Wednesday, November 30, 2005

On top of World

World B. Free might very well have saved basketball in Cleveland.
When Free arrived in a 1982 trade with Golden State, the Cavaliers were owned by Ted Stepien, who had turned the team into a laughing stock of sideshows and horrible basketball.
Stepien had allowed management to trade draft pick after draft pick away, many to the Dallas Mavericks. It got to the point that NBA Commissioner David Stern later implemented a rule to prevent other owners from jeopardizing their team's future they way Stepien did in Cleveland: no team can now trade first-round draft picks away in consecutive years.
Stepien tried to move the team to Toronto the year Free arrived. If not for an on-air tongue-lashing by legendary Cleveland sports yakker Pete Franklin, he might have succeeded.
Then Free arrived, George and Gordon Gund bought the team, and suddenly things looked up again.
Free was to the Cavs of the 1980s what LeBron James is to the current Cavs: a star, a drawing card, a franchise savior.
In four years with Cleveland, Free succeeded in returning the Cavs to respectability. Armed with a great outside shot and the cockiness to lead, he helped the Cavs rebound from a 2-19 start in 1984-85 to make the playoffs. His presence turned the vibe around the organization to a positive one, and helped make the Cavs an attractive place for accomplished NBA executive Wayne Embry and top-flight coach Lenny Wilkens to set up shop, paving the way for the successful Cleveland teams of the late '80s and early '90s.
Tonight at Quicken Loans Arena, Free will be there to feel the love during a halftime presentation, part of "World B. Free Night." It is something long overdue. Free will be the first to tell you that.
Free, now employed in the 76ers front office, has long felt slighted becaused his No. 21 doesn't hang from the arena rafters in Cleveland.
Free never won a championship for the Cavs. Heck, he never won a playoff series. But he has a point.
The Cavs have had a history of playing fast and loose with retiring numbers. A franchise that has never made it to the NBA Finals, and counts cups of coffee with past-prime stars Nate Thurmond and Walt Frazier as its only Hall of Famers, has retired six jersey numbers. All of them have little meaning outside Cleveland: Thurmond's No. 42, Austin Carr's No. 34, Bobby "Bingo" Smith's No. 7, Brad Daugherty's No.43, Mark Price's No. 25 and Larry Nance's No. 22.
Considering the precendent that has been set, Free has a right to be a bit miffed that his number isn't hanging from the rafters at The Q. Thurmond helped spur the Miracle of Richfield team of 1975-76, but he played only two seasons in Cleveland at the tail end of his career. Carr had terrible knees, was a good but not a great player, and is probably more valuable now as an organizational spokesman than he was as a player.
Smith was a dead-eye jump shooter right for his era. Price, Daugherty and Nance accomplished the most of any Cavs' trio, but they had each other.
Free was a one-man show who swooped in from the West Coast to make the Cavs legit again. He didn't have help at first. The help followed him.
For four years, Free was the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe retiring his number isn't a fitting enough tribute. Once a solid-gold statue of LeBron is erected outside The Q, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert should look into a nice bronze piece commemorating Free. To make it realistic, Free should be depicted crouched over like Atlas, carrying the entire Cavs organization on his back.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Well running dry

It's happening again, just like last off-season.
The Indians woo free agents with a bunch of pomp and circumstance to try and compensate for their lack of money. Then the free agents smile, nod and jump into the back of a Brinks truck that another team has prepared.
It happened last year with starting pitcher Matt Clement, who wasted no time accepting a lucrative offer from the Red Sox. Boston and their megabucks jumped into the fray after the Indians spent weeks painstakingly pursuing Clement.
The same thing happened this year with closer B.J. Ryan.
The Indians entertained Ryan and his wife Candi the week before Thanksgiving. They put his image on the Jacobs Field scoreboard wearing a digitally-placed Indians cap. General Manager Mark Shapiro wined and dined him.
Ryan accepted the hospitality with no reservation, then promptly went to Toronto and signed a five-year deal worth an estimated $47 million with the Blue Jays.
How much do you want to bet that on the plane ride out of Cleveland, Ryan and his agent were saying, "Cleveland? Hell, no. We know someone will offer more money."
Bob Howry certainly wasted no time in vacuuming up some of the big-market cash when he gobbled up a three-year, $12 million offer from the Cubs, leaving a hole in the Cleveland bullpen large enough to sink the Titanic again.
The Indians are quickly running out of options. Ryan and Howry, their best two closer options for next year, have now signed with other teams. Trevor Hoffman, in the sunset of a distinguished career, is probably the next-best available closer, but far from what he once was.
After him, the selection dulls dramatically, with Tom Gordon and Octavio Dotel as budget buys. Then there is the old, reliable standby Bob Wickman, who apparently hasn't made up his mind whether he even wants to return for another year.
Kevin Millwood is back home in Duluth, Ga. waiting to see who offers him what. In an article our paper ran today, he was quoted as saying "I guess it depends on what the owner does" when asked about his chances of returning to the Indians.
Translation: don't hold your breath. Millwood will likely go where the owner's pocketbook is greenest, which won't be Cleveland.
While pitcher after pitcher falls off the free agency board in rapid-fire succession, the Indians still haven't addressed the need to upgrade first base and/or right field. If Millwood, knowing he is the best or second-best starting pitcher on the market, forces teams to play a waiting game until January, all the decent first base and outfield options could be off the board.
If the Indians play along, saving their cash for Millwood, waiting on his decision even as all the other choice free agents find other homes, and Millwood leaves anyway, this off-season would be an unmitigated disaster. The Indians would be in serious danger of backsliding next year, plugging holes with more Casey Blakes.
No matter how much we, as fans, and the Indians front office, as negotiators, want to believe that smiles and handshakes matter, they don't in free agency. Money matters. Money is all that matters. Expensive dinners, video presentations, flower bouquets for the wife, it's all nice. But that all gets wadded up and thrown away at the negotiating table.
That's how a high-aspiring young team like the Indians always loses this time of year, and how the money-laden yet perennially-pathetic Mets land the likes of Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Morning After: Minnesota

Vikings 24, Browns 12
Record: 4-7

Let me relate two concerns I have about the Browns coaching staff:
I am concerned head coach Romeo Crennel is too passive, and offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon's mind grinds to a screeching halt whenever the Browns get in the red zone.
The Browns self-detonated a touchdown opportunity away at the end of the first half Sunday, and all we had to show for it was Crennel circling the wagons around his offensive coordinator after the game, employing selective memory about the half-ending flub when reporters asked him about it.
It is disturbingly Butch Davis-ish of Crennel, kind of like playing musical quarterbacks. Which is something else he did, yet again, on Sunday.
This time, it was even worse than the flip-flopping he showed in the Miami game. Trent Dilfer injured a leg, Charlie Frye came in, threw a pick, and Crennel decided Dilfer on one bad leg was better than Frye.
Which brings me back to the leadership issue.
I hope I am wrong about this, but Crennel and Carthon are starting to look like guys who don't want to have to make the tough choice. Crennel is wishy-washy and vague on committing to a QB, and Carthon, who looked so promising in the preseason, looks uncomfortable as the offensive shot-caller when a touchdown opportunity arises.
Carthon has looked terrified of making the wrong decision. It is something he hasn't had to do before. He was an offensive coordinator on a leash last year in Dallas. This year in Cleveland, he is the undisputed pilot of the offensive playbook.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has his share of faults as a coach, but his cool head in tight, pressure-packed games is a big reason why he is 4-1 against Michigan and 3-1 in bowls. Tressel is a beacon of stability for his team because he exudes strong leadership without being a human volcano.
Former Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens is another example of strong-yet-stoic leadership.
Crennel's leadership looks stoic without the strong. Again, I hope I'm wrong about that.
It doesn't all fall on the shoulders of Crennel and Carthon, or defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. As I have said, as is blatantly obvious, this team has a lot of ground to make up on the NFL's contenders talentwise. But when a team with a veteran QB, 1,000-yard rusher-to-be and a supposedly-talented receiver corps is as dismal as the Browns are in the red zone, some off the heat should find its way to the sideline. The team reflects the leadership, after all.
Some coaches are practice masterminds. In an environment where the coach can control just about everything, they can sand and polish their rosters and playbooks to meet the spectacular visions in their minds. Judging by the reports of increased professionalism in the Browns' locker room and the fact that the Browns are still trying despite being two losses away from a losing season, I'd say Crennel is solid practice coach.
But put the finely-tuned concepts into a game environment, with 80,000 screaming fans, an opposing team and referees with glaucoma, and the luster can wear away quickly.
That's the jump Crennel is still in the process of making, and Carthon too. Being the head honcho at team headquarters is one thing, being the head honcho when thousands of pairs of eyes are boring holes in your skull is quite another.
I hope Crennel grows into someone who is up to the task.

Up next: Jacksonville, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sports on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the one day a year when being a couch potato is high art.
Other days of the year, couch potatoes are lazy and loathsome creatures (I know firsthand how it feels to be persecuted for enjoying a good movie on a beautiful Saturday afternoon).
But on Thanksgiving, stuffing your gut full of food and laying around like a beached whale is admirable. And, boy, did I reach for the summit yesterday.
It was a particularly appealing proposition because yesterday's Thanksgiving programming included 10 straight hours of marquee sporting events.
Well, sort of.
The early-afternoon football game featured the Lions hosting the Falcons. The late-afternoon football game featured the Cowboys and the Broncos. And the piece de resistance nightcap was on the hardcourt, with the Cavaliers in a nationally-televised game at Indiana.
Unfortunately, the watchability of the games varied. Below, I assign grades to the viewing experience yesterday's Thanksgiving sports selection gave me.
And, yes, the final one is a bit subjective. Just a bit.

12:30 p.m. ET
NFL -- Atlanta at Detroit: D
Why doesn't the NFL spread these Thanksgiving games around? Why do they subject us to watching the Lions, year after year?
I realize the Lions were 9-5 in their previous 14 Thanksgiving games heading into yesterday. But these 2005 Lions don't have Barry Sanders. Or a quarterback. Or much of anything, for that matter.
The Falcons came in and did what you'd expect a playoff contender to do to a perennial dreg: stomped them flat, 27-7.
And it wasn't even that close.
Joey Harrington was really, really bad (6-of-13 passing, 61 yards, 1 INT). He was so bad, Lions coach Steve Mariucci couldn't resist his itchy trigger finger and pulled Harrington in the second quarter for Jeff Garcia. Garcia fared little better, and the Lions stayed off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter when the game had been decided.
Third-string Detroit quarterback Dan Orlovsky relieved Garcia and and coughed up the ball with 15 seconds to play.
This game should have been buried deep on the Sunday slate with 10 percent of the country tuning in, not on national television with every male-dominated TV set in America tuned in.

4 p.m. ET
NFL -- Denver at Dallas: A
Everything that the Lions and Falcons couldn't deliver, the Broncos and Cowboys did. Two conference contenders in a hotly-contested game that went into overtime. Denver won, 24-21.
This game should have aired first while dinner was still in the oven. Instead, it aired just in time for moms across the Eastern time zone to say "Turn that TV off. Dinner's ready."
While you were eating, Ron Dayne was reclaiming his career. The Heisman Trophy winner was stuck with an underachiever stigma during his lackluster stay with the Giants. Now a member of the Broncos, he used a chest injury to starting running back Tatum Bell to his advantage, piling up 98 yards rushing, including a 55-yard run on the second play of overtime that set up Jason Elam's game-winning field goal.
The surprising Broncos improved to 9-2, winners of four straight.

8 p.m. ET
NBA -- Cleveland at Indiana: C
If you are a Pacers fan, this was a beautiful game and worthy of an "A". But I'm not.
The Pacers ... well ... paced the game. Using a stifling defense featuring Ron Artest, Indiana held LeBron James to four first-half points en route to a comfortable 98-76 win.
The Pacers were at their fundamental best at the defensive end, clogging passing lanes, closing quickly on the Cavs' open shots, harrassing Cleveland into poor shot selection, and all the while taking methodical and well-selected jump shots on the offensive end, making many of them.
The Pacers survived early foul trouble for Scot Pollard and Jermaine O'Neal, and showed how deep and solid their bench is.
The Cavs are a good team, but they have yet to arrive in the elite class occupied by Indiana, Detroit and San Antonio. I used much of the second half for post-turkey dozing off.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thome to White Sox

If you didn't get a chance to cheer/boo Jim Thome in Cleveland, it looks like you will now. is reporting that the Phillies have agreed in principle to send Thome to the White Sox for a package that includes outfielder Aaron Rowand.
The deal would send Thome back to the AL Central and guarantee 19 meetings a year between Thome and his old buds in Tribetown.
The only caveat for the White Sox is that Thome appears to be heading down the same injury-plagued road that caused Chicago to cut ties with Frank Thomas after the World Series. He missed a huge chunk of last season, and has chronic back problems.
But if the White Sox re-sign Paul Konerko, the first base-DH combo of Thome and Konerko in the heart of the Chicago lineup ... well, it's unsettling for the other four teams in the Central.

Cavs on fire

Last spring's collapse for the Cavaliers still has me a bit guarded about getting totally swept up in their 9-2 start. It's only November, after all.
But there is no denying this is a vastly different team than the one that ended last season. It's not just the additions of Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones to the core of LeBron James annd Zydrunas Ilgauskas. It's the way coach Mike Brown is making it all come together.
To qualify as a better strategic coach than Paul Silas, Brown merely needed a clue as to how to use his players beyond LeBron. But Brown has more than a clue.
Brown has spent the first month of the season showing that the presence of Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle on his resume is more than window dressing.
Crisp rotations and aggressive play on defense has been the norm. Brown has also found a way to harness the wealth of offensive talent on the roster so that players are using their talent to make each other better.
Pass first, dribble second, shoot third seems to be Brown's offensive mantra. But he doesn't place paint-by-number restrictions on his players, particularly the multi-talented one-two punch of LeBron and Hughes.
If either player senses a mismatch or thinks he can penetrate, Brown lets them have at it. It worked like a charm Saturday in Philadelphia, when the pair rallied Cleveland from a 16-point deficit in the third quarter to a 123-120 win. Hughes finised with 37 points, LeBron with 36.
This is the system, the template for success I was soapboxing about last spring.
Having some cornerstones to hang your hat on gives a team multiple ways to win games. That wasn't the case last year, where the fortunes of the whole team rested almost totally on the play of LeBron and Z.
In Sautrday's win, and last night's 115-93 win over the Celtics, the Cavs were challenged. Last night, Boston used the shooting of Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis to stay hot on Cleveland's tail for most of the night. Brown's defensive schemes weren't stopping Boston's scorching duo.
In years past, the Cavs probably would have wilted and lost the game. This year, however, LeBron can pick and choose when he wants and needs to dominate, and opposing defenses can't focus solely on him.
LeBron beat back the Celtics by scoring the last 10 Cleveland points of the third quarter. Boston, within 10 poins for most of the night, were the ones that eventually wilted, and Cleveland notched its sixth straight blowout win at home.
Cleveland is winning games by an average of 20 points at home. Call it "Q-Juice."
We knew this team was going to be different even before the season started. Now, we are seeing just how different.
In the first two years of LeBron, the Cavs had the potential of being kind of good. Now, they have to potential to be really good.

I fell asleep

I was pleasantly surprised by the reasonably large size of the crowd at Tuesday night's Bowling Green-Toledo game. Much of it probably had to do with UT fans trekking down to corn country on Interstate 75.
Unfortunately, they are the ones that skipped town smiling. I, on the other hand, missed the end of Toledo's 44-41 double overtime victory because I had dozed off.
Hey, don't blame me. Blame the 7 p.m. work week start time.
Bowling Green must now await the result of Thursday's Akron-Kent game to see if they can still pull off a MAC Eastern Division title.
You think BG and Toledo fans had it bad? The Akron-Kent game has a 10 a.m. kickoff time. Coffee and hash browns at the concession stands, anyone?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Tuesday night football

Bowling Green, my hallowed alma mater, and the University of Toledo, are arch-rivals.
(So I'm dating a Toledo girl. Go figure. But I digress.)
When are hated college rivals supposed to lock horns on the football field? Saturday afternoon, as God intended, right?
Not if you're in the pressure cooker called Northwest Ohio MAC football.
Tonight, in the middle of the freakin' week, Bowling Green and Toledo will slam heads in the annual "It's-two-days-before-Thanksgiving-who's-going-to-be-watching Bowl."
They do this to us every year, playing the biggest game of the season during Thanksgiving break. I'm sure the schools would love to play on Saturday afternoon, but The Network (ESPN, if you had to ask) sent down an edict that this mid-major rivalry would be played at the most inopportune time, when ESPN2 could fit it into their diverse schedule of poker, rednecks sawing tree trunks and celebrity tortoise wrestling.
Now, I am one of the biggest football fans I know. I'll put up with a lot to watch a game. But when Thanksgiving break hit during my college years, I was on the turnpike back to Cleveland, where I could sleep in my own bed, eat for free, and do laundry with clothes dryers that actually dried clothes.
I think a lot of college students feel the same way. Which is why, on this first night of Thanksgiving break at Bowling Green, I will not be surprised to flick on my TV and see half-empty stands at Doyt Perry Stadium.
At Bowling Green, where primary college loyalties are divided between Ohio State and Michigan, this rivalry would take enough of a backseat without the start time conflicting with many students' rides home. ESPN doesn't need to rub our mid-majorness in our faces with the we'll-fit-you-in-when-we-can start. If it means that little to ESPN, they should just pass off the game rights to Fox Sports Net.
I''d actually prefer the game be televised by Fox Sports Net, if it means no commercials pimping "Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith."
Next year, when ESPN lands the World Mud Foosball Championships, maybe the BG-Toledo game can be moved to 5 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. Maybe they can move the game to Japan. It will be just like opening weekend in baseball.

Revenge of the dregs

Are pigs flying? The Los Angeles Clippers are in first place. And it's not just a fluke of a weak division.
The Clippers enter Tuesday with an 8-2 record, the franchise's best ever after 10 games.
Forgettables like Terry Dehere and Joe Wolf used to roam here. Now, the roster is laden with young talent and recognizable names. Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley bring veteran stability to a roster that includes young stars Corey Maggette and Elton Brand and developing center Chris Kaman.
Suddenly, beating the Clippers isn't just a notch in your walking stick. It might take some work.
As Mike Kahn of points out, the Clips might lack the depth to sustain this pace all season. But for the first time in a long time, they have a roster capable of making the playoffs, maybe even reaching 50 wins.
As the Clippers run off to a fast start, the "real" team in Los Angeles remains dazed and confused.
Kobe Bryant leads the league in scoring at 33 points per game, but the Lakers are a lackluster 4-6 throught 10 games. It means either the Lakers' supporting cast is simply awful (remember, they traded Caron Butler to Washington for Kwame Brown, who is really a fatter, less talented version of Darius Miles) or Kobe is up to his old, ball-hogging tricks again.
Whatever the case, the Zen-master status of Phil Jackson is losing its luster without the presence of Shaq. And Kobe is being exposed as the glorified sidekick he is, capable of stuffing a stat sheet but incapable of lifting his team to greatness.
Meanwhile, Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, who professes to be a master of no religion or Eastern philosophy, is plugging in the right players and watching the wins pile up.
The audio-visual club geek is beating out the captain of the football team for homecoming king. It's good to see, for once.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A good weekend

Cleveland and Ohio teams did a lot of winning this weekend. Of course, I went to the one game a Cleveland team lost this weekend.
The Barons, our minor-league hockey team, blew a 3-1 lead, giving up four goals in the third period Saturday to lose 5-3 to Grand Rapids.
Luckily, the teams that play for keeps around here fared much better.
After the Barons game, about 30 of us at Quicken Loans Arena pressed our faces up against the windows of the Cavaliers Team Shop like children outside a toy store, watching the televisions inside as the Cavs finished off a statement-making road rally against the 76ers.
They had been down by as many as 16 in the third quarter, but powered by LeBron James (who else?) and Larry Hughes, they chipped away until they took a 117-116 lead in the final minutes. The Sixers kept sending Damon Jones to the line, and Jones kept making free throws until the score was 123-120 with less than 10 seconds to play. An Allen Iverson three-ball caromed off the rim and over the backboard as time expired, and the Cavs beat Philadelphia for just the fourth time in the last 24 meetings.
That win followed yet another home blowout Friday. This time the Cavs pasted Orlando 102-84. They are now 5-0 at home with an average victory margin of nearly 20 points.
The two Cavs wins sandwiched an Ohio State-Michigan game for the ages. Somehow, Troy Smith looks like Akili Smith against other good teams, but when Michigan comes calling, he turns into John Elway, darting and dodging defenders until he finds the open man.
Saturday, it was Anthony Gonzalez, who high-jumped a Michigan defender at the three yard line to haul in the pass that set up the winning touchdown.
What was bleak at 21-12 Michigan turned into salvation at 25-21 Ohio State, final.
Jim Tressel is now 4-1 against Michigan. The win didn't get the Buckeyes a guaranteed BCS bowl bid as Penn State sealed the Big Ten title with a win over Michigan State later in the day, but Ohio State is in prime position to garner an at-large BCS bid.
Of course, the cherry on the banana split was Sunday, when the Browns washed some of the suck-stench off themselves by blanking Miami (see the post below).
If you are Cleveland/Ohio State fan, and you can go to bed feeling golden on Sunday night, you want to bottle the feeling and take it with you. Pure, unadulterated success doesn't happen often around these parts.
But I still feel kind of bad for the Barons.

The Morning After: Miami

Browns 22, Dolphins 0
Record: 4-6

The chicken-or-egg question of the moment: Were the Browns that good Sunday, or were the Dolphins just that bad?
I'd vote for the latter.
We saw against Pittsburgh what a good team with workhorses can do to the Browns. The Dolphins, well, let's just say the herbs outnumbered the football players.
Sage Rosenfels looked like he belonged in Mama Leoni's spice cabinet instead of a Miami uniform yesterday. The Dolphins QB, making his second start, went 5-for-10 for 14 yards passing and two picks. He was so bad he was replaced midway through by Gus Frerotte, who was supposed to miss the game with a hand injury.
Reefer-head and decorated space cadet Ricky Williams managed a decent game, netting 83 yards on 13 rushes, but the one-time franchise rusher isn't even in the same league as Reuben Droughns anymore.
Droughns just might be a Pro Bowler this year. He chewed up the only strong point on the Dolphins roster (their defensive front) to the tune of 166 yards on 13 rushes.
This was the most decisive win for the Browns this season. Not only did they capture their first shutout since 2001, they completed the shutout despite coach Romeo Crennel rolling a potential hand grenade onto the field in the second quarter, benching Trent Dilfer for Charlie Frye.
Dilfer was angered, and with good reason. With the game still very much in question at 9-0, Crennel arbitrarily decided the final minutes of the second quarter was the right time for Frye to make his debut. Frye made 6-of-11 passes for 58 yards with a pick in stints in both halves, but it was the wrong time to put him in.
Start him, even as a game-time decision? Fine. Put him in to start the second half? Fine. Put him in late in the fourth quarter when the game is sealed? That's fine, too. But changing horses midstream is a bad idea.
Ask players who played for Butch Davis. Unpredictability is a bad trait in a coach. Coaches who rely on whims and flights of fancy lose their players' trust. Already, it seems Crennel has some mending to do with Dilfer, and Dilfer is one of the classiest professionals in the league.
Crennel had better be glad it was the Dolphins, and not the Ravens, on which he decided to pull his switcharoo. The ferocious Baltimore defense could have turned a 9-0 lead into a turnover-plagued 17-9 deficit in the bat of an eyelash.
But the Dolphins are a forgiving team. You can create a self-imposed quarterback controversy and still beat them comfortably. This had better not be a trend with Crennel, though.
Pick a QB. Make up your mind before the game. Stick with the QB you pick. If you don't, you are going to have a very unhappy football team and a bunch of losses.

Up next: at Minnesota, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Honorable mention

After watching last night Cavaliers game, I think I probably left out two Cavs players from consideration for my most popular player list. Unfortunately, injuries have caused both players' popularity to drop a bit in the past year.

Luke Jackson
He missed two-thirds of his rookie year recovering from back surgery, but is now back in all his messy-hair glory, a key member of coach Mike Brown's bench in the first month of the season. Even when he doesn't score a basket, fans still love to yell "Luuuuuuuuke!" when he enters the game. Having Brown kiss him on the forehead this week only added to the legend of Luke.

Anderson Varejao
How could we forget Mr. Moptop himself? His wild play made him a hit with the guys, his wild hair made the ladies love him. He is sporting a suit during games now as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery. We probably won't see him back on the floor until after the first of the year.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Mr. Popular

Popularity is a fickle mistress. A lot of it depends on things you can't control.
In the case of Cleveland's professional athletes, much of it rides on your last game, or in the case of Charlie Frye, the game of the guy ahead of you.
Stats count more with the guys. Looks get factored in with the ladies. With that in mind, I'm going to rank the top 10 most popular athletes right now in Cleveland sports as I see it.
(Note: I'm only considering active Cleveland athletes. No write-in votes for Bernie Kosar, please.)

1. LeBron James
What doesn't this guy have? He's the only legit superstar in Cleveland. Superlative basketball talent, stuffs a stat sheet like Oscar Robertson, 6'-8" and bulging, tattooed biceps for the women. Filthy rich, and only going to get richer.

2. Grady Sizemore
If he had played eight fewer games in 2004, he would have easily won the AL Rookie of the Year award this year. He combines good speed with good bat control and hustle. The guys will remember his slam-against-the-wall catch in a September blowout of Minnesota. The girls, well, they just think he's downright hunky, referencing the number of "marry me Grady" signs at Jacobs Field.

3. Charlie Frye
Joe Montana was drafted in the third round. So was Frye. Coincidence? Not if you ask legions of Browns fans. The old axiom is that the most popular player in the town of a struggling football team is the backup quarterback. This is especially true in the case of Frye, a Willard, Ohio native and University of Akron alum.

4. Reuben Droughns
His DUI charge wasn't bad publicity. It merely got his name in lights. It looks like he's going to be the first Browns rusher in 20 years to post a 1,000-yard season. To harken back to Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, that will always win --ahem -- brownie points in Cleveland.

5. Braylon Edwards
His "throw me the ball" rant was well-timed, after Dennis Northcutt and Antonio Bryant needed Velcro straps to hang on in Sunday's embarrassment against the Steelers. Whining won't win you points with the media, but when a supposed Pro Bowl receiver in the making says he's not being given enough of a chance to help his losing team win games, the fans will rally around that.

6. Damon Jones
He's a bench player who thinks he should be starting and is in a self-imposed media exile because of it. But he landed in Cleveland with a bang, declaring himself one of the top five shooters in the world. That gets people talking. Averaging 10 points a game coming off a Cavs bench that was dead weight last year helps, too.

7. Travis Hafner
His nickname is "Pronk." He followed up a .311 season last year with a .305 season this year and finished fifth in AL MVP voting. His beefcake physique probably gets him glances from the ladies, too.

8. C.C. Sabathia
He's built like a defensive lineman and throws 95 mph. He was christened an ace at age 21. He dated Serena Williams, is friends with Drew Gooden, as was robbed (allegedly) by former Cleveland State basketball player Damon Stringer. No matter his ups and downs on the field, C.C. always draws attention.

9. Kellen Winslow Jr.
He's a first-round draft pick who nearly killed himself buzzing a crotch rocket around a parking lot. He has an overprotective Hall-of-Famer for a father, who once threatened a diminuative local sportcaster who was pressing him for a comment. He had such an epic holdout prior to his rookie season, people seem to forget it was actually shorter than that of Edwards this year. All this, and he's only played in two games for the Browns.

10. Coco Crisp
Because of the name. Yes, he hit .290 this year, but mostly because of the name.

Also considered: Donyell Marshall, Aaron Shea, Larry Hughes, Victor Martinez, Bob Wickman, Kevin Millwood.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The big game

This is the one week of the year I become an unabashed, slobbering Ohio State fan.
Any other week of the year, I maintain an arm's length from total Buckeye infatuation, and look with disdain upon the army of non-Ohio State grads who live and die with the fortunes of Ohio State football.
Especially when said scarlet and gray-bleeding ITT Tech grads rag on me when I root for Bowling Green, my mid-major alma mater.
"Hey, at least I graduated from the school I root for," I want to say.
But this week is different. This week, state pride is on the line. This week, Michigan is the enemy.
Too often, when John Cooper was in charge, I paid for it. Now, with Jim Tressel, I can shrug my shoulders when Ohio State barely clips a MAC school and reap the benefits when the Buckeyes beat Michigan and go on to win a bowl game.
Tressel is 3-1 against Michigan and 3-1 in bowls.
This might be the swan song for Lloyd Carr, Michigan's embattled coach who has the reverse record against Ohio State in the past four years.
If Ohio State wins and Carr gets the axe, I'll probably gloat. That is, until the Wolverines steal away Browns defensive coordinatior Todd Grantham as their new head coach. So maybe I should cool my heels.
Michigan has a nasty way of luring top football talent away from northern Ohio.
Not that any of that matters right now. If you defected up north, you are a traitor to Ohio and deserve no better football fate than a native Michigander.
During Michigan-Ohio State week, we pay homage to Woody Hayes, the ultimate rivalry-embracing coach. I am happy to announce that, just like Woody, I have never bought gas in Michigan.
But just between you and me, that's only because it's usually cheaper in Ohio.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Morning After: Pittsburgh

Steelers 34, Browns 21
Record: 3-6
Divisional record: 0-3

Why are we upset this morning? Why are legions of fans calling up radio talk shows and grumbling about a loss to the Steelers?
We knew this was coming. We knew the Browns weren't going to win this game. Yet, somehow, we watched, we hoped that logic wouldn't prevail, that Charlie Batch would be so bad that it would compromise the fact the Steelers still trotted Duce Staley, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward.
It's like buying a toxic waste dumping ground and hoping that one day the toxic waste would magically disapppear, levaing you with a slice of paradise.
Pittsburgh is just a little more talented than the Browns at the moment. They are a bit more organized as a team. It was best illustrated when somebody missed a blocking assignment and allowed a blitzing Troy Palomalu to blindside Trent Dilfer in the second quarter.
The Browns made mistakes, dropped passes, committed penalties and stalled their drives. Batch, before he broke his hand and was forced to leave the game, pulled completions out his earhole, most of the time to Ward.
Ward, by the way, is pound for pound the best receiver in the league in my book. He's not big, he's not fast, but he has a one-two punch few receivers possess: fly-paper hands and no fear of getting hit.
Ward almost welcomes contact. You could drill him head on, even spear tackle him, and he'll pop up with that trademark smirk on his face, ready for more.
The appproaching footsteps of defenders have no effect on Ward. As such, he can devote all his concentration to catching the ball, which he's pretty good at, if you didn't notice last night.
Compare that with the Cleveland tandem of Dennis Northcutt and Antonio Bryant, who seem to let every little distraction affct their concentration.
Northcutt dropped a key third-down pass in the second half last night, which allowed Pittsburgh to take the ensuing punt and drive in for a touchdown. Bryant coughed up the ball in the second half, resulting in another Pittsburgh score.
Northcutt had several drops Sunday. At least one wasn't totally his fault. In an asinine play call, offense coordinatior Maurice Carthon had the featherweight Northcutt run a crossing route in front of the Steelers' linebackers. When he reached for the ball, Northcutt promptly had his clock cleaned by the much bigger Joey Porter. The ball landed at least five yards away. It's a wonder Northcutt's head didn't travel farther.
It reeked of Metcalf up the middle, a prime example of a coaching staff outsmarting themselves by attempting to use a player in a role he is ill-suited for.
Seven years into this "new era" of Browns football, and their most sure-handed receiver is still Kevin Johnson, who hasn't even played for the Browns in two years.
The Browns have now dropped to 0-3 in the division, halfway to my prediction of an 0-6 divisional record.

Up next: Miami, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fundamental ballers

Wednesday night's Cavaliers-Sonics game contained all the requisites you'd expect. LeBron James had a couple of poster dunks. He scored 30 points. Drew Gooden grabbed nine boards. Larry Hughes scored 13. Damon Jones made a couple of three-pointers.
The Cavs also played solid defense, took adavantage of Seattle mistakes, made 28 stright free throws and had their largest win ever over the Sonics, 112-85.
Say what, you say?
Yeah. Who would've thunk it? The Cleveland Cavaliers, gurus of fundamental basketball, taking it to a Western Conference team that won a division title last year.
Next thing you'll know, they'll close off lanes to the basket and consistently grasp the concept of defensive rotations.
Seattle's Ray Allen had his requisite 28 points, but it wasn't for lack of effort on the part of Hughes, who subscribed to the Tammy Wynette theory of defense and stood by his man all night. Allen was largely walled off from the interior by Hughes, forcing him to shoot threes, which accounted for 18 of his 28.
Even though Allen is one of top three-point deadeyes in the league, most teams would probably rather have him bombing longballs than penetrating to the basket and taking much higher-percentage shots.
Drew Gooden had one of his mentally-here nights, bringing energy and aggressive defense to the low post. Donyell Marshall and Alan Henderson cleaned up what Gooden didn't get to.
It's nights like Wednesday that make me dream of getting Anderson Varejao back, adding a banger to the mix of scorers and rebounders.
The there was the free-throw shooting, a dead art throughout the NBA. How dead is it? The NBA record for consecutive free-throws made in a game dates to the Utah Jazz in 1982 (39).
The Cavs popped n 28 in a row before missing one in the fourth quarter. It's a team record.
Free throws are largely viewed as icing in the NBA, but on a lot of nights, the better free-throw shooting team wins the game. That is especially true in the case of the Cavs, a team that specializes in driving to the basket and drawing fouls.
Think free throws are less important in a blowout? The Cavs made 31 free throws Wednesday night and won by 27 points. You do the math.
Somewhere, Rick Barry, Calvin Murphy and Mark Price are smiling.

The brain trust

Ninety-three wins with a $41 million payroll always makes a baseball front office look like "MacGyver" with their resourcefulness.
The job Indians general manager Mark Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge did in piloiting the Indians to a 93-69 record from a 12-18 start earned Shapiro baseball's Executive of the Year award, and earned Wedge runner-up status in AL Manager of the Year voting.
Ozzie Guillen won the award, an easy pick in hindsight.
These awards are a great honor, and are a testament to willingness of Shapiro and Wedge to formulate a plan a stick with it, through thick and thin, even when the public at large wanted to run them out of town on a rail.
As of now, we can safely say that Wedge and Shapiro knew what they were doing when they began hoisting this franchise out of the self-immersed muck in 2003. With Shapiro's moves and Wedge's same-page philosophy, they compressed 10-plus years of rebuilding into four, amassing the highest win total for an Indians team since the 1999 club won 97 games.
But these awards are fickle ladies, and the Indians are one backsliding season away from the glossy reputations of Shapiro and Wedge suddenly getting tarnished.
The Indians became only the second AL team since wild-card play was introducted to win 93 games and fail to qualify for the playoffs. Next year, the playoffs will be an expectation, as will division contention the doesn't require a furious two-month sprint in the second half of the season.
Shapiro knows how important this off-season is. The Indians are fighting an uphill battle to keep star pitchers Kevin Millwood and Bob Howry. If they lose one or both, Shapiro will have to become MacGyver again and beat the bushes for a front-of-the-rotation starter and a closer.
If Shapiro is forced to settle for plan C or D to replace Millwood or Howry, it could be a significant downgrade for a pitching staff that was the best in the AL last year.
And we still haven't brought up the need to upgrade the talent in right field and/or first base. Brian Giles' name has come up in free agency, but if the Indians have to bleed themselves to get a starting pitcher or closer, Giles' triumphant return to Cleveland probably won't happen.
(Side note: as far as the Indians are concerned, you can file Paul Konerko alongside the names "Tooth Fairy," "Santa Claus" and "Jimmy Hoffa." It's not happening.)
John Hart was the last Cleveland GM to win executive of the year. He did it back-to-back, in 1994 and 1995. Unfortunately, his teams never did back-to-back anything beyond division titles. Shapiro is trying to do more with less than Hart ever had. With Larry and Paul Dolan as owners, the days of $90 million payrolls are gone forever.
With a fraction of the money, Shapiro is going to have to be twice as good as Theo Epstein, Brian Chashman, or any recent big-market shot-callers have been to in order to regain the personal crown he now owns, and to bring his team a championship.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A certified staff ace

When Bartolo Colon was in Cleveland, I was among the legions who felt Colon would forever lack that certain "something" that would vault him into the rarified air occupied by Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.
Colon was the guy who would blow away the side on 10 pitches in the first inning, then inexplicably abandon his fastball for off-speed stuff in the second inning and give up five runs.
He had sublime talent but no idea how to pitch, I thought.
When Mark Shapiro dealt Colon to Montreal in June 2002, beginning in earnest the Indians' rebuilding project, I thought it was a good move for a team sinking toward the bottom of the standings. Use the one resource you have -- your veterans -- to replenish the talent in your farm system and come back swinging in three or four years.
After all, Colon wasn't a cornerstone-type player anyway.
Colon was a solid No. 2 starter, but he was never going to win a Cy Young Award or anything, I said.
Well, Colon has learned. He's a pitcher now, not just a thrower, and he used his newfound knowledge to prove me wrong this year, winning the first Cy Young Award by an Angels pitcher since Dean Chance in 1964.
Not only that, he won the award convincigly, garnering 17 first-place votes to Mariano Rivera's eight.
(And, lest you think this is ammunition to prove the Colon trade was a bad idea, Cliff Lee, acquired in that very trade, finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting with two first-place votes).
Colon won his first Cy Young Award not with the artistry of friend Martinez or well-honed control of Greg Maddux. He kind of cranked this award off the conveyor belt at the factory.
The pudgy Colon is a blue-collar pitcher. He doesn't possess the finest control or a knee-buckling breaking ball, but he is great at hammering the strike zone with mid-90s fastballs, then showing the hitter something off-speed away from their power.
His win-loss record (21-8), suggests a staff ace, but his ERA (3.48) suggests middle of the rotation, certainly on the contending Angels. His innings pitched (222.2) suggests a workhorse.
All those assessments are true. Colon is sometimes an ace, always a workhorse, and sometimes doesn't pitch to his potential. The one aspect of Colon's game that probably clinched the Cy Young Award, however, was his most unique.
From his earliest outings, Colon always showed a confounding ability to get stronger as the game and season moved along. He would sometimes throw harder in the eighth inning than in the first, and has always been a strong second-half pitcher.
This year was no different. Colon separated from the pack with a 5-0 August, during which he posted a 1.72 ERA.
His strained arm sustained in the division series against the Yankees probably killed the Angels in their five-game loss to Chicago in the ALCS.
When a team has learned to rely on a pitcher so much he swings the balance of power in a playoff series, that is the measure of a staff ace.
Colon might not play the part at all times, but he has arrived at the summit for baseball pitchers.
Welcome to acedom, Bart.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Delta Force 8

Kidnapping? Colombian drug cartels? Ransom money? Machetes? Setting people on fire with gasoline?
The life of Phillies pitcher Ugueth Urbina is starting to resemble a cheesy '80s action movie.
Maybe next year, Urbina can pitch while wearing rows of .50-caliber machine gun shells slung over his chest.

Thank you, Terrell

Thank you, Terrell Owens.
Thank you being such an overwhelming, unapologetic ass that you got yourself suspended for the rest of the year without taking a toke, shoving a needle in your arm or throwing a punch in public.
In the NFL, in professional sports in general, getting a season suspension for violations of the mouth is impressive. Already, you have red-flagged yourself to the point that, should the Eagles release you, your options might be limited to awful teams desperate for some media run (think Arizona Cardinals) or the perennial Last Chance Gulch for bad boys, the Oakland Raiders.
Terrell Owens and Randy Moss on the same team. Chew on that one for a while.
Thank you for being such a team cancer that the Eagles finally decided they'd rather do without your superlative talent and take their chances trying to salvage their season with better team players. Again, for a defending conference champion to say "thanks, but no thanks" to a potential future hall-of-famer in the prime of his career is impressive. It shows just what a uniquely abrasive personality you have.
In fact, I think your talent for making enemies is greater than your talent as a receiver. It's a gift.
Thank you for embracing that gift.
Thank you for your unapologetic apologizing today. It reeked of Pete Rose "Yeah, I bet on baseball. Will you reinstate me now?"
You told the fans and coach Andy Reid that "I fight for what I think is right" and sometimes alienate people in the process.
So, calling into question the sexual orientation of Jeff Garcia is right?
Telling the entire nation that you'd prefer Brett Favre as a quarterback is right?
Creating a front-and-center media circus while your team is struggling is right?
Thank you for standing by your convictions, Terrell. You are petty, selfish, bitter, spoiled, and cherish every minute of being the man people love to hate.
For an encore, maybe you can sucker-punch Donovan McNabb's mom during a "Chunky Soup" commercial.
Thank you, Terrell, for never forgetting it's all about you. An Eagles win means nothing if you couldn't debut a new touchdown celebration. Downfield blocking is useful only to prove you can do it to shut up your many critics.
I bet you're jealous that Chad Johnson came up with the "defensive back bitch-of-the-week" list before you could.
On the other hand, maybe you are so aloof you could care less who is covering you. They can't stop you, anyway.
Thank you Terrell. Thanks for mounting selfish act on top of selfish act until you become an NFL leper. You are doing it. Don't stop now. One day, all 32 teams will turn their backs on you and you will be the most talented receiver in the world, playing in the CFL.
I hope your career lasts long enough for us to see that groundbreaking achievement.
You are one in a million, T.O. Thank you for gracing us with your presence.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Morning After: Tennessee

Browns 20, Titans 14
Record: 3-5

Reuben Droughns isn't a Pro-Bowler. At least this year. But after watching him rebound from a drunken-driving charge last week to post 116 rushing yards and wear the Titans defense down in the second half, I exhale slowly when I say that the Browns maybe, possibly, hopefully, potentially have found a running back worth building around.
Through eight games, Droughns has amassed nearly 650 yards. He is on pace to just about match his 1,240-yard total from last year with the Broncos.
In Denver, 1,240 yards is par for the course. In Cleveland, it would be a feat 20 years in the making.
Sunday was revenge of the spurned for more than just Droughns. Trent Dilfer attached some suspenders to his ego, hitched it up, and passed for 272 yards and a touchdown.
Punter Kyle Richardson picked the windiest day of the year to turn from Derrick Frost impersonator to Chris Gardocki impersonator, sticking punts deep in Titan territory as if he were using a wedge.
Even Dennis Northcutt, the forgotten receiver, snagged a touchdown.
OK, so it was the abysmal Titans (2-7), but when you are on a three-game losing streak, the team on the other sideline doesn't matter as much. This was the same Browns team that lost a home game to the Lions two weeks ago. Nothing can be dismissed as cheap with this team.
I hold no delusions of storming Rome and beating the Steelers on national television next Sunday. The Browns will be overmatched, just like they were against the Bengals in Week 1, just like they were against the Ravens a month ago. The Browns are still likely candidates to go 0-6 in the division.
But if we suffer through the divisional mismatches, our reward is the occassional game like Sunday's, when the Browns look like they might eventually get somewhere good.

Up next: at Pittsburgh, Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tribe on top

ESPN's baseball forecasters predict the baseball gods will continue to purge championship curses next year, and they have moved the Indians to the front of the line.
In ESPN's 2006 off-season power rankings, the Indians are the top team, lauded as a young, talented bunch eager to bounce back from their last-week collapse at the end of the season.
Everybody now knows 1918 and 1917 as significant years in the history of cursed franchises. Now, ESPN sheds some light on 1948, the year of the Indians' last title.
With the White Sox and Red Sox off the shnide, here are the teams lugging around baseball's longest title droughts, and my take on their chances of winning a World Series any time soon (note: I am counting the years as of 2006, since the '05 season is over):

1. Chicago Cubs (1908): 98 years
With a payroll that ranked eighth in baseball last year, there is always a chance that the Cubs will be able to spend enough to win a title in the near future. Unfortunately, much of their money is wrapped up in aging or injury-prone players.
Derrek Lee led the majors in batting average this year (.335) and led the Cubs in just about every offensive category. Beyond him, the Cubs have Aramis Ramirez (.302/31/92) as their next-best hitter. Nomar Garciaparra hit .283 when he was healthy (which is becooming increasingly less often), and free-agent-to-be Jeromy Burnitz contributed 24 homers to the ttune of a lackluster .258 average.
Carlos Zambrano set a career high with 202 strikeouts on the pitching end, Ryan Dempster saved 33 games and was recently inked to a contract extension, but this team's pitching tends to live and die with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who have downright scary elbows and shoulders if you are Cubs management.

Verdict: This team has too many question marks, and you can bet on some key players missing major time with injuries. The drought will reach a century on Chicago's North Side.

2. Cleveland Indians (1948): 58 years
No secret, GM Mark Shapiro has studied extensively the recent success of the Twins and White Sox. He wants a young, hungry team with a few veterans plugged in at reasonable cost. Those teams play for cheap and are full of players hungry to prove themselves.
The downside, of course, is that sooner or later, many of those players will play themselves into a price range your team can't afford, so you have to strike while the iron is hot. And for the Indians, it looks like they have a two-to-four-year window to win a title before the likes of C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez approach free agency and a big payday.
The Indians seem to have most of the ingredients in place.
They had solid hitting, as the one-through-six lineup sextet of Grady Sizemore, Coco Crisp, Jhonny Peralta, Hafner, Martinez and Ronnie Belliard all finished with averages above .280. Martinez and Hafner led the way, both hitting .305.
They brought league-leading pitching. Kevin Millwood won an ERA title with a 2.86 ERA, Cliff Lee won 18 games, and the bullpen was baseball's best. Closer Bob Wickman notched 45 saved, far and away a career high.
For the Indians, much of next year's title chances seem to hinge on how many free agents they bring back, and if they can upgrade several positions, right field being the most glaring.
The Indians are expected to offer Millwood a large deal, but far from the most he can probably get. Shapiro has begun kicking the tires on 34-year-old free agent Brian Giles as a possible right fielder. Yesterday, he picked up the $4 million option on Belliard for 2006.

Verdict: With Giles, Millwood and a good closer (Bob Howry or B.J. Ryan?) in tow, the stars probably wouldn't align much better for a team still expected to have a sub-$60 million payroll next year. Win now, or forever hold your peace.

3. San Francisco Giants (1954): 52 years
The last title the Giants won was four years before they followed the Dodgers out of New York to the West Coast. The past couple of years, this team has been crazy old, with an average age over 35. That lends itself to experience, but the flip side is the need for an expanded trainer's room and Olympic-size whirlpool.
Ironically, the Giants spent a league-low 463 player days on the disabled list last year.
Even though Barry Bonds led this team to the seventh game of the World Series in 2002, this team will probably be heathier once he retires and allows management to think about the future and not just the present. While the Giants dug themselves out of a horrendous start and were in wild-card contention as late as September, no one is going to confuse this bunch with a title contender. They need an infusion of youth. Acquiring Randy Winn midseason last year was a start.

Verdict: Too old, not enough pitching. At least three years from being ready to contend again. San Fran will have to wait for their first Giants parade.

Houston Astros (no titles, franchise began play in 1962): 44 years
You would think a team that just got swept in the World Series would be a young team eager to claw their way back to the top the following year. But the Astros were actually battle-hardened with numerous playoff games in their past. They are a curious mix of talented youth (Roy Oswalt, Brandon Backe, Brad Lidge), prime-of-career stars (Andy Pettitte, Lance Berkman) and overpaid geezers (Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio).
Somehow, that mix rallied the Astros from a poor start to the NL pennant.
They have the youth to contend in the coming years, but the cavat are the aging players in key positions. Bagwell and Biggio have been so key to the Astros' playoff runs in the 1990s and 2000s, but Bagwell was a virtual non-factor in the Worls Series. As good as the Astros have been in producing young players from their farm system, replacing Bagwell and Biggio is another concern altogether.

Verdict: Should still be good enough to be a playoff team next year, but with each year that passes, it is going to become that much harder to win a title with the current cast of characters.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Curtain up at The Q

I think it was near the end of the second quarter, when LeBron James finished drinking his Mark Price juice and procceded to can four three-pointers in the span of three minutes.
A man sitting in the row behind us in section 200 held his breath as LeBron hoisted a fifth longball, which bounced off the rim.
"If he had made that one, I would have just cashed my ticket in and gone home," the man said after exhaling.
He didn't make it apparent whether he was a disgruntled Hornets fan (not likely) or a Cavs fan who figured he had seen just about everything he could possibly see for one night from LeBron.
I wasn't there to see his reaction after LeBron took a feed from Larry Hughes in the first quarter and performed his first official poster dunk of the 2005-06 season. But I was there to see just about everything else.
The Cavaliers did what they were supposed to do opening night, burying the Hornets, one of the league's dregs, 109-87. LeBron led the arena with 31 points, and was one of five Cavs in double figures, including the entire 2005 free agent class: Hughes (10), Damon Jones (12), Donyell Marshall (18) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12).
On opening night at least, GM Danny Ferry looked like a genius with his off-season moves.
That little problem of not being able to shoot from the outside looked like ancient history Wednesday as well. In addition to LeBron's outburst, Marshall and Jones also contributed three-balls. The Cavs tied an opening-night team record with 13 threes and shot a egg-frying 54 percent from the field.
The Cavs still have interior defense problems (which will probably be exploited royally by Tim Duncan Friday night) and had some cold spells at the free-throw line, but for a team that only had a month of training camp to come together, even the most skeptical scribe on press row had to give this team high marks Wednesday.
The team wasn't the only "extreme makeover" story unfolding Wednesday. The Cavs opener was also the official unveiling of the rechristened Quicken Loans Arena. Out are blue seats and classic rock, in are hip-hop, Ronnie Duncan, wine-colored seats (still in the process of being installed) and quasi-erotic dancing from the Cavalier Girls.
When we took our seats at the end of the first quarter, the first thing we saw were the Cavalier Girls on the floor cavorting to a song that included the lyrics, "is your girlfriend hot like me/is your girlfriend freak like me." Right then, I knew the Cavs were measuring their non-basketball entertainment in inverse proportion to the NBA's dress code.
The other entertainment snippets included Cavs mascot Moondog stripping out of a suit, down to his tighty-whitey underpants, a playful send-up of NBA Commissioner David Stern and his recently-implemented business casual dress code.
Call it PG-13 entertainment, if naked stuffed dogs embarrass you in addtition to hot cheerleaders slinking around with exposed midriffs. At least they weren't dancing to Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U."
(Incidentally, Stern was on hand Wednesday night, got booed when his image was flashed on the scoreboard, and was quoted in today's Plain Dealer as saying he loved the new environment at The Q.)
Out in the concourse, I was stopped by a member of the "Cavs Team" who surveyed me about my overall entertainment experience. He asked me to assign numerical grades to various aspects of the non-basketball entertainment, one being the lowest and seven the highest.

Here are a few of my grades:

Cavalier Girls: five
I can't really judge the girls, because I haven't seen other NBA dance groups in action. But if one means "Who unlocked the primate building at the zoo?" and seven means "I'm supressing an erection every time they dance," I think five is a fair grade. The girls were alluring, but I could still concentrate on the game.

Moondog: five
To me, one thing sets NBA mascots apart from mascots in other sports: feats of athleticism. The Gorilla in Phoenix kind of raised the bar in the 1980s with his off-the-wall dunks. Moondog does some of that, but his shtick is pretty much slapstick hijinks like a baseball mascot. His stuffed-puppy-dog face doesn't score points with me either. I know mascots have to appeal to little kids, but there isn't anything wrong with adding a bad-ass edge to your animal of choice, some broad shoulders or a bit of a smirk. Think of the Timberwolves' wolf mascot or the Nuggets' mountain lion.

Ronnie Duncan: four
The Cavs' public address announcer is coached in the mold of Pistons' PA man Mason, who treats the job like he's a rap emcee. Duncan's job is to be loud, louder and loudest. Except when the the opposing team scores a hoop. Then, from the upper deck, it sounds more like "baskert by Hrmfzzlm. Three pntfs."
Duncan has gotten better that when I saw him in an exhibition game three weeks ago. At the time, he barely knew the pronunciations of some of the opposing players' names. Wednesday, he was noticeably clearer, but still needs some improvement. Duncan at least has a long history behind a microphone working for him. He is a veteran Cleveland TV and radio broadcaster.

One more for Little O

I'll say it for you, Dave, just in case Jhonny Peralta makes an error in winter ball:
"You know, Omar would have made that play."
Omar Vizquel returned to the top of the defensive shortstop field Wednesday when he notched his first-ever NL Gold Glove Award. It was his first Gold Glove since 2001, and compliments his cache of nine straight AL Gold Gloves, won with the Mariners and Indians from 1993 to 2001.
In his career in Cleveland, Omar received some criticism from hardened journalist-types that he won some of his Gold Gloves based on reputation, beating out more deserving candidates.
And before Dave says "Who? Who?!!" I'll just drop the names Mike Bordick and Alex Rodriguez on the table.
So, with that in mind, now that Omar has crossed leagues and clawed his way back to the top after four years in the background, does this strengthen his case for the hall of fame or not?
Dave? Zach? Abrasivist? Anybody else?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

NBA preview: Pacific Division

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. Sacramento Kings
The Kings are probably the best example of a good team getting better outside of San Antonio this summer. When Shareef Abdur-Rahim's deal with the Nets fell through, the Kings swooped in to nab him, giving them a serviceable replacement for Chris Webber. Other than that, the Kings remain stacked with stars like Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby and Brad Miller. They might not get past the Spurs, but stand a very good chance of reaching the conference finals.

2. Phoenix Suns
The trades that sent Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson to the Knicks and Hawks, respectively, brought the Suns Boris Diaw and Kurt Thomas in return, meaning this team is going to have to lift its foot off the gas and play better defense to match last year's conference finals success.
Losing Amare Stoudemire to major knee surgery hampers this team more than anything else, but fortunately for coach Mike D'Antoni's bunch, they still have reigning league MVP Steve Nash and talented forward Shawn Marion as capable fallback plans, so making the playoffs shouldn't be a problem. Having said that, with the reduced offensive firepower, the return to health of Stoudemire is probably the only thing that can get the Suns to the NBA Finals.

3. Los Angeles Lakers
This is the Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant show. Unfortunately, the story of this team lies in what exists beyond the superstar coach and guard. And the story doesn't look good.
While the backcourt can boast the high-scoring combo of Bryant and Lamar Odom, the frontcourt's best player is Chris Mihm, who averaged under 10 points per game last year.
The big newcomer is notorious bust Kwame Brown, the first overall pick of the 2001 draft by Washington, who has been little more than a marginal bench player in his career to date. What's more, the Lakers shopped the solid Caron Butler to get him.
At first blush, this doesn't look like a franchise close to recapturing the glory of the Shaq-Kobe days any time soon.

4. Los Angeles Clippers
This is what passes for a good off-season in Clipper country: sign Cuttino Mobley and Walter McCarty, trade for Sam Cassell.
To boot, they lost Marko Jaric and Bobby Simmons.
While the Clippers didn't have an off-season for the ages, they didn't have a bad one, either. Mobley and Cassell are far from franchise players, but considering the Clippers still have 20-point men Elton Brand and Corey Maggette at the forwards and up-and-comer Chris Kaman at center, the acquistions of Mobley and Cassell might lift this team to a rare playoff appearance.
But they're still the Clippers, so we won't give them the benefit of the doubt just yet.

5. Golden State Warriors
The fate of the Warriors' season likely rests with the health of one man who hasn't been that healthy in recent years: Baron Davis. After Davis came over in a trade with the Hornets last season, the Warriors went 18-10. Trouble is, Davis has been hampered by injuries in recent years, and if he goes down, the Warriors just lost their leader.
The games of Jason Richardson, Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy are good, but probably not enough to offset the loss of Davis if the Warriors want their first playoff berth in more than a decade.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

NBA preview: Southwest Division

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. San Antonio Spurs
You don't know R.C. Buford. You probably don't know what he looks like. But he's the best executive in the NBA.
The Spurs' GM gets top-flight talent into his team's uniforms at minimal cost. Buford is head-smacking efficient at his work and knows his job is to make his move and quickly get back behind the scenes to plot his next move.
This off-season was no exception. Last year, the triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker led the Spurs to their third NBA title in seven years. This year, the core stayed intact and off-season acquisitions Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel got added to the mix. By themselves, Finley is past his prime and Van Exel is a mercurial rogue. In the Bill Belichick-esque system of head coach Gregg Popovich, however, they will be valuable role players.
The Spurs are the class of the West and the class of the league. Odds are, they will add another trophy to their collection in June.

2. Dallas Mavericks
Mark Cuban is the anti-Buford. While the Spurs thrive on stability, Cuban is using his billions to keep pumping new players into the Mavericks' system. It has added up to a bunch of playoff appearances, but no NBA Finals.
The one constant is Dirk Nowitzki, who takes a lot of flak for being the stereotypical all-score, no-defense European player. But as long as Dallas has a healthy Nowitzki and at least a competent supporting cast around him, they will be a playoff team because they will score enough to overcome their mistakes.
Nowitzki is possibly the toughest defensive matchup in the league not named Shaq. He is a seven-footer who runs the floor like a gazelle and shoots the ball like a Seattle-era Sam Perkins. Unfortunately, come playoff time, teams like San Antonio that actually have a low-post game find ways around Nowitzki, and the Mavs' weaknesses are exploited. That's happened too often in the past to think it won't happen again.

3. Houston Rockets
The top of this division is Texas-heavy, but Houston is still probably the weakest of the Lone Star Trio.
Ironically, they have Yao Ming, the best pure center in the West, and a perimeter scoring compliment in Tracy McGrady.
The trouble is, both Yao and McGrady, while tremendous individual talents, are more interested in creating for themselves than playing in the parameters of a team offense. As a result, the Rockets have two guys who can pile up the stats and not much else.
If Yao or McGrady slump, it could make the difference between a 40-win season for the Rockets and a 50-win season.

4. Memphis Grizzlies
Coach Mike Fratello might save this team with his nuts-and-bolts defensive schemes, and his little-general attitude. Fratello now has a team with one top-flight scorer in Pau Gasol and a couple of past-their-prime guards as a supporting cast (Damon Stoudamire and Eddie Jones).
This team is solid, but they won't out-talent anyone in the West save for the Hornets (see below). If Fratello has his way, however, they will be tough and will play enough defense to get to the playoffs.

5. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
I've written about the future of this team before. Forced from New Orleans by Katrina, they will split their home dates between Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City this year in a likely prelude to taking full-time residence in OKC for the 2006-07 season.
On the court, this team is completely dismantled. With the trade of Jamaal Magloire to the Bucks last week, any remnant of the early-2000s playoff teams is gone. There is hope for the future, however, and it rests primarily with new point guard Chris Paul, a Wake Forest product. But no matter where they call home, this team is at least several years away from respectability again.

Up next: the Pacific Division