I don’t know what the future holds for the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chris Grant. He’s on the hook for the selection of Anthony Bennett, who, to this point, has done nothing to merit being the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013.
He may have to answer for Tristan Thompson, as well, as the No. 4 pick in 2011.
But here’s what he won’t have to do: He won’t have to worry about ever being called a stooge for knuckling under to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Grant did something that a lot of general managers over the years have not done: He stood up to the Lakers and told them, ‘no.’ He wouldn’t send “the contract of Andrew Bynum” (as the Bulls called it in their press release) for Pau Gasol, a move which would have given the Lakers enormous financial relief and future flexibility. He resisted sending a younger asset to the aging Lakers to make the deal.
Instead, he turned Bynum’s contract into the much-more-attractive Luol Deng. The Cavs now have an accomplished small forward for the first time since LeBron James. The Bulls can get on with rebooting/rebuilding. And the Lakers have to be shocked – shocked – that another team could deny them what they want.
Bailing out the Lakers is something of an NBA generational rite. When the Lakers can’t get something done, they unfailingly (until this past week, anyway) get someone to midwife the deal. Or flat-out capitulate. It’s happened more than a few times, and Grant looked to be the latest Laker enabler until he stood his ground.
Consider some of the past Lakers’ bobos, the most egregious being the fools who ran the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New Orleans Jazz in the 1970s.
The Jazz decided in the summer of 1976 that it would be a really good idea to sign 33-year-old Gail Goodrich, a Lakers’ guard, to a free agent contract.
Back in those days, free agency signings were usually settled by compensation, which often was punitive to the team that signed the free agent. One of the compensatory picks the Lakers received was the Jazz’ No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft. That turned into Magic Johnson. Yes, the stars had to align with the Jazz having the worst record in the Eastern Conference and then the Lakers winning the coin flip. But why on earth would a team sign a 33-year-old free agent, especially one on the downside like Goodrich, when the compensation could be so burdensome?
The Lakers did it again a few years later, this time victimizing the hapless Cavaliers. They sent Don Ford and one of their No. 1 picks to Cleveland for Butch Lee and the Cavs’ No. 1 pick in 1982. Cleveland ended up with Chad Kinch as a draft pick from the deal. The Lakers ended up with the No. 1 overall pick (again winning the coin toss) and got James Worthy. Los Angeles was just coming off its second NBA championship in three years and would win three more with Worthy.
In 1996, the Lakers needed help once again. GM Jerry West was literally losing sleep over the team’s inability to sign free agent Shaquille O’Neal. West pretty much gutted the Lakers’ roster, but still didn’t have enough money to satisfy the ravenous O’Neal.
Enter Stu Jackson, then the general manager of the Vancouver Grizzlies. For reasons still unknown, Jackson bailed out the Lakers, agreeing to take two players of the Lakers’ roster for draft picks. Thus, when West was able to send Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to Vancouver – and not get another player in return – he then had enough money to sign O’Neal.
Just think of what NBA history would be like if Jackson had told West to go pound sand. Really, how much better were the already-bad Grizzlies going to be with modest role players like Peeler and Lynch? They went from 15 wins in their maiden season of 1995-96 to 14 victories after the acquisitions of Peeler and Lynch.
Peeler and Lynch each last two seasons in Vancouver. Shaq won three titles in Los Angeles. We could also note that Charlotte that summer – 1996 – traded the draft rights to Kobe Bryant to the Lakers for Vlade Divac, thereby freeing up the initial salary cap space that allowed West to start his vigorous pursuit of Shaq. Divac played only two seasons in Charlotte.
The last Laker bailout came in the summer of 2012, but it ended up backfiring on Los Angeles. Once again, the Lakers needed help to acquire Dwight Howard, a move that, if it happened, presumably was going to secure the center spot and position the Lakers for a long, successful run even after Bryant retired. Denver stepped in and made it happen, acquiring Andre Iguodala along the way in a complicated four-team deal.
The Sixers and the Magic also were involved, but it was the Nuggets who rescued the deal. As ESPN’s John Hollinger reported at the time, “the only little fly in the ointment is that they helped the Lakers get Howard. Um, that’s gonna be a problem.”
We all thought it was at the time.
Why would Denver knowingly help a Western Conference rival? The Nuggets general manager, Masai Ujiri, must have known what few of us else did – that Howard would hate playing for the Lakers, that Steve Nash would be hurt (OK, that wasn’t a shocker), that Kobe would get hurt and that D12 would do what no other marquee Laker has ever done: leave as a free agent in the prime of his career.
Maybe Ujiri saw all of this coming. After all, he’s done a terrific job in Toronto. But, at the time, he sure looked like the latest in a line of general managers who was helping the Lakers get what they wanted.
You can name other teams – OK, the Celtics – who also have bigfooted or browbeat their brethren into making deals. Kevin McHale caved and sent Kevin Garnett to Boston. Dick Vitale always thought he deserved a championship ring when, as the Pistons’ coach, he pushed for the free-agent acquisition of Bob McAdoo. When he got Big Mac, he had to surrender the draft pick that led to the Kevin McHale/Robert Parish trade.
Grant will always have his doubters – and with good reason. But he gets a high-five for this latest move.
Peter May is the only writer who covered the final NBA games played by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He has covered the league for three decades for The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe and has written three books on the Boston Celtics. His work also appears in The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter.