who is now playing for the Nets. Harris has become a solid 3PT shooter but is defensively challenged. Selected 33rd overall (Harris was), Griffin got decent value considering how much of a crapshoot the 2nd Round is. However, Nikola Jokic and Spencer Dinwiddie both went after Harris. One (Jokic) is much superior to Harris and the other (Dinwiddie) is a better player as well.
The 2015 NBA Draft rolled around and the Cavaliers chose Tyus Jones 24th overall, only to trade him on draft night for Cedi Osman and Dionte Christmas (and a 2019 2nd Round pick). So we should treat the trade as Griffin’s prospect analysis, focusing on Cedi Osman and Dionte Christmas. Christmas never caught on in the NBA. Draft-and-stashed Cedi Osman though, who just played his first NBA season in ‘17-’18, looks like he could be a solid NBA rotation guy. To identify that in a 31st overall pick is commendable. The Cavs also selected Sir’Dominic Porter out of St. John’s, but Porter never even sniffed the NBA.
The 2016 NBA Draft was the last one that David Griffin was the General Manager of the Cavaliers during — his contract with the team would run out in the summer of 2017, announcing his departure just 3 days before the 2017 NBA Draft. Unfortunately for this exercise, the Cavs did not own any picks in the 2016 NBA Draft. So Griffin’s draft night takeaways are Andrew Wiggins, Joe Harris, Cedi Osman, Dionte Christmas and Sir’Dominic Porter.
That’s a decent haul, but nothing spectacular. Often, GMs completely miss on 2nd rounders. Griffin got an NBA rotation player in 2 out of 4 tries in the 2nd. And I’m personally a fan of Cedi Osman, though, there’s such a limited sample to go on that I can’t say Griffin got a steal just yet. Wiggins wasn’t the best player in his draft, but maybe Griffin knew the Timberwolves desired his services and that Kevin Love could be had for a package centered on Wiggins. On top of that, Wiggins looked like he was bound for stardom. At this point, Wiggins hasn’t become that star. Maybe Griffin thought he would become a star, in which case his analysis was flawed. But maybe Griffin always intended to trade him, in which case he was smart.
I would conclude that Griffin is about an average drafter by his track record, who isn’t prone to taking risks. But I’d also say that I don’t think there’s enough evidence to make a full diagnosis, with just four picks made and one of those picks being traded to acquire two players. The Wiggins (or Parker) pick would be the pick most GMs would make. Doesn’t mean it’s right, but if most would do it (ultimately I’m saying most would have passed on Embiid), it’s average. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe most GMs would have taken the risk on Joel. Harris, I suppose, was a solid pick. But he missed Jokic. It would be hard for a lot of people to identify Jokic as the talent we know him as today. But it still means that Griffin isn’t extraordinary at finding diamonds in the rough.
The thought of Griffin making draft night selections wouldn’t send shivers down my spine. But it also wouldn’t inspire the utmost confidence. With Griffin at the helm, and the right crew around him, I think the Sixers could do worse choosing someone else to control their big board. Yet, I’d be skeptical of Griffin’s ability to pick the best player available wherever the Sixers were drafting.