Friday, November 28, 2008

A non-LeBron Cavs article

We're about one month through the Cavaliers season. And what have we learned so far?

LeBron might leave for the Knicks in 2010. Or he might not. Or he might leave for the Nets. Or the Lakers. Or the Pistons. Or the Heat. Or the Mavericks. Or Greece. Or none of the above.

LeBron is the Cavs' most important player by far. That's obvious. Without him, there is no championship run possible. But that doesn't mean we can't be sick of hearing about what he does, what he says and what he thinks between games. And for my money, we've gotten way too much of that over the past few weeks.

ESPN isn't the lone national media offender, but as I'm writing this, it's late Friday afternoon, a full 72 hours after the Cavs played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, a full week after the Knicks made their highly-publicized trades with the Warriors and Clippers to clear salary cap space for the summer of 2010, and ESPN is still running new stories on the subject.

I can't decide whether it's more comical or pathetic that, despite the fact that the Cetlics, Cavs and Lakers are all on pace to win more than 60 games, despite the fact that the NBA might have one of its best groupings of elite teams in years, the only basketball story on which the national media can focus is the summer of 2010 and what the sorry-ass Knicks are going to do with their newfound cap space.

So in that vein, I'm going to cut the LeBron talk right here and now. It's time to focus on the stories that deserve attention in 2008. The Cavs, it might shock some of you, have other players. And for the rest of this article, we're going to shed light on some of the biggest non-LeBron storylines of the 2008-09 season so far.

1. So THAT'S what a point guard looks like

It's no secret that Mo Williams is the biggest difference between the Cavs of last year and the Cavs of this year. He was acquired by Danny Ferry in August to be a difference maker.

But even Ferry might not have envisioned Williams fitting in as well as he has.

After some initial bouts with sloppy ball-handling, Williams has become everything the Cavs could have asked and more. His stats are slightly down across the board, but that's largely because he's averaging 33.5 minutes per game, a career low since he became a full time starter in 2006.

The percentage-based stats that aren't affected by minutes played remain steady. He's making a strong 45 percent of his field goals, slightly above his career average of 44 percent. He's shooting 39 percent from beyond the three-point arc and his free throws have been nearly perfect -- 97 percent. However, it would be nice to see his free throw attempts increase from the current 2.3 per game.

Williams has been as advertised: He's a scoring point guard with speed and quickness who can consistently hit jumpers, but he's unselfish enough to make the pass to an open teammate. The veteran leadership he's brought to the table has been a bonus, and has helped the Cavs roster jell sooner than it might have otherwise.

His man defense isn't stellar, but Mike Brown's team defense concept is designed to minimize players' individual defensive deficiencies, so it's not a cause for extensive worry at the moment.

2. So THAT'S what a shooting guard looks like

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Williams' arrival has been Delonte West. Moved to shooting guard after Williams was acquired, it looked like West might become a mismatched piece in Cleveland. West was an excellent two-guard during his college career at St. Joseph's, when he was paired with Jameer Nelson. But at 6'-3" he became more of a 'tweener guard when the Celtics took him 24th overall in the 2004 draft.

For three years in Boston, half a year in Seattle and half a year in Cleveland, West was more or less operating as a shooting guard playing point guard. His handle is good enough to play the point adequately, but as with most shooting guards who aren't Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, West is at his best when he doesn't have to ignite the offense.

Transferred to shooting guard this year, West has thrived. None of his main stats (11.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3 APG) are career highs, but his field goal percentage (.533) and his three-point percentage (.444) are by far his career bests. And it's not due to fewer field goal attempts. He's attempting a career-high 4.2 threes per game, and his 8.1 field goal attempts per game is slightly below his 8.4 career average.

West is still undersized for a shooting guard, and while he's widely regarded as the Cavs' best defensive backcourt player, having a 6'-3" shooting guard can still create some matchup problems when facing teams with bigger backcourts. As it is, with West, 6'-1" Williams and 6'-2" Daniel Gibson, other teams are making an effort post the Cavs' guards up. But it hasn't prevented the Cavs from streaking to a hot start, largely because Williams and West have been shooting so well.

3. Don't order the rocking chairs just yet

There was no bigger reason to fret over the Cavs heading into this year than the backs of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace. Both ended last season with balky spinal columns. Z ruptured a disk. Wallace looked like the carcass of the player who won four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards between 2002 and 2006.

If Z and Big Ben couldn't retain some of their all-star form from years past, the Cavs would be in deep trouble, with little depth at the big man positions.

But so far this year, the Cavs' two 30-something bigs look like wily veterans. Neither is as spry or mobile as once upon a time, but both are contributing.

More than at any other point in his career, Z is using his deft shooting touch to stretch defenses. For the most part, Z's role on the pick-and-fade has been to set a screen, slide over to someplace on the wing and set up shop to take a 15-to-18 foot shot. He's been money from there for most of his career.

Now, he's fading back to the 20-foot range. Sometimes, he's playing the role of a 7'-3" shooting guard, camped out as far as the three-point line waiting for a kickout pass. The chances of you seeing Z shoot a three in a game, let alone make one, are still kind of rare, but they're more common this year. If Z continues to make his threes, he might actually start forcing his man to come out and contest the shot, opening up rebounding opportunities for his teammates. It's not quite a weapon in Z's arsenal yet, but it's at least something the other team has to consider when compiling a scouting report.

Z is part of the talented frontcourt unit making life a lot easier on Wallace. Big Ben can't jump like he did during his Pistons heyday, so the days of him averaging double-digit rebounds for a season are over. But what Wallace does still possess are quick feet and a great deal of intelligence and mechanical know-how about defensive basketball.

In other words, he's a man after Mike Brown's heart.

What Wallace can still do is play exceptional help-and-recover defense. The Spurs' well-oiled help defense is what vexed the Cavs during the 2007 Finals, playing no small role in San Antonio's lopsided sweep.

A healthy Wallace should do wonders to bridge that gap should the Cavs find themselves playing the Spurs, or any other great defensive team, this season. Wallace has the quickness to get out and help pressure smaller players on the wings, even the perimeter at times, then slide back into the paint to contest a shot. Players with his size and physical bulk don't commonly cover that kind of ground.

Though he doesn't stuff the stat sheet anymore, a healthy Wallace is still a dynamic defensive player, and we've seen that on display in the season's first month.

4. Disciplined Thing, you make my heart sing

For his first four years in the league, Anderson Varejao gained a reputation as a player who is high on energy but low on skill, basketball smarts, discipline and anything else that might further his basketball career.

But to his credit, he's worked on his game, and now it's starting to show. This year, we've seen the next step in the Andy Evolution: Wild Thing version 2.0, The Disciplined Thing.

The player who I once thought had without a doubt the worst hands in the league can now cut to the basket, take a quick pass and perform a reverse layup -- though only right-handed. We can't get too carried away, here.

Varejao still spots up for jumpers a bit too often, but when he lets a 17-footer fly, it's no longer a "What the F&@# are you thinking?!!" proposition. Perhaps most surprising, he's making free throws at more than 69 percent so far this year. That will make his career 58-percent mark rise in a hurry.

It's still too early to pass judgment, but it's encouraging to know that Varejao is willing to work at the skill portion of his game. He's transitioning from a dime-a-dozen energy guy to someone the Cavs might try to re-sign this coming offseason and attempt to build around.

5. Rookie watch

The Cavs' two rookie draft picks, J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson, really arrived on the scene this past week against the Knicks and Thunder. Of course, since it was against the Knicks and Thunder, you'd be within your right to scoff. But sometimes all it takes is a rookie gaining a little bit of confidence that he can play the game at the NBA level.

Hickson has certainly had his rookie mistakes, most of them on defense. His offensive game is predictably evolving at a faster rate than his defense, but he still tries to ball fake too much and tries too hard to force shots in the low post. But if you saw some of his post moves against Oklahoma City and his quicks in the open floor, it shouldn't take long to see this kid has some serious potential.

If his performances against New York and Oklahoma City are any indication, Jackson was worth the wait while he recovered from a broken wrist. In his first couple of NBA games, he's been a rugged bumper-grinder who looks fairly polished from four years at Kansas.

I still think the Cavs will need to add another veteran big man for the stretch run and the playoffs, but it's good to get Hickson and Jackson minutes early in the season. It will help their development, which is critical, since one or both of these guys might be starting in several years.

6. Bad Boobie

It's not all peaches and cream for the Cavs. Despite the franchise-best start and all of the positives on the team, there are still a few areas for improvement -- none more glaring than Daniel Gibson.

Maybe it's because he's taking the focus off his shooting in an effort to develop his ball-handling skills and become a total-package point guard. Maybe it's just a plain old slump. Whatever the reason, Boobie's numbers have been way off so far this year.

In 24 minutes, he's averaging 8.3 points per game. That's not too bad, except when you consider that he's making field goals to the tune of just 37.5 percent and his three-point percentage is a eye-covering 27.9. He's taking more shots than he ever has per game in his career (8.5), but making fewer field goals.

Even though it's admirable that Gibson has expressed a desire to become a better all-around player, his primary value to the Cavs will always rest with his ability to knock down three-balls. So if anything is taking Gibson's focus off his shooting, he needs to back-burner it as soon as possible. The offseason is the time for skill development. Now is the time for doing what you do best and helping your team win games.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Living for the moment

Tuesday night's Cavaliers romp in New York shows why you should treat LeBron James' free agency as what it is: An event that is more than 18 months away.

For now, it's best to live for the moment, because that moment includes a 119-101 beatdown of Knicks that left LeBron's alleged future fans somewhere between nauseous and numb, as the realization slowly dawns on them that, before they even get a shot at LeBron, they're going to have to endure two more years of horrible basketball.

That used to be us. The scene played out at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday used to occur regularly at then-Gund Arena, with a team in powder blue and black force-feeding us players like Ricky Davis, Darius Miles and Lamond Murray, stacking 50-loss seasons one on top of the other. But now, the burden of losing and longing for better days ahead belongs to some other team's fans. It's time for us to appreciate our basketball riches in Cleveland.

If you focus on what might happen in the summer of 2010, you're going to miss a very good Cavs team treating us to what might be the best season in franchise history. It's certainly shaping up that way, with the Cavs winners of 11 of their first 14 games and second only to the Lakers in margin of victory.

If you listen to the national media counting the ways in which LeBron could depart for a bigger market the summer after next, if you keep a running tally of the times LeBron has appeared in public wearing Yankees or Cowboys gear, calling New York his favorite city, or saying anything that could be construed as something less than 100 percent loyal to all things Cleveland and Ohio, you're really missing out on the big picture in favor of harping on the details that have nothing to do with basketball.

Would it be better for us if LeBron were a rabid Browns and Indians fan? Would that make us more comfortable with his level of loyalty to Cleveland, that he's putting his mouth where his money is, so to speak? Would it make you feel better if Cleveland and Akron were one and two on his list of favorite towns? Would your palms be a little less sweaty if LeBron wasn't as tight with New York-based hip-hop mogul Jay-Z? Probably.

But what if a Browns and Indians-loving LeBron turned tail and ran into the waiting arms of the Knicks or Nets in two years? Would it make you feel any better knowing that at least he's still a Browns and Indians fan who is coming to town twice a year to dismantle the Cavs? Probably not. In fact, you'd despise him even more if that was the case.

Is the idea of linking LeBron's favorite football and baseball teams to his basketball future starting to sound ridiculous? It should. Because when the Cavs are this good, as they rarely are, your primary job as a fan is to sit back and enjoy the ride. It's an easy job in practice, but through our own innate negativity as Cleveland fans, and through the power of repetitive suggestion from many members of the national media, we're turning what should be a time of celebration into a time of worry.

If you're combing through the many interviews LeBron has given on the subject of his future, looking for answers, I'll save you some time. What we know is what LeBron has been saying all along. He does have a tendency to tailor his message to his audience, but in the end, what he keeps saying remains fairly consistent:

He likes playing in Cleveland. He likes the fact that home games are within an hour's drive for most of his family and friends. He views Northeast Ohio as his home. He likes how the Cavs are treating him and his family, and likes the alterations Danny Ferry has made to the roster in the past year. In other words, he thinks Ferry and Dan Gilbert have basically done a good job building up the Cavs organization.

Having said that, he's not going to commit to anything right now. He doesn't have to commit to the Cavs or anyone else long term, so why would he? It keeps his options open, lets him react to the situation as it stands in the summer of 2010, and keeps the pressure on Cavs management to continuously look for ways to improve the team.

LeBron is helping build the Cavs into a contender in more ways than one. In addition to his superlative play on the court, the threat of losing him to free agency is keeping Gilbert, Ferry and Mike Brown vigilant about building a championship contender. The Indians and Browns can worry about five-year plans and value signings. The Cavs can't afford to do that.

LeBron knows this. If a star player wants to force his team's leaders to keep their collective foot on the gas, the threat of losing him to free agency is just about the biggest hammer in the bag.

That's not to say LeBron is simply using New York as a decoy to keep the Cavs on their toes. His interest in New York is legitimate. LeBron is very intrigued by the idea of playing on basketball's biggest stage. He repeatedly refers to New York as the "Mecca of basketball," and loves the unparalleled spotlight Madison Square Garden provides. Some of his biggest games have already occurred there. Just shy of 24 years old, he already possesses the fourth-leading scoring average among visiting NBA players in the history of Madison Square Garden.

So the good and bad for Cavs fans have both been laid on the table. LeBron likes the Cavs, likes playing in Cleveland and would probably not have a problem with playing the balance of his career in Cleveland if the Cavs continue to field title-worthy rosters. The pull of the big city shouldn't be enough for LeBron to leave a contending Cavs club to sign with a rebuilding New York club. But the Knicks -- and the Nets if they ever get their Brooklyn arena project back on track -- are very real threats to lure LeBron away should the Cavs stumble.

Now it's all in the open. The air is clear. It is what it is. Nothing is going to change anything between now and 2010. It's a story stuck in suspended animation until LeBron himself moves the saga forward. Media scribes will continue to pen volumes and volumes on the subject, on top of the several hundred phone books' worth that have already been written, and it won't change the fact that they're rehashing the same material over and over.

The advent of saturation media means LeBron can be as big of a star playing in Cleveland as he can in New York. It also means that the New Yorkers who desperately covet him for their teams can bludgeon us repeatedly with columns and soundbites about his choice of hats and choice of friends and everything else ("LeBron eats pancake shaped vaguely like borough of Brooklyn! Details at 11!")

As a Cleveland fan, you have two choices: Either get swept up in the speculation and allow it to ruin your ability to enjoy what is shaping up to be a truly special Cavs season, or let 2010's news wait until 2010 and live for the moment.

I'd advise you to choose the latter. Right now, Cleveland's basketball reality is a heck of a lot sweeter than New York's basketball fantasy.

Friday, November 21, 2008

People skills

It was the F heard around the world.

Phil Savage sent a six-word retort to a piece of hate e-mail shortly after the Browns escaped Buffalo with a win on Monday. Assuming the e-mail was received through his Browns work address, what transpired next was a cautionary tale about the notorious lack of privacy associated with office e-mails.

In response to being called the worst GM in football by a North Royalton Browns fan known only to the public as "Brett," Savage fired back with "Go root for Buffalo. F--- you." Except the F word was spelled out in entirety.

By Wednesday, sports humor site broke the story nationally, recognizing the shock value in an NFL executive F-bombing an irate fan, and having it not be Al Davis. Deadspin was reportedly tipped off by a Pittsburgh radio station, proving once again that Steelers fans will stop twisting the knife in our collective back once we stop giving them a knife to twist.

But as long as embarrassing things like this keep happening, the knife will remain.

By Thursday, the evidence was damning enough that Savage needed to step up and say something. Which, of course, meant .... Romeo Crennel said something in Savage's absence.

"We all get frustrated at times. Phil, generally, like the rest of us, tries to be professional and hold it in, but sometimes some things slip out. It's unfortunate that it slipped out," Crennel told reporters.

The Plain Dealer later received an e-mailed admission from Savage, who was on a scouting trip in California. Savage noted that he and the fan apologized to each other. Through a spokesman, Randy Lerner told The Plain Dealer that the matter is over.

But the ramifications are still hanging in the air like pea soup fog, which is generally the outcome when a team executive is caught behaving in an unexecutive-like fashion.

If Savage is spending even a fraction of a minute responding to hate mail from fans, his priorities can be questioned. His team is 4-6. His defense is a disaster. His feature running back is rapidly deteriorating. His number one receiver can't catch passes. His star tight end is a loose cannon. His starting quarterback is two starts into his career. For the money he makes, Savage's days should revolve around improving the Browns roster, with enough eating and sleeping to get by.

If he's reading fan mail, let alone responding to it, that seems like a remarkable waste of time. Even at 12:17 a.m., the time stamp on the offending correspondence.

On the other hand, e-mail has made previously hard-to-access people far more accessible. E-mail easily skirts around receptionists, gatekeepers, security guards and other support staffers who traditionally have formed concentric barriers between high-profile people and the public at large.

Before e-mail, a fan with an axe to grind would have needed to type out a letter and snail-mail it to Browns headquarters, where it would have passed through multiple sets of hands before even reaching the desk of someone in Savage's office. The likelihood that Savage would even have seen the letter is extremely small.

Now, fan snark can reach someone like Savage at 12:17 in the morning after an understandably-stressful game, right when he's at his most tired and irritable. At that point, decorum and good judgment can easily take a backseat. At 12:17 a.m. after a stressful day at work, the entire world, let alone a rogue heckler, can shove it. We've all been there.

But the difference is, where just about any of us would have wanted to tell Brett from North Royalton to shove it had we been in Savage's shoes, Savage acted on it. Therein lies the problem.

The evidence that suggests Savage has struggled with the people-skill aspects of being an NFL GM is mounting. Dating to the Kellen Winslow fiasco of nearly a month ago, this is now twice that Savage's temper has become directly or indirectly part of a public display that has fueled the growing fan and media perception that the inmates are in charge at the Browns' asylum.

This is now twice that Crennel has publicly commented on a matter involving Savage before Savage even made an appearance.

Crennel gets a lot of flack for his inadequate game management skills and lack of desire to take a hardline stance on anything controversial. But he's got two on Savage in the taking-one-for-the-team department.

It simply does not look good when the GM of an NFL team has a falling-out with his star tight-end, then leaves his coach to not only deal with the tight end, but also explain the GM's side of things at the inevitable press conference. It really doesn't look good when the GM of an NFL team gets caught swearing in an e-mail to a fan, then leaves his coach to say "he didn't mean it" because (oh darn) the GM has to catch a flight to the West Coast.

These might end up being small transgressions in the long run, but it all points to the possibility that Savage is starting to buckle under the pressure of public criticism and malcontent players like Winslow who are all too happy to take their cause to the microphones when their outstretched palms aren't lined with more greenbacks.

Unfortunately for Savage, dealing with these situations is an essential skill for any administrator in professional sports. If you can't handle people, you can't handle the job.

This is the risk any team takes when it hires a scout used to trolling the college ranks in relative anonymity and sticks him on the highest pedestal as the face of organizational management. Randy Lerner and Savage had to know heading into this working relationship that the administrative aspects of the job were the areas in which Savage needed the most grooming.

Unfortunately, inheriting a train wreck of an organization in 2005, he more or less had to fling himself to the wolves.

Amassing talent was the order of the day in the early part of Savage's tenure, so anything else in which he was deficient could be more easily overlooked. But now, as the fourth season of the Savage-Crennel regime comes down the home stretch, Savage -- much like the team he's put on the field -- still looks like an incomplete product. In his attitude and conduct, he has not made the progression from scout to administrator, and time is running out. The rumor mill already has Lerner offering total control of the Browns' football operations to Bill Cowher.

In the end, it's one swear word to one fan who probably deserved it. But one four-letter word speaks volumes about the thin ice upon which Savage is skating.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Holding back Harrison

As the Browns season has dragged on, as the losses have outpaced the wins, the drumbeat has become louder.

Perhaps drowned out only by the din from the multitudes begging for Romeo Crennel's dismissal, one player's cause has become something of a crusade among Browns fans everywhere:

Play Jerome Harrison more.

It's hard to argue with results. Harrison is third on the team in rushing attempts with 20, behind Jamal Lewis with 185 and -- I kid you not -- Derek Anderson with 22. Yet seemingly every time he touches the ball, he electrifies.

Lewis' 185 attempts have netted him 658 yards for a Leroy Hoard-esque (or Reuben Droughns-esque, depending on your era) 3.6 yards per carry. With six games remaining, Lewis is going to have to ramp up his production in a big way to achieve his second straight 1,000-yard season as a Brown. He has just four touchdowns in those nearly 200 attempts, and his season-long run is 29 yards.

Compare that with Harrison, who has turned his 20 rushes into 207 yards for a jaw-dropping 10.4 yards per carry. His season-long scamper is 72 yards on Monday in Buffalo.

In short, every time Harrison touches the ball, something big could very well happen. The same can't be said for Lewis, who has turned into a short-yardage pile driver in the latter part of the season, his quickness waning and his body apparently starting to wear down under the increased workload he publicly demanded from his coaches after just 12 carries in the Week 3 loss to Baltimore.

So why does Crennel and his staff seem so hellbent on keeping Harrison as the perennial trick up the sleeve? If Harrison has this much big play potential, why isn't he playing more in a season in which the offense has desperately needed playmakers?

There are probably two theories to which Crennel and Co. subsrcibe. Accept them at your own peril:

1. Harrison can't block.

At 5'-9" and a shade over 200 pounds, Harrison's ability to pick up blitzing linebackers or safeties is virtually nil. The best he might hope to do is give a parting love-tap to a pass rusher and release into the flat for a pass. So if Harrison is the lone back, the defense knows the ball is probably going to him, otherwise he wouldn't be out there. That might work once or twice a game, but not 20 or 30 times.

Which plays into the second theory...

2. Defenses will figure Harrison out if they see him too many times.

Smart defensive coordinators can probably diagram plays to contain Harrison if they know they're going to see a steady diet of him. Speed is his only real weapon, meaning fast linebackers can take away Harrison cutback lanes with repeated practice, and once they get their hands on all 5'-9" of him, he's going down.

Keep in mind, these are theories, not facts. Barry Sanders, a diminutive back, made a career out of making far bigger players miss him. But that was Sanders, a rare talent with the body coordination of a ballet dancer. Harrison hasn't shown moves like that, but Sanders proved that small stature alone shouldn't exclude a back like Harrison from a larger role in the offense. The litmus test is seeing if he can perform in an expanded all-around role.

So far, perhaps afraid of what might happen if Harrison is given more carries, Crennel has been reluctant to give him that chance.

But in a scuttled season in which Brady Quinn is now stating his case to be the Browns' starting quarterback of the future, why shouldn't Harrison be given a chance to prove himself on a larger scale as well? If he fails, he's not going to damage a playoff run.

Like Quinn, Harrison has played well when given the chance. Like Quinn prior to his promotion, Harrison is stuck behind a starter who seems to be struggling more with each game.

Harrison might never be a meal-ticket running back who can strap a team to his back and win games by grinding out yards in the fourth quarter. That might still be Lewis' department for the foreseeable future. But as Lewis' muscles and joints start to fatigue, Harrison has proven he deserves a shot to at least share in the feature back role.

If the often-outspoken Lewis has a problem with that, he can gripe to the media until his heart is content. Lewis is the present, but if he's still a feature NFL back by the end of the 2010 season, it will be just short of a miracle.

Harrison is the future. Or at least he deserve a chance to show whether or not he can be the future. If the 2008 season has become open auditions for 2009, it would only make sense to give him that chance for the remainder of the schedule.

Of course, that would require Crennel to be innovative, non-stubborn and willing to take a risk. If you're waiting on Crennel to exhibit any of those three qualities without major front-office prodding, I have some beachfront property in Arizona to sell you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

One Batman, many Robins

It's the eternal question on the journey to an NBA title: What is the proper makeup of a championship team?

Do you need spotlight-absorbing superstars first and foremost, or do you need a great team philosophy where the sum is greater than the parts?

It's a question with no definite answer. Both schools of thought have been proven right over the past decade-plus. Michael Jordan won six titles with a sidekick in Scottie Pippen and a host of role players ranging from Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper and Steve Kerr to Bill Wennington, Will Perdue and Jud Buechler. Though the second Bulls three-peat from 1996-98 arguably had the best of both worlds, with a central cast of stars immersed in a great team philosophy.

The Lakers won three NBA titles from 2000-02 led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. The Heat won an NBA title in 2006 with Shaq and Dwyane Wade. The Celtics won an NBA title last season fronted by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. So star power is definitely a means to an end.

But the Spurs won four NBA titles in 1999, 2003, '05 and '07 with a star player in Tim Duncan known more for his solid grasp of fundamental basketball than his athleticism. Duncan never really had what could be termed a sidekick. He's been surrounded throughout his career with excellent role players, produced by one of the NBA's best top-to-bottom franchises.

The Pistons won an NBA title in 2004 without a legitimate star, riding suffocating defense and the scoring of Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups to a colossal upset of the Lakers in the Finals.

Going arbitrarily back to the start of the second Chicago title run in 1996, that's eight titles built on star power and five titles for team-first teams.

If the Cavs are trying to win an NBA title, they have to subscribe to one of these theories. And it appears they have. If you know the Spurs-heavy background of Danny Ferry and Mike Brown, their belief system shouldn't surprise you. But if you're looking at the Cavs as LeBron James and everyone else, it's head-smacking.

The Cavs are not a team built on star power. Or at least that's the goal of Ferry and Brown. And that's why, in the Cavs' philosophy, LeBron doesn't necessarily need a superstar sidekick to win a title.

The popular belief seems to be that the Cavs are going to need a Pippen figure, the proverbial Robin to LeBron's Batman, if they are to overtake Boston, knock off whatever the Western Conference throws at them and win an NBA title. That's certainly an option if the right exchange can be found for Wally Szczerbiak's $13 million-plus expiring contract.

But chances are, Ferry and Brown don't believe that LeBron MUST have a running mate on par with his talent level to win a title.

More important to the Cavs' leadership tandem are the factors that have made the Spurs a powerhouse over the past decade. Namely, a defense-first philosophy, sound fundamentals and a deep roster filled with intelligent role players who can at least do one or two things well on most nights.

If LeBron is surrounded by that type of team, Ferry and Brown likely believe he can achieve the level of success that Duncan has enjoyed with the Spurs. Which is why, when Ferry set about remaking the Cavs roster over the past year, he concentrated on eliminating the dead weight on the bench, removing unreliable players like Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes and bringing in cagey, tough veterans. Enter Ben Wallace, Delonte West and, this summer, Mo Williams.

Going by the Spurs-based philosophy, LeBron isn't a Batman without a Robin, he's a Batman with many Robins. Some can shoot, some can rebound, some can defend, but all can contribute.

As long-suffering Cleveland fans, it's difficult to watch a team like the Celtics sprout from perennial dreg to trophy-hoisting force in one year by making two deals to land Allen and Garnett, completing basketball's latest incarnation of the holy trinity. We want the same for the Cavs, and we have one heck of a first piece in LeBron, with only two more guaranteed seasons of him under contract as a window to get this right.

But I have a feeling that's quick-fix thinking to Ferry. Does he feel the heat to win a title between now and 2010? I'd guess so. But that would be true in any season with LeBron. Whether LeBron's free agency is impending or not, every season with him is a chance to win a title and a chance to show him you're willing to do what it takes to win a title.

In the end, Ferry might trade for another star player. But that doesn't change that fact that he and Brown believe that the key to a title is a good roster and a good system from top to bottom. It's a product of the NBA system in which they were groomed. It's a system that won San Antonio four titles, so can you really argue?

If you want to pine for LeBron's Robin and develop an addiction to the ESPN NBA Trade Machine concocting scenarios that would bring a superstar sidekick to the Cavs, knock yourself out. But know that the guys who make the actual decisions might not be on the same wavelength. Just so you're not disappointed if the trade deadline comes and goes and Szczerbiak is still a Cav.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Fumbling redemption

Even at his polarizing worst, it's easy to see why Kellen Winslow remains a fan favorite in Cleveland.

He's passionate. His competitive fire burns at white-hot levels. He plays through immense pain. He'll fight for the first down marker like he's starving and the last morsel of food on Earth awaits on the other side.

He'll tell it like it is, consequences be damned. If he has a problem with management, the whole city is going to hear about it. Few players can get under the skin of management the way Winslow does, and a city like Cleveland is always going to appreciate a public figure who is willing to stick it to the man.

So it's no surprise that when taking sides in Winslow's rift with Phil Savage several weeks ago, a majority of fans sided with Winslow and accused Savage of trying to put the clamps on the organization's dirty little staph infection secrets.

With the Browns' 2008 season now all but in the trash bin, Winslow has escaped widespread criticism. The popular view seems to be that throughout all of this, while Derek Anderson choked, Braylon Edwards dropped passes, the defense whiffed on tackles, Rob Chudzinski and Mel Tucker failed to make in-game adjustments and Romeo Crennel played his fiddle as Rome burned, Winslow has been one of the few guys pouring out his blood, sweat and tears trying to win games every week.

It's one of the great advantages of being an emotional player in an emotional sport. An approach that is heavy on histrionics makes it seem like you care more than the next guy, and the fans and media respond to that.

Of course, it's not all playacting. Winslow does fight through pain to play, and he does use his naturally-hot motor to rack up yards and keep drives going. He can help a team win.

Unfortunately, as proven on Thursday night, he can just as easily help a team lose. Those heart-on-sleeve traits we celebrate can also backfire. They certainly did against the Broncos.

It's a crying shame because this was the game that could have rebuilt Winslow's reputation with the Browns front office, which might have been quickly coming to the conclusion that the offense operated better without him.

For three quarters, Winslow was Brady Quinn's do-everything man. By the time the game was over, he had snagged 10 catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns. He caught them short, mid-range and long. He was a game-changer, one of the few receivers in the league who can seemingly win games all by himself.

But then, in the fourth quarter, the double-edged sword that is Winslow's temperament swung the other way.

With the Browns leading 23-13 and driving for the dagger score, Winslow negated a third-down completion to Edwards with offensive pass interference. As sometimes happens when Winslow lets his emotions do the driving, he seemed to get overzealous in jockeying for position on a crossing route, planting his defender's rear end on the turf in the process and netting the drive-killing penalty.

On the ensuing drive, Jay Cutler found receiver Eddie Royal for the 93-yard touchdown strike that brought Denver to within 23-20 and permanently tilted the game momentum in the Broncos' favor.

On the next drive, Winslow fought for extra yards on a third-down completion that would have netted a first down, but was stripped of the ball in the process. On the ensuing drive, another Denver touchdown, this time for a 27-23 lead.

To Winslow's credit, he did fight back to have a key 30-yard reception on the next Cleveland drive, which helped set up Jamal Lewis' one-yard touchdown plunge that briefly gave the lead back to the Browns.

But once Denver took the lead again and the Browns received the ball for a last-ditch drive, Winslow let a 4th-and-1 pass sail right through his hands, inserting the final nail into Cleveland's coffin.

The end result of Winslow's game is something of a microcosm of the Browns' entire season: A performance built on promises not delivered. Hope assembled in grand fashion, only to come crashing down through inexcusable mistakes at the worst possible time.

In the end, Winslow isn't any better or worse than the other Browns players who have shuffled on and off the field this year. He's as much a victim of his own inconsistency as Edwards, Anderson and anybody on the defense not named Shaun Rogers.

We'd all like to think that playing through the pain of scarred knees, fighting for the yard marker and standing up to management all count for something. But Winslow is on the same sinking ship with everyone else, and if he's not helping to bail water at the most critical times, he's going to be swimming for the lifeboats along with everyone else.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Answered prayer or praying for an answer?

A reading from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Lerner:

Lights, please.

"And then in the field were fans watching their team by night, and lo, an angel of the Owner appeared unto them, and they were afraid. But the angel said to them, 'Do not fear, for I bring you tidings of great joy; for unto you this evening in the city of Berea is born a savior, 'tis Brady Quinn.' And then in the sky appeared a great heavenly host, singing and praising, saying 'Glory to Quinn in the highest, and peace on Earth to all men.'"

That's the true meaning of the season, Charlie Brown.

Brady Quinn is now the true meaning of a season that has no other meaning. The playoffs are all but out of the question after Sunday's debacle versus the Ravens, which dropped the Browns to 3-5. They would now need six wins in their final eight games to finish 9-7 and even get into the conversation for the playoffs.

Messianic coronations should feel a little more majestic, shouldn't they? Quinn, the golden boy whose arrival was foretold with every Derek Anderson interception, will make his first NFL start under humble conditions Thursday against the Broncos. You might fancy him a savior, but he has to earn that title first. For now, he's a project, a specimen, the football equivalent of a September call-up.

Just so long as we're clear on the ground rules. The popular line of thinking among Browns fans is that Quinn can't possibly be worse than Anderson, whose two-plus years as an NFL starting quarterback may very well have reached its nadir with Sunday's comically-bad fourth quarter lob to Baltimore's Terrell Suggs, who ended up putting the game out of reach with his touchdown return.

But the idea behind starting Quinn, no matter if it was spurred by Randy Lerner, Phil Savage or (less likely) Romeo Crennel, isn't that he's going to produce an instant upgrade from the inconsistencies and repeated mental errors of Anderson. It's that they have to see what Quinn can do over an extended period.

If Quinn struggles even more than Anderson, Crennel still has to stick with him for the rest of the season. If the Browns start ping-ponging between two QBs, as Butch Davis did with Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb five years ago, the end result is a team that belongs to no one. Two starting QBs is one too many.

Sunday's fourth quarter meltdown by Anderson provides an adequate gut-check moment for a transition. Anderson was far from the only culprit in allowing 24 unanswered Baltimore points in a little over a quarter. The defense was as soft as it had been all season, Rob Chudzinski insisted on pounding Jamal Lewis into the teeth of the Ravens defense even after the Cleveland lead had disappeared and Braylon Edwards had one of the most spectacular dropped passes of the NFL season.

But when the Browns needed a leader in the huddle, when they needed someone to be a bridge over troubled water, Anderson was making a bad situation worse with poor throws, rushed decision-making and an overall lack of composure with the game on the line. This has been an ongoing problem with Anderson, and is perhaps the most damning argument against him.

A quarterback can stuff a stat sheet, and Anderson surely can, but like pitchers in baseball and goalies in hockey, the wins and losses fall squarely on the QB's shoulders. If an NFL quarterback falls apart with the game on the line, he's going to be reviled in his city, no matter what he did for the first three quarters.

And that's how we have gotten to this point. The Brady Quinn Era hasn't necessarily begun, but the Derek Anderson Era has ended with a fourth-quarter nightmare in which Anderson was outplayed by Ravens rookie Joe Flacco.

Stuck in limbo, waiting to see if Quinn is the long-sought franchise quarterback for the Browns, are Crennel and Savage. Their jobs now largely hinge on developing Quinn into the QB that Anderson never was. Thrusting Quinn into the starter's role midseason doesn't give them the best chance for success, but that's immaterial now. The wins and losses Quinn produces will determine whether Crennel and Savage keep their jobs.

Working in their favor is Quinn's college resume as a four-year starter at Notre Dame, groomed in Charlie Weis' pro-style offense. The only real red mark on Quinn's record as a Brown so far is his preseason start against the Lions back in August. Other than that hiccup, he's performed reasonably well whenever called upon.

But it's a small sample size that includes a handful of plays in last season's finale against the 49ers as his only regular season experience. Since leaving college, Quinn hasn't been the QB that the other team will break down on film all week. Holcomb could attest to the fact that it's a whole different world when you go from reliever to starter.

Perhaps, in that case, it's good that Quinn is starting after a short week. It gives Denver fewer days to analyze what little NFL footage there is of Quinn, and it gives Quinn less time to stress over his first NFL start. Any leg up at this point is an advantage.

From this point forward, for the remainder of the 2008 season, the Browns are all about developing Quinn, enduring whatever hardships are necessary with an eye toward 2009 and beyond. It was a group effort to convert this season from one of promise to one of maintenance, and it will have to be a group effort to make sure 2009 doesn't follow the same path.

At the center is Quinn, the only guy who is now standing between the Browns and a larger rebuilding project.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The real catch

The frayed nerves around Cleveland have been soothed, at least to an extent.

The Browns are not a bad team. The 2007 season was not a fluke or solely the product of a weak schedule. This is a team with some real talent and ability to win games -- something that couldn't have been said even two years ago.

If the Browns are a team with some serious flaws that start in the front office and work their way down to the field, they're also a team that has shown incredible backbone in rebounding from an 0-3 start, using quality wins against the Giants and Jaguars to put themselves within a win of .500 as the season's halfway point approaches.

A win against the suddenly-mortal Ravens on Sunday and a victory against the stumbling Broncos on Thursday, and Cleveland could have a winning record by next weekend. In late September, that seemed like an impossibility.

In late September, the idea that both Romeo Crennel and Derek Anderson would still have jobs in November seemed outlandish.

The season hasn't yet been salvaged, but three wins in four games has at least opened the door to the possibility that it could be salvaged. The November and December portion of the schedule might yet be another prelude to a high draft pick. But then again, it might include the intrigue of a playoff race. At least it will be interesting.

But, in true Cleveland form, there's a catch. No, really. There is a real catch. A number of them, actually.

They're the catches that Kellen Winslow will make. Because he's here for the rest of the season, he's going to play, and in order for the Browns to make a playoff push, Winslow will need to be successfully integrated into the Browns offense.

Winslow and Phil Savage have apparently made something of a truce in the aftermath of the media circus that preceded the Jaguars game. Winslow's suspension was rescinded, he was fined $25,000 and the dust settled.

But just as in the Giants game, the Browns offense in Jacksonville looked 100 times better with Steve Heiden playing Winslow's role. Unlike Winslow, Heiden is an effective blocker and he doesn't need to venture downfield to make big plays.

With the extra blocking Heiden provided, Jamal Lewis was able to pick up sizeable chunks of yardage running to his right. With good hands, Heiden can make the safety valve catches within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

In short, Heiden does the yeoman's work that the tight end position often demands, throwing the block and making the catch that sustains the drive. Winslow craves the spotlight and wants to make the big play.

The Browns' offense is punctuated by Anderson's vertical passing attack grabbing the headlines (both good and bad), but it is sustained by the punishing ground game of Lewis. With that in mind, it would appear that Heiden and Darnell Dinkins are better fits for what the Browns need in a tight end. It's not a coincidence that Winslow's absence has led to a better offensive flow.

But that doesn't mean that Winslow needs to go away. Letting him rot on the bench for the rest of the season would be the mother of all self-inflicted wounds, in addition to giving the Browns a really bad rap in player-agent circles.

Winslow does need to play. He needs to play to increase his trade stock, improve his contract bargaining position, and to see if he can improve his relationship with Browns management. It's a long shot, but not out of the question, that Winslow could start the '09 season as a Brown.

Most importantly, he needs to play because he can help the team win -- if Crennel and Rob Chudzinski can find the best way to use him. That's a process that will likely have to involve both parties coming to the conclusion that Winslow isn't a tight end, and as long as he stays in Cleveland, he will not be a tight end.

Winslow needs to specialize as a possession receiver. It's not glamorous, front-page work, but it plays to his strengths more than any other position on the field.

On running downs, Winslow's services on the field aren't really needed, other than as a decoy. Same goes for first- and second-down passing plays, when Braylon Edwards and Donte' Stallworth head downfield, and the likes of Heiden and Lawrence Vickers stay behind as extra blockers and checkdown receivers. In those situations, Winslow is one extra route that Anderson has to process before reaching a decision on where the ball should go. If there is one thing we've all learned about DA, it's that the fewer options he has to consider, the better.

But on those difficult 3rd-and-8 plays, that's when Winslow could really shine. On an underneath route, Winslow's size makes him a nice, big target for Anderson. His hands receive high marks for reliability, and his willingness to fight tooth-and-nail to get to the yard marker is already legendary, making him a tough tackling assignment.

Winslow can fight through a gang-tackle effort and still eke out the extra two yards that turn a would-be punt into a first down.

Winslow could be fantastic in that role. But it would require him to accept a specialist's role instead of top billing. It remains to be seen if Winslow's large ego and fierce competitive streak will allow him to become that humble. It also remains to be seen if Crennel would be able to put his foot down if he encounters resistance from a vocal, sometimes-confrontational player like Winslow. Crennel is not a dominant personality and seems to favor appeasement over conflict.

This might be the issue that determines the fate of the season. With a properly-utilized Winslow, the Browns could become the turnaround story of the year, one of a small handful of teams to make the playoffs after an 0-3 start. But if the offense goes back to its old, sorry tricks once Winslow takes the field again, it will be time to start focusing on the '09 draft.