Tuesday, February 27, 2007

AP award finalist

A quick bit of personal news to pass along...

I have been named a finalist in the 2006 Associated Press Society of Ohio awards. My five-part Medina County Gazette series on growth in Montville Township, which ran in January 2006, is one of four finalist pieces vying for the "Best Enterprise Reporting" award.

The order of the awards -- first place, second, third and honorable mention -- will be revealed at the APSO banquet in May.

The is the second APSO award I have been nominated for. I placed third in the "Best Feature Writer" category in 2003.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The curiosity of Cavs draft picks

For the better part of their 37 years, the Cavaliers have always seemed like kind of a backwards NBA franchise.

They've retired six numbers despite zero NBA Finals appearances. Of those six, only one -- Nate Thurmond -- is a Hall of Famer. A Hall of Famer who got to the Hall of Fame based on a stellar career spent mostly with the Warriors, and ended with the Cavs.

Their most visible alumnus, Austin Carr, was more on par with Craig Ehlo than LeBron James as a player.

Their most famous owner was Ted Stepien, a man so infamously awful at the nuts and bolts of running a sports franchise, the NBA had to make a rule that now prevents teams from trading away first-round draft picks in consecutive years.

The fans' most beloved franchise figure never suited up for the team, nor did he ever patrol the sideline. He's the radio announcer, Joe Tait.

Every which way you turn, it seems the Cavs have been travelling south to go north. That includes recent draft picks.

A review of the Cavs' draft history since 2000 reveals a peculiar trend:

The Cavs' first-round draft picks have been, sans LeBron James, uniformly bad since the start of the decade. Over the same period, the Cavs' second-round picks, or acquired rookies who were drafted in the second round, have almost always had success.

Consider the following:

Since 2000, other than LeBron, the Cavs have drafted (or acquired on draft night) Chris Mihm, DeSagana Diop, DaJuan Wagner, Luke Jackson and Shannon Brown.

All five sustained some kind of injury that hindered their rookie seasons and the injuries for the first four carried over into their sophomore seasons. Mihm and Diop eventually fought back to become solid contributors for other teams, but never amounted to much in their short Cleveland stints.

Wagner's career was sidetracked by a digestive tract ailment that eventually required surgery to remove part of his intestines. He attempted to make a comeback with the Warriors this season, but was cut before the season started. His NBA future appears murky at best.

Jackson arrived in Cleveland healthy, but promptly injured his back in summer league ball a month after being drafted and hasn't been the same since. He was traded to Boston for Dwayne Jones prior to this season starting, and was subsequently cut by the Celtics. Like Wagner, his NBA future is in doubt.

Brown was declared the steal of the 2006 draft by some basketball pundits, but has been nothing more than a turnover machine in limited action this season. A deep bone bruise in his leg sidelined him for all of January and part of February, slowing his transition to the NBA.

All in all, a draft history that's not exactly seal-of-approval worthy.

But move down a round, and you'll notice a difference. The clouds start to part.

Since 2000, the Cavs' second-round draft picks have included Carlos Boozer, Jason Kapono and Dan Gibson. Anderson Varejao was a second-round pick of the Magic acquired by the Cavs the summer before his rookie season.

Boozer, backstabbing bastard that he is, was named to the Western Conference all-star team this year. Kapono continues to make us all wish the Cavs would have protected him in the Charlotte Bobcats expansion draft. He won the three-point shootout as a member of the Heat this month, and continues to be a solid contributor for the defending world champs.

Gibson has risen from the 42nd pick to the Cavs' starting lineup, where his perimeter shooting provides a desperately-needed dimension to the Cavs' offense. Varejao has morphed into one of the best bench players in the league.

What is the reason for the upside-down success the Cavs have had in the draft? I couldn't even begin to hypothesize. But it does prove three things:

One, the NBA draft isn't any easier to project than the NFL draft just because there are only two rounds.

Two, second-round picks are not throwaway picks.

Three, if an NBA team wants to have long-term success, it must draft well.

It's nice to look at the diamonds the Cavs have been able to dig out of the second round. But the growing history of first-round busts is a troubling trend.

Why did GM Danny Ferry need to commit gobs of cash to veterans in the summer of 2005? It's not that he was playing fast and loose with owner Dan Gilbert's money. It's that he inherited a team with huge holes in the roster and a dearth of talent around LeBron. A dearth caused by draft misfires.

In 2005, Ferry had $28 million in cap space and no draft picks in two of the ensuing three years. So he was forced to plug the holes with veteran free agents, and the only way a team with no title-studded street cred can land veteran free agents is to overpay for them. Hence, huge contracts that make us all sweat and wonder if the salary cap will allow the Cavs any room for improvement in the coming years.

Ferry and coach Mike Brown make a big deal about building the Cavs in the mold of the their former employer, the San Antonio Spurs. They want a team that walks like the Spurs, talks like the Spurs, plays like the Spurs and wins like the Spurs.

But in order to do that, you must draft like the Spurs.

Lost in all of the hype that surrounded the "will he/won't he" of last week's unsuccessful bid to land Mike Bibby is the fact that the Spurs don't have these problems. They drafted Tony Parker six years ago. Lost in all of the hand-wringing over Larry Hughes' perceived inability to be LeBron's wing man is the fact that the Spurs don't have to worry about things like that. They used the draft to unearth Argentinian Manu Ginobili, who has become a championship compliment to Tim Duncan.

Free agency is good for patching one or two holes, but veterans who are more than halfway through their careers make a lousy foundation for long-term success. Should I point to the Browns' offensive line, or are you already drawing that parallel?

If the Cavs want some short-term sustenance to get LeBron to the playoffs a few times, his current cast can help him do that. If Ferry and Brown truly want this team to become one of the league's best, every year, for a decade or more, they need to start hitting on first-round picks.

The Spurs will tell you there is no other way to do it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Standing pat

A few takes on the Cavaliers standing pat at Thursday's trade deadline:

1. The 84-78 loss to the Bulls on Thursday night probably couldn't have come at a worse time for GM Danny Ferry. The Bad Cavs showed up, playing listless, disinterested basketball for long stretches and tossing up enough bricks to reconstruct a life-sized replica of the Pyramids of Giza on Public Square.

It's hard to stand on your conviction when your team goes out and lays an egg like that hours after you have pronounced them fit to go forward with what they have.

2. Having said that, I think Ferry realizes that this team needs a backcourt upgrade if they want to contend for a title.

Every report I read over the past several days said Ferry tried like crazy to land Mike Bibby, and the Kings wanted to move him, but all the puzzle pieces just wouldn't fit. At least not now.

As Brian Windhorst wrote Thursday in his blog, a Bibby trade might not be dead and buried. There is a strong possibility this might get revisited over the summer, which I am fine with, since we'll know at that point whether Bibby decides to opt out of his contract.

If nothing else, Ferry has sent a strong message of interest to both Bibby and the Kings.

3. Ferry didn't make a deal just to make a deal, which is good.

Too often, if the big deal falls through, the temptation for a GM is to grab a more attainable piece just to add something. (Jiri Welsch, anyone?)

But adding Brevin Knight, Marcus Banks or Juan Dixon might have done more harm than good. All Knight, Banks or Dixon would have done is add another average piece to an already muddled backcourt, taking minutes away from Dan Gibson.

If the Cavs were going to add a piece, they were going to make sure it was a major piece, a significant upgrade that was really going to impact the play of the team. Ferry was smart to draw the line in the sand at Bibby. There was no reason to make a move if it wasn't going to be an impact move.

4. There are worse things than standing pat with the second-best record in the conference.

Obviously, watching this team every day, us fans get caught up in everything that is wrong with the team, and forget that this is still a pretty good team that can beat just about any other team in the league when they put their minds to it.

Standing pat means that they don't lose Drew Gooden, and keep what might very well be the second-best frontcourt in the East intact.

The Cavs are one of the best offensive rebounding clubs in the NBA. There are two reasons for that: One, they are loaded with rim-clanging perimeter shooters. Two, they have Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao to clean up the misses.

Trading for Bibby would have given the Cavs the point guard they need, but it would have thinned out the frontcourt and the bench. If the Cavs are going to continue to hoist missed shots from 20 feet, their only hope to win is to keep possessions alive with offensive boards.

Along with that, if you want to have a prayer of making Detroit sweat in a playoff series, you need size up front. Remember last spring's playoffs against Detroit, when the Cavs' rebounding got them back into the series from an 0-2 deficit.

Maybe the summer is a better time to revisit a Bibby trade. That way, if the Cavs are forced to part with Gooden, they'll have some time to reload the frontcourt.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The best deadline deal ever

One popular urban myth in Cleveland needs to be debunked right now:

The belief that Wayne Embry was a bad trader.

Embry is a less-afflicted version of Bill Buckner and Fred Merkle, his career in Cleveland mostly remembered for the one thing he did wrong instead of the many other things he did right.

Yes, he dealt Ron Harper to the Clippers for the rights to Danny Ferry. Yes, that kicked a major support beam out from under the Cavs teams of the late '80s and began a downward spiral that was complete by the time the team moved back downtown in 1994.

And yes, that move was ordered by Gordon Gund, who allegedly didn't like the company Harper was keeping.

But while we in Cleveland wail and gnash our teeth over what might have been (probably still a ton of playoff losses to the Bulls, though the teams might have developed more of a rivalry with Harper guarding Michael Jordan), we forget what is not-so-arguably Embry's best trade.

At the trade deadline in 1988, Embry sent Kevin Johnson, Tyrone Corbin, Mark West and three draft picks to the Suns for Larry Nance, Mike Sanders and a draft pick.

It might have been the best deadline deal ever executed in the NBA.

That's not just my opinion. It's also the opinion of CNNSI.com's Chris Ekstrand.

Both teams were improved dramatically and would become playoff regulars for the next half-decade. Johnson would eventually help lead the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals. Nance became the most prolific shot-blocker and one of the best rebounders in Cavs history. He, Mark Price and Brad Daugherty formed the triumvirate that oversaw what is still the most successful run the franchise has seen.

It's the way trades are supposed to work. Embry found a team that was weak where his team was strong, then found a player from that team that would help strengthen one of his team's weaknesses.

He dealt Johnson, stuck behind Price on the team's depth chart at point guard, to add size and athleticism to the frontcourt.

The frontcourt trio of Sanders, Nance and Daugherty were right behind the Pistons and Celtics in terms of defensive prowess. In an era in which the Cavs had no true superstar player and had to contend with Jordan, Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer in a beastly Eastern Conference, adding size and hops to the frontcourt was a heads-up move by Embry, and it probably kept the Cavs afloat in the East playoff picture longer, even as Harper was traded and Price fell victim to repeated injuries.

But because the East was so tough and because the Cavs, as they so often have, got lost in the shuffle of better teams and better players, the trade that Embry and Suns GM Jerry Colangelo pulled off in the winter of 1988 is a footnote.

It wasn't a sexy trade with headline-grabbing names, but it was one of the best-executed trades in NBA history from both sides. Colangelo got his recognition when he nabbed Charles Barkley and the Suns got to the Finals. Embry's reputation went in the other direction, thanks to the Harper-for-Ferry bombshell less than two years later.

It's unfortunate, because the Johnson-Nance trade illustrates that there is a significant difference between a blockbuster deal and a deal that works. One doesn't entail the other. Many times, they are mutually exclusive characteristics of big trades because it's hard for GMs to keep their itchy trigger fingers at bay.

But before NBA GMs go rolling the dice on all the Jason Kidds, Pau Gasols and Vince Carters that will supposedly be available this week, all 30 of them would be wise to study the deal Embry and Colangelo struck 19 years ago. It could save a lot of teams money on headache medicine down the road.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

All-Star weekend

Some selected observations (and observations of observations) from the NBA All-Star Weekend thus far:

Background noise

LeBron James is having a quieter-than-usual all-star weekend. Dare I say, he's faded into the background a bit.

Dwyane Wade is currently the NBA's "It" player from the Class of 2003. He's the one with the ring, he's having the better season, he's doing cell phone commercials with Charles Barkley. LeBron, by comparison, seems overhyped and overrated to some since his star has failed to magnify this season as Wade's has exploded.

As a result, the fickle spotlight has shifted to Wade, Gilbert Arenas and old standbys like Shaquille O'Neal and Jason Kidd while LeBron has been relegated to the end of the stardom bench, at least for the time being. The media throngs that followed him around during his first three all-star weekend appearances have been replaced by a comparatively sparse following. LeBron just isn't where the action is right now.

That's not entirely bad. For a 22-year old who has had larger-than-life billboards of himself erected in New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland, maybe a taste of humble pie is in order. Besides, any way LeBron can reduce the hands that are grabbing for his attention, the more he can focus on resting up and getting ready for the stretch run and playoffs.

Fabulous Las Vegas

Can a pro sports franchise co-exist alongside the gambling houses of Las Vegas? This winter's all-star break has been a feeling-out process for the NBA.

Sure, it's about the fact that Las Vegas is rife with legalized gambling, and fixed games have long been a worst nightmare of upstanding sports league commissioners everywhere. But, especially for the NBA, it's also about the sheer number of opportunities their filthy-rich, ghetto-styling players will have to get into all kinds of eye-covering trouble.

It's not that Las Vegas' vices are different from those of many other cities. It's just that they are far more easily attainable. NBA players can find strip clubs and gambling anywhere, but in Las Vegas, they can pursue their vices of choice out in broad daylight, whether it be sex, money, booze or fighting with another celebrity's posse.

The Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst blogs that, upon arriving in Vegas, he soon realized he wasn't in Kansas anymore. Or L.A., for that matter.

It's only a matter of time before the NBA or NHL figures out a way to break the ice and put a team in Las Vegas. The city is overflowing with money and, with a population of nearly 600,000, is soon to become the largest U.S. city without a major pro sports franchise. But adding Vegas to the major league pro sports scene will likely change how sportsbooks handle their jobs. It might also cause some teams to roll their petty cash accounts over to bail bonds so they can yank players out of the clink in time for a 7 p.m. tipoff.

Flabby, sweaty man love

The charity race between Barkley and NBA ref Dick Bavetta presented me with three things I never want to see again:

A) Bavetta in old-man shorts hiked up to his belly button.

B) Barkley running. Has that man lifted so much as a box of bran flakes since retiring?

C) Bavetta and Barkley punctuating a friendly embrace with a kiss. Now, I have no problem with men who are secure enough in their masculinity that they can express platonic love for each other. Hey, Magic and Isiah, Pudge and Ugueth Urbina, go for it. It's a bold move for a man to kiss another man. Just ask Tim Hardaway.

But flabby Barkley and scrawny, balding Bavetta? Lip to lip? Sorry, but there goes the appetite.

Three-point shootout

Damon Jones being a Cav until further notice, I was actually rooting for him in the three-point shootout, even though I knew he had little chance of winning. I have a feeling I was in the minority among Cavs fans, many of whom wanted to see Jones and his unjustifiably huge ego get stuffed.

The Jones-haters got their wish. He finished fifth out of six contestants and didn't make it out of the first round, scoring 15 of a possible 30 points, which is still way above his season average of 7.2 points per game.

Watching former Cav Jason Kapono win the contest was a pretty nice consolation prize. He went berserk in the final round, tying Mark Price's final-round record of 24 points.

The lowlight of the contest was Gilbert Arenas, who managed 17 points in the championship round. By the final rack, he was so out of contention, he was lobbing one-handed misses at the basket. Way to throw in the towel, Agent Zero. And you wonder why your coach gets mad at you.

Skills competition

LeBron played the skills competition at about three-quarter speed, which is how he has played most of the season, and it cost him.
His skills were just fine. In fact, the only miss he had was his initial jumper. He made his second jumper, nailed all of the required passes on the first try, dribbled flawlessly and still managed to get eliminated in the first round with a time of 35.4 seconds.

Mostly, it was because he was jogging his way through the course. By contrast, Wade defended his skills competition title with a final time of 26.4 seconds, and he wasn't nearly as spot-on with his passes as LeBron.

Anyone who thinks Wade is a better all-around player than LeBron is not watching the same basketball I'm watching this year. But there is no question LeBron is picking and choosing the points at which he truly exerts himself, and it isn't often.

Dunk contest

I've been a consistent critic of the dunk contest over the past several years. I think it's right for LeBron to skip it if he doesn't think it's worth his time. Everything, short of vaulting a moose or implementing a fire ring, has been done.

The dunk contest is the same old derivative, rehashed tricks every year, and more and more, the marquee players are staying away.

That being said, you had to love the historical flair of Boston's Gerald Green. With last year's champion, Nate Robinson, standing just below the free-throw line, Green took off his warmups to reveal a throwback Dee Brown Celtics jersey.

Green then proceeded to vault Robinson, hide his face behind his arm in midair and slam the ball home, a tribute to Brown's signature no-look dunk en route to winning the 1991 contest.

Sure, it was reheated leftovers like every other dunk, but it was presented with artistry and imagination, and -- most importantly -- executed flawlessly. Green upped the ante by adding the vault of Robinson as his own personal touch to contrast Brown's famous dunk.

Compare that with the brutal final-round showing of Robinson himself, who needed 10 attempts to finally land a 360-spin, off-the-backboard dunk. When he finally executed the dunk, it was a weak slam at that.

Olympic figure skaters and gymnasts wish they could get the mulligans Robinson has gotten in the dunk contest the past two years. But this time, even 10 attempts couldn't save the Knicks' 5'-9" guard from defeat.

All this, and the game hasn't even been played yet. Which just goes to prove that, just like the Super Bowl, it's really not about the game at all.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The junkyard bullpen

One thing frustrates me about the Indians above all else.

It's not Eric Wedge. It's not the tight purse strings of Larry Dolan. It's not Jhonny Peralta or Jason Michaels or Casey Blake.

It's the bullpen. More specifically, their junkyard philosophy on building a bullpen.

Friday's sudden retirement of Keith Foulke laid out perfectly the risk involved in how the Dolan-era Indians approach the construction of arguably the most important part of any contending baseball team, and how it flies in the face of the organizational philosophy on building the rest of the team.

When it comes to building an offense and a starting rotation, the Indians' brass is pretty meticulous. They protect their prospects like prized jewels, almost to a fault, opting to give roster spots to has-been Juan Gonzalez and never-will-be Jason Johnson over budding stars Grady Sizemore and Jeremy Sowers the past two years.

This year, it will be Ryan Garko in dry dock as Blake takes over most of the first base duties.

But when it comes to grooming and protecting their bullpen corps, the Indians are far less cautious, and it has really hurt them in two of the past three seasons.

Former Indians GM John Hart had a favorite saying: "Closers grow on trees." He meant that late-inning relief pitchers tend to find their roles by accident, either out of organizational necessity or because they failed as starters.

Hart had a basic point. Jose Mesa was a failed starter who became a dominant closer in 1995 and '96, and has made a career of it since. He'll retire among the all-time saves leaders.

Paul Shuey was an example of the antithesis. A live-armed stud prospect with a filthy splitter, knee-buckling curve and mid-90s fastball who was groomed to be a late-inning fireman, but could never stomach the role enough to become dominant.

In short, building a bullpen is the biggest crap shoot this side of baseball's amateur draft. There is no real right way to do it, and what failed one time could be a rousing success the next time.

But there are ways to enhance your chances of success, and the Indians aren't doing it.

Why would a team jeopardize all the hard work they put into developing hitters and starting pitchers by placing the outcomes of most games in the hands of a clearance-rack bullpen built on the makeshift foundation of injury project players signed to one-year deals?

It was only a matter of time before some rag-armed reliever suddenly hung 'em up after finding that, in the words of Joe DiMaggio, "I said 'Move,' and my body said, 'Who, me?'"

If it wasn't Foulke retiring, it would have been Foulke tearing his elbow to pieces, or Joe Borowski needing shoulder surgery, or 42-year-old Roberto Hernandez saying, "That Foulke guy was right. I'm getting too old for this. I'm done, too."

This is the backbone of you 2007 Indians bullpen, now minus one.

The pressing question from this corner is, if the Indians are so adamant about building an offense and rotation from homegrown pieces, why aren't they as adamant about building a bullpen the same way?

Perhaps GM Mark Shapiro has taken Hart's pet saying a little too much to heart. Yes, any way you build a bullpen is going to be a roll of the dice. But if Shapiro and his staff would invest some time and money in grooming some of those power pitchers in the minors to be late-inning relievers, he might find that the organization can construct a bullpen backbone consisting of a closer and a few setup men that will be intact for three-to-five years. Then Shapiro can fill in around the edges with the one-year bargain signings he annually grabs.

There is nothing wrong with signing a Hernandez or Borowski to fortify a bullpen that already has its central figures in place. But when you start needing over-40 and recently-injured pitchers to absorb the brunt of winning games, that is troubling.

The Indians are loaded with power arms that could make a career out of late-inning relief, or at least get their start there. Fausto Carmona, despite his late-inning misadventures of a year ago, has closer stuff, and might make a fine late-inning reliever if the Indians would properly groom him instead of throwing him to the wolves like they did. Same goes for Jason Davis, who has bounced back and forth between starting and relieving for five years.

On the horizon is lefty Tony Sipp, who many Tribe observers seem to think could be this team's closer one day. If the team properly cultivates his talent, which the Indians don't have a history of doing for relievers.

Danys Baez is perhaps the poster child for the Indians' indecision regarding pitchers. He was both an effective starter and reliever, but the Indians' decision-makers couldn't make up their minds. It took signing with the Devil Rays for Baez to finally find a definite future as a reliever.

This year-to-year parade of Bob Wickmans and Keith Foulkes is growing tiresome. It's time for the Indians to find a longer-term solution for the back of their bullpen. Since that almost certainly isn't going to come from a trade or free agency, it must come from within.

If the Dolan-Shapiro Indians pride themselves on their well-financed farm system, it's time for them to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to the bullpen. If they don't, they risk ruining all the other work they've done to make the other areas of the team competitive.

Keith Foulke retiring?

WTAM and Cleveland.com are reporting this morning that would-be Indians closer Keith Foulke is pulling a Bob Hallen and retiring one day after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

Foulke is 32 and has battled an assortment of injuries over the past couple of seasons. Needless to say, this would significantly alter the Indians' plans for their bullpen this season. Joe Borowski would be the undisputed closer and GM Mark Shapiro might be sent back out into the trade market to look for another veteran reliver.

The Indians signed former White Sox reliever Cliff Pollitte two days ago. Pollitte was a pillar of Chicago's 2005 championship bullpen and can pitch in both middle relief and setup. One has to wonder now if Shapiro signed Pollitte because he heard rumblings about Foulke hanging them up.

Before you start crying in your corn flakes over another unfortunate chapter entered into The Cleveland Experience log, look at it this way: If Foulke is retiring, at least he's doing it in February and not in July with the Indians in the heat of a division race. And if there is any question about his ability to stay healthy this season, it's best that the Indians don't put any stock in him.

But one still has to wonder about the initial psychological blow of losing a former World Series-winning closer on the second day of spring training. Very LeCharles Bentley of him.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Is Carlos Boozer worth it?

How long can you keep it up?

How long can you keep the hatred burning in your belly?

I know Cleveland fans pride themselves on being the elephants of pro sports. They never forget. Once a bitter enemy, always a bitter enemy. And no one deserves to be reviled in Cleveland more than Carlos Boozer.

He said he would stay. He lured us into trusting him. He gave the Cavaliers organization a false sense of security to the extent that they felt comfortable letting him out of his contract. That in of itself was a pretty big mistake, but not even the judgmentally-challenged tandem of Jim Paxson and Gordon Gund would have gambled with a key cog in their team without some kind of reassurance that releasing him from his option year was a safe move.

Turncoat. Benedict Arnold. Scalawag. Backstabber. All of it applies to Boozer, who merrily and unrepentantly cashes his checks in Utah.

And you know what? All the Cleveland rage in the world isn't going to change that. Just like all the rage in the world won't ever make Art Modell sorry he moved the Browns.

So how long are you going to keep your teeth clenched and your fists pumping? How long can you keep your anger at Boozer bottled up, waiting for that one day when you can go to The Q and let that sniveling son-of-a-drip have it?

Because it appears Boozer is willing to play the waiting game, too.

Boozer has played the Cavs a grand total of one time since bolting for Utah, and that likely won't change this year. A broken leg will sideline him for tonight's matchup in Utah and almost certainly will for next month's rematch in Cleveland. If predictions are accurate, Boozer will be 0-for-3 in giving Cleveland fans their shot at revenge.

You keep vowing to give him the most inhospitable welcome any fan base has ever given, bigger than the chorus off boo-birds and projectiles that greeted Albert Belle upon his return to Jacobs Field as a member of the White Sox.

Boozer keeps dodging, always coming up with conveniently-timed rehab appointments that cause him to not be able to travel with the team.

It's no secret that Boozer is trying to let time dull the feelings of betrayal. He saw the Malice at the Palace. he knows what can happen when inebriated, enraged fans meet a vilified player. He doesn't want a beer cup to the noggin, or worse.

So he waits. Eventually, he'll have to suit up and play at The Q. Maybe he really was going to do it this year until his injury. But now he gets to buy some more time before he faces Cleveland's Army of the Incredulous.

This might be a waiting game Boozer can win. Boozer can keep rehabbing and cashing checks, but it's going to be significantly harder for Cleveland fans to maintain their level of rage at him.

So maybe it's time to take the high road and treat Boozer like any other Andrei Kirilenko who comes through The Q. Maybe indifference is the best medicine, like moving on with your life after being dumped.

It's been three years. Boozer is getting his just desserts with a maddening string of injuries that has both hampered his career and caused Jazz management to lose their patience with him. He's also playing for Western Conference team that is thoroughly cemented behind Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio, reducing by miles the chance that we will have to endure another Cleveland backstabber hoisting a championship trophy any time soon.

Meanwhile, the Cavs are in the hunt for the best record in the (albeit far weaker) Eastern Conference.

Let it go. Boozer is a schmuck who just isn't worth the cost of the blood pressure medication it will take to stay mad at him until he finally re-appears for his Cleveland punishment.

The punishment he gets is the constant reminder that he is not, nor will he ever be, the next Karl Malone.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Five questions for the Tribe

Spring training is on the doorstep. No, really, it is. Just don't turn on the weather forecast or look outside, and you'll realize it's OK to mouth the six-letter S-word.

Pitchers and catchers report this week to what will be the Indians' last spring training in Florida. The team will re-locate their February and March home back to Arizona next year, ending a 14-year run in Winter Haven.

This week is the beginning of what could be a make-or-break year for the Tribe.

In the second halves of 2004 and '05, this team proved they can mount a playoff run. Last year, hindered by a clunker of a bullpen, bad defense and inconsistent starting rotation, the Tribe managed to field one of the best offenses in baseball, outscoring their opponents by 88 runs, yet ended up in fourth place of the powerful AL Central with a 78-84 record.

Since the offseason began, GM Mark Shapiro has added another promising young player to the team in Josh Barfield and has fortified the outfield and bullpen with solid, if unspectacular, veterans.

It appears the Indians, with the fortune of good health, should be able to once again field one of the most complete teams in baseball, a team that is superlative at nothing but competent at everything.

As has been the case the past few years, the overall success of the 2007 Indians will hinge on some questions that need satisfactory answers. Below are five of them:

1. Is Eric Wedge the right manager?
The longer Wedge stays as the manager, the less impressive he seems. His teams always find a way to bookend the season on bad notes.

Sluggish Aprils and late-season collapses have become yearly events under Wedge. One year, a lack of hitting is to blame. The next, it's a bad bullpen. Shapiro is to blame for some of that -- in the case of 2006, most of that -- but it's hard to ignore the fact that the common denominator through all of it is Wedge.

Some of his players don't appear to like his leadership style, which seems to bounce back and forth between ineffectual and controlling. It was a major factor in why the Indians underachieved to the extent they did last year.

Wedge and Shapiro have been scolded numerous times for giving the appearance that they are blindly loyal to each other. But that might be starting to change from the front office's standpoint. For the first time since becoming manager in 2003, Wedge has some real pressure on him to perform.

If this team continues to underachieve, Buck Showalter is waiting in the wings. Make no mistake: Showalter, a special assistant to Shapiro, is not a ceremonial hand-shaker and storyteller like Mike Hargrove was during his brief return to Cleveland in 2004. Showalter is on this staff to make Wedge produce results. If Wedge doesn't, Showalter will be chomping at the bit to replace him.

2. Will a closer emerge?
One of the reasons Shapiro went all-out in unsuccessful attempts to land B.J. Ryan and Trevor Hoffman a year ago was because he knew how weak the free agent class for relievers would be this winter.

Alas, Shapiro was outbid for Ryan and couldn't break Hoffman's long-standing ties to San Diego. So he was forced to belly up to the craps table and do some gambling this winter.

The Indians' free agent reliever class of Joe Borowski, Keith Foulke, Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz are loose puzzle pieces right now. Foulke is the career closer who has been sidetracked by injuries the past few years. In a best-case, scenario, he would take the closer's role and hold it all season, allowing everyone else to find their places in setup and middle relief.

In that sense, Foulke is arguably the most important acquisition the Indians made this offseason.

Even if Foulke will never again be the pitcher he was in anchoring the Red Sox's 2004 championship bullpen, he can still close games effectively when healthy. If he is not healthy, the same cascading effect that clobbered the 2004 and '06 bullpens will begin again. Borowski will be forced into the closer's role, depleting the setup corps and forcing other pitchers to pick up the slack.

But at least we know that Borowski can close games, which is a good insurance policy to have. Now if Wedge can just break himself of the habit of riding one or two relievers for huge chunks of the season.

3. Can Jhonny Peralta rebound?
In 2005, Peralta was very nearly the total package. He hit for power, setting a single-season record for homers by an Indians shortstop. He hit for average, he showed good plate discipline and, after a shaky April, was competent defensively. His first full season in the majors earned him a five-year contract extension.

Then 2006 arrived and it all came crashing down: Brutal defense, backsliding offense and an attitude that screamed "I don't have to prove myself anymore."

By midseason, Peralta was becoming the bane of Wedge's existance. He went so far as to openly rip Peralta in the media on several occasions. If you know the company line-embracing Wedge we all do, you know that's way out of character for him.

This year, few players are at a bigger crossroads than Peralta. He is right back where he was at the start of '05, needing to prove himself.

As of right now, the Indians have no real fallback if Peralta stumbles. The backup shortstop is Hector Luna and prospect Asdrubal Cabrera is not ready for prime time. So, much like last year, the Indians have a lot riding on Peralta. Hopefully he comes to spring training ready to play, otherwise the Indians are going to be scrambling for a new shortstop.

4. Is Ryan Garko the real deal?
Garko took the Indians and their fans by storm in the second half of last year. After Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez were both pawned off in midseason, Garko took the first baseman's job and ran with it.

He drove in 45 runs in 50 games and quickly became every Tribe fans' favorite underdog. And his reward for that is ... to likely start the season on the bench.

Few moves this offseason have generated more controversy than the move the Indians haven't officially made yet. As of now, the plan is to platoon Garko with Casey Blake at first. Blake will get the lion's share of at-bats at first base, starting there against right-handed pitchers. Against lefties, Blake will move to right field and Garko will start at first.

Most fans can't believe the potentially-potent bat of Garko will be relegated to part-time duty in favor of giving Blake -- long accused of being a managerial lap dog -- a fulltime gig. But Garko has more control that we might realize.

All Garko has to do is continue to hit the snot out of the ball. If he does that, even the most ardent Blake supporter will concede that Garko needs to be in the lineup every day.

All he has to do is prove himself and keep doing it. What a novel concept, eh, Jhonny?

5. Is Andy Marte the real deal?
He had better be, because if Marte can't stay in the lineup, it's going to mess up a lot of other things for this team.

The Indians committed 100 percent to Marte as their third baseman of the future when they dealt Kevin Kouzmanoff to the Padres for Barfield. You'd like to think that was based more on what Marte has accomplished than what the Indians gave up (and blew up) to get him.

So far, Marte has shown Cleveland fans that he could be a Gold Glover at third. He should also hit for some pretty decent power for a corner infielder. But his ability to get hits is going to determine whether he can become a rock at the hot corner. To that end, there is some work to be done.

Marte hit .226 for the Indians last year, and is a career .204 hitter in parts of two seasons with the Braves and Indians. It's a small sample, too small to really get an accurate gauge. But let's just hope it's growing pains and not an accurate depiction of the type of major-league hitter Marte will be.

If Marte is Brooks Robinson in the field and Russell Branyan at the plate, it's not going to add up to long-term success.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Linemen, please

Far be it from me to give too much credit to a radio sports gabber for being the stone pillar of reason in a field of wildly-swaying wheat, but WTAM's Andre Knott brought up a good point this past weekend.

Why is it that we so quickly and readily change our tunes with regard to building the Browns, when that's exactly what drives 95 percent of our complaints about team management?

Every Autumn Sunday when the Browns are getting their brains beat in, we cry out for the team to draft offensive linemen. Pregame and postgame, incredulous callers jam radio station phone lines every week, exasperated that Browns management is so dense and/or inept not to see that this slow, flabby, injury-prone collection of has-beens is killing the team, and killing any chance of developing a franchise quarterback.

The Browns' offensive line has been so bad in recent years, you'd think our conviction as a fan base would be unwavering. But then the season ends and we don't have to watch the weekly comedy of errors. Then the mock drafts start to appear on Web sites and our mouths start to water at the prospect of nabbing a 6'-6" quarterback with a rocket arm, or a perennial 1,500-yard running back with that high pick.

Then, all of a sudden, that line ... ehh, maybe it can wait after all.

Last week, Tony Lastoria wrote a column in support of not rubber-stamping the Browns' third or fourth overall pick as an offensive lineman, saying this draft is rich enough in quarterback talent that the Browns should seriously consider taking a signal-caller in the first round. Rich Swerbinsky preceded it with a mock draft in which the Browns take Louisiana State's JaMarcus Russell fourth overall.

I certainly agree that it would be a mistake to say the Browns' first pick should be an offensive lineman or bust. There are numerous other needs on the team, among them quarterback, and Russell is arguably one of the best pure QB talents to come out of college since Peyton Manning. And, as Manning has now proven, a star QB can greatly enhance your chances of winning some hardware. If you give him the tools to work with, that is.

If the Browns' line was even mediocre, I could be convinced that someone like Russell or Brady Quinn would be too tempting to pass on with a top-five pick. But the Browns' line isn't mediocre. It's horrendous. It's actually hazardous for a quarterback or running back to play behind that line when the Steelers or Ravens are throwing blitz after blitz at them.

As has been pointed out by other writers, Charlie Frye was tackled several times this season while handing the ball off. That means you could have counted "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi," and before you finished "Three-Mississippi," someone from the other team already had Frye in his clutches. That's scary bad.

Facing those odds, what chance does any quarterback, even a phenom, have to develop and reach his potential?

Right now, without a significantly upgraded and significantly younger offensive line, the Browns will ruin Russell, or Quinn, or Troy Smith, just like they ruined Tim Couch. You can draft any of the above and have him sit on the bench for a year, giving him a benefit Couch never had, but what is he really going to learn as he watches Frye, Derek Anderson or a veteran stopgap get driven into the turf like a lawn dart every week?

The ironic thing is, Quinn and Smith have both expressed a strong desire to play for the Browns because they know they won't be glued to the bench behind an entrenched veteran. It's a quick path to starting and NFL stardom, they think. Be careful what you which for, young charges.

Personally, I think the road to the Super Bowl is littered with enough Chris Chandlers, Neil O'Donnells and Rex Grossmans to make me think that the concept of the cornerstone QB is an overrated one throughout the NFL. Sure, none of those guys actually won the Super Bowl, but Kurt Warner and Tom Brady have. Both those guys came from humble NFL beginnings and were plugged into great systems. Warner was the best QB in football from 1999 to 2001 and Brady might already have his ticket to Canton punched.

Football is a far more interdependent team sport than baseball, which is built around the duel between pitcher and hitter, and basketball, which can be dressed down to the point of one person maneuvering against his or her defender in isolation.

In football, a great quarterback can't be great unless the line is blocking and the receivers are catching. A great receiver can't be great unless the quarterback can get the ball to him, which requires the line to block so the QB has time to deliver the pass. A great running back can't be great unless the line is opening holes and the passing game is working well enough to prevent the opposing defense from stacking eight or nine in the box every play.

That's why one draft pick can't turn the fortunes of your team 180 degrees as it can in the NBA. That's why the whole concept of the "franchise player" in the NFL is very nearly a misnomer.

It might be a bitter pill to swallow if the Browns take Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas or trade the pick down as Russell, Quinn and Smith fall off the board to other teams. But the most bitter pill of all is the fact that none of those talented QBs would have much of an impact if taken by the Browns in their current state.

The Browns offense is built on quicksand. The only way to pour a concrete foundation is to build a great offensive line that can make even a mediocre quarterback look good. And the only way to do that is to spend multiple high draft picks over the span of several years to form it.

Until they do that, they are going to keep producing an endless stream of Tim Couches. And it will be back to the drawing board, every year.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Keeping Shapiro is the right move

Every general manager in professional sports deserves some amount of criticism.

Yes, even the ones with championship-adorned track records that we Clevelanders drool over. The Patriots' Scott Pioli, the Pistons' Joe Dumars, the Braves' John Schuerholz, none of them have been perfect. Darko Milicic over Dwyane Wade, anyone?

They just seem that way because they won titles, and we don't follow the teams every day.

It's something to keep in mind when you give Indians GM Mark Shapiro the third degree for the mistakes he's made.

It's easy to get lost in criticizing Shapiro and all of Indians management. Shapiro hasn't produced a playoff appearance since taking over in November 2001. It's easy to finger the Roberto Alomar trade as a major gaffe. It was. So was relying on Jose Jimenez and Scott Stewart as major pieces of the 2004 bullpen. So was letting Bob Howry walk away to the Cubs without a fight. So was blowing up the re-assembled 2005 bullpen, the American League's best, in a single trade for a player with less than 100 major league at-bats. So was throwing away Brandon Phillips and Bob Wickman for little of consequence.

Shapiro's moves of a year ago killed the 2006 season. Plain and simple. But his moves this winter might have resurrected the Indians in a big way.

That's why, if Shapiro is on the verge of signing a contract extension, I will be thrilled.

Every GM flubs. It's the good ones who figure out ways to rebound quickly. It's the really good ones who can do it while on a short financial leash.

Shapiro is a rebound expert. He never stays down for long. The December 2001 Alomar trade, his first major move as GM, was probably the product of Shapiro trying to announce his arrival with a major splash. It didn't work.

Shapiro quickly found that walking the fence between contending and rebuilding, while attempting to slice payroll, is an exercise in futility. When he committed fulltime to rebuilding, that's when he did the smart thing, using the Tribe's best assets -- their veteran players -- as a resource to compress an entire organizational rebuild down to inside five years.

Instead of letting the entire organization wither on the vine, as the Tigers and Royals of the '80s did, Shapiro took control, and within a year, had Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner in the organization.

When the Jimenez/Stewart experiment didn't work, he was able to turn to a pair of injury reclamation projects, Howry and Scott Sauerbeck, to stabilize the '04 bullpen.

When it became apparent that the '06 season was a wash, he used it as an opportunity to add more players to the farm system with a mini-fire sale.

Though it would be nice to see the Indians make a sizeable splash either through a trade or free-agency, Shapiro doesn't force-feed the big splash into happening as other teams have, and have gone on to regret. If he can get a big-name player for a year, thereby preserving some longterm financial flexibility, he'll do it.

Shapiro brings a businessman's sensibilities to the role of baseball GM. Instead of relying solely on the subjective eyes of scouts, he and the front office devised a computer program to analyze and quantify players statistically. There is no substitute for the trained eye of a talented scout, but computer technology is aimed at helping teams hit for a higher average when it comes to player moves.

Shapiro, who has been in the Indians organization for more than 15 years, understands his team and understands the characteristics and limitations of the Cleveland market. In the end, that might be the most compelling reason to want him here. There might be better GMs in the game, but I doubt Cleveland will find a better fit for its team than Shapiro.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


In Detroit, hockey fans can carry on a conversation using only one word. I found out firsthand on Wednesday night, when the following conversation took place between a shuttle driver and a fan waiting outside Joe Louis Arena:
Fan: Hockeytown?

Driver: Hockeytown, Hockeytown!

Fan: Hockeytown. (To other fans waiting in line behind him) Hockeytown!

The other fans, in response: Hockeytown!

I'll act as translator: Hockeytown is the name of the Detroit sports-themed restaurant across the street from Comerica Park where many arena-goers park and congregate, then take the shuttle to Joe Louis. The fan was asking the driver where the shuttle was headed.

They probably don't have these kinds of conversations in other cities. Not even Toronto or Montreal. Because, in Detroit, as my friend Justin and I found out, Hockeytown isn't just the name of a restaurant or a catchy, self-made moniker. It's an experience, and a fast-fading one at that.

Detroit isn't Baseballtown, even though the Tigers have a history dating to 1901. It isn't Basketballtown, even though the Pistons have handed Detroiters three titles in the past 20 years. It isn't Wolverinetown, even though the sight of a man wearing a Michigan jacket on the Joe Louis scoreboard brought loud cheers from the crowd and -- curiously, to my outsider eyes -- the image of a man in a Michigan State hat brought more than a smattering of boos.

Detroit is Hockeytown. The Red Wings are life. Everything else is a diversion. How do I know? Because when a Detroit fan go to a Lions or Tigers game, they might be just as at home pounding a Dortmunder at the bar or perusing the team shop as they would be in the stands. That's not to say they aren't serious baseball and football fans, but Detroiters, like most fan bases, aren't going to turn their noses up at creature comforts.

When a Detroit fan goes to a Red Wings game, they go to watch hockey. The brats and brews are just sustenance to keep you going so you can watch more hockey. The Red Wings gear, sold at portable stands throughout the concourse, is just a means of keeping warm so you can watch more hockey.

That's another thing. At least 50 percent of the fans at Wednesday's game wore a Red Wings jersey. Sure, there were other fans wearing jackets, sweatshirts and the like, but the clothing of preference was a game sweater bearing the team's winged-wheel logo. Names and numbers, home or road was less important. What was more important was that you were part of the sea of red and white.

Like I said, it's all about the hockey.

Joe Louis Arena is the oldest of the Detroit area's four in-use professional sports facilities, built in 1979. But to look at it, you could easily think it was built in 1949. The arena has no frills, no team shop, no food courts, nothing that resembles a bar. Aside from a few alcoves where they sell of the more-expensive merchandise, just about everything in the concourse during a game is constructed out of portable stands.

The seating bowl is small and is surrounded by one concourse that services both the upper and lower decks. Wikipedia lists the capacity at 20,066 for hockey, but with a low roof and steep incline, it seems almost like a college arena. So much the better during playoff time, when "The Joe," as they call it, has to be deafening.

Joe Louis was built at a time when the Montreal Forum and Boston Garden were still the standard-bearers for NHL arenas. In some respects, it was a facility behind its time, built to the specifications of a fast-passing era. Now, with facilities like Columbus' gem, Nationwide Arena, setting the pace, the pressure is on to give the Red Wings a more modern home with a better sound system, stacks of luxury boxes and all the amenities pro sports teams can now use to get into the wallets of their fans.

Sooner or later, The Joe will pass into history. And with it, one of the few remaining portals to a bygone era of hockey will pass as well. In a very real way, Joe Louis Arena and the entire Hockeytown experience is the old-guard NHL of Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr clinging to the side of the cliff. Progress will eventually win out, but for now, fans of the way hockey used to be have one last chance to see what it must have been like to attend a game at Boston Garden or Chicago Stadium back in the days of the Original Six.

If you want to imagine hockey with no helmets and leather pads, with 20,000 people making a bandbox of a building shake, Joe Louis Arena provides the perfect backdrop for a daydream about yesteryear. In a time of exploding scoreboards and 360-degree LED displays curling around deck facades, Hockeytown is different. Even if you don't like the Red Wings, it's an experience worth rooting for.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Five unorthodox solutions

There is a line out there somewhere for the Cavaliers. I don't know how close they are to it.

It's the line where a streak becomes a trend, where you stop wondering when they are going to pull out of their funk and start worrying that this is the real-deal team.

The Cavs are 27-21 and still very much in the hunt for the best record in the dry-twig-brittle Eastern Conference. But you'd never know it to look at them.

Exasperation, even desperation, appears to be setting in for this team. Mike Brown, usually a man in control of his emotions, is starting to point his finger at the refs on a regular basis, blaming them for their perceived role in the team's recent swoon. LeBron James, meanwhile, is about ready to smack his very valuable head against a wall when it comes to this team's inexplicably bad offense.

"I'm at a loss of words right now offensively, I don't know,'' LeBron said in the Akron Beacon Journal Monday. "We score 100 points one night and the next we score 70.''

The Cavs, a team that has number of offensive weapons, have deteriorated into a mess at that end of the floor. Exhibit A is the contrast between the first and second halves of Sunday's loss to the Pistons. In the first half when the game was close, the Cavs played reasonably well at the offensive end, moving the ball, working it into the post, trying to make the pass that sets up the open shot. Basketball 101, in other words.

Then the Pistons went on a small run to go up 62-55 at the half, and the Cavs completely lost their cool. Disciplined offense was eschewed in favor of kamikaze drives to the basket and horrid hair-trigger jump shooting. No one made any effort to rein in the erratic play, or so it seemed.

That's how a team puts up 78 points two days after reaching the century mark.

So this is where the Cavs are: 27-21 but playing with the confidence and cohesion of a team that is 17-31. Brown's offense is a joke, LeBron is dog tired and Larry Hughes has abandoned his slasher game for jump shots, with painful results.

There are two avenues the Cavs can take to better themselves: Have Danny Ferry make a major deadline trade to bring in some new blood, or make it work with what they have.

Ferry might be able to swing a deal before this month's deadline, but the odds of it being a landscape-changer are slim. That leaves picking up the hood on this buggy and figuring out how to tune up the engine that's already there. It's going to take a bit more creativity than benching Eric Snow and starting Dan Gibson.

Here are five possible solutions that could help the Cavs if Brown and Ferry are willing to think outside the box a little:

1. Hire an offensive assistant now.
Normally shaking up a coaching staff at this time of the year is virtual suicide, and this certainly wouldn't be the best option in February. But maybe it isn't Brown's offensive game plan that is the problem. Maybe it's just the way he's conveying it.

The Cavs have shown in bits and pieces that they can be an effective offensive club. Maybe hiring an assistant coach to come in, re-arrange the pieces a bit and explain it in a new way is the answer.

If they don't do it now, they'd better do it this summer.

2. Make LeBron a post player for now.
LeBron's hops are suffering due to his tired legs, as I have mentioned before. If sitting him isn't a realistic option, maybe Brown and Ferry should look at possibly re-defining LeBron's role for the rest of the season.

LeBron is built like an NFL tight end. He could back down guys like Rasheed Wallace in the post better than anybody else on the Cavs' roster. Turning LeBron into a power forward would take the emphasis off his tired legs and put it on his very large and very capable upper body.

This season, LeBron might be missing the quicks to blow past every wing defender in the league not named Ron Artest. But I bet he still has the quicks to cross up and muscle past the vast majority of big men.

LeBron probably wouldn't like the idea, but someone needs to remind His Kingness that Magic Johnson once won a championship playing center.

3. Turn Larry Hughes into a point guard.
I tend to agree with Brian Windhorst that Dan Gibson is not a long-term solution at point guard. The only thing he does better than Eric Snow is shoot. His passing is even worse than Snow's, and defensively, he was soundly abused by Chauncey Billups on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Hughes is underperforming as a shooting guard. So why not move Hughes to the role of offense-facilitator? It would force him to create the offense instead of constantly looking for his own shot and it would play to his strengths, driving and passing, instead of his well-documented shooting weakness.

Hughes would be far from an ideal point guard, but he has the skills and size to play the position on the NBA level. And does anyone think a backcourt of Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic would be worse than a backcourt of Hughes and Gibson/Snow?

4. Less Marshall, more Pollard.
Everything the Cavs need Donyell Marshall to do, he's not doing, at least consistently. He's not crashing the boards, he's seldom putting the ball on the floor, he's not using the rest of his game to get his three-point shot into a flow. He is just a three-point brickster in desperate need of a diminished role on this team.

So let's see more Scot Pollard. I know his Mohawk makes him a crowd favorite, but he can do far more than just sport crazy hairdos. He'll crash the boards and he'll play tough on defense. And I bet his free-throw line jumper would be far more consistent than Marshall's three-point bombs.

5. Burn a DVD of Sunday's game. Take it with you wherever you go and watch it frequently.
There is no shame in sitting at the feet of the Pistons and learning from them. Just because you almost eliminated them last spring doesn't mean you are yet on equal footing with them. You still have much to learn, young wine and gold grasshoppers.

Watch how smoothly and consistently the Pistons handled themselves at both ends of the floor. If the Cavs made a run, they didn't panic. They stuck to their guns, moved the ball around and patiently waited for the seam or pass that would lead to the open shot.

Defensively, they maintained their spacing and made sure every shot was contested.

Don't get frustrated. Don't be in awe. Just watch and watch, and take notes. That includes you, Mike Brown.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A legendary lineman

Believe it or not, there was a time when Cleveland Browns offensive linemen were known for being more than swinging saloon doors to the backfield.

Long before LeCharles Bentley blew out his knee on the first contact drill of training camp, long before the team bought Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman based on their Super Bowl name recognition and not their actual ability, long before Ross Verba tried to make his life into a movie ("North Dallas Forty" ... or was that "Debbie Does Dallas"?), there was Gene Hickerson.

Hickerson will become the 16th Browns player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer. Like every Brown currently in the Hall, his name harkens back to far better times for the franchise, an era that now only exists in black-and-white photographs and reel-to-reel news film.

As an offensive guard, he was one of the battering rams who helped Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly become the gold-standard rushers of the 1960s. He helped form the wall that allowed quarterback Frank Ryan lead the Browns to the 1964 NFL title, Cleveland's last in a major sport.

Hickerson did it all largely out of the spotlight. You might think current NFL offensive linemen do thankless Yeoman work. Hickerson did his work with remarkable consistency in an era when the pay was part-time and players couldn't lean on massage therapists and whirlpools that grade out as high-powered Jacuzzis.

And he did it for 15 years from 1958 to '73, missing only the 1961 season with a broken leg. His ability to last so long at arguably the most physically grueling of all NFL positions draws comparisons to another 2007 Hall of Fame inductee, Bruce Matthews.

In many ways, Hickerson is one of the great perseverance stories in football. A seventh-round draft pick out of Ole Miss, his presence as a fixture on the Browns offensive line was hardly etched in stone. He worked his way up from obscurity to six straight Pro Bowl selections from 1966-71.

in 1971, at the tail end of his career, when most players are entrenched in their ways, Hickerson accepted a move from right guard -- where he had played his entire career to that point -- to left guard.

Though he was one of the best offensive linemen of his era, enshrinement in Canton eluded him for many years. Despite campaigning by many of his former Cleveland teammates, including Brown and Kelly, Hickerson had to wait 34 years from the end of his career to finally enter the Hall.

It was a long time in coming. Hickerson's omission from Canton was one of the most glaring in any sports hall of fame.

Should the Browns draft Wisconsin's Joe Thomas or any other offensive lineman this spring, he would be wise to educate himself on the career of Hickerson. Not so he can learn to bleed brown and orange necessarily, but so he can learn about the traits that can make an ordinary lineman into a legend.

Friday, February 02, 2007

LeBron needs to sit

LeBron ... oh, how do I put this tactfully...

We still love you, LB. I mean, you know that, right? You have almost singlehandedly resurrected Cleveland basketball. Fans that wouldn't have known Lamond Murray from Eddie Murray in a previous era now follow the team, wear the gear and proudly sport Anderson Varejao wigs at games.

There is so much good you've done for this team and this entire region. And I believe the best is yet to come.

But right now, Mr. James, you're killing us.

For the good of the team and for yourself, take some time off.

It's hard to believe that LeBron's presence and wins have become mutually exclusive over the past two weeks.

Since returning from their West Coast trip, the Cavs are 0-4 when LeBron plays, 2-0 when he doesn't. The frustrating part is that it's no coincidence.

LeBron's injured toe and more than 15 straight months of virtually nonstop high-level basketball have conspired to wear down his legs, where his celebrated explosiveness originates. Not to mention his jump shot.

In Thursday night's fourth-quarter collapse against the equally-as-struggling Heat, Dwyane Wade gave us a reference point for how far LeBron has fallen from a year ago.

In the fourth quarter, the Heat simply gave the ball to Wade up top on most possessions and let him go to work. Whether he was stopping and popping or driving to the hoop, every possession resulted in Wade either scoring, getting fouled or both.

He was unstoppable, a one-man wrecking crew wearing away Cleveland's resolve on defense. Like LeBron would do to opponents last year, when he led the league in continuation fouls.

This year, LeBron lacks the explosiveness to fight through five defenders and get to the bucket. He's getting stopped short, which almost never happened a year ago. He's still drawing fouls and getting to the line, but his legs are also killing his free-throw percentage.

LeBron's free-throw woes directly contributed to last week's double-overtime loss to Philadelphia and Thursday's loss to Miami, where he was 3-of-8 from the stripe, including a pair of critical missed free throws with less than two minutes to play.

I think it's becoming psychological with him, like a pitcher who can't throw strikes.

LeBron is playing at about 70 to 75 percent of what he was a year ago. Right now, he is not capable of taking over games in the fourth quarter. The trouble is, because he is LeBron, his teammates and his coach will always look to him with the game on the line, even when it's apparent he is a Ferrari with two flat tires by the time the fourth quarter clock ticks inside two minutes.

LeBron is out there giving it the ol' college try, something he shouldn't be doing in early February. It's terrible to see LeBron out there simply trying to do his best if this is the best he can do.

His free time offers him no respite. Later this month, when his teammates will get a chance to recuperate over the all-star break, LeBron will be participating in the skills competition and the game itself.

In other words, an extended period of rest is going to be a rumor to LeBron until the season ends. Even then, all his off-the-court activities will kick into full gear.

With that in mind, it's time for Mike Brown and Danny Ferry to step in and sit LeBron. Deactivate him and resist the temptation to put him in for about two weeks, then re-evaluate his condition.

Do it now, before his injured toe turns into a injured foot and an injured leg.

The bright lights of national TV will try to lure LeBron back. But the game-on, game-off pattern of the past four contests is a cop-out. He gets no real rest that way. Even when ABC and TNT slather his image all over game promos, even when the possibility of a scoring duel with Wade beckons, Brown and Ferry need to remain steadfast.

LeBron needs rest, desperately. His teammates need to learn to stop using him as a crutch. When he's been out of action, the Cavs have played fundamentally-sound five man basketball because they have to. When LeBron is out there, it's right back to placing all your eggs into a basket with faulty wheels.
The Cavs can emerge from this as a stronger team. But only if Cavs management can come to the necessary but highly unpopular decision to sit their marquee player for some real recovery time.

Do it now. Before LeBron's exhausted legs cost him and his team far more than a few midseason games.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why I wouldn't want to be a race horse

Look at the life of a thoroughbred race horse. I mean, look at it.

Earthly kings wish they were this destined for greatness upon birth. Even before birth.

Your mother and father are handpicked for their genetic superiority. From the get-go, you already know that you are going to be bigger, stronger and faster than ol' Trigger out on the range. Your coat is going to be shiny and lush. The hitch in your gait is going to be tap-dance perfect.

People will be awed just by looking at how physically perfect you are.

From very early in your life, your every need will be attended to. Once you leave your equine mother, an army of human mothers and fathers will brush you, bathe you, feed you and speak snoogy-boogy baby language to you while they scrape the dirt off your hoofs.

And while humans generally have to wait decades to fulfill their potential, you can become a legend in less time than it will take for the Olympic torch to travel from Athens to Beijing.

By year three, you have matured into a breathtaking specimen. You are eligible to compete in the three most prestigious races in the world: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

In the span of one race you can go from handsome nobody to beloved somebody. In the span of three races, you can go from beloved somebody to cherished legend.

Just win 'em all, and nobody will forget you. Ever.

Then, it's off to stud, where your sole job for the rest of your life will be to sire offspring. Eat, sleep, sex. Until you die.

What's not to love?

Well, nothing. Until something goes horribly wrong, that is.

The sad case of Barbaro sheds some light on the bottom line-driven underbelly of the horse racing industry. The reigning Kentucky Derby champion didn't live to see this year's race. He was euthanized earlier this week after a long battle attempting to recover from a gruesome leg injury suffered just out of the gates in last year's Preakness.

The real tragedy is not when he died or even that he died. The real tragedy is why he died.

At the end, Barbaro might have been put down in order to stop his suffering. The added weight on his non-injured limbs caused laminitis, a condition that causes deterioration of the hoof. Eventually, all four limbs were affected.

But laminitis didn't kill Barbaro. In an age where human prosthesis limbs can contain robotic parts, I find it hard to believe that the armada of doctors and scientists available to try and save the life of a Kentucky Derby champion couldn't have produced something to make Barbaro's limbs serviceable enough to at least live on.

The truth is, Barbaro died because he couldn't earn his keep.

When a horse is retired to stud, he basically becomes nothing more than reproductive organs with a body attached. Sure, they still brush him and feed him and speak baby talk to him, but if he can't naturally mount a mare, sire a foal and pass on his genes to a new generation of potential Triple Crown thoroughbreds, his value is virtually nil.

With two bad hind legs, Barbaro's siring ability was ruined. It sounds cold and heartless, but to the people who pay millions to breed and train these horses, it's not worth it to pay the money to feed, outfit and look after a horse if he's going to do nothing for it.

And so, a magnificent beast met an untimely end.

The decision to end Barbaro's life might have been a humane one, but that was only a positive byproduct of the real reason.

Money killed Barbaro. More specifically, the money he wasn't going to be able to make his handlers in thoroughbred offspring.

Sire or die. If there is a more compelling reason to not want to be a race horse, I haven't found it yet.