When Cavaliers need roster upgrades, GM Griffin delivers

Two weeks ago, with the Cleveland Cavaliers uncomfortably thin after some injuries, coach Tyronn Lue just gave a knowing smile and yielded to general manager David Griffin.

"With Griff at the helm, I know he'll get something done," Lue said. "He always pulls out something magical."

With no ability to trade a first-round pick until 2020, with no ability to trade a second-round pick until 2021, and with two players on his roster coming off possible career-ending surgeries - and with the highest payroll in the league -- it wasn't exactly clear where Griffin was supposed to get that magic.

Especially because ownership made it clear there wasn't a desire to spend more -- in fact, it would be nice if he could improve the team and also figure out a way to spend less. So he did.

The Cavaliers executed a never-before-seen deal with Portland -- a bizarre trade where the only pieces were Cavs future first-rounders that were swapped for each other. It freed them to trade a 2019 first-rounder that they otherwise wouldn't have been permitted to trade yet, and they used it to land Kyle Korver, one of the best shooters in league history.

It also opened a roster spot -- the roster previously was full and wounded -- so another player could be added and a developmental player, Jordan McRae, could be kept. After all that, it also saved Griffin's bosses about $6 million in salaries and luxury taxes. Griffin and the front office felt like they'd hit a three-run home run off Aroldis Chapman on a 1-2 count.

The day after the deal, LeBron James surveyed the scene and said: "We gotta get a point guard. It's my last time saying it. We need a point guard."

So much for the curtain call. Griffin was back to work.

James is right, the Cavs still do need a point guard. James has maximum expectations and varying patience. He delivers at the highest levels on the floor, and he expects his partners to do so as well -- whether that's Nike with the design of a shoe, his agent during contract negotiations, or his GM when managing the talent during James' championship window.

Griffin's primary bosses are owners Dan Gilbert and Nate Forbes, who are heavily involved in roster decisions. They push Griffin too, and they have James-like expectations. Gilbert backs it up by his willingness to go over the top to spend. This season the Cavs' payroll is at more than $125 million, and Gilbert is on the hook for $27 million in luxury taxes. Last season, Gilbert signed off on spending that hit him with a whopping $54 million tax bill.

Because Griffin has James and an ownership that's willing to spend, it seems there is a perception that his job is easier. Griffin's peers haven't exactly showered him with public praise. In the 2014-15 season, Griffin re-signed Kyrie Irving, traded for Kevin Love and made in-season moves for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. Griffin finished second in Executive of the Year voting to Bob Myers of Golden State.

Last year, Griffin re-signed Shumpert, Smith, Love and Tristan Thompson, and executed a complex midseason trade that landed Channing Frye while reducing payroll at the same time. Halfway through the season, he controversially fired coach David Blatt -- a decision that Griffin owned, putting his neck on the line if it didn't work. Of course, it did: The Cavs ended up winning the title.

His peers voted him seventh in Executive of the Year balloting.

In the offseason, he re-signed Richard Jefferson and Smith after a long battle over terms. James re-signed too, though for the purposes of evaluating Griffin's work, James' choices are usually discounted. James will do what James will do, which is its own challenge even if it isn't always apparent. Griffin also had to work out a new deal for Lue, who had been the associate head coach under Blatt. Lue balked at signing a contract midseason when he got the head job, and the gamble paid off when the Cavs gave him a $7 million per-season deal after winning the title.

Seemingly the only one in the building Griffin hasn't done a deal for is himself; his contract expires at the end of this season.

To get all these things done, Griffin has basically mortgaged future drafts. He has traded the team's first-round picks in 2015, '16, '17 and '19. He also has traded the players the Cavs drafted with their first-rounders in 2013 and '14. He has traded two extra first-round picks they previously had the rights to, as well. And he has traded the team's second-round picks in 2015, '16, '17, '18, '19 and '20.

Gilbert does not care. He made his fortune in mortgages. Mortgage away. James does not care. He wants veterans to win with now.

"I'm trying to win championships. You know, he's the same way," James said of Griffin. "He's trying to put the ball club in position to do that, so you can respect that."

When it becomes a problem, and it will someday, they'll just expect Griffin to work his magic again.

The Cavs don't have a large front office. After Griffin, it's vice president Trent Redden, who travels the world scouting players the Cavs rarely have picks to use on, and assistant GM Koby Altman, who has a background in the Ivy League and a growing respect in the NBA. Both Redden and Altman will probably be on short lists for future GM openings. Brock Aller is the senior director of strategy, and he has helped identify some of the unique methods the team has used to create trade exceptions to add players despite being capped out. The new collective bargaining agreement has closed some of the loopholes the team exploited over the past few years.

The bottom line is this: Since LeBron returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, the Cavs have traded Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao, Mike Dunleavy and Mo Williams. They have traded for Love, Shumpert, Smith, Frye and Korver. Other than new addition Korver, the bulk of the team is signed through next season. Irving, Love, Thompson and Smith are under control through 2019. James isn't going anywhere.

But Griffin won't be resting. He needs a backup point guard. James is waiting.

"Griff always gets something done somehow," Lue said. "We just sit back."

Dave McMenamin contributed to this story.