In most ways, Chris Grant spent the NBA lockout exactly like the rest of his front-office brethren across the league.
As players and owners locked heads, the Cavaliers' general manager enjoyed more time with his wife and three young sons than he normally could have. He took an extended trip to see family and friends, he watched a metric ton of game tape from leagues overseas, and he doubled down on college scouting.
And on the home front, Grant pored over the roster from top to bottom and inside out.
What do we do well? Well, not much.
What can we do better? Plenty.
But Grant also took an unconventional spin late last fall — one that lends credence to the praise that rolls his way from every corner of the league: from the executives, the scouts, and others who invariably describe the 40-year-old GM not simply as a basketball nerd, a stat guy, and a tireless evaluator — all of which he is — but also as "cerebral," a thinker.
And yes, sure, he's pretty boring too, in that way you want your doctor to be.
"I went on a personal crusade, a best-practice review," says Grant, sitting in the Cavs' empty practice facility in Independence on a game-day afternoon. Standing 6 foot 10, with a stone face and close-cropped black hair, he speaks carefully but passionately, practiced in never saying too much when he doesn't have to.
"I met with people at Jones Day, KeyBank, Sherwin-Williams, some guys that run smaller companies and are season ticket holders, Goldman Sachs, the guy that used to run General Motors." Gasp.
"I went to a private-equity group in New York called Oak Tree Capital, met Toby Cosgrove, and I said, 'How do you do this? How do you do that? Tell me what you think.'"
The takeaway, Grant says, is that it's all about the people. "Regardless of the industry, whatever it is, people and communication is really important. If those break down, or you have the wrong people on the bus, you're in trouble."
But Grant — as luck, preparation, and a pleasantly surprising first half to this abbreviated season would have it — is pretty happy with his bus right now. It's one of the reasons not to completely ignore him when he says, "We have a good group of guys," a phrase that falls from his lips with enough regularity to merit a drinking game.
Like a doll that speaks the same phrases whenever the string in its back is pulled, Grant responds to questions about progress or winning or personnel with only the slightest variation of the same answer.
Is Tristan Thompson going to get more playing time? "Well, we have a good group of guys ..."
Are you going to trade Ramon Sessions or add anybody at the trade deadline? "We have a good group of guys ..."
In Grant's defense, it's way more politically correct than "Can you believe Ryan Hollins is actually on our team? Lordy yes, things are going to change."
With Grant, there's actual meaning in the seemingly empty words — levels of meaning that cut to the root of how the second-year man runs his team.
Sure, he has a good group of guys in that there's talent to build around. Kyrie Irving, his No. 1 draft pick and now the prohibitive favorite to win Rookie of the Year, surely qualifies as a good guy, as does Sideshow Bob impersonator Anderson Varejao, who was enjoying an All-Star-caliber season before his wrist gave out in February.
Grant also has a good group of guys in that there aren't any jerks, that staple of NBA rosters everywhere. In Grantland, building a culture like that goes hand in hand with building a talented roster.
While the Cavs and their sub-.500 record find themselves on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff race, the team is also just one year removed from having one of the worst records in the league, less than two years removed from hitting the reset button. Crafting a squad capable of returning to the NBA Finals is a process, and Grant is patient with his plan. The big picture is always the big reward, but the mile markers along the way bring their own little measures of satisfaction.
And how are things going so far this season?
"Ya know," Grant says, "we have a good group of guys."
Chris Grant grew up in Tahoe, that wonderland of year-round adventure. He was wakeboarding and snowboarding back when the boards had to be made by hand.
At the University of San Diego, Grant played center on the basketball team and studied psychology, which he followed with a master's degree in educational leadership. His game would never take him to the NBA, but he dreamed that his schooling might.
"I can't believe there are a whole lot of NBA executives who have [psychology degrees]," says Brian Windhorst, former Cavs beat writer and a current ESPN scribe. "He'd never admit it, but he definitely uses that training on a routine basis, because when you're a GM, you're constantly putting out fires — from your bosses, from players, from agents, and from coaches. Some guys in the league can just quell things like that because they have cachet. Chris does it, but manages it differently."
Almost immediately after school, Grant landed an internship with the Atlanta Hawks. He would spend a decade there doing just about every job other than coaching and cutting Dominique Wilkins' hair, eventually graduating to VP of basketball operations and assistant GM before Danny Ferry snagged him in 2005 to be the Cavs' assistant general manager.
"I was very lucky [in Atlanta]," says Grant. "There was a stable ownership situation, so I had the chance to grow and get promoted." But those Hawks teams, for all their front-office stability, did not taste any great measure of success on the court.
When Grant had a chance to return as the Hawks' GM in 2008, he decided to stay the course with Ferry in Cleveland. For one thing, the Cavs were riding high in the Eastern Conference, with a legitimate chance to hoist the town's first championship trophy. Just as important: Grant had found a home in the organization.
"People," he says when asked what his decision came down to. "Probably at the end of the day, it was the people."
A few of those folks, like Ferry and former assistant GM Lance Blanks, are gone now, jettisoned amid the tumult of head coach Mike Brown's demise and LeBron James' one-off TV show in the summer of 2010. But most of them remain, including the most important one: the guy at the top.
"You'll probably call it lip service, but if you come to work every day and know the person responsible for the umbrella of support cares that much about what's going on, you'd say you want to be a part of it," says Grant. "I've worked for owners that aren't involved before, and I know I'd choose this every day of the week."