Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Tribe's ten most wanted

In team sports, you're supposed to win and lose as just that -- a team. No one takes all the credit when times are good, and no one shoulders all the blame when times are bad.

If you can't give the Indians offense credit for anything else this year, you can at least give them credit for that. They are most definitely losing as a team. The bullpen is a close second in the "suck for one and suck for all" department.

But even within the throng of low batting averages and smattering of high ERAs, there are a number of exceptional offenders, the ringleaders whose poor performances are conspiring to put the Tribe's '08 season in cement shoes at the bottom of the Cuyahoga River.

For these guys, reaction should be swift and corrective measures decisive. With June arriving at the start of the week and the White Sox heating up, time is running short. The roles these players fill are too important to keep wasting at-bats and innings on their struggles. To save the season, either they're going to have to shape up, or Eric Wedge and Mark Shapiro are going to have to lock them up and throw away the key, as they did with Cliff Lee a year ago.

Here are the 10 biggest offenders this season.

10. Joe Borowski

CHARGE: Driving 80 in a 95 zone

JoBo sought treatment for his waning fastball, and converted his first save situation since re-emerging from the rehab abyss. That corrective measure saved him at least three or four spots on this countdown. But it wasn't enough to get him completely off the hook.

The mere fact that the Indians wasted all of spring training and the first few weeks of the season waiting to see if JoBo's 82-mph fastball would miraculously improve doesn't speak well for the organization's judgment or Borowski's accountability.

VERDICT: He stays as the closer. He's the best option available. With beer goggles -- OK, maybe whiskey goggles -- he might look even better.

9. Franklin Gutierrez

CHARGE: Playing defense like Ben Wallace. Playing offense like him, too

There is no question Gutierrez is an exceptional athlete. He can cover ground with the best of them in right field, and his arm isn't too shabby, either.

Unfortunately, for a club in the beef-before-speed American League, Gutierrez plays like a displaced center fielder. Which, when you get right down to it, he is.

VERDICT: If he were a center fielder playing between two 40-homer guys, his offensive shortcomings could be overlooked. As a right fielder, his game screams "late-inning defensive replacement." He probably has a nice career ahead of him ... as a fourth outfielder.

8. Andy Marte

CHARGE: Felony hype

Maybe he isn't being played enough. Or maybe two winters ago the Red Sox sold the Indians a bill of goods after the Braves sold the Red Sox a bill of goods. Whatever the case, Marte looks overmatched as a major league third baseman.

As long as Wedge insists on playing Casey Blake and Shapiro insists on keeping Marte on the roster, third base is going to be a jumbled mess.

VERDICT: Sentenced to six months of hard time, to be served in mothballs.

7. Casey Blake

CHARGES: Being an excellent teammate, a great clubhouse presence and giving it 110 percent every time he steps between the white lines

A guy this awesome shouldn't be hitting .216 with three homers near the end of May.

VERDICT: Sentenced to six months of community service helping little old ladies cross the street.

6. Asdrubal Cabrera

CHARGE: Attempting to legally change his surname to Mendoza

Unfortunately, his .184 batting average through Wednesday means he's looking up at the Mendoza line. We probably saw a drop in offensive production coming from Cabrera. No one is confusing him with a late-90s Omar Vizquel, except maybe in the field. But when Mike Rouse can point and laugh at your batting average, that's sad.

VERDICT: A shuffle off to Buffalo appears inevitable.

5. David Dellucci

CHARGE: Taking advantage of a general manager's weaknesses

How dare you, David Dellucci! You knew Mark Shapiro had no willpower! You knew you had the grit and hustle and not-talented-enough-to-be-arrogant appeal to make Shapiro and Eric Wedge swoon.

You are a grinder, Dellucci. And knowing that, you flaunted your grinderous grinderosity in front of Shapiro and Wedge. Shapiro couldn't resist. He gave you a multiyear contract. Now Wedge is hopelessly lost in your gaze, drooling over your ability to wring every last ounce of game out of your limited frame.

Oh, you are one slick .227-hitting grinder, Dellucci. If Trot Nixon were as slick as you, he'd still be here tossing pies.

VERDICT: Can I go throw up now?

4. Jhonny Peralta

CHARGE: Providing false statistics

He has 11 home runs. Somehow that is indicative of just 19 RBI and a .225 batting average as of Thursday. Peralta has made a career so far of taking big-swing gambles. But if a 30-homer season yields less than 60 RBI -- as Peralta is on pace for now -- it sure doesn't say a lot for his hitting approach.

VERDICT: I could ask the Tribe to banish him to the trading block, but Peralta could bounce back with .290 and 85 RBI next year. So it's probably best to hang onto him until you can sell high.

3. Ryan Garko

CHARGE: Strike zone amnesia

Maybe Garko needs to see Peralta's much-publicized Lasik doctors. Somewhere between last year and this year, Garko forgot how to identify a pitch as a strike, which is generally the barometer that tells a hitter whether or not to swing at said pitch.

Like Pronk Lite, Garko has morphed from a disciplined hitter to a hacker, getting himself out by taking fruitless rips at letter-high fastballs and sliders two feet off the plate. Hitters like that are a pitcher's best friend. They get themselves out.

VREDICT: He's already getting his punishment, losing at-bats to light-hitting but better-fielding Michael Aubrey.

2. Rafael Betancourt

CHARGE: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

At least the '08 bullpen isn't quite the mine field the '06 version was. Rafael Perez and Masa Kobayashi have provided a serviceable tandem to get games from the starter to Borowski.

But the part that is struggling is big. It's Senor Slo-Mo himself, Rafael Betancourt, who was toting a 5.56 ERA as of Thursday.

Betancourt was supposed to be the workhorse of the bullpen, the tried-and-true setup man who could work two stellar innings today, then come back tomorrow and wriggle out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam. But so far, all Betancourt has delivered with any regularity is disappointment.

Though there are positives to the Tribe's bullpen, a struggling Betancourt hinders the late-inning relief situation in no small measure.

VERDICT: Some time in long relief should take some pressure of Betancourt. If not, there is always the DL stint-rehab appearances approach.

1. Travis Hafner

CHARGE: Impersonating a designated hitter

Hafner is flat-out killing the offense. He knows it, everyone in the Tribe organization knows it, and the fans sure as heck know it. On the heels of a fat contract extension, Hafner has turned from a beast-like combination of Jim Thome's power and John Olerud's bat control to Dave Kingman, minus the home runs.

Whispers of steroid abuse are fluttering around the Internet. Whether you subscribe to conventional explanations or fancy yourself more of a conspiracy theorist, the bottom line is this: Hafner has an arthritic right elbow, and ongoing shoulder problems in the same arm. The injuries have slowed his swing, compromised his power and apparently disturbed his once laser-accurate hitting eye.

Hafner still shows flashes of the type of hitter he was from 2004 to '06, but they are few and far between. And the Indians, who put so much stock in Hafner's ability to be the guy who could carry their offense for the next five years, are feeling the pain in a big way.

VERDICT: Shut him down, send him soul-searching, whatever you need to do to give him every chance to get healthy and get his confidence back. Because the Indians are stuck with him and that massive contract.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Standing still

There is a common belief in sports, business, or any other competitive, performance-driven endeavor that says, "If you aren't getting better, you're getting worse."

Excellence is a matter of constant maintenance. No person or organization that aspires to greatness stands pat and assumes that they've carved a toe hold on the mountain of success, a floor which they will not sink beneath.

We've seen it with Tiger Woods, an obsessive competitor who has repeatedly remade his swing in an attempt to eradicate any flaw. We've seen it with Michael Jordan in his later career, perfecting a fall-away jumper after he returned from minor league baseball a step slower. Those two athletes, possibly the greatest players their respective sports have ever seen, are the ones who could be excused before all else if they decided to coast a bit here and there. But Woods never does. Jordan never did. They don't because they know standing still is competitive suicide.

Indians GM Mark Shapiro is apparently taking a different approach. One that embraces the belief that a baseball team, like fine wine, needs time to age, time for chemical reactions to take place and molecules to find their proper places so that, by the time you pop the cork on that vintage Merlot, it has reached its full flavor potential.

But it only takes a quick glance at the Tribe's offensive statistics to come to the conclusion that so far, Shapiro only has a Thermos full of grape juice to work with.

When it became apparent earlier this season that the offense was going to become a long-standing problem, Shapiro said he wanted his team to "heal itself from within." That could be interpreted many ways. Does he want the farm system to ride to the rescue the way they did lat year? So far, Ben Francisco, and possibly Michael Aubrey, have been the only bright spots delivered to the lineup from Buffalo.

Does he want struggling established players like Travis Hafner, Ryan Garko and Casey Blake to look deep inside themselves to find the reasons why they seem to strike out at every single RBI opportunity? So far, soul searching hasn't led to any enlightenment.

Does he want more coaching from the coaches? Does he want more managing from Eric Wedge? The Internet lynch mobs that want to ride Wedge and hitting coach Derek Shelton out of town on a rail would seem to indicate that's not working so well either.

Any way you slice it, when you're hitting .231 as a team, when you went more than six weeks without a homer from your cleanup spot, when seven players who could be classified as "regulars" are hitting below .220, telling your team that it needs to heal itself from within seems like a load of mumbo-jumbo from a GM who is trying futily to defense his decision to add no firepower to his offense this winter.

In sports, general managers are paid to be, to an extent, cynical. They're paid to believe that the offense that was mashing the ball last September could end up swinging balsa wood the following spring. They're paid to believe that last year's lights-out bullpen could be this year's gasoline-soaked rag. They're paid to to protect their roster by not letting players out of their contracts on a wink-and-nudge agreement (ahem, Jim Paxson).

GMs are supposed to think that way because they're supposed to be prepared and have ready-made contingency plans. It might not be fair to demand that Shapiro have looked into his crystal ball during the offseason and see an offense with a mean batting average dipping dangerously close to the Mendoza line, but it is fair to demand that he relentlessly seek out avenues through which to improve his team, even if he's satisfied with where they are, as he likely was over the winter.

But where would he play anyone he acquired, you ask? That's a valid question. The Indians already had a depth chart pretty well stacked as the team headed into the '08 season. They had a number of sizable contract commitments and were understandably reluctant to add more salary burden this winter.

But Shapiro should have been able to look at his roster and see the limited potential of historically part-time players like David Dellucci and Jason Michaels, the inexperience of Franklin Gutierrez, Asdrubal Cabrera and Ryan Garko, the advancing age of Casey Blake, the unrealized potential of Andy Marte, the vicious all-or-nothing swings of Jhonny Peralta and Hafner's shocking drop in production, and see developing trouble.

At this point, anyone hitting better than .250 would easily be able to take at-bats away from a number of those players. At this point, those players don't exist for the Indians unless they develop as part of the healing-from-within process.

It appears that Shapiro elected to assume that the clutch-RBI, walk-off homer prowess his club displayed late last season market the turning of a corner, the proverbial light bulb switching on and propelling his offense to elite status. What he should have assumed was that the '07 Indians caught lightning in a bottle (Two walk-off homers from Casey Blake in one week? Seriously?) and would need help to produce like that again in '08.

As a result, Shapiro stood still in the offseason, figuring the rest of the league, sans Boston, had to do all the work to catch up to his team. As of Sunday night, 10 of the 13 other American League teams have not only caught up to the 23-27 Indians, but passed them in the standings, including the entire AL East.

If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. It's a notion that Shapiro challenged this winter, and Shapiro, like his team, is losing.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Internet update

I received a letter from Zaremba Friday afternoon, notifying residents that control of the cable and Internet service at Zaremba properties will shift to Cox as of this coming Wednesday, May 28. So with any luck, Internet service will be available in my apartment by middle-to-late next week, depending on how fast I get a new modem.

I'm hoping to get new sports-related content posted over the Memorial Day weekend. In the meantime, go here to get my thoughts on the end of the Cavs season, and what the summer holds for the team.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Internet is out

Here is a note to apologize for what is shaping up to be a period of sporadic/infrequent posting as the owners of my apartment complex transfer from one cable and Internet provider to another.

The Internet and cable went out at my complex last Wednesday night, right at about halftime of Cavs-Celtics Game 5, and it apparently triggered an Armageddon battle between the cable and Internet company (Northern Ohio Broadband) and the apartment management group (Zaremba).

The cable came back on, at least partly, late Wednesday. Many stations have sound but no picture, some have a "contact customer service" line at the bottom (including SportsTime Ohio, meaning no Tribe games.) Some are just frozen images from sometime last week.

Meanwhile, I'm working on five days with no Internet access in my apartment.

A pre-emptive phone message on Northern Ohio Broadband's answering service Friday acknowledged the problems with cable and Internet, then accused Zaremba of being at fault because they allegedly wouldn't let Northern Ohio Broadband's techies have access to their equipment to fix it. They asked apartment residents to contact Zaremba directly and put pressure on them.

Zaremba sent out a flier Friday announcing that the properties would be switching to Cox "in the near future." To which I say, the Olympics will also be occurring in the near future. That doesn't mean I want to wait until August to get my Internet back.

So we have a cable company that wants residents to get involved and take sides because apparently the two entities can't play nice, get along and provide the service we're paying them to provide, and we have an apartment management company that is promising new, better cable and Internet service on an ambiguous, indefinite timeline that might or might not include the 12th of Never. But we'll be really happy when we get the new service, they assure us.

This has to be the messiest utility transition in recorded history. The residents should get some kind of refund or price break out of this for our inconvenience from somebody, but I think I'd be wise to not hold my breath on that one.

Anyway, that's why I don't have my homework today, Mr. Teacher. The cable company ate it, with an assist from the company that cashes my rent check each month.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The big trade revisited

It's kind of hard to believe that less than three months separate us from the date on which Danny Ferry blew up half the Cavaliers roster. It was Feb. 21, the NBA trade deadline, and Ferry was under pressure to improve a roster that had likely topped out its potential. Good, but not great.

After the trade, fans expected to see a rejuvenated Cavs club free of the masonry work of Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall, free of the space cadet antics of Drew Gooden, free of having a roster rounded out with miscellaneous, non-contributing flotsam like Shannon Brown and Cedric Simmons.

It didn't quite work out that way for the remainder of the regular season. The rebuilt Cavs, with Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace and Joe Smith on board, sputtered to the finish line with a .500 post-trade record that had fans ready to write this team off as first-round dog meat in the playoffs, which would have meant another trip back to the ol' drawing board for Ferry.

But even though the Cavs made postseason life a lot harder on themselves by winning a mere 45 games during the just-completed regular season, trades like February's aren't made with an eye toward the regular season. They're made to pay off in the playoffs.

Results were inconclusive in the Washington series. Wallace and Smith had their moments, but then again, so did Gooden and Hughes in previous playoff runs. Szczerbiak was sterling in the Game 2 blowout, but didn't do a whole heck of a lot the rest of the series. West proved himself to be a competent ball handler and he clinched Game 4 with the biggest shot of his career so far, but that didn't mean anyone was going to confuse him with Chris Paul or Tony Parker.

The Cavs didn't need many big contributions from their new guys against Washington, mainly because the Wizards couldn't have solved LeBron James with a slide rule, Stephen Hawking's brain or any other study aid.

The Wizards were purely and simply incapable of stopping LeBron long enough for it to make a difference in the series. It was, is, and probably will continue to be that way for as long as LeBron repeatedly meets Gilbert Arenas and Co. in the postseason.

Against Boston, different story. And it's under these pressure cooker circumstances that we are starting to see what Ferry likely envisioned when he made the trade.

Boston's defense has vexed LeBron more than any defense he's yet faced in postseason play, aside from the clamp job done by the Spurs in last year's Finals, which was aided by LeBron's fatigue from almost singlehandedly carrying the Cavs past the Pistons in the conference finals.

In four games, LeBron has topped out at 21 points in Games 2, 3 and 4, on 25, 31 and 35 percent shooting, respectively. For most players, three 21-point efforts would be fantastic. For LeBron, it's a stunning drop in production. Only in Game 4's 88-77 victory did he look anywhere close to in control of his game, attacking the rim and not settling for outside jumpers as he did in the first three games.

LeBron hasn't been neutralized -- that might be nearly impossible for an opposing defense to accomplish -- but the Celtics' staunch defense diluted his effect on particularly the first three games of the series. Even in Game 4, he was a mere 7-for-20 from the floor.

Yet the Cavs are right back in the series with a chance to pull ahead if they can finally get the Celtics to trip up at home on Wednesday night. In previous years, a confounded LeBron likely meant a Cavs loss. But this edition of the Cavs is showing things we didn't see at the end of the regular season. This Cavs team can find ways around a defense that is stuffing LeBron, thanks in no small measure to the new guys, who have given this team different ways to produce points at the offensive end, and stops at the defensive end.

Maybe a second star player to pair with LeBron is what is truly standing between the Cavs and a playoff run that doesn't seem like so much of an uphill battle. But there is something to be said for a battalion of serviceable role players surrounding your superstar.

Keep in mind that a year ago at this time, Mike Brown was relying on Sasha Pavlovic, Eric Snow and Hughes to shoulder the bulk of backcourt minutes. This year, it's West, Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson, who didn't really appear on the radar in a big way until the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago.

Pavlovic plays good defense sometimes. He shoots the ball well sometimes. He drives to the hoop and gets blocked sometimes. And now, though he is fully recovered from an ankle sprain, he's only playing sometimes.

Snow's career was close to being over a year ago. Now it appears a lingering knee injury will indeed end his career. Hughes' shooting woes have been documented ad nauseum. If he wasn't playing defense at a high level, he wasn't contributing.

Contrast that with the new members of the current trio. While West hasn't been totally consistent (He flat-out stunk in the first two games in Boston, but what Cav didn't?), he already has a game-winning shot to his credit in the playoffs, and he bounced back from his Boston woes with 21 points in Game 3. He also has an ability to penetrate and create inside, not the strong suit of any previous Cavs point guard in the LeBron Era.

Szczerbiak has had games of 13, 13, 14 and 16 against Boston thus far, including seven three-pointers. It's not great production, but it's consistent, and a far cry from Hughes or Pavlovic following up a 14-point game with a four-point game on 2-for-14 shooting.

The big men, Wallace and Smith, haven't put up great numbers on most nights, but as seasoned veterans, they have shown they know how to step up their games in crunch time. Smith, in particular, had a marvelous stretch in Games 3 and 4, knocking down clutch jumpers and grabbing big rebounds, including a board that helped to seal Game 4.

The best part about the quartet Ferry acquired? They all have a place on the floor in the fourth quarter. Certainly, Brown has to be wary of opposing teams resorting to "Hack-a-Ben" in an attempt to send the historically-putrid free throw shooter to the line late in games, but unlike Gooden, Hughes or Marshall, Wallace doesn't disappear late in games. When healthy, he can still contribute with some degree of defense and rebounding, meaning Brown can at least have him as an option.

In previous years, Brown had to ride it out with LeBron, Gibson, Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and maybe one or two other hot hands as the small band he count count on in the clutch. Now, Brown can go nine or 10 deep on the bench with late-game options.

Say what you will about Brown's competency as a late-game lineup manager, but it makes a coach's job a lot easier when he knows he has multiple lineup options available at winning time. It has certainly helped the Cavs get back into the series.

The Cavs are still fighting an uphill battle to go deep into this postseason. That course was set long before the playoffs began. But the longer the Cavs endure in the playoffs, and the more intense the competition gets, the better Ferry's late-season, trade-deadline gamble looks.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Assorted thoughts prior to Game 3

Game 3 of the Celtics-Cavaliers series will tip at just after 8 p.m. tonight. Obviously, this game and Monday's game are must-wins for the Cavs to even have a shot. Go down 3-0 or 3-1, and the offseason will arrive on Cleveland's doorstep.

I'm torn, to be honest. On one hand, this series isn't over. On the other hand, getting unceremoniously dropped by the Celtics in four or five games would send a message to Danny Ferry and Cavs management that they, in no uncertain terms, have to be very proactive in improving the team this summer.

Of course my first choice is for the Cavs to do what they did against the Pistons a year ago and win four straight, gaining an avalanche of momentum in the process. But I also know that this Celtics team is probably better than the Pistons have ever been at any point during the past five years, their 2004 title included. That's really saying something. Boston has star power that is unmatched in the NBA and is capable of dominating games at both ends of the floor.

So the stark reality is that the Cavs, no matter how good they play the rest of the way, are going to have an extremely difficult time winning four of the next five from Boston. Even if they do, the winner of the Detroit-Orlando series awaits in the East finals. If the Cavs somehow won that series, a titan of the West would await in the NBA Finals.

In short, the Cavs ain't winning a title this year. Generally, teams that win 45 regular season games don't win titles. Which brings me to my first point:

1. Want to win a title? Win more games between November and April.

The common opinion among fans and media is that the NBA regular season is meaningless. Sixteen of 30 teams qualify for the playoffs, which can drag on for more than two months, so it would appear that the five and one-half month, 82-game march called the regular season is nothing more than a wintertime diversion meant to line the league's pockets with dough.

The part about lining the league's pockets is true. But the idea that good teams can just develop a "wake me when the playoffs start" mentality is entirely false. I'd venture to say home advantage is more important in the NBA than in any other league.

I can't put my finger on an overarching reason why, but the knowledge that you're going to play the first two games of a series at home, in front of a loud home crowd, shooting at rims that you've been shooting at all season, seems to put the team with homecourt advantage on firmer footing than the team that has to go into a hostile road arena and try to win one of the first two.

The home teams won the first 10 games of the second round, so there must be some validity to that argument.

In a nutshell, the Cavs, for a variety of reasons, some of which were beyond their control as an organization, didn't win enough games during the regular season to penetrate deep into the playoffs. To beat Boston without homecourt advantage, then try to beat Detroit or Orlando without homecourt if they should somehow squeak past the Celtics, it all seems like too much to ask.

But if we're talking about a Cavs team with homecourt advantage against the likes of the Celtics, Pistons and Magic, suddenly it doesn't seem like as daunting of a task.

It would seem that if a team wants to realistically have a shot to win a title, it had better win between 55 and 60 games during the regular season, minimum. With the contracts Danny Ferry will have to trade this summer, it would seem like the Cavs will finally have a shot to win 55 or 60 games next year with the right roster moves this summer.

2. The Knicks (yes, the Knicks) are making me nervous.

In speaking of roster moves this summer, the New York Knicks could be a team to watch, and that concerns me.

No, it doesn't have anything to do with maneuvering to capture LeBron in two years. It has everything to do with the desperate Knicks trying to emulate the Celtics' stunning turnaround.

Saturday, the Knicks reportedly hired Mike D'Antoni as their new coach. The Suns cut him loose in what I think will end up being a very short-sighted move in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. D'Antoni will take his high-flying offense act to New York in an attempt to revive the flatlining Knicks.

That alone doesn't scare me. But the ramifications for the summer do.

The Knicks, like the Cavs, will have a small fortune in expiring deals to trade this summer. They still have plenty of heavy contracts weighing them down for the next couple of years, but the deals of Stephon Marbury ($19 million this year), Jerome James (nearly $6 million) and Malik Rose ($7 million) could all potentially enter their final years this summer, making them all-too-valuable expiring contracts the Knicks can use in trades.

Normally, it might be the safest and smartest route for a Nowheresville franchise like the Knicks to simply let those contracts come off the books after next season (or this season -- Marbury has an early termination option), regain some financial flexibility and attempt to rebuild through the draft. But the Knicks just watched the arch-rival Celtics acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, subsequently performing the biggest one-season turnaround in league history, going from a 24-win dreg to a 66-win title favorite in one year.

Knicks management might be looking at the Celtics and figuring "That could be us next year." The fact that they've reportedly brought in D'Antoni and his exciting brand of basketball seems to indicate that they're not expecting to sit around and wait for LeBron or anybody else to land in their lap.

How does this affect the Cavs? The Knicks and Cavs might set their sights on many of the same players this summer, and man, would it suck to head out onto the trade market and get leapfrogged for the likes of Michael Redd by the Knicks. Especially as the Cavs are trying to convince LeBron that the Knicks are a team he shouldn't want to play for.

If the Knicks emerge from the offseason in better shape than the Cavs, there will be a lot of justifiably angry Cleveland fans out there.

3. The charade known as Mike Brown's offense has to end after this season.

Mike Brown has been given three years to come up with an offense that works. It hasn't happened. The total blame doesn't rest on his shoulders because Ferry hasn't acquired a real point guard or a star-caliber compliment for LeBron. But even without an elite sidekick or a "pure" point guard, you'd still probably think Brown could find more creative ways to utilize the game's greatest all-around offensive player.

Instead, the offense frequently grinds to a halt as LeBron is left dribbling the ball at the top of the key. He's the starter, finisher, facilitator, he has to create his own shots and the shots for his teammates. Of course, he's a superstar and the team leader, so he should be expected to do most of the heavy lifting. But Brown's so called offensive "coaching" seems to say "LeBron knows more about offense than me, so let's just put the ball in his hands and let him do his thing."

If LeBron or Brown stumble into something that works, the Cavs will inexplicably stop doing it five minutes later, kind of like when Bartolo Colon used to blow batters away with fastballs in the first inning, then come out throwing curveballs in the second inning.

The offense is disjointed, frequently stagnant and totally unimaginative. Brown rightly preaches defense as the path to a title, but the lack of a workable offense is a disservice to LeBron and a definite factor in the Cavs' inability to reach the 55-to-60 win plateau.

Offense and defense can coexist. The Celtics are proving that right before the Cavs' eyes. Heck, Gregg Popovich, the Yoda to the young Jedi knights of Ferry and Brown, has harmoniously balanced offense and defense on his way to four NBA titles.

If Brown can't or won't make offense happen, someone on that coaching staff needs to. If Brown continues to stubbornly resist an offensive assistant, then it's time for Ferry, or even Dan Gilbert, to step in and put his foot down. If Brown still resists, well ... I don't want to see him fired, but at that point, Brown would be standing in the way of progress. And if Brown truly is following the San Antonio model, he should be all about progress.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Motivation for the King

Never let it be said that professional sports has no bearing on real life. LeBron James, through persistent tormenting of the Washington Wizards and their fans, scored you a nearly-free Thursday dinner.

Last week, some D.C.-area Papa John's pizza restaurants mocked LeBron by sponsoring the now-infamous "Crybaby 23" t-shirts that popped up in the Verizon Center stands during last week's Game 6. Thursday, Cavs fans in the Cleveland area get to reap the tasty reward -- if you like Papa John's pizza, that is. In an attempt to counteract the bad publicity brought on by their misguided D.C.-area colleagues, more than 40 Papa John's locations across northern Ohio will be selling 23-cent, one-topping pizzas from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

LeBron, simply by being LeBron and doing what he does best -- winning, dominating, causing fans of opposing teams to look for some flaw to exploit -- made this day of pizza pleasure possible. But it's hard to believe that LeBron, finely-tuned athlete that he is, would partake in the pizza orgy even if he wasn't in Boston preparing for Game 2 of the Celtics series.

It has little to do with counting calories or cholesterol points. For LeBron, it has much more to do with motivation being its own reward.

Every time LeBron has faltered, every time he has failed to deliver the points, rebounds and assists that his team relies on for wins, every time he hasn't stuck the game-winning shot where it counts, every time an opposing player mauls him while the refs swallow their whistles and look skyward, it's fuel on LeBron's fire. The next game, you should expect his best, because that's exactly what he expects from himself.

Heading into Game 6 of the first round, LeBron was coming off a narrow Game 5 loss in which he had a chance to win it just before the buzzer. Whether a non-called foul was to blame or not, LeBron was left pleading with the refs while the Wizards celebrated the fact that they lived to fight another day.

LeBron knew the chance he and his team had just missed. No one needed to break it down for him. A lesser player might have been sent reeling by the missed chance. LeBron took it all in, the humiliation of Game 5, the "crybaby" t-shirts, the catcalls from the stands, the physical beating administered by the likes of DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood, and like any great artist, used it to create brilliance in his medium.

His final line from Game 6: 27 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists. His third career playoff triple-double. A 105-88 drubbing that sent the Wizards home for the summer yet again.

LeBron and the Cavs were riding high heading into Game 1 against the heavily-favored Celtics, a team that was looking suddenly vulnerable after letting the sub-.500 Hawks stretch them to seven games in the first round.

Game 1 was a close encounter. The Cavs lost by four and actually held a lead late in the fourth quarter after trailing for most of the game. But for LeBron, it was another flawed performance. By his standards, it was a dud.

LeBron scored 12 points during a downright Hughesian 2-for-18 shooting performance. He was tagged with four personal fouls that hindered his ability to drive aggressively in the second half. Even though Cleveland's defense did their part in holding Ray Allen scoreless and holding Paul Pierce to four points, the Cavs simply aren't going to win many games -- if any -- when LeBron scores 12 points, and he knows it.

Following the game, LeBron praised Boston's defensive effort, particularly their help defense, which allowed the Celtics' perimeter defenders to play tighter on LeBron than most teams can afford to. But he stopped short of pinning the entirety of his frustrating evening on the Celtics' D.

"I missed a lot of shots I know I can make," LeBron told reporters. "I missed layups. Those layups I've made my whole life."

Once again, with the doubters stroking their chins, waiting to see if The King has finally met a dragon he can't slay, LeBron will be forced to prove himself in Game 2 on Thursday night. Chances are, as those of us in Cleveland are hoarding our 23-cent pizzas, LeBron will be somewhere in the TD Banknorth Garden, drawing from the internal well of motivation that only those conditioned for greatness seem to possess, readying himself to once again rebound with a reputation-restoring vengeance.

"Sure," you might say. "But taking out the Wizards and their mouthy fans is one thing. These are the Boston Celtics. The Green Menace. Three of the best players in the game. Sixteen titles. The leprechaun in the rafters. Stopping them is a whole other ballgame."

To which I say, if LeBron isn't afraid, I'm not afraid. If watching LeBron over the past five years should have taught us anything, it's never to underestimate him, or his ability to make a better-than-last-year-but-still-not-all-that-impressive roster rise to the occasion.

Today, 23-cent pizzas. A month from now, maybe 23-cent drinks on Bourbon Street during a Cavs-Hornets NBA Finals.

Sure, it's a mid-spring night's dream. But with a motivated LeBron, just about anything on the basketball court is possible. Doubt him, and you might have to find that out the hard way.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Pigskin Podcast

Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy looks vaguely like porn star-turned-adult film industry spokesman Ron Jeremy. And in the latest edition of the Pigskin Podcast, I sound vaguely like a football analyst. Most of that is due to outstanding engineering work done by Joel Hammond and his cohorts over at the 'Cast.

Anyway, if you would like to hear my takes on the teams of the AFC North, and get an early May prediction of how I think the division will shake out this year, click here.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Atlanta or Boston?

When the Cavaliers lost Game 5 to the Wizards on Wednesday, many fans (including me) thought they had lost several critical days of rest for the second round. The Celtics surely would eliminate the Hawks in their Game 6 on Friday, meaning the Cavs would have to do the same to Washington just to keep pace.

As we know, the Cavs held up their end of the bargain, putting an end to Washington's season for the third straight year. Fortunately, the Hawks didn't go quietly into that good night, and the one-versus-eight seed series that just about everyone thought would be the first round's biggest mismatch is now the only series that will go seven games. Game 7 is slated for Sunday afternoon in Boston.

So far, the home team has won every game in the Boston-Atlanta series. There is no real reason to believe Game 7 will buck that trend. The Cavs would be wise to pack their bags for Boston, because that's in all likelihood where they're headed to open the second round.

But seventh games do not fall under the umbrella of death, taxes or any of the other guarantees in life. So the Hawks, who have done so much to frustrate the more-talented Celtics over the past two weeks, have at least a fighter's chance on Sunday.

It begs the question, if you're a Cavs fan, who should you be rooting for on Sunday? Don't utter the knee-jerk response of "Atlanta, of course" just yet. Let's take a look at this in more detail.

Boston Celtics

Regular season record: 66-16
Regular season vs. Cavs: 2-2

Why you want them:

1. They've gone 11 rounds with the Hawks, and still aren't done.

This is quite obviously not the first-round series Doc Rivers and his crew had in mind. They were supposed to take care of the Hawks in no-fuss, no-muss style and have a good, solid five to seven days to rest up and prepare for the winner of the Cleveland-Washington series.

Instead, the Celtics and their aging anchors Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have been subjected to a grueling seven-game set and will have two fewer days of rest than the Cavs should they win on Sunday and advance.

2. This is where the East Coast media spotlight becomes really hot.

When you're good and you play in Boston, the praise is endless (see Brady, Tom). When you fail and you play in Boston, the criticism can pulverize you (see Everyone on the Patriots Roster, Post-Super Bowl XLII).

All season long, the national media has been singing high hosannas to the Celtics and how they're one of the greatest single-season teams of all time, how they won 66 games but had the team stats of a 70-win team, how KG is the ultimate leader and how that Doc Rivers might not be such a bad coach after all.

Now, one slip-up away from elimination, national media outlets are picking the Celtics apart to find out how this juggernaut can look so vulnerable. ESPN's resident spittle distributor Stephen A. Smith went on a two-minute tirade during halftime of Friday's Jazz-Rockets game concerning his belief that the situation the Celtics now find themselves in is unacceptable.

The Celtics can win Game 7 and advance, but nothing will change the fact that they will have had to survive a major scare to get to the second round, and no matter how much bravado they put up, they will not head into the second round brimming with confidence.

3. The Celtics have trouble stopping The Guy.

If your team has The Guy, and the Cavs certainly do, he can give the Celtics fits.

Joe Johnson has been The Guy for Atlanta in this series -- at least in the games played in Atlanta. Games 3, 4 and 6 netted Johnson 23, 35 and 15 points respectively as Boston's much-celebrated defense struggled to find ways to contain Johnson, particularly when he heats up from beyond the arc.

LeBron is not going to shoot it like Johnson, but he can penetrate and find wide-open teammates when the defense inevitably collapses on him. Play him physically as Washington did? Well, no matter how much contact any team dishes out, it's still tough -- and probably painful -- to stop 6'-8" and 260 pounds of Bron Bron Express from getting to the rim.

The Celtics are a more rugged team than the Wizards, but no one is going to confuse their frontcourt with the Broad Street Bullies. LeBron will win more battles than he loses in the paint, just on sheer size and strength alone.

Why you don't want them:

1. Rajon Rondo was born to play the Cavs.

Rondo hasn't put up monster numbers so far in the playoffs, but he's been effective, with double-digit point totals in every game except Game 6. With Boston's triumvirate of all stars, it's easy to overlook Rondo. But he's the type of player who makes life miserable for the Cavs.

Rondo is a sneaky-quick point guard who can slither by the Cavs perimeter defense and wreak all kinds of havoc inside. If the Cavs have to devote extra resources to stopping Rondo, it's going to open up the floor for KG, Allen and Pierce, and you absolutely do not want to face the Celtics in a position where those three can stand around and knock down jumpers because you're too busy chasing their greased-pig point guard around to stop them.

2. For Pierce, this would be personal.

Back in the days when Paul Pierce was a one-man show, he and LeBron used to hook up in some epic scoring duels. LeBron usually got the better of Pierce and the Celtics. So, suffice it to say that over the past five years, Pierce has developed a healthy dislike for losing to LeBron and the Cavs. Pierce will likely make that known to KG, Allen, Rondo and whoever else is listening should the Celtics and Cavs meet.

But unlike the Wizards who were mostly hot air, the Celtics can back it up on the floor.

3. 66 wins has to count for something, right?

Let's not overlook the obvious. The Celtics have three top-tier players on their roster, two of whom (KG and Allen) would seem to already have their hall of fame tickets punched. They have a pass-first point guard, a serviceable bench and the best defense in the league. This is a dang good team. Any way you slice it, if the Cavs play the Celtics and eliminate them, it would be an upset.

Atlanta Hawks

Regular season record: 37-45
Regular season vs. Cavs: 1-2

Why you want them:

1. A chance to put the suitcases down for a few days.

The Cavs are 2-1 at home so far in the playoffs, with the lone loss a product of a final-minute meltdown in Game 5. They were 7-1 at home in last year's conference playoffs, 4-2 in 2006.

That's 13-4 at home versus Eastern Conference teams in the playoffs during the LeBron James Era. Factor in last spring's NBA Finals sweep and the postseason home record is still a respectable 13-6. In addition, in the four playoff series in which the Cavs have held homecourt advantage since 2006, they've taken a 2-0 lead three times.

I'd take homecourt advantage whenever I could get it if I were a member of the Cavs.

2. The experience factor.

Boston and Atlanta might seem like they're at opposite end of the playoff spectrum. But they have one very important thing in common: Both teams have a nucleus of players making their first run through the playoffs together.

Playoff basketball is vastly different than regular season basketball in terms of how players mentally approach each game. So, no matter how much success the Celtics had during the regular season, there is still an adjustment period come playoff time. That's what you're seeing now as the Celtics struggle with their rotations, allowing Atlanta opening after opening to get back into games.

The Cavs are past that stage. Sure, half the roster was rebuilt in February, but the cornerstone tandem of LeBron and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, along with sidekicks Daniel Gibson and Anderson Varejao, remain in place from last year's Finals run, which is enough to maintain stability for the playoffs.

That experience advantage should help them somewhat against Boston, but it should help them a great deal against a young team like Atlanta.

3. Size inside, or lack thereof.

If the Cavs draw the Hawks in Round 2, they should once again be afforded a wide advantage on the boards. Atlanta's big man rotation is anchored primarily by Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia and Josh Smith. Smith and Horford are both above-average rebounders, but only Horford (6'-10" and 245) is really a load to handle inside.

Horford is the type of player Ben Wallace gets paid big bucks to put a body on. If Wallace does his job, and Varejao, Ilgauskas and Joe Smith pick up the slack, the Cavs should win the rebounding battle by at least 20 every night.

Why you don't want them:

1. OK, they don't have Tyronn Lue anymore, but...

The Hawks no longer have uber-pest Lue to dismantle the Cavs from the inside like a dreadlocked gremlin. But they do have a lot of exceptional athletes who can outrun and outjump any Cav not wearing No. 23.

Smith is a tremendous athlete. Josh Childress is a long, lean wing player who can score inside and out. Horford is is quickly becoming one of the best blue-collar players in the game, and Joe Johnson is an A-list shooter. Running the show is the point guard so many Cavs fans coveted, Mike Bibby.

In short, the Hawks have a formidable arsenal of weapons, even more than better teams like the Celtics, Pistons and Cavs. If they can't hurt you one way, they can probably do it another way. Because of that, it's very tough to shut Atlanta down for 48 minutes, no matter your team's level of defensive competence.

2. Starring Joe Johnson as Mr. Clutch.

It's deflating to an opposing team when they've tried everything to stop LeBron from getting to the hoop and he's still collecting three-point plays like a nine-year-old collects Pokemon cards.

Every bit as deflating is watching a red-hot shooter foil your best-laid defensive plans by draining three-balls over your team's defense. Short of fouling, there is nothing you can do about it except watch the ball sail through the net.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Joe Johnson. A major factor in all three Hawks playoff wins to date. His shooting has confounded the Celtics as the Hawks rallied from large deficits in each of their wins.

If the Hawks advance and Johnson continues to burn nylon with his shooting, the Hawks will never be out of a game, no matter the deficit. And with the Cavs' tendency to slack with a large lead, that's a hungry dog-raw steak proposition.

3. "Pressure" isn't in the dictionary.

When your franchise hasn't been to the playoffs in nine years and your best shooter is several years removed from his last playoff run with the Phoenix Suns, you don't feel a whole lot of pressure. For a 37-win team like the Hawks, every playoff win is a win farther than pretty much everyone outside the state of Georgia thought they'd go.

Contrast that with the burden to perform faced by NBA royalty like the Celtics or Pistons, or the pressure the Cavs face to prove last year's conference title wasn't a fluke. It's like having to play a whole other team on top of your opponent.

It's tough to gain the mental edge against a team that feels virtually no pressure to perform. The Hawks are like a 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament, before they arrive at the Sweet 16 and everyone starts to take notice. For now, Atlanta is enjoying the perks of flying under the radar and taking everyone by surprise.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Blowing a golden opportunity

It's become a defining trait of the Cavaliers during the LeBron James Era:

While the Cavs have shown an ability to rise to the occasion against tough opponents, they also have shown an utter inability to manufacture their own sense of urgency. Unless circumstances put their backs against the wall, you're probably not going to see a maximum effort out of this team.

Wednesday night, the half-speed Cavs showed up and lost Game 5 to the Wizards 88-87, and because of that, Cleveland's backs are a couple feet closer to the wall. The series heads back to Washington for Game 6 on Friday. A Wizards win there, and a series that was once firmly in the Cavs' grasp would be decided by a Game 7.

Few people in Cleveland are doubting that the Cavs can still win one of the next two. But after having watched the Indians blow a 3-1 series lead to the Red Sox a mere seven months ago, the idea of a Wizards rally has now moved from the backs of our minds to somewhere in the middle.

The sad fact is, if the Wizards even force a Game 7, this series would already be a failure for the Cavs on some levels.

With the Hawks already having forced the Celtics to a Game 6 (the Celtics now lead the series 3-2), a Cavs win Wednesday night would have meant a few precious extra days for the Cavs' aging frontcourt to rest their backs, knees, ankles and whatever else is aching them. By letting the Wizards prolong the series, the Cavs give a great deal of the rest advantage back. When it comes to a potential second-round matchup featuring Ben Wallace, Joe Smith and Zydrunas Ilgauskas versus Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, all oldie-goldies in their 30s with assorted bum leg joints and bad backs, the rest advantage could go a long way toward determining a winner.

But first things first. The Wizards are still alive and well in the postseason, and probably feel like they have a new lease on life after rallying from five points down with less than two minutes to play and enduring a miss by LeBron at the buzzer, on yet another Cavs final play that looked like it was executed by salmon swimming upstream.

We can look at the stat line and see the reasons the Cavs lost by the numbers. They shot 36 percent from the floor. They very nearly let the much smaller Wizards beat them on the glass, edging them 40-39. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 19 points, Delonte West 12 and Joe Smith nine, but no other member of the James Gang was able to do anything to augment LeBron's 34 points. Wally Szczerbiak continues to look like a benchwarmer, scoring four points and coughing up a critical fourth-quarter turnover in nearly 18 minutes of action. And he's supposedly a starter.

They didn't have a solution for Caron Butler, who finished with 32 points and looked like a worthy, Carmelo Anthony-caliber adversary for LeBron. He was LeBron's superior in the clutch shooting department, cutting through the Cavs' interior defense and scoring the winning bucket on a runner over Wallace that rolled around the rim before falling in with 3.9 seconds to play.

Here's a secret that the Wizards don't want you to know: When Gilbert Arenas doesn't play -- and he won't for the rest of Washington's season due to continued knee problems -- the Wizards are actually a better team. They play better team basketball without the presence of their hip-shooting supposed leader who tries to solve every problem by jacking up a 30-footer.

When Arenas is out, guys with far better all-around games like Butler and Antawn Jamison step up, and the Wizards actually become more formidable. If Butler continues to play like he did Wednesday night, I don't like where this series is headed one bit.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Cavs knew they blew a game they should have won, a game in which they played sloppy ball for way too long and trailed for the majority of the 48, a game in which they took their collective mental foot off the gas because they thought they had everything signed and sealed with a late five-point lead.

Most of all, LeBron will take the floor in Game 6 looking to atone for the sins of Game 5. But now he and his teammates will have to once again fight the road playoff environment in Washington's Verizon Center, the "overrated" chants, the trash talking and, more than anything, a Wizards team that now wholeheartedly believes they have a chance to pull this series out.

The Cavs have overcome the worst the Verizon Center has thrown at them so far. It didn't stop West from inserting the dagger in Game 4. If they overcome a hostile road environment one more time and close this series out on Friday, then Game 5 can be swept under the rug and forgotten.

But if the Wizards prevail and force a winner-take-all Game 7, the Cavs will have already lost in one form, even with a Game 7 slated for the friendly confines of The Q.

For the remainder of this series, whether they ultimately advance or suffer a humiliating collapse that sends them home for the summer, the Cavs will have to carry one extra burden on top of everything else: It never should have gotten to this point, and they have no one to blame but themselves that it has.