Friday, February 29, 2008

The fork in the road

You can come to a lot of conclusions about Friday's report that Derek Anderson has re-upped with the Browns. But there is only one conclusion that matters at this point:

If Anderson stays put, he and Brady Quinn are on a collision course.

The Pro Bowl starter/first round draft pick backup scenario worked for one season, and it relied on a delicate balance of a don't-rock-the-boat mentality brought about by a team experiencing its first real taste of success together, a starting QB who had come out of nowhere to become a Top 10 passer, and a backup who was a rookie expected to play the rookie part of staying quiet, holding the clipboard and learning.

That worked in 2007. In 2008, those factors will change drastically.

Heading into next season, the Browns will be viewed by the majority of NFL observers as a winning team. As Kellen Winslow's recent not-so-subtle hint that he'd like a bump in pay illustrates, the Browns have already begun to behave like a winning team, where personal gain no longer takes a backseat to the greater good.

Winslow will likely be a trendsetter in the me-first department. Consider the boat rocked.

Though many of us who had a front-row seat to Anderson's statistical decline in November and December would argue otherwise, the majority national media perception is that Anderson is one of the top emerging QBs in the NFL. Several media outlets lavished praise on Anderson and Phil Savage for continuing their working relationship.

Anderson and his representatives know he's viewed as one of the "it" players in the league right now, at least by those who write about the Browns from a distance. One year might not make a career, but it can certainly make a reputation when you have national columnists on your side.

Quinn came to training camp late, yet still vastly outplayed Anderson and Charlie Frye in the preseason. He had to have known at that point that he could win the starting job outright, but when Romeo Crennel stuck with Frye, then moved along to Anderson when Frye finally wore out his welcome, Quinn still played the part of the submissive rookie, dutifully wearing his skull cap and holding his clipboard during games without a syllable of public complaint.

Don't expect Quinn to take second chair and love it again this year. Quinn watched Anderson's Week 16 flameout in Cincinnati along with the rest of us. Though he projects a kind of unassuming, nice-guy image, don't let the facade fool you: Quinn has a huge ego like any NFL quarterback who was a four-year starter at Notre Dame would. Though he's never said anything to the effect, it wouldn't be a shock to find out that Quinn thinks he's a better QB than Anderson, that he just might believe that if it had been him under center last year, the Browns would have made the playoffs instead of falling just short.

Savage understandably wants to keep his options open. He wants to be able to keep Anderson, trade Anderson, start Quinn, bench Quinn, based on whatever benefits the Browns the most. And there is something to be said for having two starter-caliber quarterbacks on your roster, when the likes of the Falcons and Dolphins arguably couldn't even dress one if they had to play a game tomorrow.

But if a General Managing in Sports 101 class exists, you'd have to think that it would include a unit on team chemistry. Amassing talent is one thing, providing an environment for that talent to succeed is something else.

Any way Savage and Crennel slice it, attempting to have Anderson and Quinn co-exist for another year is a potential hand grenade thrown into the Browns locker room. This isn't last season's QB conundrum, when neither Frye nor Anderson performed well enough to take over the role. Coin flips prior to preseason games won't be enough to determine a starter between Anderson and Quinn.

Anderson has a Pro Bowl entry on his resume. Quinn is the guy Savage wanted so much, he spent a first- and second-rounder to get him. The stakes are higher, the egos far bigger, and the potential fallout much more damaging.

For once, the Browns aren't rebuilding the skeletal structure of their organization from the ground up. Savage is in the process of filling in the holes on what is now supposed to be a playoff-level team that is eyeing Super Bowl contention in the next two-to-four years.

But there are a number of things that could throw a large wrench into the machine powering the Browns' ascent. Having two quarterbacks -- one paranoid starter and one sulking backup -- is one such thing.

Whether he wants to or not, Savage will be forced to make a decision on his QB of the future, and it will likely mean the end of either Anderson's or Quinn's stay in Cleveland. It's an unenviable position. He can't afford to be wrong.

Unfortunately, Savage's decision is far more complicated than than choosing one quarterback over the other. Quinn or Anderson might be wrong answers to the QB dilemma, one or both. But, as of the end of the '07 season, we definitely know "I'll decide later" is the worst answer of all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The novelty is wearing off

The honeymoon is over. A week after the Cavs remade their roster via blockbuster trade, and our dream girl has already traded in her skimpy lingerie for hair curlers and fuzzy slippers.

The feel-good sports story of the Cleveland winter has been doused with a cold splash of stark reality on the heels of back-to-back losses to the Bucks and Celtics. And the reality is, this team is in a state of transition and will likely slump, or at least plateau, for the foreseeable future.

In many ways, watching the Cavs play this week has been like taking a trip back to LeBron's first several years with the franchise, when the team had no sense of fundamentals and couldn't close games with any authority. It was a frustrating, maddening time when the Cavs absolutely refused to live up to their potential.

At least for the short term, those days have returned. And, as with those Cavs teams of LeBron's formative NBA years, the only cure is gaining experience together.

When Danny Ferry pulled off the 11-player trade that brought Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West to Cleveland at last Thursday's trade deadline, he went from the doghouse to the penthouse in many fans' minds. But while we were celebrating the arrival of real, honest-to-goodness supporting cast talent worthy to surround LeBron, we might have underestimated just how much this trade rocked the Cavs roster to its very foundation.

In business, this type of turnover is called "transformational." The Cavs roster wasn't augmented by last week's deal; it was completely altered by bringing in players from two different organizations who have different skill sets from the players who were traded.

Counting the NBDL signings of Billy Thomas and Kaniel Dickens, it was six players in, six players out in the span of one day. This at a time when three key players -- Anderson Varejao, Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson -- were all on the shelf with injuries. Varejao returned to action Tuesday, but it might be a month or longer before Pavlovic and Gibson get a chance to play with their new teammates.

Fans hoping that this would be the trade that finally makes the Cavs legitimate title contenders will undoubtedly become impatient as West, Szczerbiak and LeBron continue to miscommunicate on passes, as Wallace defers to his teammates instead of taking a golden chance to crush an offensive board back through the hoop, as every player on the roster continues to pass first and shoot second because no one knows who should take the shot in a given situation.

Even though you probably won't like to hear it, the fact remains that this is likely a trade designed to mostly benefit next season's team. Give this roster a chance to jell over the final two-plus months of the regular season and hopefully more than one round of playoffs, then a training camp and preseason together next fall, and maybe for '08-'09, this is a 55-to-60 win team that is, indeed, a legitimate championship threat.

As for this season, well ... LeBron might be the best basketball player on the planet, but even he can't speed up the effects of time. And time is what this team needs to become the elite squad everyone is envisioning.

Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways. You wanted Larry Hughes gone. You wanted Donyell Marshall gone. You wanted better players than Drew Gooden, Ira Newble, Shannon Brown and Cedric Simmons comprising LeBron's supporting cast. You got your wish. But someone has to take their place on the roster.

The result was a transformational trade that might have pushed the Cavs up a few notches in terms of overall talent, but likely set the team back several years in terms of cohesion.

That's not to say it's going to take several years for the current Cavs to reach the competitive level of the pre-trade Cavs. But anyone who thinks this team is going to go from frosh mixer levels of awkwardness to owning the East in the span of two weeks is fooling themselves.

The Cavs' trade was met with a shrug in Detroit and a scoff from Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith, who is on record as saying he believes the trade hurts Cleveland's chances of catching his team for the East's third seed.

In Cleveland, it's easy for us to chalk up the reactions of the Pistons and Magic to false bravado, a weak harrumph from two teams who just watched the Cavs become a real threat to defend their conference crown right before their very eyes.

But there is something to idea that tearing down half your team and rebuilding it midseason is madness for a supposedly-contending club. The popular thinking is that if you, as a GM, are going to undertake a drastic overhaul of your team, it's better to do it in the offseason, as the Celtics did. Asking a team to endure a midseason extreme makeover and still stay in contention is probably asking too much.

Still, Ferry saw his chance to make his team better, and he jumped on it. Based on his previous record of inactivity that stretched all the way back to the 2006 offseason, you have to admire him for finally seizing the day.

If you truly believe, as Ferry said he did, that the Cavs had no chance to win a title with the team as previously constructed, then there was no reason to stand pat, regardless of the consequences for this season. You should be willing to endure whatever short-term hardship this trade creates for the potential benefit next year.

Of course, Cleveland sports fans are justifiably sick of "next year." We want a title now, and we're counting on the rebuilt Cavs to get us one.

But for the purposes of this season, championship hopes will likely once again run into a roadblock, this time caused by a new case of inexperience. And, once again, we will all be forced to endure that dreaded word: "Patience."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cavs trade: Several days later

As I'm writing this, it's Saturday afternoon and we still have yet to see Ben Wallace and the new Cavs crew take the floor for the Wine and Gold. Provided all players involved in the trade pass their physicals, the new-look Cavs lineup should make its debut Sunday evening against the Grizzlies.

After several nights' worth of sleeping on the trade and reading some of the reaction, here are some additional thoughts:

Perimeter D

The biggest complaint against this trade appears to be the fact that the Cavs lost their best perimeter defender in Larry Hughes. It's a legitimate complaint.

Danny Ferry traded perimeter defense for interior defense. Even with Wallace inside, it doesn't totally make up for the fact that Mike Brown is going to have to find new solutions to stop the likes of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton in the Cavs-Pistons playoff series that will inevitably occur if the Cavs are to make it back to the Finals this spring.

Hughes, even on a bum leg, harassed Billups and Hamilton enough to take the edge off their games in last spring's Eastern Conference Finals. With Hughes gone, Eric Snow is now the Cavs' best perimeter defender, and it appears that it's taking a long time for him to recover from his preseason knee surgery.

Even with Snow 100 percent recovered, it's still hard to envision a Cavs lineup with the offensively-challenged Snow, Wallace and Anderson Varejao on the floor together in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Even if LeBron James and Wally Szczerbiak are the other two on the floor, they would still be hard-pressed to play offense two-on-five.

That means Brown is going to have to get creative when addressing the perimeter defense issue. With Delonte West's athleticism at his disposal, there is always the possibility that Brown could grind defense into his head the way he did with Sasha Pavlovic, who is now a respectable defender. If Brown can get "Offense Is My Defense" Pavlovic to embrace basic defensive principles, there is reason to believe Brown could do the same with West, who has the added bonus of not being a born-and-bred Euro-softie working in his favor.

Did Ferry panic?

Count Joel Hammond among those who believe that Danny Ferry caved to the demands of LeBron in making this deal. Joel, like me, would just as soon have seen the Cavs wait until the summer to make a major move than watch Ferry mess with the expiring contracts and subsequent financial flexibility he had waiting for him once this season ends.

The thing is, Ferry really didn't mess with the Cavs' flexibility. In fact, he now has more money in expiring contracts to work with this summer.

Yes, I believe like Joel that Ferry was pressured into making a trade like this at least in part by LeBron's camp. A number of national media outlets have reported time and again that LeBron's camp -- possibly apart from LeBron -- is dangling his potential departure in 2010 over the organization's head like the Sword of Damocles. But given the landscape of the situation and the high-risk magnitude of the trade, Ferry actually positioned the Cavs fairly well for the coming two years.

Ferry could have taken on multiple horrible contracts, saddling the team for the next three or four years. But outside of Wallace's albatross of a deal, which more or less replaced Hughes' albatross of a deal, Ferry kept the Cavs nimble, at least from a trade standpoint.

Ferry traded away two contracts that would have come off the books at season's end (Ira Newble, $3.4 million; Shannon Brown, $1 million) and three deals that would have become expiring contracts this summer (Drew Gooden, $6.4 million; Donyell Marshall, $5.5 million; Cedric Simmons, $1.6 million). In return, he took on two deals that will become expiring contracts this summer (Szczerbiak, $12.3 million; Joe Smith, $5.2 million) and one deal that could potentially come off the books at season's end (West, $1.8 million with a $2.7 million qualifying offer for next season).

In total, Ferry shipped out about $4.4 million in expiring deals this year and took on about $2 million. For the purposes of this summer, Ferry shipped out about $13.5 million in '08-'09 expiring deals, taking on about $17.5 million. So while Ferry will have less money coming off the books this summer, he'll have an additional $4 million in expiring deals to play with on the trade market if he so chooses. That's on top of the deals of Eric Snow ($7 million), Damon Jones ($4 million) and Anderson Varejao ($5 million) that will enter expiring status this summer.

In short: Ferry will have the ammo to make another significant trade during the offseason, depending on who he's willing to give up and what he's willing to take on, and how much more luxury tax Dan Gilbert is willing to pay.

Good luck, Larry

Larry Hughes got a bum rap for all the shots he took and missed during his two and a half seasons in Cleveland. After his ticket to Chicago was punched, he told assembled media that he simply didn't fit here, that it was a bad match of player to scheme.

It wasn't all that. Hughes took way too many jumpers, had poor shot mechanics and, until his recent spike in play, it had become apparent that he was avoiding contact on drives to the hoop for fear of injury.

Having said all that, Hughes is a smart basketball player, and it's a shame it didn't work out better for him here. Despite all the masonry he laid from 20 feet, he understands how the game is supposed to be played, he treated defense like something more than a necessary evil, and he willingly, if sometimes not happily, accepted his role as LeBron's lieutenant.

During his stay in Cleveland, Hughes' brother died of heart failure and his wife had to undergo surgery for a brain aneurysm, which undoubtedly affected his play, though he continued to plow through the adversity and stay on the court when his brittle body would let him.

I know Cavs fans from Columbus to Ashtabula are ecstatic that Ferry foisted Hughes off on another team. But I sincerely hope his fortunes take a turn for the better with the Bulls.

One man's trash...

I'm also hoping with every bit as much sincerity that Ben Wallace's attitude takes a turn for the better with new surroundings.

Wallace is one of the NBA's iconic tough guys. Like Rick Mahorn and Paul Silas in eras previous, he makes his living by projecting a salty persona on the court. The trouble is, Wallace can be every bit as salty off the court.

Think Kenny Lofton with height and muscles. Wallace is moody, temperamental and prone to sulking when he doesn't get his way. And for a year and a half in Chicago, he seldom got his way.

All you had to do was listen to Wallace's departing comments to the Chicagoland media, and it's easy to see why most Bulls fans aren't sorry to see him go.

''I'm used to being under the bus by myself, so that doesn't bother me,'' the SouthtownStar quoted Wallace as saying shortly before he hopped a plane for Cleveland.

Chicago-area columnists reacting to the trade painted a picture of a destructive locker-room force, a player of whom much was expected and little realized, a player as responsible as anyone for the Bulls' smoking crater of a season, one year after going 49-33 and reaching the second round of the playoffs.

"When he arrived, the impression was that Wallace was the perfect teammate, one willing to run his hands through the mud and do the hard labor – rebound, defend, knock on his butt some foolish guard who thought it’d be wise to drive the lane," wrote the Northwest Herald's Nick Pietruszkiewicz. "When he exited Thursday, Wallace showed one final time the true lessons he had taught the Bulls’ youth over the past 18 months, that the individual meant more than the team."

In Detroit, Wallace had other veteran teammates to perhaps keep his attitude in check. In Chicago, that veteran presence really didn't exist. We can only hope that the presence of LeBron, Joe Smith, Eric Snow and other leadership-minded veterans can help Wallace get back to the mental place where he resided when he played such dominant interior basketball for the Pistons.

The most important item: Does LeBron approve?

If early returns are true, His Kingness gives the trade a thumbs up. Not Roger Ebert two-thumbs-way-up, but based on his comments to the media, it appears he approves of the trade on a wait-and-see basis.

At least it was Ferry acknowledging that the Cavs needed personnel improvements to have a realistic shot of winning a title, something LeBron had been looking for out of the front office since the Finals ended last spring.

LeBron put in one last plug for Jason Kidd, the teammate he really wanted. But he seems to like the fact that Ferry wasn't afraid to shake up a roster that had plateaued, and do it midseason.

Prior to Friday's shorthanded win over the Wizards, LeBron brought his new teammates, in street clothes and on their way to watch the game in Dan Gilbert's suite, into the pregame huddle right before the active Cavs ran out onto the floor. It was a nice moment of unity for the new-look Cavs, but only time will tell how long it will take for that unity to become evident on the floor, and more importantly, in the standings.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Big Ben and Wally World

Danny Ferry finally heard the cries (and yelling and swearing) of his people. After two frustrating years as one of the NBA's most inert GMs, Ferry broke through in a big way at Thursday's NBA trading deadline.

For anyone who has ever said "Man, would Ben Wallace look good in a Cavs uniform" or "It would sure be nice to bring Wally Szczerbiak back to the state where he played his college ball," dream no longer. Starting with Friday's game against the Wizards, Wallace and Szczerbiak will be LeBron's wingmen thanks to a massive 11-player trade with the Bulls and Sonics reported by multiple media outlets shortly after the deadline passed Thursday afternoon.

Joining Wallace and Szczerbiak in the new-look Cavaliers lineup is aging power forward Joe Smith and combo guard Delonte West. The trade, as reported by the Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst, sends Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Shannon Brown and Cedric Simmons to Chicago, Donyell Marshall and Ira Newble to the Sonics, and Adrian Griffin to the Sonics from the Bulls.

At first blush, this trade gives the Cavs two things they very much needed -- an upgraded backcourt, and toughness, depth and rebounding down low. But as with all trades, there is a give-and-take of positives and negatives. Here is a breakdown for each player the Cavs received:

Ben Wallace

Age: 33; 2007-08 stats: 5.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.6 BPG

When the Bulls signed Wallace to a four-year, $60 million contract in the summer of 2006, it was hailed as the move that would crown the Bulls as the class of the Eastern Conference once again. Unfortunately for Chicagoans, things didn't really work out that way.

Wallace never appeared comfortable with his centerpiece role in Chicago. He quarreled with since-fired coach Scott Skiles over issues as trivial as headbands. His stats declined, prompting people to proclaim the four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year washed up.

There is no question that Wallace is exiting his prime years. He's 33, he has become more susceptible to injury, his stats are falling, he is no longer the best defensive player in the league and his lead weight of a contract is paying him $15.5 million this year, with the next two seasons offering no relief. But there is reason for Cavs fans to hope for a Big Ben revival in Cleveland.

With the Cavs, Wallace will have a chance to slide back into the enforcer role which he filled so masterfully in Detroit. In the end, that's what Wallace is -- a role player. A very expensive role player, but a role player nonetheless. There is nothing about his game that says "go-to guy" or "centerpiece." Fortunately, the Cavs already have that covered.

With LeBron handling the spotlight and shouldering the burden of winning games, Wallace can focus on doing what he does best: rebound, block shots and making fast squirts like Raymond Felton and Rajon Rondo think twice about speeding into the lane for layups. If you've watched the likes of Felton and Rondo confound the Cavs in recent years, Wallace's ability to knock them on their rears might make him worth the $15 million a year.

The bottom line: If Wallace's drop in production is due primarily to the fact that he was unhappy in Chicago, and not due to the fact that he is Trot-Nixon-at-33 old, look out. A re-energized Wallace is the kind of pickup that can make the Cavs, at long last, a legitimate title contender.

Wally Szczerbiak

Age: 30; 2007-08 stats: 13.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.4 APG

Good thing I arrived in Bowling Green the year after Wally Szczerbiak left Miami Ohio for the NBA, otherwise I might not like this pickup.

In the late '90s, Szczerbiak was the prince of Mid-American Conference basketball, leading the RedHawks to the NCAA's Sweet 16 in 1999. In the 2000 NBA draft, he was nabbed two picks ahead of the Cavs' slot, taken sixth overall by the Timberwolves.

For six years, he was the closest thing Kevin Garnett had to a sidekick in Minnesota. He hasn't been an all-around force in the NBA, but he has carved a niche as a capable outside shooter who can put the ball on the floor and create off the dribble.

As with Wallace, Szczerbiak's acquisition brings with it age concerns. As guards hit their 30s, usually a rapid decline in athleticism follows. Szczerbiak has never relied much on speed or hops to make his game go, so that is likely less of a concern. If Wally World can spot up beyond the arc and knock down threes off LeBron's kickouts, he'll fit in just fine.

To that end, Szczerbiak is motoring along this year, shooting more than 42 percent from beyond the arc, above his career average of 40 percent.

On the financial end of things, Szczerbiak will give the Cavs another potential expiring deal to trade this summer. He is making just over $12 million this year, and will enter the final year of his contract at season's end.

The bottom line: Szczerbiak has started only one of 50 games this year for Seattle. He is averaging a mere 23.6 minutes per game, so there is a question of what type of impact starter's minutes would have on him. Mike Brown will likely have to start Szczerbiak until Sasha Pavlovic returns, but he'd be wise to manage Szczerbiak's minutes closely. By season's end, this could be a shooting-guard-by-committee situation.

Joe Smith

Age: 32; 2007-08 stats: 11.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.6 BPG

It is entirely possible that Smith, not Wallace, will fill the starting power forward's role. it might be a better decision than you'd think. Smith has startd 35 of 50 games for the Bulls so far this year, so he's likely used to the starter's job. But at 22.9 minutes per game, he's also not going to need starter's minutes to be effective. And, hey, when you have Wallace and Anderson Varejao on the bench, there's no need to stick with Smith if he's not producing.

At this stage of his career, Smith is a downgrade over a motivated Drew Gooden talentwise. He can barely score like Gooden, he can't rebound like Gooden, and he certainly doesn't bring the athleticism of Gooden. But Smith should bring the one thing that was Gooden's Achilles' heel: consistency.

Smith seldom has been following 17-point, nine-rebound games -- such as he had Wednesday against Minnesota -- with six-point, two rebound games. That means he'll likely be a legitimate late-game option for Brown, which Gooden wasn't much of the time. If Gooden didn't have his A-game, you might has well bench him for the night. That shouldn't be the case with a veteran like Smith.

The bottom line: Smith is averaging 11 points in 22 minutes per night. Even if he's not Mr. Endurance, he should least be efficient with the minutes he plays.

Delonte West

Age: 24; 2007-08 stats: 6.8 PPG. 3.2 APG

At 24, he's the baby of the bunch, but his role with the Cavs might become extremely important before the end of the season.

At 6'-4", West is listed as a shooting guard. But he'll likely be a point guard for the Cavs' purposes. When you get right down to it, with Hughes gone to Chicago, and Daniel Gibson and Eric Snow already registered flops as the starting point guard, West might be Mike Brown's best option to start at the point.

West's stats look extremely pedestrian, but he's putting those numbers up in a little over 20 minutes per game. If he can produce at that level over the span of 35 to 40 minutes per game, we're talking about a guy who is averaging 11 points and six assists per night -- still not great, but an upgrade considering that's essentially what the Cavs were getting out of Hughes, who was really their starting shooting guard playing out of position.

West can be a free agent at season's end, but if he shows any promise, Ferry would probably want to bring him back for the price of his $2.7 million qualifying offer.

The bottom line: Yes, he's far from Jason Kidd or Mike Bibby. But with West manning the point, the Cavs might actually receive some semblance of athleticism and playmaking ability from the position. In any amount, that's an upgrade over what they had.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The stepping stone theory

If you're in the "Trade C.C. before he can walk" camp -- which is now growing with the recent revelation that the Tribe's Cy Young Award winner will not talk contract until after the end of the season -- it's really too bad the last couple of years have played out the way they have for the Indians.

If the Indians had come within a whisker of the World Series in 2006 and finished in fourth place in 2007, Yankee pitching prodigy Phil Hughes might have been an Indian by this past Christmas, or Red Sox pitching prodigy Clay Buchholz, or Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who might have given Eric Wedge an excuse to move the potent bat of Grady Sizemore down in the order.

Alas, the toe-stub occurred in '06 and the near-miss in '07, meaning that Indians management can't risk moving their hefty lefty ace and intentionally detonating a shot at winning a world championship this year.

That, in turn, means the Indians will almost certainly watch C.C. walk away at season's end for little more than a sandwich pick in the '09 entry draft. But it will be worth it if the Indians are parading down Euclid Avenue at the end of October with a World Series trophy in the lead car.

....If, if, if.....

"If" is the siren song that woos any sports team coming off a near-miss season. "If" makes general managers impulsive -- it just so happens that Mark Shapiro's impulse is to stand pat and lean on his farm system.

"If" makes a team's uppity-ups believe that, yes, they are this good, and "if" they can just get a few more breaks to go their way, it's title time.

I call it the "stepping stone theory." The notion that a team "headed in the right direction" will always be able to use the previous season's success as a springboard to even more success the following year. In the Tribe's case, it's the notion that they've cut a toe hold at Game 7 of the ALCS, so the next step is the World Series.

The 1996 Indians apparently missed that memo when they failed to win the World Series. So did the '98 Indians, though that team was radically different from the '97 team.

Certainly, there are reasons to believe that this Indians club is in better shape than those Indians clubs, or even the recent White Sox and Tigers clubs that followed successful, hardware-winning seasons with mighty regressions the following year.

This Indians team is far more a total package than any of those teams. In fact, when taken as a sum of its offense, starting pitching and relief pitching parts, you could make an argument that the Indians are surpassed only by the Red Sox as the most complete team in baseball. The places in which the Tribe doesn't have outstanding quality, such as the corner outfield spots, the organization at least provides multiple potential solutions.

But even the enviable levels of talent and depth from which the Indians can draw cannot guarantee success. And it can't guarantee that Shapiro's don't-rock-the-boat gamble isn't going to blow up in his face and send him scurrying to trade C.C. for pennies on the dollar prior to July's trading deadline.

The '07 Indians had to win 96 of 162 regular season games, endure a midseason offensive swoon that cost C.C. and Fausto Carmona 20-win seasons, glean enough offense from other bats to compensate for a lackluster season from Travis Hafner, fend off the Tigers until mid-September, then beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium just to advance to the ALCS and have the privilege of wasting a 3-1 series lead against the eventual World Series champion Red Sox.

That was all during a season in which they beat the now-traded Johan Santana five times, Justin Verlander three times and didn't have to face Francisco Liriano. It was a season in which they beat up on divisional opponents to the tune of a 48-24 record.

On top of walking through that mine field and coming out unscathed, the Indians stayed relatively healthy in '07 and had out-of-nowhere contributions from the minor leagues to compensate for a largely-ineffective free agent class.

Now, Shapiro and company are banking that last year's Indians can arrive back in the ALCS in '08 and take that mystical, magical next step when they get that 3-1 series lead. It seems to be a philosophy that takes a lot of variables for granted. But it's also a philosophy that is entirely defensible in light of what the team accomplished last season.

Just bad timing, I guess. Or really good timing, depending on how you look at it.

If Shapiro hits the jackpot and the Indians are toting World Series hardware this October, C.C.'s departure will be a footnote to a historical accomplishment. If Shapiro's pockets ends up inside out, he will become yet another sports executive to fall victim to the beautiful sirens of "if." And he will have a heck of a lot of work to do to reload his C.C.-less team for another World Series run in 2009.

And for those of us who followed the Indians of the '90s in their pursuit of an end of the rainbow and pot of championship gold that was never found, this song and dance will begin to look all-too-familiar.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The $ide effects of winning

If a glass-half-full moment could ever be wrung out of the patchwork quilt of broken dreams that is Cleveland sports, 2007 was it.

The Cavaliers, Indians and Browns all vastly exceeded their preseason expectations. The Cavs and Indians penetrated deep into the playoffs, while the Browns were a toe stub in Cincinnati and/or rollover by the Colts away from making Cleveland a three playoff team town for the first time.

But winning sports has been such an infrequent event in Cleveland since the decade began, we might have forgotten how winning teams tend to behave.

When the accolades fade and the commemorative newspaper sections have long since made their way to the recycling bin, when the team has dispersed for the offseason, players' attention gravitates toward one general area.

Themselves. More specifically, their wallets.

When teams are losing, players usually are less apt to go to management for raises, for fear of looking like a selfish, teammate-alienating oaf. But when teams win and everyone is happy and productive, players usually want the spoils that go along with it.

Cleveland might be a rust-belt Mayberry when compared to the fast living in New York and Los Angeles, but the same rules apply to players for the Browns, Indians and Cavs as to players for the Lakers and Yankees. They're multi-millionaires, just like their mega-market counterparts. They want the Italian suits, fast cars and big houses that fat contracts can buy -- and above all, the status of being paid like a star.

So when the Halley's Comet-esque confluence of all three Cleveland teams actually having success at the same time occurred this past year, we should have seen this coming.

The clouds started to gather in late summer, when it became apparent that Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao weren't going to make it into camp on time for the Cavs. The pair of restricted free agents were making contract demands that GM Danny Ferry didn't want, and didn't have, to act on.

Varejao's holdout became famously contentious, with Ferry making an unannounced trip to Brazil to negotiate with Varejao because he felt he couldn't reach Varejao any other way. Varejao countered by saying Ferry wasn't acting in good faith, and telling a Brazilian publication that he didn't want to play in Cleveland anymore.

Pavlovic didn't sign a three-year deal until the eve of the regular season, forcing him to use the early part of the season as his training camp. Varejao didn't sign until December. All told, the Cavs' roster wasn't whole until more than a month into the season, and it showed in the standings, as the Cavs lugged around a sub-.500 record for most of the 2007 portion of the season.

The Cavs have done a good job of bouncing back since the new year started, compiling an 11-3 January record, but the early-season mess will probably prevent the Cavs from seriously challenging Detroit for the Eastern Conference's second seed.

On the heels of the Cavs' contract holdout mess, the Browns might be entering one of their own. This past week, as he prepared for his first-ever Pro Bowl, Kellen Winslow made it known that he would like a new, more lucrative contract after producing two seasons as one of the NFL's elite tight ends.

The Browns stuck by Winslow as he severely damaged a knee in his now-infamous 2005 motorcycle crash. They took back some bonus money, but re-worked his contract around incentives when they could have torn up his deal on the basis that Winslow violated his contract language by participating in a dangerous off-the-field activity.

Winslow repaid the Browns' loyalty by bouncing back to become at least some form of the stunning athlete Butch Davis thought he had drafted in 2004. With the goodwill paid in full by both sides, the Browns winning and Winslow excelling, apparently the man they call "K2" feels now is the time to start dropping some not-so-subtle hints that he wants a raise.

Last June, Winslow fired the agents that negotiated his rookie deal, the Poston brothers, and hired mega-shark Drew Rosenhaus. When a player hires Rosenhaus, it's the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet. Winslow was probably planning to pursue a new deal for almost a year. Making the Pro Bowl simply solidified the fact, in his own mind, that the time is right.

Phil Savage is under no obligation to even listen to Winslow's contract demands. With everything that Winslow has been through, largely due to his own immature foolishness, Savage would have every right to tell K2 "You're lucky you're still playing, or even alive for that matter. Suck it up and play out your deal."

Not that Savage would say exactly that. But the sentiment might be there, and if so, Winslow's attempt to force new contract negotiations might have "impasse" written all over it.

The last thing the Browns need to follow the fleeting, fragile success of the '07 season with is a contentious holdout by one of the pillars of their offense. But in the NFL, where the player holdout is a time-honored method of bargaining-table protest, things can head in that direction very quickly. Stay tuned as the spring and summer unfolds.

As if Varejao, Pavlovic and Winslow weren't enough, the Indians are heading toward their own contract Armageddon.

Watching C.C. Sabathia secure the Tribe's first Cy Young Award since 1972 was a point of pride for any Cleveland baseball fan. But it's not going to help Mark Shapiro cut any deals with his lefty ace at the bargaining table.

C.C. is less than eight months removed from his first foray into free agency. He now has half the Cy Young Award total of Johan Santana, who was recently traded to the Mets and inked to a six-year, $137.5 million extension.

Santana's trade and subsequent extension are signficant for Sabathia in two ways:

One, it sets the bar for Sabathia's forthcoming new deal extremely high. If Santana, who is widely regarded as the best pitcher in baseball, can nab more than $137 million, then Sabathia, who might very well be the second-best pitcher in baseball at the moment, should be able to secure at least $120 million in his next deal.

Two, it means Sabathia could be the undisputed prized pony of the 2008 free agent pitching class, should he decide to shun all Cleveland offers and test the open market. A.J. Burnett has an opt-out clause after the '08 season, and John Lackey and Brad Penny have club options that you would have to assume their teams will almost certainly pick up.

The Sabathia contract saga is the most painful to watch for a Cleveland fan because, unlike the Cavs' and Browns' situations, the Indians aren't in the driver's seat.

C.C. is free to walk after the upcoming season. The Indians, coming off a season in which they clawed to within a win of the World Series, can't in good conscience trade the ace of their staff unless they tank early and thorougly. Meanwhile, the likelihood that Shapiro will be able to piece together a competitive offer for C.C. -- let alone convince him to sign an extension before he tests the market as a free agent -- just grew even slimmer with the news of Santana's massive extension.

Winning is the bottom line in professional sports, and all three Cleveland teams are tasting the sometimes-bitter side effects of that fact to greater and lesser degrees. Players that win want to be paid like winners. And they will, sooner or later. It's just a matter of whether a Cleveland team, or a team in another town, will sign the paychecks.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

SB42: The new world order

Kickin' it freestyle with some observations on Sunday's triumph of good over evil.

"When you wish upon a star

Makes no difference who you are

Anything you heart desires

Will come to you...

Eli Manning! You and the New York Giants just thwarted Bill Belichick's plans for world domination! What are you going to do now?"

"Um ... Well, first I'm going to grab my bomb-ass girlfriend and bang her like sex is going to be illegal as of 6 a.m. tomorrow. You have no idea what a win like this does to your libido. I feel like I could impregnate every hot chick in the five boroughs just by looking at them right now.

Then, I'll probably hit every dance club in Manhattan with a VIP section. I'm going to sit in all of Jeter's corner booths, where he usually macks it with a honey on each arm. How long has it been since you won a ring, Jeter? Eight years? Yeah ... eight years is a long time in Enn Why See. Oh wait, I think I'm getting a cell phone call, Jeets ... yeah, it's Mark Messier. He wants to have some coffee with you, talk about those good old days back in the '90s when you all ruled New York.

Then, I'll probably talk to Peyton. I used to be insanely jealous of him. But now that Tom Brady is the Manning Family Bitch, I just want to hug him and play a dysfunctionally-competitive game of Monopoly with him. You know, the kind where the loser flips the board off the table before he can actually lose.

Then, I'll probably open a restaurant with ... what? Say what line? Oh ... then I'll go to Disney World."

Some of the more notable snippets from Bill Belichick's postgame presser:

"...wubba wubba wubba made more plays than we did wubba wubba wubba good game wubba wubba wubba fuck the world wubba wubba wubba don't know what else to say wubba wubba wubba I want to drown kittens and club baby seals wubba wubba wubba...."

Eli was awarded a Cadillac Escalade for winning the Super Bowl MVP. Some people think Eli should give the Caddy to David Tyree. I think he should give it to Corey Webster.

Webster's knock-away of Brady's desperation heave to Randy Moss on the Pats' final drive honestly won the game. If Brady finds Moss -- and he almost did -- that pass is worth six points and an undefeated season, or at the very least, a game-tying field goal that leads to overtime, the inevitable New England win on the coin flip and a subsequent game-winning field goal.

Webster managed to prevent Moss from reaching back to catch an underthrown pass, and he did it without incurring a pass intereference call.

You know and I know if that's the Browns and Leigh Bodden is covering Moss, it's a shower of yellow cloth hitting the field. But Webster played it right, and was the equivalent of a closer nailing down the deciding save of the World Series. Touche, Mariano Rivera.

Eli's pass to David Tyree on the Giants' winning drive will go down in history as the greatest Super Bowl play ever. How can it not? You can have your helicopter runs and Montana hookups with John Taylor and Lynn Swann acrobatics. Nothing like Eli's pass to Tyree will ever happen again.

Look at the play frame-for-frame, and tell me it's not the most amazing play in NFL history. A slow-footed, pocket-passing QB looked like some freakish genetic combination of Randall Cunningham and Barry Sanders. He was sacked, purely and simply. He was down. It was over, and he spun out of the pocket and into daylight.

He then proceeded to throw a desperate, ill-advised passed to a covered receiver in the middle of the field. The ball should have been picked. Tyree should have been pile-driven into the ground the nanosecond the ball arrived. There is no way on this planet it should have been a catch. But Tyree pinned the ball against his hard, plastic, spherical helmet, and held on as he fell, inverted, to the ground -- with another set of hands grabbing for the ball, mind you.

This will never happen again. It can't possibly ever happen again. If it does, it will be like Halley's Comet and reoccur 76 years from now, when there is a franchise in Guam and they're healing torn ACLs with magnets.

The Patriots thought they had the game won when Brady tossed his TD pass to Moss with a little over two minutes to play. While Moss was celebrating with half the team in the end zone, Tedi Bruschi was hugging Junior Seau as if to say "We did it! You're going to get your ring!"

I never liked the way Seau let himself be the subject of a grand farewell retirement tour, then abruptly came out of retirement to try and piggyback on the Pats for a ring. So I can't say I'm terribly sorry to see him walk away without a title.

That TD celebration sequence was a microcosm of New England's we're-so-good-we-can-take-it-for-granted arrogance that seeps into the mindset of any team that has had the avalanche of success the Patriots had this year. Whether it was Belichick going for it on fourth-and-long when a field goal would have been sufficient, or the Pats celebrating a Super Bowl title two minutes before the clock runs out, there had to be an element of "Whatever we do, it will all work out in the end, because it always does."

And when it didn't, Belichick muscled his way past the officials who were trying to tell him that there was still two seconds left on the clock.

For a coach who led his team through a 2007 season that amounted to a scorched-earth campaign to spite the NFL over "spygate," seeing the final vindication of his coaching greatness slip through his fingers was just too much. So he hurriedly -- and I'm guessing tersely -- congratulated Tom Coughlin and disappeared into the bowels of the stadium.

As Belichick stormed off the field, it wasn't about the Patriots losing to the Giants. It was about Belichick losing the proof he needed to show the NFL uppity-ups that he could kick everybody's ass without the illegal advantage of clandestinely-recorded practice tape.

Of course, if Bill was doing it all along, there are probably 31 other NFL coaches who at least thought about it. Heck, Romeo Crennel had a front-row seat to 0018-and-1's spy activities when he was the Pats' D-coordinator. Not that anyone really knew what was happening. Belichick is the best coach at saying something without really saying anything since Casey Stengel.

...wubba wubba wubba...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Point guard madness

Cavaliers fans might disagree on a lot of things in the weeks leading up to the trading deadline. But there is one thing we can all agree on: The Cavs need a point guard. Badly.

So far this season, the parade at the point has been a mish-mash of forgettable experiments, has-beens and never-will-be's who don't bring the total point guard package to the floor. Daniel Gibson was enough of a flop at the outset of the season that he welcomed a return to his bench role. Larry Hughes, who has manned the point during the Cavs' most successful periods the past two seasons, is a shooting guard playing out of position, and never lets anyone forget it.

Eric Snow, who saw his first action in seemingly eons against Seattle on Thursday night, is well past his prime and is probably more of an assistant coach than a serviceable player at this point. Owed more than $7 million next year, he's one expensive assistant coach.

Damon Jones is having his best season as a Cav, but at the end of the day, he's an undersized combo guard who brings nothing to the table when his shot isn't falling.

The Cavs need a point guard who can run an offense, minimize turnovers, make the right pass, penetrate and -- most importantly, I would argue -- consistently hit open jumpers. And -- I forgot this is Mike Brown's world -- he needs to take pride in playing defense.

The Cavs' obvious need for a point guard has connected them to just about any floor general who has been even remotely rumored to be on the trading block. As the deadline approaches, let's take a look at some notable and less-notable point men who might be coming to the Cavs in the next month, and a percentage chance of whether a trade to the Cavs could happen.

(All statistics are as of Saturday afternoon.)

Jason Kidd, New Jersey Nets

He's the guy everyone wants, especially LeBron James. LeBron and Kidd became fast friends playing for Team USA last summer, and reportedly spent time earlier this season text-messaging each other about how great it would be to hook up in Cleveland. The Kidd-to-Cleveland rumors picked up a head of steam last week when Kidd asked to be traded by the Nets.

The Mavericks, Lakers, Nuggets and Cavs were all rumored to have interest. The Lakers likely dropped out after acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis on Friday, but they might have not been a serious candidate anyway.

The price for Kidd would be high, both in money and prospects. As the most important player on New Jersey's roster, GM Rod Thorn would be signaling in a rebuilding phase by trading Kidd for anything less than another elite point guard, so the team that acquires Kidd would have to pay the Nets richly with some combination of promising young players, draft picks and expiring contracts.

To that end, the Cavs can't trade a first-round pick prior to their 2009 pick, their largest expiring deal is Ira Newble's, at about $3.4 million, and their most promising young players are Gibson and Anderson Varejao. Gibson is the Cavs' only good outside shooter, so moving him would present a substantial risk. Varejao can't be dealt until the summer.

In short: The likelihood of Kidd getting moved at all is slim. The likelyhood of Kidd getting moved to the Cavs is a microscopic sliver of slim.

Kidd to Cavs: 2 percent

Mike Bibby, Sacramento Kings

Before the idea of Jason Kidd in a Cavs uniform was even a glimmer in your eye, Danny Ferry was working hard on acquiring Bibby. Three times in a little over a year, Ferry has reportedly entered serious discussions with the Kings about Bibby. Three times, nothing happened.

Now, there is a question of whether a trade should happen at all. Bibby's injury history has gotten a lot longer in recent years, and this season, he didn't take the floor until January 16, thanks to November surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament.

Bibby is signed for one more year. He'll make $13.5 million this year and will turn 30 in May. Thirty is a dangerous age for guards. It can signify the beginning of a rapid decline in athleticism, and Bibby, at 6'-2" and 190 pounds, doesn't have Kidd-type size to compensate for slowing a step on the floor.

On the plus side, Bibby is reversing the downward statistical trends of recent years. He is shooting 42.3 percent from the floor in the several weeks he has been active so far this year, up from 40.4 percent last year. His three-point shooting has gone way up to 46.9 percent from 36 percent last year. His points per game are down to 13.9 from 17.1 last year, largely because he's attempting an average of two fewer shots per game. He has started five of eight games and is averaging 31.6 minutes per game entering Saturday.

In the all-important assist category, Bibby is averaging 4.6 per game so far, a tick below his 4.7 last year and well below his career average of 6.2 per game. His assists have been trending downward since averaging 6.8 per game in the '04-'05 season.

Bibby is probably the best fit for the Cavs among available point guards, which is why Ferry has been pursuing him with such persistence. But Bibby comes with a huge caveat: He's probably hit the downhill side of his career, he's been having trouble staying healthy, and he's due to make a lot of money between now and the summer of 2009. All of that, combined with the Kings' historically-high asking price, is working against a deal getting done.

Bibby to Cavs: 10 percent

Luke Ridnour, Earl Watson or Delonte West, Seattle SuperSonics

Thursday's game in Seattle certainly played out like a showcase game. With LeBron on the bench in street clothes, Mike Brown emptied out his bench early and often, playing the likes of Shannon Brown, Eric Snow and Dwayne Jones. Mike Brown might have been searching for a rotation that worked, but it sure looked like the Cavs wanted to display their wares to Sonics management.

When it comes to point guards, the Sonics have what the Cavs want: a surplus.

Earl Watson has been a starter for the Sonics, averaging 8.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. In lieu of an elite guard like Kidd or Bibby, Watson would probably be Mike Brown's ideal choice because he likes to play defense. He's a kind of younger version of Eric Snow, but with surprisingly adequate offensive numbers. Despite his pedestrian PPG average, he's shooting a respectable 40 percent from the floor and 35 percent from beyond the arc.

If the Cavs had a couple of good scorers flanking LeBron, Watson would be an ideal pickup. But it's questionable how he'd look when relied upon to provide even more offense.
Ridnour has taken a major step back this year. He has been hampered by a hamstring injury, lost his starting spot and has taken just 20 three-pointers all season, making four. Plus, he's known as a sieve on defense.

Unless Ferry thinks a change of scenery would help the lifetime Pacific Northwesterner, I doubt he's going to want to take on a guy who has regreesed mightily, is owed the balance of $6.5 million this year, and is signed for two more years.

West went westward from Boston in the Ray Allen trade that helped jumpstart the Celtics' revival. Really, he's another combo guard, but far more athletic than anyone the Cavs currently have, so there is reason to believe he could run the point competently.

His field goal percentage (39.5) and three-point percentage (35.6) are down from his career averages, but he is still averaging 3.3 assists per game in about 20 minutes a night. If he could average 6.6 assists in 40 minutes a night, those are solid numbers.

West has been a starter in the past, and there is reason to believe he'd put up better numbers with more playing time.

Watson to Cavs: 30 percent; Ridnour to Cavs: 0.001 percent; West to Cavs: 25 percent

Jason Williams, Miami Heat

The man they call White Chocolate is a highly-underrated trade prospect for the Cavs. In the walk year of his contract with a Heat team that has been a major disappointment, his trade potential is high. He is averaging nine points and five assists in 31.2 minutes per game, and has recently started to ramp up his production. Williams has started 32 games for the Heat this season.

Williams isn't a great shooter or passer production-wise, but he is an experienced player who helped turn the Kings into a perennial playoff contender in the late '90s, and helped the Heat win a title two years ago. His time in Memphis, where he was coached by old-school Hubie Brown, helped turn him from a poor Pistol Pete impersonator to at least a semi-mature veteran.

Williams likely wouldn't be more than a stopgap in Cleveland, but if he can be had on the cheap and produce enough offense to get the Cavs back to June basketball, he might be worth acquiring. But there is no indication that Ferry is looking to Miami for help at this point.

Williams to Cavs: 5 percent

Jarrett Jack, Portland Trail Blazers

Jack's name has come up in connection with both the Cavs and a possible three-way deal that would send Jason Kidd to Dallas. But at this point, it's hard to believe the Blazers, who are having a season far better than anyone anticipated, would mess with their roster unless they thought they could improve it in a big way.

Jack is an important part of Portland's bench, he's signed on the cheap, and it's hard to see what the Cavs could offer the Blazers to entice them to part with Jack. A three-way trade is probably not worth broaching to get a player like Jack and his nine points and three assists per game.

I'm going to assume that a Jarrett Jack isn't going to end up in a Cavs uniform anytime soon.

Jack to Cavs: 3 percent