Friday, June 29, 2007

The Ben Francisco Treat

It's trite. It's tacky. It's a rip-off of the Rice-A-Roni slogan. But if the newest Indian keeps hitting like this, it's here to stay.

Friday night, we received the first official Ben Francisco Treat.

Francisco became the first Indians player since Josh Bard in 2002 to hit his inaugural homer in walk-off fashion, sending the Tribe to a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay and propelling them back into first place.

The Francisco homer adds more fuel to the ongoing debate of veteran leadership versus youthful talent.

The Indians tried to play their kids last year, but the strategy backfired miserably in the bullpen and the Indians finished in fourth place. So the Tribe went with veterans this year. In the bullpen, it's worked, as Joe Borowski, Rafael Betancourt and Aaron Fultz have provided a stabilizing presence that was most definitely lacking a year ago.

In the lineup ... not so much. If we knew in December what we know now, the $14-16 million the Indians have committed to David Dellucci and Trot Nixon could have been used to install a new sushi bar in Jacobs Field, with money left over to lay new carpet in all the elevators.

So far, the less Dellucci and Nixon in the outfield, and the more Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco, the better. Shin-Soo Choo would be in the conversation as well, if not for an injury.

One side says play the kids. They're hungrier and healthier. The other says a team can't win without veteran stability and leadership. Both sides are right to an extent, and the best Indians management can do is ride the hot hand.

Right now, that would be veteran arms in the bullpen, and young bats in the lineup. And even if it is yet another dice-roll by Indians management, who can really complain at the moment? First place is first place.

Cavs stand pat

Danny Ferry told news outlets there were about 15 players he'd be willing to maneuver into the draft to acquire.

It looks like all 15 of them passed into the hands of other teams. For the second time in three years, the NBA Draft came and went with no activity from the Cavaliers.

Hopefully, this will be the last time for a long time that they are left pickless on draft night. This isn't a good way to start the offseason for a team that needs to build on a Finals appearance.

For the Cavs, it's time to focus on trades and free agency. The trade market got a little tighter during the draft as two potential Cavs targets -- Ray Allen and Zach Randolph -- were moved to the Celtics and Knicks, respectively.

Kevin Garnett stayed put, at least for the time being. As the Garnett rumor mill continues to churn out new trade scenarios just about every day, I get the feeling this is all one big smokescreen and Garnett is going to begin next season still in Minnesota.

The sorta-kinda good news that did come out of Thursday night is that none of the East's other contenders made a major splash. The biggest pick for a Central Division team was the Bulls taking Florida's Joakim Noah at No. 9. Noah is an energy guy who has drawn comparisons to Anderson Varejao. He's more skilled than Varejao, but doesn't project as the low-post dominator that could turn the Bulls into legit title contenders.

Detroit picked Eastern Washington guard Rodney Stuckey at 15. He could be a replacement for Chauncey Billups .... in about 2010. In other words, he has "project player" written all over him.

Of greater concern to the Cavs was Detroit taking UCLA's Arron Afflalo at 27. He's a good all-around player who will add some depth and toughness to the Pistons backcourt right away. Not a difference maker, but it's still annoying to watch one of the Cavs' rivals improve their backcourt while Cleveland still languishes with Boobie and the boobs.

For the record, the Jiri Welsch Memorial Pick that would have been the Cavs' at 24 was used by Portland to draft Spanish guard Rudy Fernandez, a European star who will probably spend at least one more year overseas. The pick was acquired from Phoenix during the draft. All told, the Blazers picked up Greg Oden, Josh McRoberts and Fernandez. Not a bad day.

Oh, well. Water under the bridge now. The NBA's free agent period begins Sunday.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Avoiding history

When the Cavaliers were swept out of the NBA Finals earlier this month, they joined the Orlando Magic as the only teams to be swept in their only Finals appearance to date.

But having an 0-4 all-time record in the NBA's championship series is far from the only thing that links the Magic and Cavs. That Orlando team, which was swept by Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets in 1995, and the current Cavs team, have a number of parallels. And if the Cavs are wise, they'd pay attention, because the 1995 Magic serve as a cautionary tale.

Like the current Cavs, the Magic of the mid-90s were vaulted into contention in a short amount of time, thanks in large part to winning the draft lottery. In 1992, the Magic selected Shaquille O'Neal out of Louisiana State with the top pick. The following year, the Magic, despite narrowly missing the playoffs, landed the first overall pick again. The team selected Chris Webber and dealt him to the Warriors for Penny Hardaway and draft picks.

GM Pat Williams had surrounded Shaq and Hardaway with a capable roster of veteran role players including sharpshooter Dennis Scott, former Bull Horace Grant and original team member Nick Anderson.

Like the current Cavs, the Magic were the beneficiary of fortuitous playoff matchups during their Finals run. With Michael Jordan only having returned from his self-imposed baseball exile in February 1995, the Bulls were not ready to make a run at another title. With the Bulls still reloading, the Eastern Conference lacked a true alpha dog.

Like the Cavs of this year, the Magic knocked off two of the East's traditional powers, the Bulls and Pacers, to reach the NBA Finals.

Even though the Magic were outclassed by the championship-tested Rockets in the Finals, everyone in basketball seemed to agree that the Magic were at the front end of a long run in the uppermost echelon of NBA teams. Shaq and Penny were sure to be right alongside Jordan and Scottie Pippen as the dynamic NBA duos of the '90s.

For one season, they lived up to the hype. Following their 57-25 Finals season, the Magic posted a franchise-best 60-22 mark and looked poised to give the 72-win Bulls a run for their money in the Eastern Conference finals. But the Bulls steamrolled the Magic in four straight. It turned out to be Orlando's swan song as a title contender.

That summer, Shaq left to become a Laker. Eventually the Bulls coach would become his coach and the two would team -- along with some guy named Kobe -- to win three NBA titles far, far away from central Florida.

The Magic patched the gaping hole left by Shaq with Rony Seikaly. They'd win 45 games in 1996-97 and lose to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. Orlando would make the playoffs in four of the six years following Shaq's departure, but never made it out of the first round.

The Magic's fortunes continued to wither. Hardaway suffered a major knee injury during the 1997-98 season. He would never be the same player again, and was dealt to the Suns in 1999.

In 2000, Orlando signed both Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in free agency, but Hill allowed an ankle injury to worsen by continuing to play on it, and before long, a surefire hall of fame career had been sidetracked by a series of surgeries.

McGrady was quickly found out as a player who can put up bunches of points, but can't will his team to wins. He was traded to Houston for Steve Francis in 2004.

What does all this have to do with the current Cavs? It's a living, breathing example of how next season is guaranteed to no team, how fast things can fall apart, even with the best-laid plans. And most knowledgeable basketball people would agree that the Magic roster of the mid-'90s was constructed of better material than the current Cavs.

The Cavs don't have a reinvigorated Jordan to deal with the way those Magic teams did. But they do have LeBron James, a young superstar whose inexperience was exposed on the league's biggest stage, just as Shaq's was 12 years ago.

Shaq played right into the hands of the Bulls defense in allowing Dennis Rodman to harass him during the 1996 East finals. LeBron did much the same thing in playing right into the teeth of the Spurs defense in this year's Finals. He's learning, much like Shaq was learning.

Of course, Shaq took what he learned and used it to help the Lakers. The Cavs' object is to make sure LeBron doesn't someday take the lessons he is learning in a Cavs uniform and use them to win titles for another team.

The 1995 Magic and 2007 Cavs reached the Finals quickly after beginning a new era, were dominated by a superior team and chalked it up to a learning experience. The job of Dan Gilbert, Danny Ferry and Mike Brown is to make sure the similarities end there.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Five things I think

Some assorted observations about Cleveland sports as the month of June draws to a close...

1. No one knows what the Cavaliers are going to do this offseason, not even the media.

Brian Windhorst says the Cavs won't bend over backward to keep Anderson Varejao. Terry Pluto says essentially the opposite, noting that the Cavs might value keeping Varejao over Sasha Pavlovic, thanks in part to the emergence of Daniel Gibson.

When two of the pillars of Northeast Ohio sports writing are contradicting each other, you know getting a gauge on the Cavs offseason is akin to reading tea leaves.

When a team enters an offseason fresh off their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, with no draft picks and virtually no salary cap space, I guess that is to be expected.

2. However, we can probably take this to the bank...

Danny Ferry is going to try like crazy to maneuver his way into a first round pick in time for Thursday's draft. Ferry knows a draft pick would be an inexpensive way to add a key piece to next year's team, and he has the expiring contracts of Ira Newble and David Wesley (plus up to $3 million in cash) to potentially offer to a team more interested in conserving cap space than having two first-round picks to sign.

Teams with multiple first-round picks include Philadelphia (12, 21 and 30), Charlotte (8 and 22), Phoenix (24 and 29) and Detroit (15 and 27). The 24th pick was originally Cleveland's, traded to Boston in the 2005 Jiri Welsch deal, then subsequently sent to Phoenix in the Rajon Rondo draft day trade of a year ago.

3. The Tigers are about to put some serious distance between themselves and the rest of the AL Central.

Detroit has won seven straight after a 5-0 blanking of Atlanta on Sunday night. They are rounding into form with the return of Kenny Rogers, and Justin Verlander looks like he is about to jump into the thick of the AL Cy Young Award discussion.

The Indians, quite simply, do not have the firepower on the mound or at the plate to compete with a Detroit team clicking on all cylinders. If Detroit is kicking into fourth gear, Tribe fans had better start thinking wild card.

4. And the wild card might be a rumor, too, if things don't change quickly.

Not to pile on the Indians too much as their June swoon continues, but ... well, yeah, let's pile on, because this team is playing like crap.

They have lost road series to the Reds and Nationals, two of the worst teams in the National League. By all rights, the Nats should have swept them.

The problem is the Tribe's dormant bats, yes, but it's also the routine brain cramps that plague every aspect of the team. Whether it's Rafael Perez forgetting about a runner at third base and letting him score, Cliff Lee forgetting about any runner on base or Grady Sizemore letting a base hit skip by him and roll to the warning track, this team's struggles go beyond the plate.

At some point, the blame has to reach the manager's chair. Mental breakdowns and an inability to sustain good baseball for long periods have become an Achilles' heel for the Indians under Eric Wedge. Having Mark Shapiro for a boss seems to give Wedge a Teflon coating against criticism, but the proof is between the white lines, every time a Tribe player goofs and makes a bad situation worse.

Is Wedge to blame? Is he an ineffectual leader? Or are there some guys who just aren't all that interested in playing for their skipper? I mean, you have to wonder why you never seem to hear anyone publicly comment about what a great manager Wedge is to play for.

5. Two first-rounders equals two agonizing holdouts.

Everybody agrees that signing Brady Quinn is probably going to be a long, drawn-out, excruciating process for Browns management. After all, Quinn was projected as a Top-5 or Top-10 pick on most teams' draft boards, yet he slipped to 22.

The Browns are probably going to want to pay Quinn like a 22nd overall pick. Quinn is going to want to be paid like the Top 5 pick he was supposed to be.

So the ongoing dialogue of "We selected you at 22" ... "Yeah, but you projected me in the Top 5" ... "Yeah, but we took you 22nd" ... "Yeah, but you projected me in the Top 5" will go on and on and on ... and on and on and on and on until we are ready to use our recently-mailed Browns season tickets to slit our wrists.

But, ahh, then there's Joe Thomas. Good ol' Joe. He's a steak-and-potatoes kind of guy who just wants to get into camp and get to work on becoming the Browns' left tackle of the future. Right?

Uhh ... maybe not quite like that. Thomas is apparently as good of a holdout candidate as anyone.

At some point, maybe the NFL will wise up and slot rookie salaries the way the NBA does. Until that day, the rookie holdout will be a midsummer staple of the NFL.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The real Tribe

There are two possible truths about this year's Indians:

1) The team that roared to a 33-19 start through the first two months of the season is the real Tribe, and their 8-11 June is a midseason slump.

2) The team that roared to a 33-19 start through the first two months of the season overachieved, and the team that has been 8-11 in June is the real Tribe.

I am concerned that the latter is true, and the Tribe's June record is indicative of a correction that is slowly occurring in the standings. Saturday, we woke up to find the Indians in second place, trailing the Tigers for the first time in a long time.

The baseball season is six months and 162 games long. It's a grind designed to allow water to find its level. Streaks and slumps are supposed to average out over the span of a season, and at the end, the good teams are good, the bad teams are bad and the mediocre teams are mediocre.

In other words, it's very difficult to disguise your team's actual talent level over the course of an entire season. You can do it for two weeks, you can do it for two months, but you probably can't do it for six months.

And, when looking at the Tribe's roster, I see a boatload of mediocrity that tells me, by the end of this season, those 80-to-87 win predictions from the start of the season are probably going to be spot-on.

What the Indians have is a small group of high performers lugging around the rest of the team, which isn't going to work for the long haul. The Indians have been riding the arms of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, the bats of Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta and the relief work of Rafael Betancourt and Joe Borowski to get to this point. The rest of the roster has been anywhere from inconsistent (Paul Byrd) to underachieving (Travis Hafner) to injury-plagued (Jake Westbrook, David Dellucci) to old (Roberto Hernandez, Trot Nixon) to "He's on the team why again?" (Mike Rouse).

But then again, you get what you pay for. And a $61 million payroll that ranks 23rd out of 30 Major League teams according to only buys you so much. It doesn't help when some of the highest-paid players are some of the biggest contributors to the June swoon.

At $7 million, Byrd has the Tribe's second-highest annual salary this year. He has yet to win a game in June (0-2) and the Indians are 0-3 in his June starts.

Hafner, at $4.05 million, is the team's fourth-highest-paid player this year, and he's struggling to keep his batting average around .260.

David Dellucci ($3.75 million, sixth-highest) is on the shelf until at least August with a torn hamstring. Trot Nixon (somewhere between $3 million and $5 million depending on how many performance bonuses he hits) has mustered a .245 average with two homers and 25 RBI in almost 200 at-bats.

Roberto Hernandez was the eighth-highest-paid player on the team at $3.3 million. But the only number that really matters is 42. That's his age, and that's why he didn't pitch well enough to stick around.

Other writers have gone to the caulk analogy, and I find it very appropriate. There are way too many stopgaps, hole-fillers and rolls of the dice on this roster. When Mark Shapiro and Larry Dolan cross their fingers and bet that Nixon, 33 and injury-prone, can make one last stand as an everyday player, when they gamble that a Dellucci-Jason Michaels platoon can work as well as the Ben Broussard-Eduardo Perez platoon did a year ago, when they sling a guy like Hernandez against the wall to see if he sticks, that's not a roster built with a plan. That's a roster built on hope.

The same problems that hurt the Indians in 2005 and '06 are creeping up again: When it comes to building a core of promising young players, Indians management is great. The core is family. Long live the core.

But when it comes time to augment that core with capable veterans who can vault this team into true contention, the "constraints of this market," to use a term Shapiro coined, come into play in a big way.

When pumping your payroll into the teens, let alone the top 10, among MLB teams seems like a dream, you aren't going to be able to absorb a lot of bad moves. And you sure as heck aren't going to be able to absorb an underproductive season from a guy like Hafner.

It's no coincidence that the three AL division leaders entering play Saturday are all in the top 10 among MLB payrolls (Boston, second, $143 million; L.A. Angels, fifth, $109 million; Detroit, ninth, $95 million).

A team with a 23rd-ranked payroll is bucking the odds in a big way if it contends all season, let alone makes the playoffs. And that's before the Tribe's stated "Little Engine That Could" goal of winning the World Series enters the conversation.

Once again, the Indians are gambling that their farm system and perceived ability to glean players like Nixon and Hernandez from the scrap heap are going to be able to compensate for the cold, hard cash teams like the Red Sox, Angels and Tigers can throw around. It's a fool's bet.

In the end, a 23rd-ranked payroll is going to buy you what 23rd-ranked payroll is supposed to buy you: A roster chock full of inexperienced kids and past-their-prime vets, a roster with the good few leading the mediocre many.

No one is saying it's fair. The Indians do a heck of a lot right as an organization, and they have a management team that understands how to build the foundation for a winner far more than the farm system abusers and neglecters who run teams like the Orioles.

But the state of the final product, the 25 players the Indians put on the field every day, is indicative of the state of the team's finances: Very limited, and very overmatched by the big-money boys -- which, from where the Tribe stands, is about two-thirds of MLB teams.

In a sport without a salary cap, that's not a recipe for success over the course of a season.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Cavs of the future?

If there is one good thing about losing the NBA Finals, it’s that the NBA calendar doesn’t give you a lot of time to stew over what might have been.

The Cavaliers have to dive headfirst into the offseason with the NBA Draft set for June 28 in New York and free agency to begin shortly thereafter.

The Cavs have no picks in this year’s draft – shall I invoke the name of Jiri Welsch one more time? -- and are pretty much flush against the salary cap, so adding the pieces that could help make a second trip to the Finals have a much happier ending will be difficult for GM Danny Ferry.

But that’s why Ferry makes the big bucks. He’s going to have to get creative. Right now, with the Pistons declining, it appears the Cavs aren’t very far away from being the class of the Eastern Conference and the favorite to make the Finals every year for the next several years.

Of course, that could all change if there were a major coup in the Central Division, say … I don’t know … the Bulls trading for Kobe Bryant.

But that’s neither here nor there right now. At this point, all the Cavs have to worry about is keeping their options open to add the couple of pieces that could really solidify the team’s near future.

Below is a list of potential players the Cavs could target in trades and free agency, and through the draft should they acquire a pick. Some are realistic, some are less-realistic, but right now, it’s all about brainstorming.

The draft

Mike Conley, PG, Ohio State

Mock drafts have him going as high as the top three or as low as 11. Obviously, the odds of the Cavs being able to trade into the lottery picks are really not good. Having said that, man would Conley look good in a Cavs uniform.

Conley is not-so-arguably the best point guard in the draft. The job he did in leading a marginally-deep Ohio State team all the way to the NCAA title game was nothing short of masterful. He is a lightning-quick lefty who can turn a defense askew with his weak-side drives, and has a developing outside shot to boot. Even with just one year of college experience, he’ll be able to step into the NBA and make a difference as a rookie. But Ferry would have to wave once heck of a magic wand to position the Cavs to draft him.

Acie Law III, PG, Texas A&M

Not a top-notch NBA athlete, and more of a gunslinger than a traditional point guard, but Law definitely has the pedigree to be a difference-maker in the NBA. Given his history of clutch shooting, he doesn’t back away from pressure, and would be a great fit for a contending team looking for guys who can bury fourth-quarter shots from the perimeter – if you remember, that was kind of a problem for the Cavs in the Finals.

Law realistically projects as going somewhere between 10 and 20. Not quite as elusive as Conley, but it would still take some work by Ferry to get a pick that high.

Josh McRoberts, PF, Duke

Just because one or two experiments with Duke power forwards blew up in the Cavs’ faces doesn’t mean they should never look to Durham, NC for help again.

McRoberts brings a low-post offensive game that would rival anything the Cavs franchise has seen since Brad Daugherty was running the pick-and-roll with Mark Price.

McRoberts could be the double-team-demanding low-post threat that forces defenses into a pick-your-poison decision over whether to double him or LeBron.

Like Law, draft prognosticators project McRoberts as going somewhere in the teens or early 20s. Another difficult grab for Ferry, but a possible one.

Daequan Cook, SG, Ohio State

Cook is the forgotten third wheel in the freshman machine that propelled Ohio State to this year’s title game, but he might be the best all-around athlete.

As far as the Cavs are concerned, he’d likely be an upgrade over Sasha Pavlovic, though right now he has that same problem of not being able to finish plays with authority.

Cook is an explosive athlete who is going to be able to get to the basket. His mid-range jumper is there, and his long-range jumper is developing. If the Cavs are looking for a perimeter scorer to compliment LeBron, Cook might be it.

Cook seems to be destined to go somewhere around 20. If Ferry can acquire Charlotte’s second first-rounder at 22 or Philadelphia’s second first-rounder at 21, there is a chance Cook would be there.

Kyle Visser, C, Wake Forest

If Ferry can’t nab a first-round pick, Visser might be a good compromise in the early-to-mid second round. For a team that needs skill in the low post, as well as an eventual heir-apparent to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Visser could fit the bill.

Visser isn’t an exceptional athlete, but like Wake Forest predecessor Tim Duncan, he has a great handle on basketball fundamentals that was hammered into him by legendary coach Skip Prosser. Visser has good footwork, good rebounding skills, and scouting reports say his back-to-the-basket game is well-polished for a college senior.


Mike Bibby, Kings

When Ferry failed to acquire Bibby at the trade deadline in February, it was looked upon by some as a step backward. The Cavs’ stagnant offense needed a floor general, and Bibby could have answered the bell.

Looking back, it was a wise no-trade. Drew Gooden, who likely would have been dispatched to Sacramento in a Bibby trade, was a key in the Cavs’ late-season run and factored heavily in playoff series wins over Washington and New Jersey.

But that doesn’t mean the need has gone away, and the Cavs, with three guaranteed seasons of LeBron remaining, really need a veteran to step in and assume the starting point guard’s role.

Bibby is 29, entering that dangerous time in a basketball player’s life when athleticism can suddenly start to wane, but playing in the slow-down Eastern Conference, that wouldn’t be nearly the problem it is in the hyper-fast West. In the East, Bibby would be valued more for his passing and playmaking abilities than for his ability to blow past Steve Nash off the dribble.

He’s also slated to make about $13 million next year should he decided not to opt out of his contract –which appears to be a near-certainty. That means if the Cavs want to keep Gooden and still trade for Bibby, they’d better A) be willing to part with Anderson Varejao in a sign-and-trade or B) find a taker for Larry Hughes and his upcoming $13 million-plus, which would probably require a third team to get involved.

Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves

Yeah, this is complete fantasy-league stuff. KG and LBJ in the same frontcourt. Better than being in a forest. With Heather Locklear. And you’re warm … very warm.

But there are conditions that would make a KG-to-the-Cavs deal seem like something at least slightly more substantial than total fantasy.

Garnett is 31. He’s entering the final years of his prime. His biological clock is ticking, the Wolves are faltering, and unless he wants to end up like a 40-year-old Karl Malone, latching on to the Shaq-Kobe machine for one last title run, he knows he need to find a title contender. But not just any title contender.

Sure, he could demand a trade to the Heat and share frontcourt time with Shaq, or to the Bulls where Ben Wallace plays defense like few others can. But in Miami, he’d have to fight for touches with Shaq and D-Wade, and in Chicago, he’d likely be a one-man offensive show again as in Minnesota.

But then there’s Cleveland. Teaming up with LeBron, a like-minded superstar who values team basketball, a superstar who wants and needs a low-post threat to open up the floor. To have KG and LBJ together on the floor … no defense could stop both at the same time.

Not only that, Garnett knows that if LeBron is covered, he wouldn’t hesitate to pass the ball. Think Kobe Bryant would do that without pausing? How about Allen Iverson?

Playing alongside LeBron could be the ideal situation for KG and his title chances. But to make that happen, and to absorb his $21 million salary, would require the Cavs to part with Hughes and Gooden, for starters.

Jason Kidd, Nets

It’s hard to see the Nets helping out a team that just beat them in the playoffs, but there is no doubt that the Nets are a decaying veteran team in need of youth. And youth is something Kidd, 34, does not have anymore.

Again, the math makes a Kidd deal a difficult proposition. Making more than $18 million a year, the Cavs would need to find a taker for Hughes, and still need to lop more than $5 million more to balance the salaries.

But Kidd, despite slowing a step, is still one of the premier point guards in the game, with Finals experience under his belt. The championship-hunger factor is there with Kidd as much as it is with Garnett.

If the price is right, he’d be one heck of a pickup.

Elton Brand, Clippers

Brand is one of the few players who makes the Clippers watchable, so it might be hard to convince the Clippers to trade him. But as a fundamentally-sound power forward who is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game for his career, he is a poor man’s Tim Duncan. Or maybe a peer of Duncan who has never had the fortune of playing for a consistent winner.

He made just more than $14 million this year, which means some combination of Gooden, Hughes or Varejao would have to go the other way.

Andre Miller, Sixers

A step beneath Bibby and Kidd as a point guard, but you also get what you pay for. Miller’s approximately $9 million-per-year salary buys you about 14 points and 7.5 assists per game.

If the Sixers want to take Larry Hughes and give the Cavs Miller and Kyle Korver, I’d have no problem with that … provided attempts to land Bibby and Kidd fell through already.

Free agents

Note: This section is written with the Cavs’ midlevel salary cap exemption in mind, so you can rule out Vince Carter and Chauncey Billups right now.

Earl Boykins, Bucks

He’d be a nice acquisition as a bench player, but at 5’-5”, there is no way on Earth I want him as a starter.

Of course, if you’re already developing an undersized scoring guard in Daniel Gibson, why would you need more of the same for a lot more money in Boykins? I know he’s a hometown guy, but signing him doesn’t seem all that pragmatic at this point.

Matt Carroll, Bobcats

Fellow TCF writer Joel Hammond calls Carroll a less-stylish version of Damon Jones. I prefer to think of Carroll as everything Trajan Langdon was supposed to be.

During a breakout 2006-07 season, Carroll shot more than 40 percent from beyond the arc while shooting more than 90 percent from the free-throw line.

Carroll at the free-throw stripe in a Cavs uniform could cause even the most even-tempered Cavs fan to break down and cry. Swish, swish. Swish, swish.

Needless to say, I think signing Carroll would be great use of the midlevel exemption.

Grant Hill, Magic

Hill worked Brian Sipe into one of his pregame commentaries during the Finals. Granted, it was to illustrate that the Cavs didn’t even have a Sipe-caliber player to help LeBron, but how can you not like that reference as a Cleveland fan? How many professional basketball players even know who Brian Sipe is, let alone that he played for the Browns?

Only someone who spent a sizeable chunk of his childhood in Cleveland.

The son of former Brown Calvin Hill is in the Garnett boat of looking for title before it’s too late. For Hill, the need might be even more dire. He’ll turn 35 in October and can no longer play big minutes on an ankle that has been damaged by repeated surgeries.

But providing some scoring punch off the bench behind LeBron for 10 or 12 minutes a night? He can probably do that. Maybe it’s time for Hill to bring his family’s relationship with Cleveland full circle.

Jason Kapono, Heat

At the time the Cavs left Kapono unprotected in the 2004 expansion draft, it looked like they were casting adrift another Danny Ferry – a big, tall guy who couldn’t do much besides shoot.

But after arriving in Miami, Kapono became one of the better bench scorers in the league and a key piece of the Heat’s 2006 title run. Now, the Cavs might want him back. Certainly, his outside shot would look really nice coming off the Cavs bench.

Andres Nocioni, Bulls

He’s a Mike Brown kind of guy. A piss-you-off defender who takes contact as well as he dishes it. His offensive game is lacking, but he’s started for a playoff team in Chicago for three years.

Nocioni is a restricted free agent, and it’s believed the Bulls will fight to keep him. There is no reason at this point to believe the Cavs would make a hard run at Nocioni, but he’s a Mike Brown kind of guy. That’s all I’m saying.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Finally, the Finals final

If anyone wants to read my hard-hitting epilogue for the NBA Finals, you can find it here.

Some people want to call it "The Sweep," since it's now apparently dictated by city ordinance that every Cleveland sports failure must be given a name that begins with "The." Makes it sound more horrifying, I guess. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. The Fly. The Blob.

Personally, I'd refer to this series as "The Anticlimax." Which might still be an understatement. This was a Wilford-Brimley-on-Kathy-Bates-caliber anticlimax.

(...Too graphic? Sorry.)

Anyway, there will be much more Cavs offseason analysis in this space in the weeks and months to come. And I haven't forgotten about baseball as the Indians continue to maintain a fingernail-grip on first place.

Is it just me, or has that team not been the same since they let the Tigers come back and split that series at Jacobs Field a couple of weeks ago? And why, despite the fact that the bullpen is miles better than it was a year ago, do I keep getting this uneasy feeling when Eric Wedge goes to the bullpen -- or when any pitcher besides C.C. Sabathia or Fausto Carmona is on the mound, for that matter?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A snapshot in time

After Tuesday's Game 3 loss to the Spurs, I was all set to sit down at my computer and write another harrowing tale of heartbreak. Of missed chances and putrid offense and coming to the realization that the light at the end of the tunnel is, in fact, the 5:15 express.

But post-midnight fatigue intervened and I decided to slack off on the traditional game recap. And I'm glad I did. Because Wednesday gave me a whole new perspective on what has become a lost maiden Finals voyage for the Cavs.

Wednesday evening, the last night of calm before the Cavs face elimination in Game 4 on Thursday, I decided to drive downtown and take in all the Finals pomp and circumstance before it's gone.

I figured it would be the perfect time to sneak in the back door and take some pictures while the NBA's multimedia marketing monster is dormant, while the dozens of sattelite trucks and trailers encircling The Q lay snoozing like giant steel cows in a urban concrete pasture, snoring away to the hum of their on-board generators.

What I expected was solitude, to be the only person in the Louvre, with the Mona Lisa all to myself. What I got was totally different.

Dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of people had the same idea as me, wandering around The Q, gazing up at the 30-foot replica of the Larry O'Brien Trophy, snapping photos of it, along with all the signage that adorns the arena.

Families and friends gathered together while total strangers snapped their photos in front of anything that said "NBA Finals" on it. Kids climbed on the polished marble boulders in front of the arena's entrance, clothed with custom-made zippered coverings that bear the Finals logo and "Rise Up." Their parents just looked up, and kept looking up, at all the faux gold standing over them.

I might have figured they were tourists running out of things to do in downtown Cleveland, which is entirely possible after 8 p.m. But there were too many Cavs shirts and caps and jerseys in the crowd for it to be all out-of-towners. Besides, this was three days after the Finals shifted to Cleveland. Just about anyone staying in town for the Finals must have snapped all the photos of the giant trophy they could ever need by Wednesday night.

As I sat on a bench, gawking with everyone else at a replica of a trophy our team almost certainly won't win this year, I overheard a man yell to his friend as he was walking over to meet him.

"Had to see all this," he said. "Don't know when it's going to happen again."

Then it all kind of came together for me. This whole scene was more than a curiosity for a city that had never experienced a basketball championship series before. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, for fans who wanted to drink it all in, who didn't want to let a magical springtime ride die just yet, who wanted to bask in the glow of the fact that their city was connected to the championship series of pro basketball for the very first time.

Right then, this whole experience became very similar to the Indians in 1995 for me. The newness, the excitement, the "I can't believe my team and my city are here." feeling that seems to transcend the series itself. It's a level of awe/joy that few other cities can wring out of a four-to-seven game series.

Because it's been 43 years without a title and 10 years since a Cleveland team last competed for a title, it just means more here.

This goes deeper than being down 0-3. Deeper than being overmatched by a blatantly superior team. Deeper than double-teams on LeBron, Larry Hughes' injured foot and even Boobie's shooting touch deserting him in Game 3.

This is about us. About this region, and something that has united us over the past two months, building in intensity until several thousand people celebrated until nearly dawn when the Cavs clinched the Eastern Conference title a week and a half ago.

That's why we all came downtown on Wednesday. One night before the curtain potentially comes down on a Cavs season unlike any previous, we wanted to make sure we had this moment in time, this early June, firmly in focus, both in our cameras and our memories, as we hope for even better things in years to come.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

All hands on deck

This just in, via the Channel 5 pregame show:

Larry Hughes is inactive for tonight's game. His foot, injured in the Detroit series, is simply wreaking havoc with his ability to guard Tony Parker.

Activated in place of Hughes and Ira Newble are Shannon Brown and David Wesley, neither of whom have seen a dribble of game action since the end of the regular season.

Also, Channel 5 reportedly confirmed that Daniel Gibson will start at the point, with the initial responsibility of containing Parker.

Translation? This is it. Any hope the Cavs have of rallying to win this series begins and ends tonight. The Cavs will throw everything they have at Parker to try and stop him and contain San Antonio's offense.

By the end of the night, the Cavs will either have found something that works, or the cartridge will be empty and we'll be staring down the barrel of a likely sweep.

Nevertheless, I have to think benching Hughes is the right move at this point. That foot is preventing him from contributing in any meaningful way, and now is the time to change things up and try to turn the tide in the series.

For the Cavs, this is Last Chance Gulch.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

NBA Finals: Game 2

Spurs 103, Cavaliers 92
Spurs lead series 2-0

If you're anything like me and feel like, somehow, your personal pride has been wounded when your team loses on the big stage, may I suggest something:

Don't read the papers Monday. Don't read the national Web sites. Don't watch SportsCenter. You know what's coming.

Bill Simmons pointing and laughing at what a joke the Cavs are. Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune harrumphing about how LeBron James will be lucky to be the next John Starks, let alone Michael Jordan.

From Stephen A. Smith to Ric Bucher, Charley Rosen to Kelly Dwyer, and even some of our own Cleveland faithful, the scoffs will come in every way, shape and form:

"The Cavs are the worst team in Finals history. LeBron James is a world-class failure on basketball's biggest stage. They don't belong here. LeBron doesn't belong here. They got here because of a stroke of luck in playoff seeding and because the Pistons beat themselves. They'll be lucky to ever make it back. Can we please see the Spurs play a real team now? Pretty please?"

And I'm sugarcoating it for the sake of brevity.

You know it's coming. It will be merciless, and in the case of Simmons and Rosen, downright cruel. Don't put yourself through it. Hate mail will only make it worse, especially in the case of Simmons, who is notoriously thin-skinned and needs to respond to e-mailed insults with vicious public putdowns.

(The more I read Simmons, the more I think his attitude is garbage about 95 percent of the time. It seems all he ever does is trash other cities' teams and players and whine every time the slightest thing goes wrong in Boston. But that's another column for another time.)

You don't need to listen to the yahoos who will make it seem like you are stupid for even trying to root for the Cavs. While some of them have a basic idea or two right, most of what they have said and will say is overstated for dramatic effect.

The national columnists who will tell you that the Cavs are the worst NBA Finals team ever have this right: The Cavs' offense is not NBA Finals-caliber. It really isn't even playoff-caliber. The only thing that saves Cleveland's offense is LeBron James and the occasional hot shooting streak from Daniel Gibson or Sasha Pavlovic.

In two games against the Spurs, that much has been revealed. The Cavs simply cannot match San Antonio basket for basket. To even try is an exercise in futility.

The simple fact is that the Cavs have been lugging their offense around like dead weight all season. In order for the Cavs to turn the corner and win a championship, that needs to change, whether it's in the next two weeks or next two years.

You simply need to have an offense that doesn't require LeBron to play out of his mind in order to have a chance to win a road playoff game in Detroit, or San Antonio, or anyplace else where road playoff wins come around only slightly more often than Halley's Comet.

But the Cavs do have a saving grace, and it's why, despite the hailstorm of criticism that awaits Mike Brown between now and the Cavs' next win, I am happy to have him coaching here.

Their defense is very much NBA Finals-caliber. Two years ago, this team didn't even play defense. Now, they have the best defense in the Eastern Conference. Somehow, Brown took a giant lump of Play-Doh and turned it into fine sculpture.

Look at the players he had to work with: LeBron (didn't get to the NBA on his defense), Pavlovic (offense is his defense), Drew Gooden (pretty much the anti-Ben Wallace), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (tall, lumbering center with screws in his feet), Larry Hughes (shooting guard playing point), Eric Snow (good defender, but 34 years old), Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and Anderson Varejao (umm ... yeah) and turned them into a team that can not only hold its own defensively, but can dominate stretches of games with defense.

Not one single dominant defensive player in the lot. No Wallace, no Ron Artest, no Bruce Bowen. But they play defense well as a team, and it has carried them to the Finals, where, unfortunately, they've run into a vastly more experienced Spurs team that does everything better.

The pessimists would say that this is about all Brown can expect to squeeze out of a noticeably-flawed roster, and next year, who knows? Detroit might rebound, so might Miami, Chicago might add a huge piece this off-season. The 2008 NBA Finals are guaranteed to no team.

You'd be right to a point. The Cavs do have a flawed roster. They don't have a true point guard. They don't have a scorer to compliment LeBron. They don't have a good offensive game plan. These things need to be addressed.

But as these playoffs have progressed, I am starting to believe in Brown's system. Yes, the Cavs did get the easier of two roads through the Eastern Conference playoffs, but with Cleveland's reputation for playing to the level of their competition, who is to say beating New Jersey was a given? And can we all agree that, despite the fact Detroit didn't have their best series, the Cavs must have been doing something right to win four straight games?

My feeling is this: The fact that the Cavs are in the NBA Finals with the roster they have speaks volumes to what Brown has done in two years at the helm. Somehow, Brown took what is honestly a Spackle-and-paste roster meant to cover up years upon years of horrible drafts in a short amount of time, with LeBron as his only major asset, and coached them well enough on the defensive end to get them to the Finals, truth be told, ahead of schedule.

If Danny Ferry can address a couple of his team's roster needs this summer, and Brown's defensive philosophy truly has taken root with LeBron and the other team leaders, to the point that this has become "The Cavalier Way," we might enter the 2007-08 season with the Cavs as the alpha dog in the East.

Win or lose, this is valuable experience for LeBron and Company. If they make it back to the Finals in the near future, this will no longer be the great unknown. The jitters that have caused them to fall apart so readily in the first two games of this series won't exist. Plus they'll have a very good idea of what it takes to get there, and do it year after year.

And that's what LeBron has needed all along, as has Brown. That first taste of playing and coaching for a title. It might not end with the same success that Dwyane Wade received last year when his Heat were the beneficiaries of one of the more epic meltdowns in Finals history from the Dallas Mavericks. But it's progress, even if it comes in the form of being dominated by a blatantly superior team.

Those are my reasons to hope. I don't believe I'm grasping at straws as the Cavs' 2007 title hopes begin to fall away. I'm looking at something beyond one single Finals run. I'm looking at a coach who is starting to build a team culture meant to promote winning over the long haul, a system like the one that has allowed the Spurs to thrive for almost a decade.

For a Cavs organization that was one step away from total disarray a little over four years ago, it is an incredible turnaround, one that is both of LeBron and for LeBron, ignited by him and meant to keep him around long enough so that someday, there are multiple NBA championship trophies in the Cavs front office.

A championship run might not start this year. But a large and very important step has been achieved by even getting to the Finals four years after finishing a 17-65 season. The Cavs are starting to believe: In each other, in the system, and in their coach.

Up next: Game 3, Tuesday, 9 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena

Friday, June 08, 2007

NBA Finals: Game 1

Spurs 85, Cavaliers 76
Spurs lead series, 1-0

This is the vibe I'm getting from the nationa media:

"It must be tough being the San Antonio Spurs and going through an entire postseason without ever really having your greatness truly appreciated. You are a fine art critic, and yet all you get to view are fingerpaintings stuck to the refrigerator. You are a connoisseur of fine European cuisine, and all you get to sample are hot dogs. You are a world-renowned music critic, and all you can listen to are three teenagers jamming in a garage on used instruments.

"You are trying to cement your place among the greatest basketball teams ever to take the court, and the best the NBA can throw at you is the Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers. What a pity."

At this point, what can those of us in Ohio do but feel the Spurs' pain?

In Game 1, it sure as heck looked like the Cavs were going to follow the Jazz as a team in over their heads against San Antonio. Which is just going to add to the debate, should the Spurs polish off the Cavs without breaking into so much as a healthy glow of perspiration beads across their foreheads.

Would this Spurs title be tainted, like so many have said the previous Spurs titles were tainted? If the Spurs win this series, sure it's four titles in nine years, but none have come consecutively, and this 2007 title would have come without facing Dallas, Detroit or Miami, which, along with San Antonio and Phoenix, round out the NBA teams that have any business competing in the Finals, at least in the eyes of many so-called NBA experts.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Cavs weren't blown out of the gym by the Spurs Thursday night. But they were methodically dispatched by a Spurs team that seems to be taking a "Let's just get this series over with, get our trophy and start our summer vacation" attitude to facing yet another opponent they now realize no one will give them a whole lot of credit for having beaten.

I can already see what might happen should the odds prevail and San Antonio wins. Tim Duncan, standing at center floor, gets the Larry O'Brien trophy, holds it over his head, says "Yay, we won," with a straight face, then says, "Here, Pop, take this thing. I'm going to the bathroom."

Like I said, for a team trying to carve a face on the Mount Rushmore of basketball, these playoffs have been purgatory so far.

Of course, there is always a chance that the Cavs could turn this series around and give San Antonio a fight. LeBron James started out this series the way he started out the conference finals: Poorly, by his standards.

If the Detroit series is any indication, LeBron will start to improve as the novelty wears off. Thursday, he and his teammates looked like they really hadn't gotten past the "Holy crap, were in the Finals" stage. By Game 2, this whole process might look a lot more familiar.

As for last night, LeBron played right into the teeth of the Spurs defense, and finished with 14 points on 4-for-16 shooting. He settled for a lot of long-range jumpers, but this time, it wasn't his fault. The Spurs masterfully hounded him.

San Antonio is generally considered the best help-and-recover defensive team in the league, and Thursday, they lived up to their billing in guarding LeBron. Every time LeBron shook free from Bruce Bowen, two other Spurs rotated over to trap him.

In short, you only needed one hand to count the number of times LeBron actually got to the hoop, and you'd probably still have fingers to spare.

The Spurs were so good defensively, not only could LeBron not get his own shot off, he couldn't even find open teammates with regularity.

Contrast that with Tony Parker, who was buzzing through the lane like a honeybee in heat. Maybe it had something to do with fiancee Eva Longoria sitting 100 feet away. I said before the series started that if Parker can get to the hoop with regularity, just start concentrating on baseball because this series is going to be over by this time next week.

Last night stuck to the script. Parker led all scorers with 27 points, and no matter who the Cavs stuck on him, they couldn't stay in front of him. Parker's 27 came on an array of layups and step-back jumpers. In other words, the type of game Parker is always going to have when you can't guard him.

With seven assists, Parker also got Tim Duncan involved plenty as well. Like Parker, Duncan's night was pretty much a layup drill as well.

Much has been made about Mike Brown and Danny Ferry building the Cavs according to the Spurs template. When breaking down film from Game 1, Brown might want to pay special attention to getting his guys to play recover defense like the Spurs. When Parker blows by his man, someone else has to come over and seal off the lane, or the only thing ensuing games are going to be missing is Bill Murray in attendance with a groundhog.

(Having said that, I shall be compelled to find Murray in the stands for Game 2. Holding a groundhog.)

This series is far from over. Actually, the Cavs are fortunate to have been outplayed by a significant margin and still only have lost by nine. If the Cavs figure out a way to bridge the performance gap even a little bit, they might make a series of this thing yet.

If Game 1 was the worst game LeBron plays all series, and the best game Parker plays all series, I still like the Cavs' chances, particularly when the scene shifts to Cleveland next week.

But it would still be really nice to not have to come home in an 0-2 hole. The Cavs have until Sunday to meditate on how to prevent that from happening.

Up next: Game 2, Sunday, 9 p.m. at the AT&T Center, San Antonio

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The man behind the mic

There is a story about Joe Tait and Bill Fitch highlighted on the back jacket of my copy of "Cavs: From Fitch to Fratello," the 1994 book that chronicles the first 25 years of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The story goes something like this:

The expansion Cavaliers were struggling mightily through their start of their inaugural season, in the fall of 1970. With their record already 0-14, the Cavs were in San Francisco to take on the Warriors.

Coach Fitch, radio broadcaster Tait and assistant coach Jim Lessig walked from their hotel to the Civic Center in downtown San Francisco for the game. Lessig and Tait had their NBA passes and showed them to the guard at the door, but Fitch forgot his back at the hotel.

Fitch attempted to reason with the guard. "I don't have mine," he said. "But I'm the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers."

The guard wasn't buying it. "How do I know you're the coach of the Cavaliers?" he asks.

Fitch thought for a moment, the asked the security guard, "Do you know what the Cavaliers' record is?"

"They are 0-14," the guard replied.

"Then why would I tell you I am the coach of the Cavaliers if I really am not?"

And a legacy of wry humor in the face of horrible basketball was born.

Basketball fans always wonder what would happen if the walls of the great palaces could talk. What secrets would the rickety pillars of the Boston Garden have told us about Bill Russell and Red Auerbach? What about the front-row seats at the Great Western Forum? Or the tunnels at Chicago Stadium?

Cavalier fans don't have to wonder. Their talking wall is a real person.

Save for two years when he was run out of town by Ted Stepien, Joe Tait has been there from the beginning. He has chronicled just about every possession of every quarter the Cavs have ever played, and most everything that has happened off the court, too.

He is a piece of living history, not because of who he is necessarily, but because of what he has seen. From Walt Wesley to Bingo Smith to Dave Robisch to John Bagley, Mark Price to Danny Ferry as a player to Terrell Brandon to Shawn Kemp, Ricky Davis to LeBron James to Danny Ferry as a general manager.

Tait has been there for all of it, refracting it for all of us to hear through his familiar raspy voice and dry wit.

But Tait can also refract without distorting. He has made unbiased reporting his hallmark, despite the fact that the Cavs sign his paychecks. That can rub owners the wrong way, and it played into why Tait was chased out of town by Stepien, who percieved him as a threat. Tait spent two seasons in the early '80s calling Nets and Bulls games before returning to Cleveland when the Gunds bought the team.

During those crazy, tumultuous Stepien years, Tait became something of an organizational watchdog, if only because he was pressed into it. After deciding to play the 1981 All-Star Game in Richfield, the NBA commissioner's office took a closer look at the situation in Cleveland. What they saw, according to "Cavs: From Fitch to Fratello" was an all-star announcement party that featured scantily-clad dancing girls and a guy who ripped beer cans open with his teeth, Stepien's idea of appropriate entertainment.

Then-commissioner Larry O'Brien worriedly called Tait to his office in New York to find out "what the hell is going on in Cleveland."

"People tell me I can rely on you for honest answers," O"Brien told Tait. "And very few people in that organization have been giving me straight answers. So I want to hear it from you ... We're taking the very best thing we have to offer, the NBA All-Star Game, to Cleveland. And I'm scared to death it's going to turn into a freak show, a carnival."

Tait and O'Brien talked. And talked. And talked some more. By the time the meeting was over, O'Brien had decided the league would take over organizing most of the all-star festivities.

Unfortunately, that episode says more about the state of the Cavs at that time than it does about Tait. Announcers are always at their best when they can put aside team politics and off-the-court shenanigans and concentrate on the action. And that is where Tait excels.

The rare play-by-play announcer who flies solo during broadcasts, Tait is his own color commentator. He can be critical of a referee's call at the same time he's delivering an unbiased account of what actually happened. The rhythm and pace of his delivery make a ex-jock wingman unnecessary. An extra set of lungs on the air would probably be a hindrance, actually.

Tait is a veteran broadcaster who can inject emotion into his work without raising his voice. Whereas Tom Hamilton and Jim Donovan (both excellent play-by-play men in their own right) tend to ratchet up the volume during an exciting play, Tait is more apt to laugh after a thrilling LeBron fast break dunk than he is to scream, a "my heart can't take much more of this" laugh, like a man who has just gone on the first and last roller coaster of his life.

Tait has catch phrases, but I doubt he'd call them that. Tait's delivery is anything but contrived. "Wham, with the right hand" is a reaction, not something Tait is hoping gets printed on a t-shirt.

And perhaps that is what really sets Tait apart in the big-ego world of pro sports. He is genuine, his work is genuine, and he is humble, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. If Tait had been calling games for a big-market team all these years, he'd be spoken of in the same breath with guys like Chick Hearn and Johnny Most. He'd be a nationwide legend. But he's spent almost 40 years calling games for the Cleveland Cavs, so no one outside of this region really knows about him.

But fame isn't why Tait got into the business. He was a young radio broadcaster from the Midwest and a NBA team needed and play-by-play announcer. The rest is history, really.

Tait might have gone elsewhere, but he made a home here. Despite all the years of losing basketball, Tait always seemed to enjoy his job, even though he'd probably admit winning makes it a whole lot more enjoyable.

Four years ago, the story goes, with the Cavs bottoming out and Tait not wanting to endure another rebuilding project, Tait told then-majority owner Gordon Gund he was going to retire. But ping-pong balls intervened.

When the Cavs secured the right to draft LeBron, Gund asked Tait to stick around long enough to see how it all played out.

As we know, it's turning out pretty well so far.

Thursday night, Tait will sit behind the mic to call his first-ever NBA Finals game at the age of 70. No broadcaster in more deserving in all of sports. Win or lose, Tait deserves this chance for the loyalty he's shown this organization through 37 years of mostly mediocre-to-downright-awful basketball.

Whether Tait wants the spotlight or not, this is his time, along with the rest of the Cavs organization, to shine.

For at least one quarter during the NBA Finals, I am turning off the television and listening exclusively to Joe Tait. I encourage everyone to do the same. Let a master of the craft and a local legend be your tour guide through the biggest playoff series in Cavs history.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Morning After: Game 6

Eastern Conference finals, Game 6
Cavaliers 98, Pistons 82
Cavaliers win series 4-2

Some people will tell you that this is for Austin Carr, Mark Price and Brad Daugherty. For World B. Free, Lenny Wilkens and Bill Fitch.

It is. It's for all the guys we loved, who toiled away in the shadows of the NBA without reaching where the Cavs are now -- their first-ever NBA Finals.

But these are the Cleveland Cavaliers. This isn't just about celebrating what passed for success prior to Saturday night. This is about exorcising demons, spraying for cockroaches and scrubbing mold off the bathroom wall.

This is for Ted Stepien, an owner so bad the NBA had to make a rule that prevents teams from trading away first-round draft picks in consecutive years. An owner who made a half-hearted attempt to move the team to Toronto until Pete Franklin blasted him on the air.

This is for Shawn Kemp, who arrived in Cleveland as "The new NBA" and left as an inflatable joke three years later.

This is for Wrong Rim Ricky and wrong-everything Darius Miles.

This is for Walt Frazier, who was more interested in practicing yoga than playing for the Cavs.

This is for 15 straight losses to start the franchise's inagural season, and 24 straight losses over two seasons in 1982, still an NBA record.

This is for Craig Ehlo flailing at Michael Jordan, and then crashing to the floor along with the Cavs' 1989 playoff run. This is for Jim Chones landing on a teammate's foot during a playoff practice in 1976 and hearing a snap in his own foot that ended any hope the Cavs had of beating the Celtics in that year's Eastern Conference finals.

This is for Jordan shoving another series-clinching dagger into the Cavs in 1993. This one clinched a sweep, just because he could and just to show how anticlimactic beating the Cavs had become.

This is for Jordan calling those Cavs "cream puffs" and for Rasheed Wallace likening the Cavs to a dog's hindquarters last year.

This is for Lamond Murray and Chris Gatling and Jim Paxson's drafts. For Price's knees, Daugherty's back and Larry Nance's ankles.

This is for the navicular bones in the feet of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Seven foot surgeries nearly ended his career. But they didn't.

And this is most definitely for Carlos Boozer, who will be watching the NBA Finals from the comfort of one of his homes as the team he spurned plays on.

This is for a LeBron James-led rise from 17 wins in the spring of 2003 to the NBA's world championship series in 2007. This is for the multitudes, in Cleveland and elsewhere, who thought it could never happen, who thought LeBron was too good to be true.

Well, he is good. He is very, very good. And he is very, very true. And if there is a way to measure basketball IQ specifically, LeBron is the NBA equivalent of the kids at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Thursday, he knew he needed to take the ball and score. It was the only chance Cleveland had of getting the one necessary win in Detroit. Saturday, he knew the Pistons would hound him, trap him, double- and triple-team him. Before the game, he said he told Daniel Gibson to have his trigger finger "locked and loaded."

LeBron repeatedly found Gibson wide open beyond the arc, and Gibson's barrage of fourth-quarter three-pointers singlehandedly broke the Pistons' resolve.

The Pistons, the supposed archetype for a blue-collar, nose-to-the-grindstone basketball team, the type of team you simply can't rattle, lost their collective cool as the game slipped away. When Wallace arm-tackled LeBron in the fourth quarter, then flipped out at the foul call, earning a double-technical and automatic ejection, it was the end of the road for the Pistons.

This is for a Cavs team that got into the Pistons' heads over the last four games the way the Pistons were supposed to get into their heads. This is for a Cavs team that is growing up and growing together right before our eyes.

And this is for all of us, who watched the days in Richfield, good and bad. Who remembers Dick Snyder over Phil Chenier and Steve Kerr's half-court heave against the Celtics in Game 7 in 1992, Larry Bird's final game.

For anyone who loved how Mike Fratello could somehow make a 64-59 final score seem entertaining simply by his presence. For anyone who thought having Dan Majerle in a Cavs uniform was cool, even if it was only for a year.

For anyone who still likes to imitate Kenny Roda imitating the rasp of John Lucas (I need my BIGS, Kenny! I need to get BIGS back! I need Chris Mims!")

For anyone who was a willing participant on the roller coaster ride of the past 37 years, who experienced more downs than ups, who never in their wildest dreams thought they might enter The Q this coming November and see a new banner hanging from the rafters, this is for you.

The Cavs are in the NBA Finals.

Up next: The NBA Finals, Cavs vs. Spurs, Game 1. Thursday, 9 p.m. at the AT&T Center, San Antonio.

Yes, it's true...

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2007 Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
More to come on Sunday.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

On the brink of history

Some observations and thoughts as the Cavaliers head toward the most important game in franchise history Saturday night:

1. It's not so much the Pistons that scare me anymore. It's the Cavs.

This series would already be over if not for the Cavs' inability to make some clutch shots in Games 1 and 2. At worst, the Cavs and Pistons have essentially battled to a draw in the fourth quarter. At best, well ... LeBron's Game 5 was kind of good.

My point is, at no point have the Pistons definitively outplayed the Cavs, even when they were setting the pace in the first half of Game 5. So I don't think the Pistons are in the driver's seat in this series, certainly not now.

The only way the Cavs surrender the driver's seat is to throw a bowl of cold oatmeal on their NBA Finals chances with the type of sleepwalking performance they have been known to deliver every now and again. We all remember Game 5 against the Nets, when somebody forgot to tell them an NBA playoff series ends when a team wins four games, not three.

The threat of Mr. Hyde Cavs showing up when the games mean the most is why most Cavs fans keep their stress balls in a prominent place next to the couch and keep Mylanta on tap at the wet bar.

Of course, if the Cavs turn in that type of performance Saturday, they aren't ready to make the leap to the Finals, so we can all do ourselves the favor of putting our high hopes on ice should there be a Game 7.

2. The lack of Ben Wallace is absolutely killing the Pistons right now.

Do you remember when Kenny Lofton edged up into his 30s during his second go-around with the Tribe? Do you remember that as his phenomenal athleticism waned, it started to reveal the fundamental flaws in his game?

The loss of Ben Wallace last summer is having a similar effect on the Pistons now.

It took going up against a superlative offensive player like LeBron to finally make Detroit pay for letting Wallace leave, but paying they are. Wallace made the Pistons look good on defense even when they weren't playing all that well on defense. Last year, if LeBron blew past Tayshaun Prince or Rip Hamilton or whoever was guarding him, all Wallace had to do was slide off his man, shuffle into LeBron's path and provide Detroit with one heck of a last line of defense for the basket.

With Thursday's historic outburst as Exhibit A, if LeBron now beats his man, you can basically put the deuce on the board.

There has been an outcry among Detroit fans and media since Game 5 to hack the living daylights out of LeBron and put him at the line. Given LeBron's spotty foul shooting, it would seem like a good plan. The trouble for Detroit is, LeBron is so big and strong, you can foul him with everything you got, just karate chop him over the arms as he's driving to the basket, and there is still a greater than 50-percent chance he's going to carry your karate chop to the rim and still put the ball in the hole for a three-point play.

Last year, Wallace was probably the only Piston defender with the strength, quickness and technique to actually prevent LeBron from reaching the basket. This year, when LeBron gets a head of steam going, Piston players have two choices: Stay out of the way, or end up on a poster.

When you're looking for reasons as to why the Cavs are one win away from the NBA Finals, start there.

3. The mere fact that Larry Hughes is on the court has been a psychological lift.

I know everyone loves to rip Hughes for his poor shooting, including a miss of a seven-foot gimme that might have won Game 2. Much of it is deserved, especially when he starts hoisting 20-foot bricks and costing his team possessions.

But in his own very real way, Hughes has contributed to the Cavs' comeback.

No team likes to feel like they are facing a vaunted opponent shorthanded, and that was what we thought was going to happen when Hughes injured his foot in Game 3. The feeling around Cleveland was "Here we go again, Hughes can't stay healthy."

But Hughes sucked it up, took a cortisone shot, and has been in the starting lineup for Games 4 and 5. It keeps the always-dangerous Daniel Gibson coming off the bench as a chance-of-pace player, and means Chauncey Billups has to prepare to face Hughes, Gibson or Eric Snow, three distinctly different players.

You might not like seeing Hughes on the floor, but it's always better to go into battle with all hands on deck.

4. Flip's castle of sand is melting into the sea.

When the fans and media in Southeast Michigan aren't raising a high chorus of "Foul LeBron," they are glaring with great suspicion at Flip Saunders.

When the Pistons win, it's because of the players and the defensive template Larry Brown set up in his last years of coaching relevance. When the Pistons lose, the bullseye goes straight onto the suit jacket of Saunders, a Cleveland guy who is quickly becoming known as the Marty Schottenheimer of the NBA.

He can get you to the doorstep, but he can't get you into the dance, or so the reputation is becoming.

Right now, Piston fans see Saunders as the guy who only got Kevin Garnett out of the first round once, despite the fact that much of the blame should fall onto Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale, who has never surrounded Garnett with enough talent in the ultra-competitive West.

If the Cavs close out this series, Saunders will have lost to Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in consecutive years with the Finals on the line. For a fan base that has come to expect their team to churn out Finals berths with regularity, the posh Pistons job might soon turn into a crucible.

But, hey, if Saunders gets sacked, he is an offensive-minded coach, he is from Cleveland, and maybe it isn't too far-fetched to see him having a stint as Mike Brown's top assistant with the Cavs. I'm sure there are a few things Saunders could teach Brown about running an offense.

5. 'Sheed shut his mouth. How about you, Chauncey?

Hear that? That's the sweet sound of silence coming from Rasheed Wallace's locker. No guarantees of victory. No "even the Sun shines on a dog's ass" comments.

Wallace begrudgingly respects the Cavs now, at least enough to not want to give them bulletin board material. Now, he saves all his whining for the refs, but the refs expect that.

But then there's Chauncey Billups, who apparently is having his own little pout-fest over the Pistons' recent downward turn of fortune. Prior to Game 5, he made a comment to ESPN, noting that while LeBron is having a good series, it still isn't anything close to what he had to endure facing Dwyane Wade in last year's conference finals.

LeBron, of course, dropped 48 points on Billups and his teammates that night.

For an encore, Billups will openly wonder if LeBron wears a size extra-small athletic supporter. LeBron will respond by dropping 55 points directly on Billups' head.

On behalf of Cleveland fans everywhere, thanks Chauncey! Keep the pouty comments coming. Your mouth is our best friend.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Morning After: Game 5

Eastern Conference finals, Game 5
Cavaliers 109, Pistons 107, 2OT
Cavaliers lead series, 3-2

Let's hop in the time machine for a minute, because I think this is one of those moments that calls for a little perspective.

We'll set the dial for May 2003. The place: Wherever you were NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik slid his finger under the seal of the NBA draft lottery envelope with a giant "2" on it. Wherever you were when he flipped over the card and showed the world the logo of the Memphis Grizzlies, leaving the Cavaliers as the only team left standing for the number one pick.

Wherever you were when it all turned around.

In May 2003, the Cavs were a franchise in shambles. They hadn't made the playoffs since 1998, which was the last time they finished over .500. Their recent draft history was a black parade that screamo-rockers My Chemical Romance couldn't even imagine.

Dajuan Wagner, sixth overall in 2002. DeSagana Diop, eighth overall in 2001. Chris Mihm, acquired for Jamal Crawford on draft night 2000. Trajan Langdon, 11th overall in 1999.

Shawn Kemp, the Cavs' last attempt at a franchise savior, was in the final stages of killing his career with vices, long since forgotten in Cleveland. The future centered on rookie Carlos Boozer, Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, but that weak core couldn't prevent the Cavs from careening to a 17-65 record, tying the Denver Nuggets for the league's worst.

Then the ping-pong balls poked holes in the clouds, and for the first time in ages, everything bounced Cleveland's way.

This LeBron James kid was so good, he couldn't be for real, some thought. A high-school senior, he was already rumored to be the best player on the floor when scrimmaging with top-flight NBA players.

He so fascinated then-coach John Lucas, he brought him in to scrimmage against Cavs players, eventually getting slapped with a $100,000 tampering fine for the effort. Not only was he really good, he was a local kid from Akron. If Northeast Ohioans like anything, it's a sports star who is one of us by birth.

It was simply perfect when the Cavs secured the right to draft him on that spring day four years ago. It was a bounce of fortune so good, so needed, that Austin Carr broke down and cried when the Cavs secured the first pick.

That's why Thursday night meant so much to the entire state of Ohio.

A little more than four years after the fortuitous bounce of ping-pong balls, LeBron showed us why, in spite of our cynical, burned-one-too-many-times Cleveland selves, we are compelled to hope. We are compelled to feel that this isn't just another era of unfulfilled promise and unrequited love we're entering. Thursday night, we saw greatness, of Ohio, by Ohio and for Ohio.

It's not just that LeBron scored 48 points in 50 minutes of play in one of the two or three most important playoff games in Cavs history. It's how he scored them. It's how, as the game wore on, he became more and more unstoppable, more and more superhuman.

It's how, by the second overtime, when both teams were running out of gas, LeBron started making 20-foot fadeaway jumpers like they were layups. It's how the Pistons, one of the NBA's most dynamic defensive teams, simply did not have an answer for him in crunch time.

It's how, no matter how many times the Cavs fell behind against the Pistons' best start-to-finish effort of the series thus far, LeBron -- with a little help from his friends -- always came roaring back.

With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, the Cavs fell behind by seven and it looked like the Pistons were going to head back to Cleveland with a chance to close out the series. But LeBron rescued the Cavs with a pair of thunderous dunks that helped send the game to overtime.

In the first overtime, LeBron put the Cavs up by four with a 22-foot fadeaway in tight space with the shot clock winding down, a shot that can only be described as head-smacking. Which is exactly what I did as part of the throng of 11,000 filling the lower bowl of The Q to watch the game on Q-Vision.

(You want to know how hungry Cleveland is for a title? If the Cavs do indeed finish off the Pistons and advance to the NBA Finals, it appears the Cavs might put 20,000 in The Q to watch Games 1 and 2 on TV.)

In the second overtime, with the Cavs trailing 107-104, LeBron drilled a game-tying three, then scored what proved to be the winning basket.

All in all, he scored 25 straight points, the definition of loading your entire team onto your back and winning. In Game 5 of the conference finals. On the road. Against the Pistons.

The Pistons won't concede the series at the outset of Game 6. They're too good and too experienced to do that. Hopefully the Cavs realize that, and won't lay the kind of egg they laid the last time they had a chance to close out a series at home, against the Nets two weeks ago. It's still going to take some work to get the Cavs to their first-ever NBA Finals.

But you have to think that the Pistons are just about exhausted. For three straight games, LeBron has simply taken over in the fourth quarter and overtime. Detroit has thrown everything they can at LeBron, and still he wins games for his team.

These are the days we dreamed of when the ping-pong balls bounced the Cavs' way four years ago. This isn't even a renaissance of Cleveland basketball. These are uncharted waters, and our captain is the type of player who always crushed us in the past, now playing for our team.

It has been a majestic rise for our once-downtrodden, once-forgotten basketball club. And it's only beginning. Cleveland, for the first time ever, is becoming a basketball town.

Up next: Game 6, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena