But the Cavs still tried, even for Kevin Durant.
In late June 2016, just days after winning one of the most thrilling and historically significant NBA Finals in history, David Griffin, then the Cleveland Cavaliers’ GM, gathered his staff and gave them a directive: Explore ways to get Kevin Durant.
Everyone knew even getting a meeting was a long shot. They would have to gut most of their roster around LeBron James to acquire Durant. But they had to at least do their due diligence. By then, there was a creeping fear that Durant might really join the Golden State Warriors — fresh off a 73-win season and Finals heartbreak at the expense of James and the Cavs. Everyone understood what that would do to the league’s competitive landscape.
“I don’t believe you can dream big enough in the NBA,” Griffin says now in recalling that meeting. “You have to go through the exercise.”
The difference between the Cavaliers and Warriors, who got Durant: Cleveland got serious in its Durant exploration days before free agency. Golden State planned its pursuit more than a year in advance and, through Draymond Green, recruited Durant for months (and might have gotten him hooked early).
The Warriors also had the luxury of Stephen Curry being on a relative cheap contract extension he signed while dealing with significant ankle injuries. That allowed Golden State to fairly easily clear enough cap space to sign Durant outright.
The Cavs, on the other hand, were capped out. Even trimming the roster to just LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – which would have meant dumping guaranteed salaries for Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Mo Williams and Sasha Kaun – would have left the Cavaliers with less than max cap room for Durant. Getting Durant would have also required moving Irving or Love, maybe in a sign-and-trade.
That would have required the Thunder to agree, no easy task.
And, of course, Durant would have had to agree. Given Durant’s comments about playing with LeBron since, that was highly unlikely. Durant didn’t meet with Cleveland during free agency, though he did meet with the Warriors, Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, Celtics and Heat.
I appreciate Griffin’s ambition. More teams should explore signing star free agents. Too many teams believe they have no chance and don’t enter the chase.
But there’s a major difference in execution.
The Cavaliers almost certainly weren’t getting Durant, regardless. Their odds sunk even lower when they waited so long to figure out how to do it.
Golden State certainly required good fortune to get Durant – Curry’s cheap extension, the right combination of results the prior postseason, the cap spike coming in a year a star free agent was ready to move. But the Warriors maximized their chances by preparing more than a year before Durant’s free agency.
That’s why, as eyerolling as it is, they can call themselves light years ahead.