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."
When Ferry resigned, few questioned that Dan Gilbert would hand the reins to Grant.
"Chris is not what you'd call a classic rookie GM," Gilbert told reporters at the time. "He had more experience than Danny did when we hired him five years ago." To wit: Grant's ascension through the Hawks front office gave him a taste of how an organization runs from top to bottom, and he'd been heavily involved in their draft preparation in later years — a role he also figured heavily in under Ferry.
"Even though he's a relatively young guy, he's been around a long time. People know his work and respect him," says Windhorst. "He's really known as one of the more intellectual GMs. There are sort of two different types: the former players who don't necessarily know the advanced stats, they know things intuitively; the scout guys; and then there's guys like Chris."
Ferry and Grant became close friends, but they were never philosophical blood brothers. Of course, some things have changed since he's taken over — it's bound to happen with two different people and two different personalities at the helm. But Grant declines to go into specifics.
Gilbert, however, is ready to roll.
"Danny and Chris have different styles, for sure," he says. "I think Danny did a pretty good job overall and achieved some success. Chris runs a very open shop. The culture is open. They seek out anybody's opinion. He's a great listener, very curious, whether it's about basketball or not about basketball.
"Chris is very smart, very methodical, very patient. He's the perfect guy for the job right now. He has a great staff, they work well as a team, and they want to build a championship organization. But they want to do it in a methodical way — not by just pulling the trigger on something."
That last bit has a double meaning. On one level, Gilbert knows that Grant is in a completely different situation than Ferry was: Grant is planting complementary pieces around a rookie, not adding costly sidekicks for an MVP.
On another level, it's very much a referendum on Ferry, who made a midseason trade in early 2008 that shipped out five Cavaliers, including Larry Hughes, and brought in four new players, including Delonte West, Ben Wallace, and Wally Szczerbiak. Though most folks lauded Ferry for the ballsy move, the shakeup never panned out. The thrown-together squad didn't jell in time for the playoffs, which ended in another early exit. Each of those players was eventually shuffled out of town in Ferry's never-ending search for guys who could actually put the ball in the basket.
It's the sort of roster blowup one NBA agent says Grant is unlikely to consider, for better or worse.
"If there's one thing I would critique, it's that I think he can be passive at times," the agent says. "He's not one who's going to aggressively flip over the entire team, like when Danny Ferry made that six- or seven-person deal in the middle of the season. That's not something I think Chris would do."
Gilbert considers that one more reason to like his GM. Grant himself would simply answer that he will remain patient with the plan, consider all options, not rule anything out, and continue to build the team according to his philosophy. Not that the game-by-game returns always make that easy.
A common refrain among Cavs fans is that free agents won't come to Cleveland. It's usually because of the city's perceived shortcomings when compared to, say, L.A. or Miami, or because of presumed anger at Dan Gilbert for his astringent public opinions.
It's true that guys like Orlando's trade-hungry center Dwight Howard are never going to come here. Cleveland simply can't compete with the glitter of big-time markets.
But free agents in the secondary tier go where the money is — and Cleveland does have money. When Houston Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry was a restricted free agent, he fired off an angry tweet criticizing Gilbert for his anti-LeBron ranting in the wake of The Decision. Three days later, Lowry signed an offer sheet with the Cavs. (Houston matched the offer and kept Lowry, but by then the rule had found its exception.)
On the list of rebuilding tactics at Chris Grant's disposal, free agency is pretty damn low anyway.
"If you look at it, [championship teams] are all built through trade and draft," he says. "There hasn't been one team that won a championship that was built on free agency.
"Do we have to be a free-agent destination? It doesn't matter. We know we are going to use draft and trade, and free agency as a supplemental piece. It's not something new. It's not a special formula. We are going to stay the course and be practical."
And then Grant, methodically and with precise recollection, lists the free agents of the recent championship teams. Maybe all of them.
"If you look at the Lakers, who's their free agents in the last five years? Ron Artest and Steve Blake? Boston's free agent? James Posey. San Antonio's free agents in the last five years? Gary Neal and Roger Mason. Dallas? Ian Mahinmi."
Of course, there is the Heat, with its free-agent shopping spree that landed James and Chris Bosh, among lesser talents.
"Miami may win a championship, and they could be the first, and that's okay," Grant concedes. "But if you're going to play the percentages ..."
So far, most seem to agree that the Cavs have gone about rebuilding the right way. They tanked last season in a most extraordinary fashion, at one point losing an NBA-record 26 games in a row en route to one of the league's worst records. Grant admits stretches of unparalleled fecklessness are always hard to watch, but in the next breath points out the upside of two months spent on the wrong side of The Diff: Role players like point guard Manny Harris and forward Samardo Samuels got valuable playing time.
He doesn't mention the biggest upside, which is that the time-honored tradition of bottoming out in the standings for the sake of a top draft pick was a crucial next stop on the train back to competitiveness.
"They did the right thing in going to the bottom last year and not spending money in free agency, being disciplined," says Windhorst. "They could have gotten someone who would have gotten them four or five extra wins, but that's not the move to make."
"As a whole, big picture, Grant has done a good job so far," the agent agrees. "And I think he has a clear vision of the team he wants to build."
That's a verdict delivered largely because of Kyrie Irving's performance so far. But Irving is a Clevelander only by virtue of good fortune, because Grant — in a single move that revealed virtually all you need to know about his skill, his philosophy, and Gilbert's pockets — was able to persuade the L.A. Clippers to take underachieving guard Mo Williams and role-player Jamario Moon last year in exchange for Baron Davis and an unprotected first-round pick.
That pick ended up being No. 1 overall, and that No. 1 ended up being Irving — a no-brainer by almost any estimation.
Irving has lived up to the hype and more, averaging more than 18 points and 5 assists a game, while winning the conference's first two Rookie of the Month honors. He shows an uncanny and — in Cleveland — unfamiliar gene for clutch play at the end of games, and he's building a résumé that stat geeks will tell you is comparable to or better than the rookie numbers of such notable names as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
It's all the more remarkable considering that Irving's senior year of high school was separated from his NBA debut by only a handful of games during his lone injury-shortened year at Duke.
Tristan Thompson, a lanky and energetic project from Texas, is making Grant's selection of him at No. 4 look good so far, averaging just 6 points a game but showing flashes that he will be much better soon. Both will be centerpieces for whatever title run may someday loom.
But who joins them and how is the next question.
In the front half of the season, the Cavs were hanging around the outer edge of the playoff picture, scraping out a win or two for every couple of losses that mounted. If that had continued, they would have aligned themselves for a first-round playoff matchup against the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls ... and a pitifully middling selection in the all-important upcoming draft.
As if on cue, things began to unravel after the All-Star break, in part when Varejao broke his wrist. It's ironic good news for everyone, save for Varejao and kids sporting Irving jerseys at The Q.
"This is not something that they would announce as their position, but the worst thing you can be is in the middle," says Windhorst. "It's a well-worn NBA axiom. You really need another player as good as Kyrie to get this thing in gear."
Talent of that ilk is not likely to be found late in the first round or the second. And as surgically devastating as Grant has demonstrated himself to be in the trade market, acquisition there depends on a bucketful of factors beyond his control. Which is why the Cavs look forward with unspoken hope of landing back in the NBA lottery one more time.
"Of course they can't say it, but it's true," says one NBA agent.
Whether those picks actually turn into anything is on Grant himself, and his record in that arena isn't spotless.
Though he wasn't the final decision-maker in Atlanta, he contributed to the franchise's respectable returns with high first-round slots, including Joe Smith, Boris Diaw, and Pau Gasol. The do-over the Hawks wish they had was passing on All-Star point guard Chris Paul in 2005. Instead they took the unspectacular Marvin Williams, and Grant took a job with the Cavaliers.
Unlike in Atlanta, drafting in Cleveland has been the land of reaches and gut selections, since the team's gaudy records with LeBron James left them scrambling for low-pick scraps on draft day.
One such reach was 2009's selection of Christian Eyenga, a Congolese big man who wasn't even listed in the draft guide. Now in his third year, Eyenga remains as virtually unknown to fans and those who cover the team as he was the day his name was called.
Only two of seven picks between 2004 and 2010 — Boobie Gibson and J.J. Hickson — made any particular impact, and only Gibson remains, in a backup role. The team sat idle during the 2010 draft after trading away its pick to acquire creaky forward Antawn Jamison the year before — one of three times in six years they twiddled their thumbs through the first round because Ferry had shipped off their picks via trade.
Grant isn't likely to let that happen again. He knows that he will prove himself or flop based on how he handles upcoming drafts.
Flexibility — a word he mentions time and time again — will be a huge asset. Flexibility in how much Gilbert will hand over to spend, flexibility in Cavs players coveted by other teams, flexibility in contracts that expire at the end of this season, and flexibility with salary-cap space in the offseason.
With a fairly high first-round pick likely awaiting them this summer, plus a healthy chunk of money to spend in accordance with the league's salary cap, the expiring contracts of aging veterans like Jamison — and a possible first-round pick from Sacramento, depending on how they finish — the options are plentiful.
Grant will be looking for players to complement Irving's brilliance: a shooting guard or small forward to pile in buckets, and some formidable size and talent down low.
In a league beset with cheap owners, superstars demanding trades, and teams stuck with players' bloated contracts, Grant is content to sit back and plot his long-term play.
He is asked about his plans A through Z for the foreseeable future, then for his plans AA through ZZ.
"I don't think I'm smart enough to put that many plans together," he says. "We probably have some guys that could, but not me."
For now, Grant is excited about what's on the floor — and he's got legions of Cleveland fans who agree. Nobody wants to watch a team lose 26 games in a row, but there's an upside to every situation, and no one focuses on the upside more than Grant. It's been that way since the lockout finally broke, since family and road trips took a backseat again.
"We're not sitting around counting the years. We have to keep adding pieces and give the group time to grow," he says. "But we have a 19-year-old starting point guard right now, ya know. Everybody wants it to happen right now. But, look at [Chicago's] Derrick Rose. He wasn't the MVP overnight. It takes time to grow. Being patient is important."
But patience pays off only when the acquisitions pay off. And Grant, of all people — a draft man himself, a staunch believer in the fundamental ways you build championship teams — knows you have to hit when you have the shot.
And so his hopes, like yours, rest with Irving. Not that he could ever say as much.
"Kyrie has to get better every day," Grant says, echoing the company line spouted by coach Byron Scott every time a microphone is thrust in front of him. "For anyone to sit around and say he's going to be this or this ... he's a good young player. He has to work hard every day. Same goes for Tristan [Thompson]. Same goes for everyone."
But c'mon, Irving will have to turn into something pretty special for the Cavs to compete for a championship, right?
"We have a good group of guys ...," says Chris Grant.