Friday, March 30, 2007

Running with the Bulls

Every team runs into a least a few put-up-or-shut-up moments over the course of a season. The Cavaliers are about to have one on Saturday.

With Thursday night's 83-81 victory over the Pistons, the Chicago Bulls will enter Saturday afternoon's home matchup with the Cavs only a half-game off Cleveland's pace for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls have won 11 of their last 14. The Cavs, meanwhile, have lost four of six.

Everything appears to be on Chicago's side heading into the game: They have the momentum, they'll be playing on their home court. They've also won two straight against Cleveland.

If there was ever a time for the Cavs to approach a game focused and determined, now is it. This is a pre-playoffs playoff game.

If the Cavs lose Saturday's game, not only will they drop to the fifth seed, they will also lose the tiebreak with Chicago in the event both teams end the regular season with identical records.

After several months' worth of carving out a place for themselves at the two-seed, after brashly setting their sights on the first-seeded Pistons, to choke away the second seed at this point would be pretty embarrassing.

You realize that. I realize that. Do the Cavs?

You'd think it would be a slam dunk. Unfortunately, the Cavs, particularly team leaders LeBron James and Larry Hughes, tend to eschew slam dunks in favor of 20-foot jumpers on many occasions.

Following Wednesday's loss to the Knicks, while Mike Brown was ranting and raving to the media about his team's lack of defensive intensity over the past two weeks, LeBron seemed to greet this latest failure with a stretch and a yawn.

"It's not disappointing,'' James told the Akron Beacon Journal about the loss. "We lost the game on the defensive end. At times, the effort was there; at times, it wasn't."

Granted, it's hard to criticize a guy who continues to slam headlong and back-first to the floor as he gets mauled by opposing players, many times without the toot of referee's whistle to soften the impact. It's hard to criticize a guy who shakes off brutal hardwood contact when so many Cleveland athletes have suffered season-ending and career-threatening injuries by simply turning their knee the wrong way.

But the apparent shrug with which LeBron met Wednesday's loss doesn't bode well for Saturday, at least from this writer's perspective.

I still believe this team takes the attitude of LeBron. If LeBron is determined to win, he'll be surrounded by teammates who are determined to win. If LeBron is whining to Brown about offensive schematics, he'll be surrounded by teammates who are concentrating on the shortcoming's of Brown's playcalling instead of doing what it takes to win ballgames. If LeBron dismisses a loss with a wave of the hand, so will the other 14 guys on the roster.

Right now, I think LeBron has reverted back to focusing on his offensive frustration. To his credit, he's still trying to be a good example, taking the first bus over from the team's hotel to get extra shooting practice in prior to Tuesday's win over the Pacers.

But for all of LeBron's valiant Thespian efforts in Nike commercials, he's still a poor actor when it comes to leading his team. Whatever he's feeling is whatever bubbles to the surface. He can't seem to take his petty personal feelings and stuff them at the bottom of his mental gym bag until the final horn sounds.

It's reflected when the team falls into a funk and can't seem to get out of it for several weeks.

Saturday is a test, a game that will show us what LeBron and his team are really made of. With some pointy bovine horns about to gore them from behind, the Cavs have every reason in the world to enter this game in attack mode, ready to defend the seed they worked so hard to plant all winter.

If they cant, if this game follows the losses to New York, Denver and Charlotte down the fourth-quarter drain, then the Cavs do not deserve the second seed. Period.

If the Cavs lose and LeBron brushes it off with another "que sera sera" quote afterward, then until further notice, he is in league with Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, not Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Until further notice, he should be branded as the kind of guy who can win you a game, but not a championship.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Another slow start?

Winter Haven is getting a few good parting shots in before the Indians pack up and leave for the last time at the end of the week.

Prior to yesterday, spring training 2007 had already signaled the end of the road for should-have-been closer Keith Foulke, claimed the first month or so of starter Cliff Lee's season, claimed the first who-knows-how-long of the season of oft-injured sidearmer Matt Miller, and stifled the bats of the Indians' two best players, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. As of Thursday, Sizemore was batting .118 in 51 spring at-bats, Hafner was hitting .227 in 44 at-bats with, glaringly, no home runs.

Then, Wednesday, the cherry on the sundae. Would-be Opening Day starter C.C. Sabathia was possibly knocked out of his turn in the rotation when a line drive nailed his left forearm on the second pitch of his final spring training start. X-rays taken Wednesday were listed as "negative," but an MRI will probably give the Indians a much better idea of how long C.C. will be sidelined.

As injuries go, it wasn't quite LeCharles Bentley destroying his knee on the first contact drill of training camp, but it's still a significant blow, if for no other reason than psychologically.

Now, the Indians enter the season with two-fifths of their starting rotation in doubt.

Sure, there is a silver lining, as stud prospect Adam Miller could be given a shot to head north with the team. But this isn't what the Indians need right now.

What they needed was to head into the regular season with momentum, with a full deck of pitchers and hitters rounding into form. Instead, they're plugging holes and bailing water and it's not even April yet.

Slow starts have become a yearly tradition under Eric Wedge. Typically the Indians have a sluggish April with single-digit wins, fall five-to-seven-to-10 games off the pace by month's end, and spend the rest of the season playing catch-up.

This season might be the worst yet. Not only do the Indians not play a guaranteed warm-weather game until they head to Tampa Bay on April 20, they get road trips to Chicago and New York and a homestand that features Los Angeles and Chicago beforehand. Not to mention a pair of games in Minnesota immediately afterward.

Cold weather does not help injuries heal, nor does it help bats spring to life. Sabathia and Lee will likely be non-factors in the season's first month, and it would seem like a safe bet to predict that the Indians won't exactly be hitting the cover off the ball between now and that trip to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Then there's the case of closer Joe Borowski's fragile shoulder, sitting, inactive, in an ice-cold bullpen for hours and hours at a time. If he is used with the infrequency that marked Bob Wickman's workload last year, what are the odds of his shoulder completely seizing up by April 20?

Wait, let's not think like that. A warm-air mass will cover the Midwest. The Indians will play the first three weeks of the season in unseasonably warm temperatures. All this bellyaching will be rendered moot.

Nah, that's too good to be true. We all know that winter is a fickle mistress, and she doesn't like to be forgotten. And like most women, she wants us to turn off the damn game and go shovel the driveway.

By April's end, shoveling the driveway might seem like a picnic compared to sitting through nine innings of an Indians game.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Bizzaro Cavs are back

Is it any wonder the Cavaliers don't have a lot of believers in the national media?

Simply show LeBron James and Co. the ESPN or TNT logo, and it seems they want to curl up in a ball under the scorer's table.

Sunday, yet another nationally-televised game went by the boards as the Cavs treated an ESPN audience to another one of their patented fourth-quarter brain cramps, losing 105-93 to the Nuggets.

It was the Cavs' third loss in four games, and the second in four that should fall under the heading of "inexcusable in late March."

Granted, Denver is a far better team than Charlotte, which shamed the Cavs last week. But Sunday's contest was at home, where the Cavs had lost just nine times all season heading into the game, and Denver was only one game over .500 and battling their own inconsistency issues.

This was a game the Cavs had no business losing, not with a roster at full strength, not with the calendar turning to April at the start of next week, not with Detroit one-and-a-half tantalizing games ahead of the Cavs, bearing the best record in the conference.

Yet with all that firepower and motivation, the Cavs, purportedly one of the best defensive clubs in all the land, still managed to let Denver go off for 105 points, led by Carmelo Anthony's 27.

I think it's safe to call it a trend: The Bizzaro Cavs are back, chucking 20-foot jumpers, missing defensive rotations, tripping over themselves in the fourth quarter and bungling their way to sluggish, disinterested losses.

Ben Cox, among others, has noted that the Cavs are not a mentally-tough team. The showing in three of the past four games is proof positive.

The overtime loss to the Bobcats last week was a splash of cold water that the Cavs have yet to recover from. It took them from the euphoria of an eight-game winning streak where everything was grooving and yanked them back to reality. And the reality is, if you want to win consistently in the NBA, you have to slug it out even when things aren't running smoothly.

The next night, Cleveland hung tough with Dallas for most of the game, but the Cavs were once again doomed by horrible offensive possessions and defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter. Outside of LeBron, no one was really giving the Cavs any offense with consistency.

The 90-68 win over the Knicks was nice, but it might have been a case of a slumping team running into ... well, the Knicks.

Sunday's loss against Denver was the direct descendant of the losses to Charlotte and Dallas, in which the other team simply wanted it more than the Cavs with game on the line. Which is confusing, given how wide-open the East is and how late the date is.

But, then again, maybe that's why the East is so wide-open. Every team, with the possible exception of the Pistons, has glaring weaknesses. Chicago has their offense, Washington has their defense, Cleveland has their attention span.

The East might be very forgiving to a faltering club this year. The way things are looking, it's entirely possible that Detroit will be the only 50-win club in the conference, and even then just barely.

But losses like Sunday's still have a great chance of hurting the Cavs come playoff time. If Miami continues to chug along and Chicago stays on the Cavs' heels as Cleveland treads water with a .500 record over the season's final three weeks, it could be the difference between the second seed and the sixth seed, between drawing Orlando or New York in the first round, or drawing Miami or Chicago and having to open up on the road.

It's late March. The time for feeling your way along is over. It's winning time. Every team needs to make strategic adjustments, but if you are where the Cavs are, with the second-best record in your conference, all the wrinkles should have been ironed out of your mental approach to the game long ago.

As the past week has shown, the wrinkles are very obviously still there for the Cavs. Nevermind offensive and defensive game planning for a moment. It's the Cavs' coping skills that need work.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Wedgiro no more

Indians manager Eric Wedge must be feeling a bit left out this spring.

His boss, GM Mark Shapiro, recently agreed to a five-year contract extension through 2012. Everybody is talking about whom among his best players -- namely, Jake Westbrook, C.C. Sabathia and Travis Hafner -- will be offered contract extensions first.

But Wedge himself, in the final base year of his contract, isn't the subject of any such scuttlebutt.

Earlier this month, Shapiro said he doesn't expect to talk to Wedge about a possible contract extension until after this season. Much of that might have to do with the fact that the Wedge's contract has a pair of club options for 2008 and '09, so there really isn't a rush to make a decision on his long-term future.

But there might be more to it than that.

For the past four years, there has been a public perception that Wedge and Shapiro have been of one mind, rubber stamping each other's moves without so much as a hint of difference. The local media had a little bit of fun with it last year, dubbing them the "Wedgiro Twins."

The mutually back-scratching relationship between manager and GM has been viewed as the soft underbelly of an otherwise strong Indians management regime. If nobody is questioning anybody else, how can change be affected when things go stagnant, as they did last year?

No one outside of the Tribe's inner sanctum really knows what goes on behind closed doors, but we do know that Wedge and Shapiro have been intensely loyal to each other as the rebuilding process took shape. Both know that stability is paramount when you are trying to turn a young team into a winner.

They rolled with the punches, facing the good (93 wins), bad (September collapses) and ugly (Milton Bradley) together, always believing that they were building toward something greater than whatever the previous two weeks had shown.

Then came last year.

It was the first time failure couldn't be chalked up to the trial-and-error pitfalls of the rebuilding process. For the first time since Wedge and Shapiro set down this road together in 2003, the team took a true step backward. Both men failed the team last year, Shapiro when he dismantled the American League's best bullpen from the year previous with no real backup plan, Wedge when he didn't step in and provide adequate clubhouse leadership.

It might have been the beginning of the end of Wedge and Shapiro walking arm-in-arm down the yellow brick road.

Burned by last year's 15-game backslide in the standing and fourth-place finish, there is some real pressure on Shapiro and Wedge to perform and lift the Indians back to respectability this year. Shapiro feels he's done his job, adding veterans to the bullpen and outfield, and trading for a potential stud bat in Josh Barfield. Now Wedge is finding out that, even in the flattest of organizations, shit still flows downhill.

The burden falls to Wedge once the curtain goes up on the season in a little over a week. If Wedge can't take the team Shapiro has assembled and win with it, the business-soulmate connection Wedge likely thought he had with Shapiro will be quashed once and for all.

It isn't quite the Sword of Damocles dangling over Wedge's head, but the heat has been turned up on the stove. Wedge is surrounded by potential replacements, from Joel Skinner and Buck Showalter on the major league staff to Torey Lovullo at Class AAA Buffalo.

That's not to suggest a managerial move is imminent should the Indians once again stumble out of the gates, but if Wedge hasn't discovered the difference between managing a rebuilding club and managing a club that is expected to contend, he is about to.

The results Wedge is now expected to produce don't amount solely to productive major-league players, as it did during his stints as a minor-league manager, as it did for his first three years managing the Indians. Now, it's wins, which are a lot more black-and-white than prospect development. And a lot more here-and-now.

Throughout his career, Wedge has been trained that slow is good. Do not rush to snap decisions, let things play out in full. As a player developer, he was a sculptor, carefully crafting his final product. Now, his job is transitioning into something like a pizza deliveryman. Wins, delivered to your door in 30 minutes or it's free. You don't deliver the wins, you don't keep your job.

We will see over the next six months if Wedge can make the transition.

Shapiro is still a partner-in-blame with Wedge if things once again go awry in 2007. But now he has the security of a long-term deal and a roster full of homegrown talent to fall back on.

Rightly or wrongly, Shapiro gets to sit back with his arms crossed like the rest of us and pass judgment on Wedge. Rightly or wrongly, Wedge is quickly transitioning from de facto front office member to just another manager trying to save his skin, judged solely on his team's record.

Hopefully Wedge realizes that before it's too late.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Nine Lives Buckeyes

If Ohio State manages to win three more games and clinch a national title, this might go down in history as the year the Buckeyes had nine lives.

The Buckeyes couldn't be any more catlike if they were using the basketball standard as a scratching post.

Five days after surviving a double-digit second half deficit and needing a Ron Lewis three-pointer to force overtime against Xavier, Ohio State had to overcome a 17-point halftime deficit, trailing by as many as 20 in the second half, and needed a Greg Oden block in the final seconds to beat Tennessee 85-84 and advance to the Elite Eight.

If you were anything like me, exhausted from a day at work and an evening of errands, you watched the first half, snapped off the TV and went to bed. Sure, the Buckeyes might rally, I thought, but I'm not willing to gamble away two hours of sleep on it, not with the team in a 17-point hole.

So I got up this morning, turned on the TV and waited for the ESPN ticker to cycle through, hoping for, but not really expecting, what I saw.

And, you know what? I was happy, but I wasn't turning handsprings. The Buckeyes have needed two heart-pounding comebacks against a nine-seed and five-seed just to get to this point. Now Memphis awaits on Saturday for a trip to Atlanta and the Final Four.

Is Ohio State going to need another wave of the magic wand against Memphis? And what if they make it to the Final Four? If you fall behind by 20 to North Carolina, UCLA or Florida, you aren't coming back.

Ohio State is playing like they're the first one-seed Cinderella team in history. But the idea is, the games are going to get tougher as you go deeper into the tournament. If you need a couple of nailbiters to knock of Xavier and Tennessee, what are you going to do when the competition really gets tough?

These are the teams Ohio State is supposed to beat. The teams they are supposed to have trouble stopping haven't arrived yet. And all this buzzer-beating is giving me the feeling that Ohio State is playing on borrowed time.

Cats are always supposed to land on their feet. So far, Oden, Lewis and company have been able to do the same. We'll see how many more cliffhangers they can produce before it finally catches up to them.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A letdown game

Bobcats 108, Cavaliers 100 (OT)

It was certainly a miserable way for an eight-game winning streak to end, but maybe this will help the Cavs in the long run.

This is reminiscent of the "coulda-woulda-shoulda" games that occurred earlier this season, games the Cavs had no business losing, but still came out on the short end because they played down to the level of their competition.

That's not to take away from the Bobcats, who played the role of spoiler perfectly. Bound for the lottery and plagued by injuries, they came in with a nothing-to-lose attitude and played as hard as they could for 53 minutes, which is all coach Bernie Bickerstaff could have asked of his team.

The Cavs, on the other hand, might have been letting success go to their heads. For some reason, it's really easy to convince this team that they've made it to Easy Street and can beat teams by just showing up. Perhaps they were expecting a rerun of what happened last week in Memphis, when they rolled over the Grizzlies.

For some reason, the Cavs are quick to let off the accelerator when they've experienced some success, and that's when games like Tuesday's happen. If this game had been played at The Q, the Cavs probably figure out a way to gut out an ugly win. But in Charlotte, with a success-starved crowd feeding their underdog team, the Cavs crumbled.

Just like in any number of early-season duds, the Cavs fell asleep at the switch, regressed to slow-motion offense and, above all, got away from the defensive intensity that Mike Brown preaches.

Curiously, the Cavs won a lot of the statistical battles Tuesday. They were nudged in overall rebounds by Charlotte 46-43, but won the offensive rebounding battle 16-14. They committed eight fewer turnovers (20-12), and had nine steals to Charlotte's two.

One stat killed the Cavs, however. Taking advantage of looser-than-normal perimeter defense, Charlotte made 9-of-16 three-pointers. Cleveland countered with an abysmal 3-of-20 from beyond the arc. Matt Carroll had two critical three-balls in the four quarter, and Adam Morrison and Walter Herrmann, who had six longballs between them, shoved a couple of three-ball daggers in the Cavs' backs in overtime.

Raymond Felton should have had another when a missed defensive rotation left him wide open in overtime.

A couple of questions for Brown: With the Cavs leading 94-92 late in the fourth quarter and a timeout to burn, why on freaking Earth did you elect to inbound underneath the basket? Furthermore, why on Earth was oversized two-guard Sasha Pavlovic bringing the ball up the court against a full-court press? Carroll harassed Pavlovic into a behind-the-back dribble, which he predictably lost, Carroll stole the ball and Pavlovic fouled him.

Carroll, a 90-percent free throw shooter, went to the line and tied the game.

Question two: After nearly a month off with a bum toe, you reactivate Dan Gibson and promptly play him for 12 unproductive minutes (zero points on three shots, two rebounds) while Shannon Brown once again sits. Think you might want to take your time and ease ol' Danny Boy back into the swing of things a bit more?

Shocking: On a night when defense was lagging, Brown's boy, Ira Newble, played one stinking minute. Don't want to get too predictable with those rotations, do you, Coach?

"I think I'll play Ira .... NO!!" (Looks into the camera with a menacing smirk) "That's exactly what they'll be expecting!"

Time to dust this one off. With Dallas coming in here Wednesday night, this spilled milk had better be long since cleaned up by the time that nationally-televised game begins.

Tuesday's mess can actually help the Cavs in the long run, especially if they draw a team that doesn't really scare them, like Orlando, in the first round of the playoffs. This is a reminder that you can't just show up like rock stars and expect the other team to submit to your will. For some reason, the Cavs need to frequently be reminded of that.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Shapiro isn't crazy

When Mark Shapiro agreed to a contract extension last week that binds him to the Indians organization until 2012, there were probably more than a few Cleveland fans that wanted the Indians' GM to undergo an immediate psychiatric evaluation.

If Shapiro lasts the duration of his contract, he will have been bound by owner Larry Dolan's tight purse strings for 12 years. That's longer than the 10 years John Hart served as GM under the ostensibly richer Dick Jacobs.

Not only that, he will have been a member of the Indians organization for -- shockingly -- 20 years.

Any executive who commits 20 years of his professional life to the vortex of failure that is Cleveland sports has suspect judgment skills, the prevailing opinion says. Combine that with an ownership group whose spending habits require a GM to be more resourceful than MacGyver, and you'd have to wonder if Shapiro has spent too much time in a closed garage with his Mercedes idling.

We ask, is it really worth the trouble? Wouldn't Shapiro be better-served by taking his considerable talent to an organization that will really allow him to flex it? An organization that will allow Shapiro to hunt the big fish in free agency as opposed to settling for the oft-injured and washed-up?

Maybe Shapiro is nuts for staying in Cleveland for so long. Odds are far better than 50 percent he still won't have a World Series title, or even a pennant, on his GM resume by the time his contract is up. Heck, in the AL Central, getting to the playoffs would be a championship in of itself.

But I'd venture to say Shapiro is as sharp as a tack, and knew exactly what he was doing when he agreed to stay in Cleveland for another five years.

The reason is simple: The Indians' GM gig is one of the best in baseball. You might not know it, or want to admit it, but among those in the inner sanctum of baseball executives, Shapiro is holding down a primo position.

The ability to toss money around in free agency is a sliver of what GMs value when it comes to their jobs. Sure, Shapiro can't hang with the Red Sox's Theo Epstein or the Yankees' Brian Cashman when it comes to slinging greenbacks and landing sexy names. Not even close.

But there is a lot of freedom Shapiro has that Epstein, Cashman and their big-market ilk don't have.

Epstein and Cashman are maintenance men. Actually, they're more like NASCAR crew chiefs. Their job is to spackle holes on the fly, change the tires, give their teams a quick splash of fuel and get them back out on the track.

There is no such thing as rebuilding in the world of the baseball titans. There is just win, win, win now.

Shapiro gets to be a CEO, a turnaround artist like you read about in Forbes, or -- if you were so inclined -- my very own employer, Smart Business. Six years ago, he got to sit down and plot a strategy. Since then, he's been allowed to execute it, revise it and execute the revisions.

Larry and Paul Dolan aren't in his hair, demanding this move or that, or usurping his authority at the bargaining table, as so often happened to Yankee executives when George Steinbrenner was younger and feistier. In fact, the Dolans are on the same page with Shapiro, valuing a well-stocked farm system above all else.

He has been allowed to re-stock the Indians farm system as he saw fit both during the 2002 teardown and last year's mini-fire sale. Nobody in the organization questions his competence or openly thinks they can do a better job than him.

In other words, Shapiro has been left alone to do his job with the help of his personally-selected assistants like Chris Antonetti and Neal Huntington. Words can't describe how important that is to a sports GM, who comes into contact with wannabe-GMs every day.

Shapiro knows what he's doing. Hart, his mentor and predecessor, left the Indians in 2001 for a bigger paycheck and bigger payroll with the Texas Rangers. It was a disaster. Hart had more money to spend, but he had a depleted farm system choking him from the bottom and an impatient owner in Tom Hicks choking him from above.

Hart was forced to overpay for whatever players would accept Hicks' money. To this day, uttering "Chan Ho Park" probably causes the hair on the back of Hart's neck to stand on end.

Money might be one of the most important tools in the GM trade, but it doesn't add up to a good job. Shapiro knows that. That's why it really wasn't that difficult to persuade him to stay put with the Indians.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Pollard cracks joke, details at 11

The distance between the end of the bench and the starting lineup in the NBA is the distance between galaxies.

It was never more apparent than in the Cavaliers' win over the Pacers last Sunday, when Scot Pollard, who is now certifiably the 15th of 15 men on the Cavs roster, let loose with one of his trademark irreverent jokes while mugging for the camera in a suit and tie.

During a timeout, while his uniformed teammates were busying themselves with the Xs and Os of the game, a cameraman caught Pollard milling around and zoomed in, undoubtedly hoping Pollard would do something funny, as he usually does.

The cameraman got his wish. Pollard took his seat at the end of the bench, made a few comical faces to the camera and said four words he'd later regret:

"Hey kids. Do drugs!"

The comment was obviously in jest. Pollard is a father himself, so it's a pretty safe bet to assume he doesn't want anybody's kids doing drugs. After he made the comment, he followed with a raised-eyebrow facial expression that smacked of "Did I just say that?"

Yes, Scot, you did. To thousands and thousands of TV viewers. It took a couple of days for the outrage train to pull out of the station, but when it did, Pollard was forced to own up and apologize publicly, lest any Scot Pollard-worshipping youngster with a Mohawk/samurai ponytail/mutton chop hairdo decide to purchase his first vial of crack.

It's amazing it took until midweek before the shockwaves reached the headlines section of all the major sports Web sites. By then, Pollard was already apologizing, the Cavs were already not-condoning-his-actions-izing, and the whole thing was being swept under the rug like so many dust bunnies.

But Rich Harsar, a member of the outraged-parent brigade who was quoted in The Plain Dealer this week, brought up a good point:

"If it's LeBron James, what happens? He would lose endorsements, and it would be a front-page story across the nation."

If LeBron James looked into a camera and said "Hey kids, do drugs," there would be hell to pay, a wrath incurred like few athletes have ever faced. You think LeBron was vilified for his alleged pre-all star break coasting? LeBron would be smeared by everyone from Les Levine to Bill Simmons to Jay Leno. He would never live it down. Suddenly, it wouldn't just be cool for non-Cavs fans to root against LeBron. It would be their self-imposed duty.

LeBron's endorsements would dry up as quickly as Kobe Bryant's did in the wake of the rape charge levied against him four years ago.

And all for a four-word joke.

We can scoff all we want at how cushy the lives of professional athletes are. They make millions of dollars, they have gaggles of adoring fans, they stay in posh hotels on the road, they travel with team massage therapists to work out the aches and pains of daily life. But there is a tradeoff. Fame is the sharpest of double-edged swords.

You have to watch your behavior every time you step into the public eye. If you crack an off-color joke, lose your temper and flip someone the bird, or make a temporary ass of yourself under any circumstance, the microphones and cameras will be there to capture it, or at least capture the fallout. It's magnified exponentially when you go from Scott Pollard, who is sitting next to the security guard and towel boy, to LeBron James, who dances with Damon Jones during opening introductions.

In the end, the Pollard incident underscores what a dud of a year this has been for him. He knew he was the fifth wheel of the Cavs' big man corps when he signed, but now he's being left on the inactive list in favor of Dwayne Jones.

Pollard is being a pro about it, but you'd have to think he regrets signing here. He is 32, healthy, playoff-tested and still has some gas left in the tank, but he hasn't used much of it in what has amounted to a wasted year for him.

An outspoken basketball player with too much time on his hands and a camera present is a combustible mixture. It might have been avoided had coach Mike Brown elected to put him in uniform. But apparently Brown has no interest in doing that.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Eight Simple Rules for the NCAA Tournament

The NCAA Tournament has become a time for would-be sportsbooks and ESPN analysts to flex their oddsmaking, 2-3 zone philosophising muscles and prove who is the king of the virtual court.

But with the brackets -- that magical piece of paper upon which we place our money, and our hopes of earning the title of "college basketball expert" -- comes a horrible truth.

You don't know who is going to win. You can't know. If you want odds, they highly favor you placing your bracket in a shredder than a frame.

At the end of the week, when you've read every college basketball publication, watched hours and hours of analysis and all the games you TiVo'd during the winter, your only logical course of action when you put pencil to bracket is to follow the Mike Hargrove rule and play the percentages.

You remember. Hargrove would warm up a mediocre lefty like Al Morman or Tom Martin to face Ken Griffey Jr. when he had Mike Jackson loose in the 'pen with a 2.21 ERA. Inevitably, the bullpen door would swing open, out would come the rag-armed southpaw, and you'd grind your teeth.

But Hargrove played the percentages for a very important reason: The stats backed him up. Even if Griffey took said lefty deep, no one could argue the logic of a lefty-lefty matchup.

So let's use some logic when it comes to "Bracketology." Here are eight simple rules to remember as the tourney commences on Thursday:

Rule No. 1: The odds of your bracket being garbage by Sunday night are pretty good. The odds of your bracket being garbage a week from Sunday are excellent. Take failure with a light heart, because this truly is the toughest sporting event to handicap.

Rule No. 2: You don't know who this year's George Mason is going to be, because there isn't going to be a George Mason this year.

Rule No. 3: Do you hate North Carolina? How about UCLA or Florida? Tough noogies. They're going far this year, and just about every other year, because they are North Carolina, UCLA and Florida. They had better be going far in your brackets.

Rule No. 4: Playing the traditional favorites is the smartest thing you can do. Why? Because even if a George Mason does come along, everyone else's brackets are going to be wrecked right along with yours. The worst thing that could happen is if you try to pick a sleeper, fail miserably, and watch as the co-worker who picked Kansas walks off with the prize money.

Rule No. 5: When in doubt, pick the team with the size and rebounding. There are a lot of shrimp teams in this tourney, and most of them are going to be back in their dorm rooms by the Elite Eight.

Rule No. 6: At some point, your girlfriend, wife or mother will pick Florida because she thinks the Gator mascot is cute. You'll laugh and laugh, and think her selection method is so adorable. Until they play the game, and and she's right. And you, Mr. Crack Scout, will be wrong.

Rule No. 7: Go with your first premonition. If that little voice in your head is telling you to pick Georgetown, don't question it. Unless that little voice happens to be Dick Vitale, in which case you'll probably need to be committed to a mental institution anyway.

Rule No. 8: If you win your NCAA pool, dance all over the shattered egos of your co-workers while you can. Because, come fantasy football time, it's on.

That is all. Now get out there and, remember, it's not whether you win or lose. It's whether you can take your co-workers' money.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Postseason Fear Factor

With a little over a month to go in the regular season, the Cavaliers look to be in pretty good shape. Playing arguably their best basketball of the season, the Cavs have rolled up a 5-1 record in March and have won nine of their last 13.

LeBron James is back on his horse, dominating games like he did down the stretch last year. Larry Hughes has experienced a renaissance of sorts as the team's point guard. All told, this team appears to be rounding into form at the right time.

But there's still this feeling of uneasiness I can't shake. It goes beyond the standard Cleveland dread. It goes beyond offensive execution and free-throw shooting to something the Cavs really can't control.

You see, the Eastern Conference playoff picture isn't just clouded by slow movement, spotty play and a small army of would-be 45-win teams. It's also upside-down in some respects.

Many of the traditional East powers are fighting for the back four spots in the East playoff race. If the Cavs can clinch the second spot in the East, where they currently stand, it's no guarantee of an easy ride to the second round.

As of Monday night, the fifth seed was occupied by Chicago, the sixth by Miami, the seventh by Indiana and the eighth by New York. Knocking on the door to the eighth spot were Orlando, a half game out, and New Jersey, a full game out.

And to be honest, the only teams in that gaggle that do not scare me at least a little bit are Indiana and Orlando. The Cavs should have a relatively easy time dispatching either one of those teams.

But playing the rest will cause me to breathe heavy, at least until the Cavs can go up by two games.

Below is my Cavs "Postseason Fear Factor," a gauge for the level of nervousness you should have during potential matchups with the other playoff contenders in the East. Each team is assigned a number value from 1 (relaxing on the beach) to 10 (Godzilla is attacking).

Chicago Bulls

Like the Cavs, the Bulls have had trouble putting the ball in the basket this year. Unlike the Cavs, they have a legitimate excuse: They have few good scoring options.

Outside of the occasional Ben Gordon blowout, the Bulls really have no dominant scorers, and certainly not inside. But what they don't have in offense they can more than make up for with a staunch defense centered on grunt-worker supreme Ben Wallace.

In last month's win in Cleveland, the Bulls gave Cavs fans every reason why they should be wary should the two teams match up in the playoffs. The Bulls frustrated the Cavs by taking away lanes to the basket. The Cavs response was to go into full-on "the hell with it" mode and begin chucking up bricks from 20 feet. At Chicago's offensive end, Wallace bullied his way to offensive rebounds and a ton of second-chance points for the Bulls.

The front six or seven of the Cavs' roster is, taken as a sum, more talented and more diverse than the front six or seven of the Bulls. The Cavs, by all rights, should win a playoff matchup with Chicago. But if the Cavs allow the Bulls to assert themselves defensively, and LeBron and Hughes start getting frustrated by their lack of chances to push the ball and penetrate, all bets are off.

Postseason Fear Factor: 6

Detroit Pistons

Last week, we saw what the Cavs can do against the Pistons when LeBron is sufficiently pissed-off and has a little help from his friends. It was a win, but it still wasn't easy.

The Pistons are the deepest team in the East with the most playoff experience. The absence of Ben Wallace hurts them at the defensive end, but the addition of Chris Webber helps them at the offensive end. Call it a push.

If the Cavs can get to the East Finals against Detroit, I'll simply take a wait-and-see attitude from there. Maybe we get a pleasant surprise like what almost happened last year, but if any team from the East knocks off Detroit, it's going to be a pretty major upset.

Postseason Fear Factor: 9

Indiana Pacers

One of several traditional East powers that have fallen on hard times this year. The Pacers were probably moving with an eye toward this summer when they dispatched Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington and Sarunas Jasikevicius to Golden State earlier this season, but because the East is so putrid, they are hanging around the playoff picture in spite of themselves.

Normally, I'd say Indiana is a dangerous squad. They have one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Carlisle. But with virtually all the scoring punch, save for Jermaine O'Neal, gone from the roster, this isn't a team that is harboring any delusions of a deep playoff run this year.

If the Cavs are lucky, the Pacers will hang around long enough for Cleveland to draw them in the first round.

Postseason Fear Factor: 2

Miami Heat

Miami is so scorching hot, having won six straight as of Monday, they are on the verge of overtaking Washington for first place in the Southeast Division.

The Cavs had better hope they do take first place and end up among the first four seeds. This is not a team anyone wants to face in the first round. The way they are playing, if Dwyane Wade returns, even at 75 percent of normal, they might actually be a safe bet to make it to at least the second round.

Much like the Pistons, the Heat are loaded with veterans and they know what it takes to win. Their season might look rather lukewarm to this point, but this is still a really dangerous team.

Postseason Fear Factor: 7

New Jersey Nets

Another traditional East power fighting from behind this year. This Nets team is an older and more banged-up version of the teams that have been playoff stalwarts throughout this decade. But I'm not about to write off any Nets team that can have Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter in uniform for a playoff series.

In the Cavs' case, they have traditionally matched up terribly with the Nets. Vince Carter, in particular, has tormented the Cavs throughout his career.

The Cavs really have no business losing a playoff series to the Nets. But you can't discount the Carter factor and the fact that Kidd makes the Nets' offense look about twice as good as it actually is.

Postseason Fear Factor: 5

New York Knicks

Oh, come on. You can't possibly be scared of the Knicks. Right? Isiah Thomas finished up the work of his predecessor, running the team into the ground, then gets them back onto the fringe of the playoff hunt, and his reward? A multiyear contract extension.

This team is clueless-double-squared-to-the-ninth-power with a cherry on top.

But the Cavs always manage to find a way to have at least one or two embarrassing losses against the Knicks every year. Which is why you can't let your guard down.

If the Cavs lose a series to the Knicks, the entire roster should be forced to spend a week at Sing Sing. But they shouldn't. I mean, they can't. Right? LeBron would never let that happen. That's just common sense. Right?

Postseason Fear Factor: 4

Orlando Magic

The time to be scared of the Magic isn't now. It's two or three years from now when Dwight Howard makes the transition from boy to man to "size XXXL athletic supporter" man's man.

At some point, Howard is going to learn the ropes of the NBA playoffs, and he is going to be a 20-point, 15-rebound beast carrying his team to the conference finals. This year, however, he will probably get his first taste, and it's going to be bitter.

Postseason Fear Factor: 2

Toronto Raptors

The thing that makes the Raptors scary is they don't know enough to fear the competition. Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and company are going to fly into the playoffs as easy winners of the NBA's worst division, thinking they world-beaters.

It's going to be up to another team to bring them back to reality. The Cavs can do it if need be, and should do it. But it might take six or seven games of pulling the reigns to get the young Raptors to realize they aren't quite ready for prime time.

Ignorance can be bliss, especially when it's up to someone else to put you in your place.

Postseason Fear Factor: 4

Washington Wizards

It's not so much the revenge factor that has me concerned about a Cavs-Wizards rematch. LeBron has proven that, when the game is on the line, he can play smart basketball, take the ball to the hoop, make the correct pass, even get a defensive stop. Gilbert Arenas' clutch-time checklist includes shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot.

When Arenas' shot isn't falling, his confidence goes in the toilet. He can't really hurt a team any other way, or doesn't really want to.

But in last year's playoff series, the Cavs had a lot of breaks go their way in winning three of four games in the final seconds. This year, should the teams rematch, who is to say the law of averages won't catch up with the Cavs and Arenas won't be the hero?

If the Cavs and Wizards do rematch, I'd feel a lot more comfortable if the Cavs could just play dominant defense and take clutch shots out of the equation.

Postseason Fear Factor: 6

Thursday, March 08, 2007

A bad feeling

Maybe I'm just hypersensitive about bad things happening to the Browns, but what transpired Thursday did little to quell my concern that the Browns just got duped by the Ravens in a roundabout way.

When it was announced that the Browns signed Jamal Lewis to a one-year deal on Wednesday, it was hailed by many Cleveland fans (including me) as a significant coup within the AFC North. Sure, Lewis might not be the back he was four years ago, but he still has some gas left in the tank and, hey, the Browns just made themselves stronger at the expense of a division rival, so it's like two moves in one. Right?

But did the Browns nab Lewis away from the Ravens, or had the Ravens already tossed Lewis aside for the Browns to glean?

The Ravens shrugged off the loss of Lewis in a big way Thursday, acquiring Willis McGahee from the Bills for three draft picks. Unlike Lewis, who plows through tackles and has the battle scars to prove it, McGahee makes tacklers miss with quickness and is younger than Lewis.

By acquiring McGahee, the Ravens have replaced a power back on the downhill side of his career with a faster, quicker back who hasn't yet reached his prime.

In short, the Browns might have done the Ravens a favor by eliminating any chance of a reunion with Lewis. The Browns signed a short-term upgrade for their backfield and less than 24 hours later, the Ravens ended up with a rusher who might be one of the best in the game in the coming years, especially running behind a Ravens offensive line that is markedly better than the Bills line McGahee has been tailing since 2004.

The question from this corner is, why couldn't the Browns make the McGahee trade? If you are trying to build a team from the ground up, why wouldn't you want a potentially-elite running back who can grow up alongside the rest of your offense? Why are you mish-mashing aging running backs together with inexperienced quarterbacks and a patchwork offensive line?

Meanwhile, your established division rival, the veteran team with the winning history that should be trying to plug holes with short-term solutions, is the one making the trade with long-term ramifications. It should be noted that on the heels of Thursday's trade, McGahee is expected to sign a contract extension of up to seven years.

Maybe it once again comes down to the caliber of the front office making the decisions. The Ravens have Ozzie Newsome, an elite GM making elite moves to grab elite players. As with last offseason's acquisition of Steve McNair, trading for McGahee was a crime of opportunity. It was brought about by McGahee's unhappiness in Buffalo and the Browns' possible overeagerness to pry Lewis away from Baltimore, and Newsome took full advantage of the situation.

Newsome surveyed the field and made the move that best suited his team. Browns GM Phil Savage, meanwhile, took the same tunnelvision tack that landed him Eric Steinbach last week.

There is a time and a place for locking in on a free agent and making sure he doesn't leave town without ink on a contract. The Steinbach situation was one such time. Lewis might not have been.

Newsome has his feature back for the next half-decade or longer. Savage has his feature back for the next year, provided Lewis' body stays intact that long.

It's a study in contrasts. Newsome took a wide view of his team's situation and made an impact move. Savage took a narrower view, fell in love with the idea of landing one guy, a player he helped draft, and made a short-term move.

Maybe that's why the Ravens are one of those teams that never seems to stay down for long, while the Browns seem to be constantly searching for a new GM, coach, feature back and everything else.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A banner day

Two pretty big pieces of news for Cleveland sports tonight...

The Browns and Jamal Lewis have agreed to a deal.

As Rich Swerbinsky writes, this is a mixed-bag signing. As with the signing of former Bengal Eric Steinbach, signing the former Raven Lewis strengthens the Browns at the expense of a divisional opponent, so it's like two moves in one.

But one has to wonder exactly how much this strengthens the Browns.

There is no question Lewis is one of the best power backs in the league when healthy. Goodness knows, Browns fans saw all they ever wanted to see of Lewis when he abused their team in 2003. He set the NFL single-game rushing record with 295 yards in the first meeting, then topped the 200-yard mark again in the second meeting.

As a rookie, Lewis was the meal ticket for the Ravens offense en route to their win in Super Bowl XXXV.

But ever since 2003, Lewis has been wracked by injuries. On top of that, he spent four months in federal prison in 2005 after pleading guilty to setting up a drug buy. The alleged buy happened prior to the Ravens drafting Lewis.

Lewis is 27 and entering his eighth season. He's not all that young anymore, and given how short of a shelf life punishing north-south runners tend to have in the NFL, it's a legitimate question to ask if the Browns are simply catching another falling star on the way down.

One thing is known for sure: A healthy Lewis should be able to hit holes a lot quicker than Reuben Droughns, who might be destined for free agency in the near future, especially since he is due a roster bonus of nearly $2 million if he's still a Brown a week from now.

The Cavs won in Detroit 101-97.

Has LeBron James peaked? Are we going to be mentioning him in the same breath as Dwight Gooden and Gary Coleman, child stars who went from having the world on a string to snorting nose candy off the ass of a five-dollar hooker in a Vegas Howard Johnson's?

To Bill Simmons and company, all I can say is "sniff, sniff."

LeBron continued to do what LeBron usually does when people doubt him: Prove them wrong with a vengeance.

His recent string of monstrous games continued with not-so-arguably his biggest performance of the year.

At the Palace of Auburn Hills, in a game the Cavaliers desperately needed not only to keep their hopes of a first-seed playoff berth alive, but also to make sure the Pistons didn't take up permanent residence in their heads, LeBron was huge. He racked up 41 points in the overtime win and played the best defense I've ever seen him play, including a volleyball-spike block of a Rip Hamilton lay-up, and harassing a travel out of the normally sure-footed Tayshaun Prince.

LeBron is back to where he was at the end of last season, perhaps minus the free throws. The Cavs can get him the ball with the game on the line, get out of the way, and know he's probably going to make something happen.

This was a huge win for the Cavs. They still have to do it against Detroit in the playoffs, but with the Pistons set to run away with the East, the Cavs yanked them back to the pack in a big way with a statement win on the road. And, perhaps, re-ignited the fire that almost carried them past the Pistons last spring.

There is still one more game to go in the regular season between these two teams, then the postseason. We'll see if tonight's win pays dividends down the road.

Pointing at Hughes

Stop the presses and rub some lotion on your overwrung hands. On the 120th-some-odd day, the clouds parted and the basketball gods spoketh:

"For yea, unto you in the city of Cleveland is born a point guard. And his name shall be called Converted One, Holy Bricklayer, Wonderful Penetrator, Prince of Injuries. And he shall saveth thee from playoff failure."

Who is this enigma, this Larry of Cleveland?

Thirteen million dollars a year is supposed to buy you consistent high production. It's supposed to buy you a foundational player. It's supposed to buy you LeBron James' chief lieutenant.

Instead, the high-priced acquisition of Larry Hughes has bought more questions than answers.

Hughes is one of those players that does everything -- with the exception of spot-up outside shooting -- pretty well, but doesn't do any one thing well enough to become a frontline star in the NBA.

He's a good defender, but his All-NBA defensive team selection two years ago was an aberration. He's not in the class of Ben Wallace or Ron Artest. He's a good penetrator, but Steve Nash he is not. He's a good passer, but not a ballhandling wizard. Unless you count those three years in Washington, when he was a ballhandling Wizard. (Sorry, bad joke.)

Throughout his career, Hughes has been a kind of mismatched part wherever he has gone. There is no question he has the talent and skills to be a major cog in a contending ballclub, but it always seems that the Hughes you think you are getting is never the Hughes that arrives on your doorstep.

The Cavs thought they were signing a second-tier wing player when GM Danny Ferry wrapped up a whole lot of money in Hughes two years ago. As a shooting guard, he's been an underachieving dud. So, slowly, the Cavs began playing Hughes more and more at the point. Then Dan Gibson went down with a toe injury, the Cavs came out and named Hughes their starting point guard until further notice, and hallelujah, the gates to heaven sprung open.

In what might be the most convincing case yet that LeBron hasn't been the biggest sandbagger on the team this year, Hughes charged into the starting point guard's gig like a kid tearing through presents on Christmas morning.

Against the Raptors and Rockets, he put up the kinds of numbers I'm sure Danny Ferry envisioned when he opened the bank vault to pay Hughes.

We have a point now guard, right? Forget Mike Bibby, the man we need has been on the roster all along. Let's start fantasizing about signing Vince Carter this summer.

mmmmmmmm ... LeBron, Larry and Vince ... (Homer Simpson gurgle).

Wait, snap out of it! It can't be that easy, can it? It's not just that we have less than a week's worth of Hughes' point guard play to go on. It's that for most of the season, Hughes has been part of the problem, not part of the solution.

When LeBron spent weeks and weeks pouting over the offense, where was Hughes? Using his veteran influence to get LeBron to suck it up and play? No, he was pouting right alongside LeBron.

When the rest of the team settled for clanging perimeter jumpers off the rim, did Hughes try to take control and push the ball inside where no one else wanted to go? No, he was the biggest rim-chipper of them all.

But when the point guard position opened up and Hughes had a chance to handle the ball more, he was right there, pawing at the door like a dog waiting to be taken for a walk.

Hughes might be helping the team more with his sudden spike in play, but in reality, it's pure selfishness that's motivating him. Give him more touches, he tries harder. Force him back out on the wing, it will be right back to I-don't-give-a-crap basketball.

In order to save any hope this team has of making a deep playoff run, Mike Brown might be forced to keep Hughes at the point for the rest of the season. But before you crown him the savior of the offense, remember he's helping the team on his terms. If he sulked once, he's probably going to sulk again at some point.

It's good to see Hughes finally being productive. But he has a lot of penance to pay to make up for what has largely been a wasted season. And, for once, injuries aren't the culprit.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The light bulb?

Someone might want to check the basement of The Q for an alien pod, or at the very least, make sure Shannon Brown wasn't stung by some kind of magical basketball scorpion during his recent soiree through the Southwest.

Somewhere, between the plane ride into Dallas, the demotion to Albuquerque, the promotion back to the Cavaliers and the plane ride to Cleveland less than 24 hours later, Brown has suddenly morphed into the type of player GM Danny Ferry thought he was drafting last summer.

Over that span, Brown completed a "back-to-back-to-back." Three games in three days. A fact of life in the days of platform shoes and polyester collars, but enough to make the jaws of pampered modern players hit the floor with shock and awe.

Maybe all the Michigan State rookie needed was a chance to prove himself. Maybe the bone bruise in his leg is completely healed. But the Dallas-Albuquerque-Cleveland trip has stamped Brown as watch-worthy for the rest of the season.

It's not so much his stat totals -- five points in Dallas, 14 in Albuquerque and 14 upon returning to the Cavs lineup against Toronto -- it's how he has played the game.

For the first time all season, Brown actually looks in control of his game. He no longer looks intimidated by the NBA. Gone are the kamikaze drives up the floor, the "get the ball to the hoop at all costs" mindset that marked his first four months in the league.

Though it's a small sample of work, Brown now appears to want to play in the flow of the offense and let the game come to him. In other words, he's slowed down and actually thinks before he moves.

Viewed in the context of his sloppy play prior to March, his efficiency in Saturday's win over the Raptors was eye-catching. His 14 points came on six shots in 13 minutes. He was 3-of-3 from three-point range. Granted, one of those threes was on a halfcourt heave to beat the second quarter buzzer, but if you've watched Donyell Marshall and Larry Hughes clang three after three off the rim this season, you'll take what you can get.

As a kind of payment for his newly-discovered basketball IQ, Brown was allowed to take a halfcourt lob and flush an alley-oop dunk in the closing minutes of the game, showing that he can do much more than shoot from the outside. It would be nice if Hughes and Marshall would do the same sometime.

Maybe more importantly than Brown's athleticism, Saturday's game showed that you can't underestimate a motivated, educated rookie when the light bulb finally goes on. The energy Brown and Dan Gibson bring can do a lot to offset the lackadaisical efforts the team's veterans have put forth many times this year.

As the WTAM broadcast went to halftime Saturday, Cavs radio voice Joe Tait reiterated his preseason prediction that if the Cavs are to penetrate deep into the playoff this year, Brown and Gibson will factor in heavily. As usual, Tait's time-tested perspective is spot-on.

Brown and Gibson are the cure for the common cold-shooting offense. On nights when Hughes, Marshall, Drew Gooden and even LeBron James just don't seem to care all that much, coach Mike Brown needs to be able to turn to his capable rookies and get meaningful play from them.

The rookies are happy for the minutes they get. They have less of a chance in getting bogged down in the politics of whether coach Brown's offense is right for the team. They want to go out there and put the ball in the hoop, they just have to be taught the right way to do it.

Gibson has been this team's shining rookie star all season. If Brown can join him, I'll feel a lot better about where this team might be headed in the coming seasons.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The terrible top five

I'm going to start off by throwing a few names out there. You've heard them before:

Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Braylon Edwards.

That's the answer. The question is, "Who have been the four unfortunate SOBs to have a Browns top five draft pick spent on them since 1999?"

Top five picks are supposed to be franchise-builders. Game changers. Cornerstones in the foundation of your team's future.

Couch? Strike one. Brown? Strike two. Warren? Strike three. Edwards? The jury is still out, but early returns have shown him to have an oversized ego, big mouth and hard hands.

If strike four is in the rules, Edwards is on his way.

Now, the Browns, thanks to a 4-12 record and a fortuitous coin flip, sit with the No. 3 pick in next month's draft. Another chance to draft another franchise cornerstone. The fans are waiting to see what deft brushstroke GM Phil Savage will make to expedite the team's return to prominence.

But early returns show that Savage's artistic ability will likely be compromised by a weak front end of the draft.

Chances are, if Savage stands pat and picks at No. 3, it's not going to turn out much better than the previous one-through-five brushstrokes painted by Dwight Clark and Butch Davis, which time has shown to have been closer to a first-grader's fingerpaint doodle from art class than anything that came off the brush-tip of Picasso.

We all debate and salivate over whether the Browns could or should pick fleet-footed rusher Adrian Peterson, or beefy blocker Joe Thomas, or stud quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell or Brady Quinn.

Any one of them will be hailed as a franchise savior should the Browns select him. All will likely fail in that regard.

We cross our fingers and hope that there is a Peyton Manning or Ricky Williams or Reggie Bush waiting for the Browns at No. 3. There isn't, not this year.

Peterson is probably the most NFL-ready of the players the Browns might have a crack at with the third pick. But after a dominant freshman year in 2004, he's been beset by injuries ever since.

What are the odds he magically finds the fountain of eternal health in Cleveland? About the same as Larry Hughes?

Do we really need to be teased by a faster version of Lee Suggs?

Thomas is not the second coming of Orlando Pace. Even if he has that level of talent, to expect him and maybe one free agent signing to be the moves that solidify the Browns' offensive line is a big mistake. Odds are, teams will find a way around the rookie lineman and still get into the backfield next year. He'd be more of a momentary deterrent for a pass rusher than a brick wall.

Russell has all the tools and probably the best shot at stardom in this year's draft. But he doesn't have the experience. He needs to sit and learn behind a veteran quarterback in a situation where he isn't going to be pressed into service as a rookie. When the Browns are 2-8 and Romeo Crennel is bailing water full-speed, what are the odds he presses Russell into service as a desperation measure with the season already flushed? What are the odds Russell has a negative reaction to being ox-plowed into the turf two dozen times a week?

The same situation applies to Quinn, but he's less mobile and prone to melting down under pressure, so his margin for error is even more razor-thin.

There are no slam-dunk options where the Browns sit, not for a team with this many needs.

In the end, Savage might come to the conclusion that the best option is to trade down and collect draft picks. I'd have no problem with that.

There are no franchise saviors waiting to be plucked from the tree this spring. To pick someone at No. 3 might simply place a crushing burden of expectation on that player, creating a reputation he can never live up to.

In that situation, everybody loses. And we've had enough losing around these parts to last several lifetimes.