Barber: Former Cavs GM David Griffin living in Sonoma

The Golden State Warriors are one win short of claiming the title of “three-time defending NBA champions.” Among the people most responsible for denying them the prefix, LeBron James and Dan Gilbert remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving has moved on to Boston and David Griffin is living below the radar in a rented house in Sonoma.

You know James, the prodigious basketball talent, and Irving, his former point guard. And you probably have heard of Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ tempestuous owner.

Griffin, 48, is less of a household name. But as Cavs general manager, it was he who traded for Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver, and who signed James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and Richard Jefferson as free agents. In essence, it was Griffin who assembled enough sturdy pieces around LeBron to build a champion - and to keep his superstar optimistic enough to sign a series of one-year contracts and stick around.

Griffin and the Cavaliers parted ways on June 19, 2017. Less than four months later, he and his wife, Meredith, moved to Sonoma. They arrived five days before the fires, but were undeterred.

Neither had lived in Northern California before. Neither has family here. But the couple had gradually fallen in love with the North Bay on team visits.

That was especially true of Meredith Griffin, whom David said had made 23 Bay Area visits over the past 10 years. Some of those included day trips to Wine Country with a collection of Cavaliers wives who called themselves the Better Halves. Meredith, who is training to be a sommelier, founded a company called decantU that focuses on wellness and wine education. Sonoma County was sort of her dream destination, and David figured it was time to focus on her career for a change.

Not that he is lounging by the fire with a glass of pinot. Gregarious and energetic, Griffin is a perfect fit for media, and the airwaves have found him. He spends every Tuesday and Wednesday in Atlanta taping segments for NBA TV, which is operated by Turner Broadcasting. And he tapes a couple of SiriusXM NBA Radio shows from his home. One of them, called “Deals and Dunks,” he co-hosts with Joel Myers. The other, “Above the Rim,” has a rotating cast of panelists.

And yes, Griffin misses the competitive side of basketball.

“It’s so much less stressful (doing media),” he said. “But as Steve (Kerr) always said, the thing you miss when you’re away from the game is the camaraderie.”

Griffin truly started on the ground floor. He transferred from the University of Arizona to Arizona State as an undergrad specifically to get an internship in the Phoenix Suns’ public relations department in 1993. He eventually worked his way up to Suns senior vice president of basketball operations. Griffin took a similar role with the Cavaliers in 2010, became the team’s interim GM in February of 2014 and got the full-time job in May of that year.

Exactly two months later, James came home to Ohio, propelling the Cavs to a run of at least three years as Eastern Conference champions.

No general manager has made it to a second contract under Gilbert, who co-founded Quicken Loans and bought the Cavaliers in 2004 - not Danny Ferry, not Chris Grant and, now, not David Griffin. When they broke up last June, Gilbert was getting rid of the only GM to win a sports championship in Cleveland in 52 years, an immensely popular and still-young executive who had LeBron James’ seal of approval. Cavs fans, and many writers, were outraged. Most galling, the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks each had requested to interview Griffin for high-level openings during the 2017 playoffs. Gilbert declined those requests.

Griffin, however, betrays no bitterness from the experience. He seems like the sort of man who has never burned a bridge in his life, so perhaps he’s just being diplomatic. But he insists the breakup was truly mutual.

The writing appeared on the wall, Griffin said, when Nate Forbes, a Cavaliers vice chairman, began to separate from the organization in early 2017. Forbes was an important channel between Griffin and Gilbert, and Griffin knew the work environment would be different without him. He reportedly wanted a promotion and more money, too. In the end, Gilbert was unwilling to offer them. So both sides allowed Griffin’s contract to expire.

Just as important, Griffin had been worn down by the Cavs’ grinding model of success: Keep James on the roster via one-year deals, and constantly hustle to fit pieces around him. It worked, because James is a once-in-a-generation talent. But even with The King in the building, Griffin felt the system was ultimately unsustainable.

So here is the architect of the 2016 NBA championship, enjoying what passes for a cold snap in Sonoma and watching tons of basketball as a detached observer.

Much of Griffin’s focus, not surprisingly, falls on the team that plays an hour away - the Warriors. And it isn’t just because they’re odds-on favorites to win another championship in June. Griffin’s connections to this team run both broad and deep.

Steve Kerr joined the Suns as general manager in June of 2007, just after Griffin had been promoted to senior vice president of basketball operations. Kerr brought in his close friend Bruce Fraser to be a scout and coach. Alvin Gentry was part of the Phoenix coaching staff, and Jarron Collins was playing there. All of those men (except Griffin) wound up on Kerr’s staff with the Warriors. So did Luke Walton, who played for the Cavaliers after Griffin moved there. And Mike Brown, now Kerr’s top assistant, who coached in Cleveland. (The Cavs fired Brown, their head coach, the same day they officially hired Griffin as GM.) Rick Welts was the Suns president; now he’s the Warriors president. Griffin also has strong professional bonds with Golden State GM Bob Myers and PR director Raymond Ridder.

Griffin calls former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo his greatest influence and benefactor in the industry. But it sounds as though it was Kerr who most acutely shaped Griffin’s philosophy of life. Someone once told Griffin that Kerr was his “finishing school.”

“Steve made me a better human being,” Griffin said. “Unbeknownst to me, before I was with Steve, I was so ambitious, and so totally consumed by the game, I just didn’t have any balance in my life at all. And I’ve described other kids I’ve worked with in the business as ‘not using the clutch.’ And Steve really taught me how to do that.”

And then there is another Warriors assistant coach, young Nick U’Ren. Griffin said U’Ren, who started in Phoenix as his intern, “is like a brother to me.”

“The first (NBA Finals) we did, we actually took a group photo,” Griffin said. “I think at the time, between players that had been in Cleveland and all of us that had been together in Phoenix, there were like 11 of us that had connections. So it made those Finals really, really interesting.”

It may have been worse for Meredith Griffin. David describes his wife as “uber competitive.” She would greet U’Ren at the start of each of those championship series, and give him a hug when each had ended. In between, not a word of contact.

There’s a what-could-have-been here. Griffin interviewed with then-coach-GM Garry St. Jean for a job with the Warriors back in the late 1990s. Colangelo checked the move by creating a new position for Griffin in video and statistical analysis. By the time Kerr got to Oakland, Griffin was ascendant in Cleveland. Now Myers is entrenched as the Warriors GM.

In a way, Griffin may have missed out on his perfect job. He sees the environment that Kerr and Myers have built in Oakland, the joy they try to cultivate, the emphasis on the person rather than the player or the coach, and he can’t help but think he would have been a great fit. Instead, he spent three years plotting against them.

Griffin isn’t the type to look back, though. A two-time survivor of testicular cancer - he’ll be seven years free in July - and a guy who got his NBA start handing out stat sheets at Suns home games, he’s a man with some perspective.

Griffin is pretty sure he and Meredith will retire in Sonoma, but not so certain they have already taken up permanent residence. A lot may depend on his job opportunities over the next few years.

“If the right situation presents itself, I’d listen,” he said. “But I really have a difficult time imagining what that conversation sounds like with my wife.”

Meanwhile, Griffin hasn’t been down to see his Warriors friends once since he got here. His perspective doesn’t go that far.

“Just going and just being might be really hard for me, to be honest with you,” he said. “So much of our lives was about finding a way to beat those guys.

On one memorable occasion, the Cavaliers did just that. It’s why David Griffin may be merely the chatty neighbor with the LeBron James jersey in Sonoma, but he’ll always be a hero in Cleveland.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter:?@Skinny_Post.

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