Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Doing it wrong, all along?

Maybe Cavs GM Chris Grant really is lousy at drafting. Maybe Tuesday’s trade that brought Luol Deng to Cleveland is Grant’s acknowledgement that his drafts have been lacking.

Or maybe it’s an acknowledgement that the system is flawed, and no team lives on drafting alone. In fact, if you want a championship parade, history says you do what Grant just did and peddle future assets for established talent.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, as Cleveland shivered in the clutches of the coldest night in two decades, Grant shipped Andrew Bynum – or more accurately, Bynum’s non-guaranteed contract -- and three draft picks of lesser importance to Chicago for Deng. Chicago made the deal for future flexibility, as they prepare to retool their team around the currently-injured Derrick Rose. The Cavs made the deal because they simply need more talent.

So why Deng? He’ll be 29 in April. He’s a high-mileage player who led the Bulls in minutes per game each of the past two seasons, and led the entire league in minutes played two seasons ago.

He’s a good player, not a great player, and common wisdom says you need a great player at Deng’s position of small forward in order to contend for a title in today’s NBA. Deng is averaging a career high in points per game (19) and nearly a career high in rebounds per game (6.9), but he’s really the definition of “good at everything, master of nothing.”

There is definitely a place in the league for players like Deng, but nobody is going to confuse him with a franchise-caliber talent. Contrast that with the 2014 draft, which is supposedly to be loaded with franchise talent and difference-makers. Thanks to Deng, the Cavs will be too good to garner a high lottery pick.

Grant punted away a shot at a stud prospect like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Marcus Smart for four guaranteed months of Luol Deng. How insane and/or stupid can an NBA GM be?

Or maybe Grant is out-foxing the fox.

History says that the draft can do a lot for you, but it’s probably not going to win you championships if that’s your primary means of laying a foundation. Veteran teams win championships, not young teams. And thanks to the restrictions of the salary cap, young teams don’t stay intact long enough to mature into veteran teams.

No team has done a better job of building through the draft than the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the start of last season, finances forced their hand into trading James Harden to Houston. Harden quickly became an elite player for the Rockets, and the Thunder felt the sting of his absence when Russell Westbrook went down with an injury right before the playoffs last spring. Instead of getting over the hump, the Thunder were set back a season.

The Indiana Pacers have done a great job of building through the draft – all through mid-to-low first-rounders, no less. They still have yet to make the Finals with this group, thanks to the Miami Heat, who were store-bought.

It’s a recurring theme over the past decade-plus. The Lakers have won five titles dating to 2000. Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher were the two key players who arrived in L.A. as rookies. Everyone else arrived via a trade or free agency. The Heat have won three titles with acquired players such as Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. The Mavs won their 2011 title with home-grown Dirk Nowitzki supported by an army of ringers including Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler.

The Celtics drafted Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. The other half of their 2008 championship core – Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen -- arrived via trades.

In 2004, the Pistons started one of their own draft picks – Tayshaun Prince. Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups were all traded for, or signed as free agents.

In the wake of all those teams? Teams that tried to scale the draft mountain.

In the 21st Century, only the Spurs have won championships with a completely home-grown backbone. And much like the Patriots with Bill Belichick, the Spurs exist in their own mad-scientist laboratory, concocting potions that only they can produce. If you, as a mere mortal, try to replicate their ways and means, it’s a recipe for failure.

So, should Chris Grant have waited on the 2014 draft? After three years of tanking? Needing to show the best of his draft picks, Kyrie Irving, some sign that the team is committed to winning?  Knowing that Irving is due an extension offer this summer, and if he tables it or turns it down, it will make for a very nervous 2014-15 season?

Any more, it’s not about drafting the best players. It’s about acquiring the best players that other teams have drafted – that other teams have done the dirty work of developing into quality veterans.

Go for Wiggins and his greenhorn brethren, and you’re stuck waiting for him to develop into a veteran star – if it ever happens. By then, Irving and Tristan Thompson will have been due extensions, Dion Waiters will have been due an extension and you’ll have likely needed to make a call on whether to invest more money and years in Anderson Varejao. You can’t keep the whole house of cards standing that long.

Trade for an established veteran like Deng, and while you might have shortened your possible window of contention, at least you’ve started to define the window. Add another quality veteran before the February trade deadline, and – if you re-sign Deng this summer – you can possibly jump right into the May/June basketball conversation next year. Especially considering the low overall quality of the Eastern Conference.

The draft has value, but perhaps not the value we think it does. The current NBA system positions successful-drafting teams as banks to be robbed. If I’m running an NBA team, I’d rather be wearing the mask than guarding the safe.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Only the names change

In Cleveland, we've become experts at identifying failed football leadership. A decade and a half of being exposed to it will tend to have that effect.

Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, you fail. Please exit to the right, and continue collecting your paychecks for the ensuing five-odd years, per the particulars outlined in your lucrative contracts.

But ... They've only been on the job a year -- this is still a work in progress, right?

No. They've failed. It might not become evident until a few more losing seasons have accumulated and they actually receive their walking papers, but they've failed. This regime will end like all the others. With the main characters sitting at home, collecting ownership's money to not coach, not general manage and not preside, and the Browns once again looking for the same answers that have eluded the franchise for 15 years and counting.

They failed to hire a big-name coach last winter. Then they hired Rob Chudzinski, which they now admit was a failure by firing him after one season.

The firing itself was the result of a failure to step back and look at the situation from a global standpoint. Obsessed with the win-now culture that has infested the NFL, angered by the team's late-season swoon, and perhaps possessing delusions that the same types of big-name coaches that turned the Browns down a year ago will now beat a path to Berea, Banner and Lombardi -- with the blessing of Jimmy Haslam -- gave Chud the quick hook five hours after finishing a 4-12 rookie season as an NFL head coach.

That would be a 4-12 season in which Chud was forced to start three different quarterbacks due to injuries and ineffectiveness. A season in which the starting tailback was traded three weeks in, and replaced with a rotation of has-beens and never-will-be's.

A season in which Greg Little and Davone Bess couldn't hang onto the ball, and even budding star Josh Gordon had his share of drops.

A season in which Gordon didn't even know if he'd be a Brown all year, until the trade deadline safely passed in October.

A season that, in spite of all that, was actually more competitive than the final record indicates. The Browns were flat-out robbed of a win in New England by poor (or biased?) officiating. They held late leads against the Jaguars and Bears before losing at the end. They put a scare into the then-undefeated Chiefs before losing by six points at always-hostile Arrowhead Stadium. They held halftime leads in each of their first six games.

Yes, there are no moral victories in the NFL. But Chud's perpetual-underdog team competed most weeks. They had their low points, to be sure -- the 41-20, Week 11 loss to Cincinnati started the second-half slide, and counts as the worst loss of the season in terms of both margin and impact -- but Chud's teams competed, and with this roster, what more can any rational observer expect?

Reading between the lines, what does that say about the rationality of the executives currently running the ship?

By firing Chud after 16 games, Banner and his crew wanted to send a message: no excuses, no compromises and total accountability. Perhaps in their ivory ego-tower, they truly believe that's what they did.

But the message they really sent was all about their willingness to toss their coach under the bus, deflect criticism from the shortcomings of the roster they assembled, and their lack of desire to pay anything more than lip service to the ideals of continuity and stability. You know, those odd, foreign principles that have seemed to help out organizations like the Patriots, Steelers and Ravens over the years.

And they didn't just send that message to the ticket-buying public. They sent it, loud and clear, to the guys in the locker room. Veteran team leaders Joe Thomas and D'Qwell Jackson were among the most vocal in their criticism of the firing.

When a free agent is considering contract offers, and he wants to get a real-deal picture of what the organization is really like, do you think he's going to take Banner's or Lombardi's words at face value? Of course not. He's going to get in touch with the likes of Thomas and Jackson. And what are they going to say? Let your imagination run wild with that one.

The Browns have their own free agents, too. Most notably, Pro Bowler Alex Mack and Pro Bowl alternate T.J. Ward. If Banner is arrogant enough to think a better coach can do more with his roster, he's probably arrogant enough to think he can replace Mack and Ward through the draft. So maybe this is a moot point. But if the Browns did want to try and re-sign either, the next Browns coach will be Coach No. 4 for Mack (drafted in 2009) and Coach No. 3 for Ward (drafted in 2010).

New coaches mean new playbooks and new coaching styles, which are long, difficult, macro-level adjustments in the world of football. You probably couldn't blame them if they preferred to continue their career in a place with a bit more consistency -- or any consistency, for that matter.

Everything about Chud's dismissal reeks of a startling disconnect in the minds of club leadership between how they perceive things and how things really are. Even measured by the long, sorry, limp, tepid, foul, rancid precedent that the Browns have set since 1999, this firing is bad medicine.

This won't end well. But that probably depends on your definition of "well." If "well" means 18 holes of golf at an exclusive country club while you're cashing seven-figure checks to not work for the team that fired you before your contract was up, "well" is actually quite well.

If "well" means enduring a deepening spiral of loss-splattered football misery that only seems to get worse no matter how bad it already is, well … you'd have Cleveland.

That's the great thing about being a pro sports executive. Even if you fall flat on your face and damage your team for years to come, eventually it just becomes somebody else's problem. And you always come out smelling like greenbacks in the end. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Waiting on Waiters

Dion Waiters is the widget of the Cavs roster. If he were a mechanical device, he’d have a lot of lights and buttons that indicate he can do many different things. But he didn’t come with any type of instruction sheet, so you’re left to randomly press buttons, hoping to find the sequence that powers him up.

What can he do? Does he fit your needs? If so, where? All legitimate questions that don’t really have any solid answers through the first 100 or so games of Waiters’ professional career.

He came off the bench in his two years at Syracuse. The Cavs drafted him fourth overall in 2012 because, despite the fact that he was relegated to a sixth-man role, his scoring talent was apparent. Perhaps envisioning a better version of the Mo Williams and Delonte West backcourt that helped power the Cavs to 66 and 61 wins seasons in LeBron’s final two years here, the Cavs wanted to pair Waiters with Kyrie Irving in the starting backcourt.

Much like Williams and West, Irving and Waiters were both a tad undersized, but both could create their own shots, and both are adept passers. A backcourt comprised of a pair of point guard/shooting hybrids could be very versatile and very dangerous.

But there is only one ball. Only one player can create the shot per possession. Kyrie, being the anointed franchise player, would essentially get the right of first refusal, forcing Waiters to play off the ball.

It didn’t really work. Waiters never seemed comfortable taking kickout passes, curling off screens, and all of the other catch-and-shoot rhythm play that is expected of a shooting guard. Last year, he finished second among rookies in scoring behind Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, but his 14.7 PPG came on 13.4 often poorly-selected shots per game. He converted 41 percent of his shots as a rookie, but most of his converted shots were around the basket. He shot 31 percent from three-point range, exhibiting no ability to stretch the floor – a must-have skill for any starting shooting guard in the NBA.

This season didn’t begin much better. As the Cavs careened to a 4-12 start, Waiters continued to struggle in his starting role. Then the rumors started. He reportedly wanted out of Cleveland. He allegedly accused Kyrie and Tristan Thompson of playing “buddy ball” with each other, leaving him comparatively starved for touches and shots.

But as Mike Brown spent November searching frantically for anything that would stop the bleeding, one of the moves he made was perhaps one that was a year in the making: He shuffled the starting lineup. C.J. Miles became the starting shooting guard, and Waiters moved to the same sixth-man bench role that made him a top-five draft pick at Syracuse.

So determined was Brown to keep Waiters in that role that when Miles went down with a calf injury, Matthew Dellavedova – who will never be confused with an actual starting shooting guard – started in his place.

Waiters reportedly wasn’t happy with the move – who wants to lose their starting gig? – but since moving to the bench, the progress has been palpable. Since Nov. 27, Waiters has notched five 20-point games and a 30-point game. There have still been a few clunked in the mix (1/10 FG and 3 PTS versus the Clippers), but the good games have outpaced the bad games.

Waiters is playing with more confidence, even swagger at times. But even as Waiters starts to show signs of developing into a productive player, there are still a circus’ worth of elephants in the room.

Did the Cavs really burn a No. 4 pick on a guy who was destined for a bench role? If Waiters needs the ball and Kyrie needs the ball, can they ever play together in the same backcourt and be successful? Even with the renewal of hope spawned by his recent uptick in performance, will we simply come to the conclusion that Waiters is a mismatched part in Cleveland, and bound for the trading block?

It is an odd development to have a high level of redundant scoring in the backcourt – Jarrett Jack can also chuck it – while small forward languishes, occupied by the underwhelming trio of Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark and Anthony Bennett. But scoring is scoring, no matter where it comes from. And with a roster that appears to finally be stabilizing itself after a November of horrendous turmoil and blowout losses, now might not be the time to answer the questions regarding Waiters’ future in Cleveland.

If the players on this team can continue settling into their roles, absorb Brown’s complicated defense well enough to execute it at a reasonably high level and score enough points to win more than they lose, the best course of action might be to let the Jell-O set for the remainder of this season.

It’s a far cry from several weeks ago, when it looked like a transformational trade was the only thing that might save the season.

Chris Grant will almost certainly address the small forward position this coming summer, one way or another. And if the Cavs can sign or trade for a quality scoring forward, Waiters’ presence as a bench scorer could add first-string scoring punch to the second unit – a luxury that a lot of teams don’t have.

A fan base like Cleveland’s, starved for a championship – and recently, just starved for winning seasons and playoff appearances – doesn’t want to hear about works in progress. Fans don’t want to hear front-office buzzwords like “process” and “upside.” But that’s exactly what the Cavs are. They’re a work in progress, and all the holes and roles won’t be completely filled or defined this season. Even if the Cavs roar back to claim a top-four seed in the weak Eastern Conference, all the questions won’t be answered.

That includes how to best utilize the undefined widget that is Waiters. Starting shooting guard? Backup combo guard? Trade bait? Those questions will have to be answered at some point. But not right now.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The tackle that ruined a season

I generally don’t like to dwell on the past.

What would have happened if Earnest Byner hadn’t been stripped of the ball? If Jose Mesa had gotten a ground ball from Charles Johnson or Craig Counsell? If Joel Skinner had sent Kenny Lofton?

It didn’t happen. That alternate reality will never exist. So what’s the point in lamenting it? We have what we have, so let’s make the best of it.

Yet, in those quiet moments of lucidity, I can’t help but dwell on a small portion of the recent past. I can’t help but wonder what might have come of this Browns season if Brian Hoyer’s knee had stayed intact.

Heading into that Thursday, Oct. 3 game against Buffalo, Hoyer had been the freshest breath of air Browns fans had experienced in six years. The Browns didn’t look like world-beaters, but they certainly resembled a confident, competent NFL team since he had taken the reins and led the team to a come-from-behind Week 3 win at Minnesota.

Hoyer had been the third-string quarterback on the depth chart. Rob Chudzinski surprised a lot of people when he vaulted over second-stringer Jason Campbell to give Hoyer the starting nod after Brandon Weeden had injured his thumb in a second-week loss to Baltimore.

But Hoyer quickly made Chud look like a genius. He seemed to be a hand-in-glove fit to Chud’s offense. He made quick reads, quick throws, moved the ball and scored points.

In the span of two weeks, the Browns went from resembling their same old sorry selves to resembling a team that could make some noise in the AFC playoff picture.

That Thursday night game capped a crescendo of a week for Cleveland sports, after the Indians had clinched a playoff berth that Sunday, and hosted their first playoff game since 2007 that Wednesday night – the first playoff game Cleveland had hosted in any sport since May 2010.

The Indians lost under the national prime-time lights, but the following night, the Browns put the city right back under the national spotlight. And this time, we had a football team worth showcasing.

Then, barely five minutes into the game, Hoyer was flushed out of the pocket. He scampered for the first-down marker near the sideline, but his knee buckled as Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso tackled him, rolling over him in the process.

The initial reports said Hoyer might have a ligament sprain in the knee. Maybe he’d only miss a few weeks. Then we heard he might have torn a ligament. Maybe a partial tear? Maybe, hoping against hope, it wasn’t a season-ending injury?

But the next day, we found out he had torn his ACL and was done for the year. And all the air went out of the Browns season. All of the losing, negative inertia that has provided the wind for this franchise’s sails for the past decade and a half was jostled back into place. We were destined for more of the same old Browns.

It was more devastating than your typical season-ending injury to a key Browns player. It was more devastating because the various Browns leadership regimes have been on a 14-year quest to solve the quarterback position. Nothing has dogged this franchise more than poor QB play, and Hoyer, at the very least, offered a glimpse of what this team could be when not sabotaged by lousy QB play.

Hoyer’s two games and change as the Browns starting QB was a much-needed corrective lens that allowed us to view the rest of the team in a realistic light. When healthy, motivated and not assailed by the endemic “here we go again” losing culture that has anchored itself in Berea, the Browns are actually a decent football team. They’re not ready to contend for a Super Bowl by any means, but they have quality talent at some key positions.

This is not a barren roster. But it’s a roster that is going to play well below its potential if it has a low-performing QB at the helm.

Now that we’ve seen it, it’s encouraging and agonizing at the same time. We’ve seen what the Browns can be, but we’ve also seen how much it hinges on finding a quarterback who can play the position at a relatively high level. And we’re not talking Tom Brady or Peyton Manning here. Hall of Fame credentials aren’t necessary. We’re talking about someone of the Andy Dalton class. Just good, not necessarily great.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe we’d have found a solution at quarterback. Maybe the Browns brain trust wouldn’t feel the need to roll the dice on drafting a QB in a 2014 class that is being touted as one for the ages, but looks kind of iffy when you get down to it. Marcus Mariota’s decision to stay at Oregon next season isn’t helping that cause.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe the Browns are 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC wild card race, instead of 4-8 and playing out the string. You’d certainly have to think that the Browns could have beaten the Lions and Jaguars with better QB play. Maybe they could have stunned the Chiefs, who only defeated them by six points. Maybe one of those divisional blowouts against the Bengals and Steelers turn out differently with better QB play buoying the confidence of the entire team.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe this would have been a season of real progress, if not a playoff berth. Instead, we get the usual doses of opacity and uncertainty as the Browns stagger toward free agency and the draft, to be followed by minicamps, until we arrive at training camp at the end of next July. Hoyer will be there. Who knows what shape he and his knee will be in after nearly a year of rehab, but he’ll be there to compete with whomever the Browns trade for, draft or sign in an effort to create a quarterback competition in camp.

And we’ll begin the cycle all over again, hoping to find answers where there have only been questions, fortune where there has only been misfortune, wins where there have only been losses. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Just enjoy the show

The Miami Heat are in town to play the Cavs. You don’t even have to look at the schedule to know it.

All you have to do is click on a local sports website, turn on the TV, open the paper – and all the evidence is there.

LeBron is back in the news. People are talking about him. People are talking about him coming back to the Cavs. People are talking about him not coming back to the Cavs. People are printing t-shirts and handing them out. People are spending money on billboards outside of his old high school in Akron.

Maybe someone will jump out of the stands at tonight’s game and beg LeBron to come back, as happened two seasons ago. Maybe that person won’t get leveled and cuffed by security. Maybe they will.

Maybe the Goodyear blimp will hover overhead bearing a LeBron-themed message. Maybe someone will fork over the money for a plane banner, though it might be kind of hard to see against the typical gray November sky in Cleveland.

What is certain is that LeBron never comes back to these parts under cover of darkness. Every time his Heat play the Cavs, we undergo an intensive, self-funded feasibility study regarding the chances of him ever suiting up for the Cavs again. Usually, those studies end in tears as we talk ourselves out of the possibility – which is especially easy right now, with the Cavs off to another slow start – and the Heat seal the deal with a double-digit smackdown.

Invariably, the lead-up to Cavs-Heat games always serves, in the end, as an excuse for Clevelanders to feel sorry for themselves, which is a time-honored tradition around here.

We’re not over LeBron. Heck, the Cavs organization isn’t over LeBron. We want him back. If you say you don’t, it’s your defensive mechanism talking. The Cavs were fun when LeBron was here. They won. They played deep into May, every year. They won 60 games twice. They got to the Finals for the only time in franchise history.

These Cavs? They’re not really all that fun. They lose all the time. They often get blown out when they do lose. They probably need some kind of earth-moving trade to save this rebuild attempt from the scrapyard. But they’ll protect their 2014 cap space at all costs. Because LeBron can opt out of his contract after this season and become a free agent.

Call it desperate, call it anything you want, but the Cavs are going to make a run at LeBron next summer. Laugh all you want. If the best player on the planet decides to become a free agent, you’d be crazy not to make a run at him.

Will the billboards and banners and t-shirts and vocal love make any difference when LeBron looks at his options this summer? It certainly won’t make his decision for him. But at least he knows there is a percentage of the local population here that doesn’t hate his guts, that enthusiastically wants him to return. It’s a far cry from what he probably ever expected again in 2010.

As fans, what more can we do beyond expressing our opinion? Richer and far more powerful people will chart the course of history.

Maybe the key to negotiating the LeBron maelstrom isn’t to let LeBron himself go, but to let go of the rudder. Become a spectator. Be accepting of any outcome. Just expect entertainment.

If nothing else, that’s why you tune in. That’s why you pay for the ticket. To watch the sum total of what unfolds in and around a big sporting event. It’s as much about the signs and the chanting and the sound and the colors and the emotional, visceral response as it is about the mathematical outcome of the game – and certainly when your team is hopelessly overmatched, as the Cavs almost certainly will be against Miami.

LeBron’s latest return to Northeast Ohio, and the accompanying tidal wave, is some cayenne pepper mixed into what would otherwise be a bland, boring blowout of a game between the two-time defending NBA champions and a young, struggling team still trying to figure out how to tie the drawstrings on their shorts.

As long as you tune in with that mindset, and not perpetually cognizant of LeBron’s rejection, you can derive satisfaction from the experience.

Just tune in, sit back and enjoy the show. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Where to go from here?

We’ve been patient with the Cavs. We – or at least most of us – bought into the idea that the team was in needed of a complete rebuild after LeBron left. We knew it would take a few years. We knew there would be losing.

It’s been a few years. A few years that included two No. 1 overall picks and two No. 4 overall picks. Few teams get the chance to draft four top-five picks in the span of three years. Few teams win the NBA draft lottery twice in the span of three years.

But the losing? It’s still there. And it might be worse than ever.

After 166 losses in three years, Byron Scott was shown the door as Cavs coach. Mike Brown re-entered, ostensibly to rebuild a team culture centered on staunch defense. It would be worth any of the offensive shortcomings that typically plague Brown-coached teams if it means a defense that clamps down on passing lanes and challenges every shot the other team takes. Because you simply don’t contend for an NBA title without elite defense.

Twelve games into Brown’s second go-around as Cavs coach, and the Cavs are 4-8. The record is bad enough, but then you actually watch the team play, and you realize they’re lucky to even have won four.

In Wednesday night’s loss to the Wizards, the Cavs didn’t even try to play for three quarters. The only player who gave max effort on every play was Matthew Dellavedova – an undersized, undertalented and undrafted rookie who has to play all-out unless he wants a seat on the first bus to Canton.

The Wizards – a team that won’t be confused with the Miami Heat any time soon – rolled up a 27-point third-quarter lead. The Cavs didn’t play defense, they didn’t play offense, and they committed brain-dead unforced turnovers, which has become a staple of the season thus far.

A furious fourth-quarter rally cut the deficit to four, but you almost didn’t want the Cavs to win the game, lest it reinforce the idea that you can jerk around for three quarters and pull a win out of your nether regions in the end. They ended up losing 98-91.

Wednesday’s no-show came one week after a blowout loss in Minnesota that prompted a players meeting. The meeting was reportedly a heated, contentious affair that should have served as an airing of grievances, and above all, a wake-up call.

Two nights later, they looked flat in a home loss to Charlotte. Saturday night, they needed a late rally and overtime to win their first road game of the season in Washington.

In other words, that meeting did little to spark the team’s competitive fire.

The Cavs are pulling out all the stops at every level to try and find a solution. Players meetings haven’t worked. Lineup-shuffling by Brown hasn’t worked. It makes you wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes.

What is wrong with the Cavs? And where do they go from here?

The lack of effort would seem to be symptomatic of discord behind the scenes. Either players aren’t getting along with each other, Brown isn’t connecting with them or, worst of all, there is a mutiny in progress against Brown.

Brown isn’t the easiest coach to play for. Much like former Browns coach Eric Mangini, he’s authoritarian, he values heavy-handed discipline and he doesn’t really care whether the players like it or not. When he finally brainwashes the players into his line of thinking, he’ll get results. But initially, players don’t really like playing for him.

Secondary to that, Brown developed contentious relationships with the two superstars he’s coached in his career – LeBron and Kobe Bryant. They are, arguably, the two most influential players in the NBA. Knowing that there is a massive social network among NBA players, it’s easy to wonder who has said what to whom via texts and phone calls. Is Kyrie receiving negative feedback on Brown from very high places in Miami or Los Angeles? Is that coloring his opinion on playing for Brown? Maybe or maybe not, but it’s at least worth bringing up.

But players are ultimately paid millions of dollars to be professionals and play for the coach that the team has hired. If they’re not even trying to compete for large stretches of games, that’s a poor reflection on them, not the coach.

This is a problem with two solutions. Three, if you count standing pat and waiting for things to improve organically, but that seems like an option that is rapidly disappearing over the horizon.

The two active solutions are to fire the coach or execute a major trade that turns over a significant portion of the roster.

Brown was hired last spring and signed to a five-year deal. Brown certainly has his warts and caveats, and it’s understandable that he’s highly unpopular with the fan base right now, but he’s probably not going anywhere for at least several years. That leaves a large-scale trade.

Former GM Danny Ferry made that kind of trade in February 2008. It was a three-team deal with Seattle and Chicago that sent away Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Ira Newble and Donyell Marshall, and brought in Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith. The Cavs struggled in the short term, but that deal – along with a deal to acquire Mo Williams in the summer of ’08 – paved the way for the Cavs team that won 66 games the following season.

High-volume trades often involve more than two teams, and as such, are difficult to assemble and execute. It could take months of prep work and hours upon hours of phone calls to put the pieces together – and even then, large trades have been known to fall apart at the last minute.

But if GM Chris Grant wants to get proactive about improving this team, it might be the only option. This roster is apparently struggling to stay motivated. It’s a roster that is, overall, too young to contend and contains a fair number of mismatched and/or nonproductive pieces.

There are no scoring swingmen on the roster save for sporadic outbursts from C.J. Miles. Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack look like redundant players – all undersized backcourt volume-chuckers who need the ball in order to impact the game. Andy Varejao continues to do a poor impersonation of a rim-defending NBA center – but he has to, because Andrew Bynum can’t even play 20 minutes a night right now.

Both 2013 first-round picks are bringing absolutely nothing to the table – Anthony Bennett because he’s a hard-boiled hot mess between the ears and Sergey Karasev because he needs to spend about a year living in the weight room before he’ll have anything approaching an NBA body.

Everything – the attitude, the makeup, the remedial learning curve for Roker’s Ph.D.-level defensive schemes – all of it seems off. The only solution could be to try and find players with better attitudes who can bring more complementary skills to the table.

Brown, Bennett, Irving and company might serve as the whipping boys in the court of public opinion, but ultimately, the person with the most heat on his neck might be Grant himself. This rebuild was his vision. The draft picks, trades and signings are all his. The coaching hire was his. If this team doesn’t win, the buck stops with him. And it could be his job on the line if the Cavs trudge to another high-lottery finish this season.

Armed with that knowledge, don’t be surprised if this roster undergoes a transformation sometime between now and Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

2013-14 Cavs: The wild cards

“What if?”

It’s the most Cleveland of questions. The Indians liked it so much they turned it into their advertising slogan for several years. But this year’s Cavaliers team might have every right to snatch that slogan for themselves.

Perhaps no team in the NBA presently has a bigger factor of variables than the Cavs. We know the Heat, barring a catastrophic injury to LeBron James, are going to be the league’s best team. We’re almost certain the 76ers are going to be the league’s worst team, fronting the Andrew Wiggins lottery derby in 2014.

But the Cavs? They could fall just about anywhere in between.

What if Kyrie Irving takes the next step to superstardom? What if injuries limit him to fewer than 65 games again?

What if Andrew Bynum recovers to his 2011-12 form, when he had the best statistical season of his career? What if his knees can’t keep him on the floor?

What if Andy Varejao once again flourishes in Mike Brown’s defense? What if he keeps adding lines to his rapidly-lengthening injury history?

What if Dion Waiters really is Joe Dumars to Kyrie’s Isiah Thomas? What if he’s a chronic shot-chucker who consistently sabotages offensive possessions, and he never gets any better?

What if Tristan Thompson’s right-handed shot doesn’t work? What if it does? What if Anthony Bennett’s recently-revealed sleep apnea and asthma caps his conditioning level, relegating him to a part-time role? What if Jarrett Jack starts to play like a 30-something? What if his veteran leadership is exactly what the doctor ordered? What if small forward is a black hole of non-productive suck all season long? What if Alonzo Gee really can become Cleveland’s version of Bruce Bowen?

And what if Brown’s offensive acumen hasn’t improved since he last patrolled the sideline for the Cavs in 2010?

If the majority of those questions have positive answers, the Cavs could win upwards of 50 games and find themselves in the battle for a middle playoff seed in April. If the majority of those answers are bad news, the Cavs could be a 30-win team in the lottery hunt for the fourth straight year.

With the Cavs season set to tip off Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets at The Q, this is a closer look at what we know about the 2013-14 Cavs:

Starters

PG Kyrie Irving: When the media starts talking about Kyrie needing to make the third-year leap, it’s the height of praise. LeBron made the third-year leap in 2006 and took the Cavs to a hard-fought, second round exit against the Pistons in his first playoff appearance. Kevin Durant made the third-year leap for Oklahoma City in 2010. Chris Paul is a member of the third-year leap club. Now Kyrie has to do the same.

Kyrie has the goods to put himself on the outskirts of the MVP conversation in his third year. He’s not unseating LeBron and Durant just yet, but he could make his presence felt. He has arguably the best handle in the league, a reliable outside shot and a knack for making incredible finishes in traffic. And if the preseason is any indication, he’s already paying more attention to defense.

The one caveat with Kyrie is his body. Brittle bones and joints have already cost him significant chunks of his lone college season at Duke, and his first two NBA seasons. The injuries have been of a freak nature – nothing chronic or degenerative – but missed games are missed games. He has to stay on the floor for at least 70 games this year if the Cavs are to make significant progress.

SG Dion Waiters: His offensive talent is undeniable. Despite being a controversial No. 4 pick in 2012, he finished second among rookies in scoring last year. The problem with Waiters is harnessing that talent.

Waiters doesn’t have the best basketball instincts. He tends to hoist up the kind of jump shots that wreck possessions. But he appears willing to learn, and Brown is willing to teach. If Waiters can master playing in the flow of an offense, he could blossom into an 18-19 PPG scorer with a significantly elevated field goal percentage. If not, he’s going to become nary more than a poor man’s Stephon Marbury.

SF Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee: The mere fact that there’s a slash in the name doesn’t bode well for the position. Clark and Gee are interchangeable parts at this point. Both have some length that can help with perimeter defense – not that either of them are going to earn a spot on the NBA All-Defensive Team. Neither brings much in the way of offense.

The popular theory, of course, is that whoever mans this position is merely a placeholder until the Cavs make a run at LeBron next summer. But regardless of whether LBJ returns or not, this position will need an upgrade after this season.

PF Tristan Thompson: Give TT credit – he’s worked his tail off the past two years. He came into the league as a raw athlete with little in the way of skill. Now, you could make a case that he’s the most fundamentally sound of the Cavs’ five starters.

He’ll never pour in 20 points a game. He doesn’t need to. TT needs to defend, rebound and make the few open shots he gets – in that order. If his new righty jump shot lets him do that, there are few, if any, real questions about him. And that’s a great place for a third-year player to be.

C Andrew Bynum: He’s the guy on this roster who really makes your stomach churn and your heart pitter-patter. You really, really don’t want to place a lot of hope in the idea that he’ll recover to be the interior force he was with the Lakers. But if he does, he could be the ingredient that turns this team into something truly special.

Bynum, with his knees and head on straight, is the best post-playing big man in the league. Yeah, you have Pau and Z-Bo and an aging Tim Duncan – I’ll still take a healthy, motivated Bynum on the block. He’s big, strong, nimble and adept at shooting with both hands. He’s virtually impossible to stop if he gets deep position on his defender. He has to be double-teamed in many cases, which opens up shots for the other four guys.

A healthy Bynum paired with a healthy Kyrie? You can see why the defense mechanisms go up if you dwell on it. It’s too heartbreaking to think about it not happening.

Bench

F/C Anderson Varejao: In lieu of Bynum, Andy is the starting center. And that’s far from ideal, both because the increased workload of the past few years likely contributed to his recent string of injuries, and because Andy is at his best in a super-sub role.

Andy needs to be allowed to roam the floor, harassing players on the wings, drawing charges and being an all-around nuisance to the other team. As the starting center, he needs to stay close to the basket and play a much more static role. That’s just not his game, and it showed over the past few years. Despite Andy’s prodigious rebounding totals, the Cavs interior defense was quite porous when Andy was out there.

G Jarrett Jack: He’s going to be expected to be a human glue stick for this young team. He can bring scoring off the bench, but even more than that, his presence needs to be felt in the locker room by Irving and Waiters, both of whom need a role model who is still in uniform.

The primary worry with Jack is that he’s 30, and that’s right about when players start to trend downward in terms of production. Jack needs to bring a reliable 9-12 PPG off the bench, and if called upon to start, he has to still be able to shoulder a starter’s workload.

G/F C.J. Miles: He’s a gun for hire. He never met a three-pointer he wasn’t willing to take. That probably makes him worth the minutes, because when he gets hot, he’s a candidate for a 20-point quarter. But he brings little else other than those brief spasms of white-hot production. He’s a horrid defender, and that might cost him a spot in Brown’s rotation, despite his standing as a veteran player.

F Anthony Bennett: There are a lot of expectations riding on the first-ever Canadian taken with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and he’s facing a steep learning curve. Offseason shoulder surgery robbed him of his conditioning, and the recent revelation that he suffers from sleep apnea and asthma has raised questions about his ability to recover his conditioning to the point that he can play 30 to 35 minutes a night.

As it is, nobody outside the Cavs organization is really looking for Bennett to win the Rookie of the Year Award, which seems to already be gravitating toward Orlando’s Victor Oladipo. Unlike Oladipo, playing for a strip-mined Magic team that can afford to give him all the minutes he needs, Bennett will be fitted to a much more narrowly-defined role on a deeper Cavs team that has playoff aspirations. He won’t get the minutes that other rookies might.

Despite the conditioning issues, Bennett is a talented scorer. He’s already demonstrated his shooting touch throughout the preseason, and his fourth-quarter outburst to beat Oladipo’s Magic early the preaseason offered a tantalizing glimpse of what Bennett could become.

His first NBA season could be a tough one, though.

C Tyler Zeller: Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed in the morning. Zeller did everything that was asked of him this summer. He bulked up, adding a significant amount of muscle to his slender frame. He worked on his game, preparing to fight for a rotation spot on a roster that contains two veteran centers ahead of him.

His reward? Injuring his hip in the club’s first scrimmage, then having to undergo an appendectomy less than a week later. Zeller’s entire preseason was washed out.

Given the injury histories of Bynum and Varejao, Zeller still figures to be an important part of this team. But due to his preseason misfortune, his role is kind of undefined at the moment.

G/F Sergey Karasev: The Cavs’ other first-round pick from this past spring has a lot worth liking. He’s less than a week removed from his 20th birthday, but has already played professionally in Russia. He’s a heady player with a rangy jumper and underrated passing skills. He comes from strong basketball pedigree. His dad is Vasily Karasev, who was one of the best players in Russia in the 1990s, and later became a coach who has had a major hand in his son’s development.

The junior Karasev has said he models his game on that of Spurs great Manu Ginobili. If he becomes a next-generation Ginobili for the Cavs, I think we’ll take that without a lot of argument. As for now, he’s extremely skinny and not used to the physical nature of the NBA game. Let’s see what happens over the next few years, once he has a chance to fill out his frame and refine his game.

The Canton shuffle: Carrick Felix, Matthew Dellavedova and Henry Sims round out the Cavs roster. All three figure to log some major minutes playing for the NBDL’s Canton Charge this season, but depending on how hard the injury bug bites the Cavs, we could see some or all of them in action at The Q.

Felix is a second-round pick this past spring from Arizona State. The swingman is Brown’s kind of guy – a nose-to-the-grindstone worker who values defense. If he shows any scoring potential, Brown will find a place for him with the big-league club.

Dellavedova is an Australian import who played for the Aussies in the 2012 Olympics. The point guard is an undrafted product of St. Mary’s College in California. He doesn’t possess much athleticism, but comes with the reputation of a high basketball IQ and providing great court leadership, with enough of a jump shot to get by. His lack of athleticism, however, figures to be a major hindrance at the defensive end, where he’s already shown that he has trouble staying in front of other NBA point guards. He’ll have to compensate somehow, if he wants to carve out an NBA career.

Sims was the last man standing in the battle for the 15th roster spot. The center is an undrafted product of Georgetown who looked solid during the preaseason. The best thing you can probably say about Sims as a long-term NBA prospect is that he’s willing to do the dirty work of defense, rebounding and dishing out fouls.

Coaching: Mike Brown returns to the Cavs sideline for the first time since LeBron quit and/or choked his way out of the 2010 playoffs, and subsequently out of Cleveland. In the interim, Brown had a forgettable year and five games as coach of the Lakers, where he struggled to manage Kobe Bryant and the Lakers’ arsenal of mercurial talent.

Brown’s Lakers tenure wasn’t a success by any macro-level measurement, but he did have a positive impact on Bynum, pushing all the right buttons and enabling the often difficult-to-manage center to compile his best statistical season. Brown enthusiastically endorsed a Bynum signing to GM Chris Grant over the summer.

Bynum is the type of project Brown loves – a young player who tends to thrive when given a high degree of structure and discipline. The same can be said for the remainder of the Cavs roster.

Brown is, at his heart, a teacher. He’s at his best when molding wet clay. And the Cavs will provide him tons of wet clay this season.

Defense does win championships. The best teams in the league are almost always the best defensive teams in the league. For the past few years, the Cavs have been in desperate need of the type of structure and defensive fundamentals that Brown will provide.

But Brown also comes with the deserved rap of enabling poor offensive execution. He tends to let bad habits develop at that end of the floor, failing to eradicate them at the root the way he would at the defensive end.

The object of the game is still to put the ball in the hoop, and if Browns’ second Cavs tenure is to be longer and more successful than his first, he has to cultivate this team’s offense the way he does its defense.

To that end, he has compiled an intriguing coaching staff that includes NBA coaching stalwart Bernie Bickerstaff – Brown’s first mentor in the NBA – and Igor Kokoskov, a well-traveled assistant coach who will serve, in effect, as the team’s offensive coordinator.

Training: The Cavs underwent another sea change this summer by rebuilding their entire training staff. Gone is longtime trainer Max Benton, replaced by the newly-named “Cavs Performance Team.” The performance team will be led by Alex Moore, the former strength and conditioning coach for the U.S. Ski Team.

Results have yet to bear out the wisdom of the decision, but it’s an attempt by the Cavs to address the fact that they have a number of key players with long injury histories by building a training department much closer to what you might see in Europe or Australia. The Aussies are often credited as world leaders in sports training, rehabilitation and injury prevention.

The creation of the performance team is the result of months of research by the Cavs brain trust, comparing the common practices of American sports training with those in other countries. What Grant and his staff concluded from the research is that American sports training methods lag behind the rest of the developed world. Hence, the development of the new model.

If it keeps Irving, Bynum and Varejao on the floor and producing, it’s a great move. We’ll know a lot more by midseason.