Monday, January 26, 2009

Go Steelers?

What defines a Browns fan in this day and age?

No secret, there isn't a whole heck of a lot on which to hang your hat.

You can re-live the glory days of the past, whether your frame of reference is Paul Brown as a football innovator, Jim Brown as an unstoppable rushing force, Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids or Bernie Kosar and those oh-so-close days of the late 1980s.

You can continue to examine the poorly-healed wound left by Art Modell's departure, seething with every morsel of success the Baltimore Ravens attain.

You can find solace in knowing the every other Browns fan has trudged through the past decade with you, following the sorry fortunes of this facsimile second franchise, bearers of an unrevived legacy.

You can do some of that. You can do all of that. But you still won't have reached the one true-essence common denominator that defines a 21st Century Browns fan. To do that, you have to hate the Steelers.

How can you not? Even if you didn't want to hate the Steelers, you don't really have much of a choice. Steelers fans, true-blue, bandwagon or otherwise, populate northeast Ohio in droves. The scourge from the southeast is without question a powerful football force in Browns country.

The Steelers are without a doubt the second-most-popular pro football team in the Cleveland area. And because they win all the time, their fans aren't bashful about flaunting their black and gold on shirts, jackets, hats, bumper stickers, flags, yard signs -- you name it.

Now, before the Sun has faded the "Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl XL Champions" bumper stickers applied to so many vehicles throughout the region several years ago, the Steelers will likely give their fans the chance to apply a "Super Bowl XLIII Champions" sticker right over the top. It's all about staying current, after all.

Browns fans? They might discreetly place a small orange helmet on the back window of their cars. They might have a t-shirt they wear once in a while, maybe a Tim Couch jersey bought during the ancient history of the Carmen Policy years. Maybe you break out the brown and orange on Autumn Sundays, but you probably don't wear it around town 365 days a year like Pittsburgh fans.

Steelers fans are proud. Browns fans want to be proud, but more and more, treat their football loyalty like something of a dirty little secret -- particularly if family gatherings involve Steeler fans. It's kind of like admitting that you sing along to "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" by "Wham!" in the shower. The embarrassment potential is unbearable.

If you're a Browns fan, then you are the fan of a perpetual loser of a team sharing space with the fans of a five-time, likely soon to be six-time, Super Bowl championship team that lives less than two hours away and has the fans in your neighborhood to prove it. Resentment is inevitable. Outright hatred is probable.

But should it be anymore? Should you view Steeler-hate as your civic duty as a Browns fan?

Over the past 40 years, the Steelers have been far more successful than the Browns. Since the new Browns franchise began play, the discrepancy has become even more pronounced. Head-to-head, the Browns have beaten the Steelers just three times since 1999, and are winless since 2003. Since then, the Browns have managed a fluke of a 10-6 season, three 4-win seasons and no playoff berths while Pittsburgh has multiple Super Bowl appearances.

It's almost as if the Steelers and Browns are playing in separate leagues. Their success is so incomprehensible to our frame of reference as Browns fans, it's almost ridiculous to get jealous. If the Steelers win their sixth Super Bowl, get angry at Bill Gates the next time he makes a couple billion, whenever that is.

If anything, you should welcome further success by the Steelers instead of resisting it. Resistance is futile, anyway, and it won't make the Browns any better.

Why should you do something as dastardly as not hate the Steelers with every fiber of your being? Because Randy Lerner and his minions du jour should see the damage they're doing to a once-great rivalry. The most powerful statement that can be handed to Browns management is a city slowly being taken over by the team next door, while the fans of the home team have their once-burning passion eroded into apathy, even something of a sense of respect for what the Steelers have accomplished over the past four decades.

It will be a dark day for Browns fans everywhere when we collectively pronounce the rivalry with the Steelers dead. But it's already on life support. The Steelers and their fans consider the Ravens their top rival in the division, and they're right. Those in the Browns organization don't even recognize the rivalry on their own, largely because every presidential election since 2000 has occurred with the Browns under new management.

The only group keeping the Browns-Steelers rivalry torch lit is Browns fans, and maybe we need to extinguish it as a symbolic marking of the divergent paths of the two franchises. It can always be re-lit at a later date, but the arrival of that date could be measured in geologic time.

Maybe those in charge of the Browns are dense and/or oblivious and/or incompetent enough to not realize what they're ruining. But as the Steelers ready themselves for a shot at one for the other thumb while the Browns continue to wallow in last place with quicksand for an organizational foundation, it's hard to not see the handwriting on the wall, even for Randy Lerner: The Steelers are now; the Browns are so 50 years ago.

Last week, the Browns lost another link to their past with the death of Dante Lavelli. But more links to the past are dying as well, as the losing seasons mount and the distance between the present and the glory days grows ever wider. Nothing seems capable of stopping the separation between the current Browns and everything that made this franchise meaningful in the 20th Century.

So let's call it what it is. Choke on the words, but spit them out: The Steelers are the good guys. They're a quality organization with good ownership and solid executives. They deserve success because they have earned it. The Browns are the bad guys. They're the team that ruins careers, is frequently marred by infighting, can't keep a leadership team in charge for more than four years and is killing what was once a great rivalry.

This coming Sunday, there is a good chance the chasm between the two teams will only widen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Follow the leader

For much of the decade, the NBA's Western Conference was the alpha dog of professional basketball. If you wanted to find the NBA's best teams, you usually didn't have to look east of the Mississippi.

From 2000 to '07, the West won six of eight NBA titles, all by the Lakers or Spurs. The two times in that period that an East team did rise up and win an NBA title -- the Pistons in 2004 and the Heat in 2006 -- the basketball-watching public viewed it as a major upset.

But as the decade draws to a close, so is the West's dominance in the NBA's lead pack. The Lakers are there, the Spurs and Hornets are still really good, but the pinnacle of the NBA has a decidedly Eastern flavor this year.

The stage was set last year with the Celtics' NBA title. This season, the Cavaliers and Magic have formed the other two prongs of a three-way battle. All three teams are on pace for well over 60 wins. All three teams have occupied the top spot in the conference at some point this season.

It appears the trio of teams will engage in a neck-and-neck horse race for the conference's top seed, a race that will only grow more frenetic and confusing as the end of the season draws closer.

So what is the real scoop on these three contenders? Here is some food for thought on the Cavs, and how they match up against the East's other two elite squads.

Cleveland Cavaliers

What makes them dangerous to Boston and Orlando:

1. LeBron James. As if you didn't know. He's the best player in the conference, and no one else can change a game the way he can with his combination of size, speed, vision and smarts. A motivated LeBron is a threat to beat any team, anytime.

2. The Cavs are statistically the best defensive team in the league. They surrender the fewest points per game in the league and typically stifle opposing field goal percentages at a rate that is at or among the league's best defenses. Good defensive basketball generally trumps good offensive basketball in the playoffs.

3. They're 20-0 at home. If the Cavs get homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, beating them will be one tall order for any team.

What makes them vulnerable:

1. A sometimes-stagnant offense. LeBron still has some bad habits in his system, among them a tendency to hold the ball too long, take bad shots and coast for stretches, and that can rub off on the rest of the team.

To his credit, LeBron has never coasted in a big game, but when he cradles the ball and constantly hoists 20-footers, he stalls the offense. Generally, it happens when LeBron tries to take over a game and play one-on-five. LBJ consciously knows he doesn't have to play the hero in every single game this year, but once in a while, his subconscious could use a refresher course.

2. Perimeter defense. Until Delonte West returns from a broken wrist, the Cavs will be without their best perimeter defender. Even with him, Boston and Orlando present matchup problems because Mike Brown's defensive game plans dictate that his players concentrate on taking away high percentage shots inside, then work their way out to defend the lower-percentage shots on the perimeter.

That is a good philosophy, except when the other team heats up from the perimeter. Boston's Ray Allen is among the best shooters in league history, though he's lost a step or five in recent years. Paul Pierce can put on prodigious shooting displays from downtown as well. But the real danger is in facing Orlando.

The Magic possess a couple of 6'-10" mad bombers in Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. Jameer Nelson is no slouch from long distance, either. With a mostly-undersized backcourt, the Cavs (as currently constructed) would likely need to rely heavily on the shot-challenging capabilities of their taller wing players -- LeBron, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak -- to prevent Orlando from conducting a three-point shooting clinic.

Odds are Orlando wouldn't be able to stay smoking hot from long distance for an entire playoff series. But they'll be able to do a lot of damage if their shooters get consistent open looks.

Myth about the Cavs: They don't have a lot of frontcourt depth.

Everywhere Mike Brown has turned this year, he's gotten production out of his big men. When Z went down with a broken foot, Anderson Varejao moved into the starting lineup and J.J. Hickson absorbed some minutes off the bench, with decent results. Darnell Jackson is a foul-committing machine, but can play effective minutes for short stretches. Even Lorenzen Wright got in on the act, starting a couple of games last week when Ben Wallace had the flu.

Orlando Magic

What makes them dangerous to Boston and Cleveland:

1. Mismatches. With 6'-10" Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis and 6'-9" Brian Cook capable of hitting shots from anywhere on the floor, your frontcourt defense is going to be taxed to the limit in facing the Magic. And that's before considering how you're going to stop Dwight Howard.

2. Stan Van Gundy. His striking resemblance to adult film star Ron Jeremy is a running joke, but beyond the "Hedgehog" references, Van Gundy is a damn good coach. Much like Mike Brown did in his first couple of years with the Cavs, Van Gundy has taken an offensive-minded team and gotten them to play fundamentally-sound defense. A Stan Van Gundy team will always be a well-prepared and well-coached team.

3. Dwight Howard. He averages 20 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. He's a beast.

What makes them vulnerable:

1. A lack of size inside. Once you get past Howard, Orlando's inside presence consists of Tony Battie and Adonal Foyle, with a little help from Lewis. The Magic might be able to out-shoot a lot of their shortcomings, but they are primed to get bruised and battered inside by Boston or Cleveland (or Atlanta or Detroit) in a playoff series. They are, in a word, finesse.

2. An overreliance on the three-ball. The Magic jack up an average of 26 three-pointers per game, making an average of 10.5, for a 40.3 conversion percentage. That's pretty good. But it's a high risk/high reward proposition. Much like a gunslinger quarterback, the Magic live and die by the deep ball. Building so much of your offensive attack around low-percentage shots could come back to bite them if the shots stop falling.

Myth about the Magic: No one is paying attention to them.

Cavs fans can dispense with all the "Magic are going to sneak up and get us" talk and Magic fans can pull the plug on the "No one respects us" talk. The Magic are not going bump in the night anymore. They're the worst-kept secret in sports. They've arrived, the national media is stroking them, they're soaking up their share of the spotlight. If they ambush any team in the playoffs, that team gets what they deserve.

Boston Celtics

What makes them dangerous to Cleveland and Orlando:

1. They're the champs. They've been to the summit, they know what it takes to get there, they've already proven they can win a championship together. Come playoff time, the burden is still on the Cavs and Magic to knock them off.

2. Stopping the Big Three is asking a lot. And I'm not talking about Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Allen can score, but come playoff time against top-flight defenses, he will be reduced to a one-dimensional specialist. The Big Three I refer to is Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo.

Rondo is arguably the most important cog in the Celtics' attack. He is the penetrator who draws in defenses and creates open looks for Pierce and Garnett. That's especially important as Garnett has aged into a second-decade player and has traded in his low-post game for a mid-range jumper.

3. TD Banknorth Garden is quite possibly the most hostile playoff environment in the league. Staples Center in Los Angeles and our very own Quicken Loans Arena will certainly get into the conversation, but the Celtics' house will be filled with thousands of loud, obnoxious, likely inebriated Red Sox fans looking to keep their voice boxes conditioned until October. Gloria James doesn't want to know what they're saying about her whenever LeBron is within earshot.

What makes them vulnerable:

1. A suspect bench. Sure, the Celtics are still winning at a tremendous clip this year, but there is no denying that this is a team minus James Posey and P.J. Brown from last year's title team. The bench is thin when compared to other contenders, especially the Lakers and Cavs. Boston could have less of an ability to absorb injuries and fatigue.

If the Celtics were actually considering signing noted locker room hand grenade Stephon Marbury if and when he became a free agent, that a sure sign that Danny Ainge and Celtics management have spent more than a little time fretting over their bench depth. They know it's something that could be exposed over the course of a seven-game series.

2. A lack of team speed. The Celtics do many things well, but running the floor isn't one of them. We saw it in the Cavs' January 9 win over the Celtics: If you can speed the game up, you can take them out of their comfort zone and possibly tire out their 30-somethings sooner.

Myth about the Celtics: They're the biggest band of crybabies in the NBA.

Kevin Garnett's constant act of taunting the opposition, screaming and beating his chest like an amphetamine-crazed Ray Lewis has certainly gotten old. Anyone west of the Massachusetts state line is sick of hearing Paul Pierce referred to as "The Truth." Unfortunately, however, you must be without sin to cast the first stone. And the fact is that strutting, preening, taunting -- and especially whining -- is an epidemic in the NBA.

LeBron is among the league's biggest ref-whiners, following in the grand tradition of Tim Duncan. Dirk Nowitzki does it. Kobe Bryant does it. Rasheed Wallace sure as heck does it. So while the Celtics might have taken a sense of entitlement and verbalized arrogance to something of an extreme, they're far from alone in the league.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Offseason checkup

I need to think about baseball for a minute.

As I'm writing this on Friday evening, the temperature reading on my computer is minus-1. The forecast tells me the thermometer is going to bottom out at minus-11. There is also a foot of snow on the ground, and ice pretty much everywhere there isn't snow.

I could use a midsummer night's dream right about now. So let's check in with the Tribe. A team which, lost in the shuffle of the Browns' shakeup and the Cavs' fast start, has had quite an eventful offseason.

In years past, the Indians were criticized by myself and other writers for sitting on their collective hands during the winter months. This winter, following an 81-81 campaign that only reached the .500 mark thanks to a furious second-half comeback from the doldrums, Mark Shapiro and his staff went proactive.

Championships aren't won or lost in the offseason. But it's still good to see Shapiro roll the dice and attempt to improve a team that is well worth improving, if 2007's run to the ALCS is any indication.

Shapiro constructed the Tribe's offseason around four major moves -- two trades and two free agent signings. As of now, it looks like two of the moves were solid moves, and two were questionable.

Below, I give my grades for the four major moves of the Indians' offseason. If you disagree with them, the good news is that there is a long time and a lot of baseball to be played between now and October.

But I'll take the October weather right now, thanks very much.

1. Indians sign closer Kerry Wood to a two-year deal.

For now, forget Wood's history of arm trouble as a starter. Yeah, it could surface. But Wood has put enough distance between himself and his days as a starter that we can consider him reinvented.

The Wood deal works on multiple levels. Along with Juan Gonzalez and Kevin Millwood, it is one of the few examples of the Dolan-led Tribe shelling out big bucks for a major free agent. And unlike Gonzalez in 2001 and Millwood in 2005, Wood isn't coming off an injury or a lousy year and looking for a one-year contract to reclaim his market value.

His fastball flirts with 100 mph, and he has the breaking stuff to take advantage of his heater. After watching Bob Wickman and Joe Borowski close games on fumes and guile for most of the decade, Wood's explosive stuff should be thrilling to watch.

Since transitioning to the Cubs' bullpen in '07, Wood has become a legit stopper. He worked his way into the back end with 22 appearances in '07, amassing a 1-1 record with a 3.33 ERA, 24 strikeouts and 13 walks in 24.1 innings.

OK, so those stats aren't terribly impressive for a would-be closer. But if you consider his '07 season a prelude to his '08 campaign, the numbers look a lot more impressive.

In his first full season as a closer, Wood pitched 66.1 innings, converting 34 of 40 save chances with a 5-4 record and 3.26 ERA. He struck out 84, walked 18 and surrendered three home runs. The major shortcomings in his stat line are his hits allowed (54) and earned runs (24). But if he keeps up that K/BB ratio and converts saves, that's what counts.

Grade: A

2. Indians trade Franklin Gutierrez to Seattle as part of a three-way deal, receiving relief pitcher Joe Smith from the Mets and infielder Luis Valbuena from the Mariners.

The Mets and Mariners made bigger splashes in this trade, which went down in mid-December during the winter meetings. The Mets received Seattle closer J.J. Putz, while Seattle received seven players, including Gutierrez and reliever Aaron Heilman. But just because the Indians made the least noise doesn't mean they necessarily received the smallest return.

Smith made 82 appearances with the Mets in '08, compiling a 6-3 record and 3.55 ERA. What makes him particularly attractive to the Indians is his sidearm delivery. For a team that might break camp with Rafael Perez as the only late-inning lefty, the ability to give hitters different looks from the right side could be valuable.

A sidearm delivery is more than a gimmick or a way for a failed overhand pitcher to keep his career alive. There is a reason why guys like Tampa Bay's Chad Bradford seem to hang around in baseball for years, and always seem to find themselves on contenders.

Valbuena played 18 games with the Mariners last season, but he is still essentially a farmhand. But in an organization still trying to figure out exactly what its infield of the future will look like, throwing in a guy who hit .302 in 212 at-bats at Class AAA last year can't hurt. It appears Valbuena will start the season at Columbus.

Grade: B-plus

3. Indians trade a package including reliever Jeff Stevens to the Cubs for infielder Mark DeRosa.

This trade reeks too much of a Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge pet move for me to accept it just yet. As we have seen over the years, Shapiro and Wedge love versatile, hard-nosed, under-the-radar players. You might call them "grinders." It wouldn't be a Shapiro-Wedge offseason without the acquisition of at least one grinder.

To be clear, I have nothing against versatile, hard-working players. Those attributes are valued in just about any profession. I have more of a problem with how Shapiro overvalues his so-called "grinders," and how Wedge uses them.

Mark DeRosa as a utility guy? Sure, why not? Mark DeRosa tossed into the battle royale for the starting second baseman's job? Cool. Mark DeRosa as your rubber-stamped starting third baseman? Um, can we talk about this?

DeRosa is a career .279 hitter. He wasn't a fulltime player until 2006, when he played in 136 games for the Rangers -- and it's not for lack of experience. He made his major league debut in 1998, and he'll turn 34 next month.

Prior to clouting 21 homers last year, he'd never hit more than 13 in a season. His 87 RBI last year for the Cubs is by far a career high. Entering his mid-30s, everything DeRosa did last year screams "career year" rather than "late bloomer," which is really what the Indians are hoping they have in DeRosa.

They also only have DeRosa, a 2009 free agent, for one more guaranteed year. Stevens, on the other hand, could be a mainstay of the Cubs bullpen for years to come. This seems to go against the value-based principles that Shapiro holds so dear when making trades and signings.

What really grinds my gears about this deal is that I am a proponent of moving Jhonny Peralta to third base and Asdrubal Cabrera to shortstop. Peralta played third in winter ball this year. Cabrera is so much of a natural shortstop, it almost hurts to watch his glove at second base. But with the Tribe's new utilityman-made-good at third, it appears the status quo will be kept as long as possible.

Shapiro and Wedge could do this the easy way. Make the inevitable infield shift in spring training, when experimentation is acceptable. Instead, it looks like they're going to make circumstances -- injuries, slumps, etc. -- force their hand into shifting Peralta and Cabrera. So instead of a nice, neat transition in March, we'll probably have an awkward transition in the middle of the season.

Call it paralysis by analysis or just plain old mule stubbornness. Whatever it is, it's not one of the more endearing traits of the Tribe's leadership.

Grade: C-minus

4. Indians sign Carl Pavano to a one-year deal.

OK, so it's only one year and a base salary of $1.5 million. That's way down from Pavano's 2008 salary of $11 million with the Yankees. For the Indians, it's a relatively low-risk proposition from a money standpoint.

But the Indians need a reliable veteran arm to help stabilize what might end up as a very young rotation behind Cliff Lee. They need more than a tide-me-over until Jake Westbrook completes his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery.

Pavano might end up falling short on both counts.

He ended his '08 season with a relatively strong showing, but that was after four years of nearly continuous arm problems that limited him to 26 starts between 2005 and '08, making him one of the worst free-agent signing disasters in Yankee history.

In short, Pavano's injury history is so extensive, it's hard to believe he can stay healthy and take the ball every fifth day for an entire season. It doesn't matter how little guaranteed money the Indians have committed to Pavano, if he's on the disabled list, he's not going to be earning his paychecks, and the Indians will have the same hole to fill that they did before Pavano's arrival.

On top of that, it's difficult to see what made this guy attractive to Shapiro in the first place. You don't have to dig very deeply into Pavano's stats to see that he's been a mediocre pitcher for the vast majority of his career.

His prime years were 2003 and '04, the only two years of his career in which he eclipsed 200 innings pitched. In '03, he went 12-13 with a 4.30 ERA in helping the Marlins win the World Series. In '04 -- by far his career year, and a contract year to boot -- he went 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA, then left the Marlins to sign his infamous contract with the Yankees.

I'm all for second, third, fourth and fifth chances. But if Pavano can't keep his arm intact enough to take the ball every fifth day and pitch reasonably well, he's not going to help this team. And history says he won't be able to.

Grade: D

Saturday, January 10, 2009

LeBron in prime time

In professional sports, a player's career unfolds in glacially-slow increments. In much the same way it would be nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly when a geologic era ends and when another begins, it's -- albeit on a smaller scale -- difficult to measure when exactly a player enters his prime years.

All you can do is look for indicators. For those of us searching for the start of LeBron James' career prime, Friday's convincing win over the Celtics might have given us the strongest piece of evidence yet that LeBron is ready to reach his zenith.

Physically, LeBron has never not looked like a player in his prime years. He entered the league with an NBA body, NBA athletic talent and an incredibly-developed sense of how to handle NBA fame. Since then, he's only become bigger, more athletic and more savvy.

The only ingredient that was really missing was his approach to the game. More specifically, his approach to defense.

For his first five years in the league, LeBron did all of the right team-oriented things on the offensive end. He took over games when it was needed. He never stopped trusting his teammates, no matter how many three-balls Donyell Marshall bricked or how many passes smacked Drew Gooden's palms and landed out of bounds.

He became a leader. He took Daniel Gibson under his wing. He respected what his coaches told him. He was and is a model teammate.

But there is a certain amount of stubbornness associated with LeBron. Perhaps it's the product of having a superstar's ego. Perhaps he was simply more concerned with rounding out his offensive game. But LeBron's path to becoming a great individual defender seemed to meander far more than his path to stuffing the offensive stat sheet.

LeBron could play great defense when he wanted, but too often in years past, he'd play the passing lanes looking for a steal, or play a sort of half-speed on defense to conserve energy for the next trip down to the offensive end.

It was understandable to an extent when his teammates were Marshall, Gooden, Larry Hughes and Damon Jones, and LeBron was really the first, second and third options on offense -- reliable options, anyway. There are only so many ways one player can exert himself.

But the rarefied air occupied by Michael Jordan? The multiple rings? Those weren't going to be within LeBron's grasp until he rounded out his game at the defensive end.

Friday, in the fourth quarter, Mike Brown rotated LeBron onto Paul Pierce when other options proved insufficient. And for the first time on the big stage, we saw LeBron as a shutdown defender on an elite opponent.

Pierce is Boston's go-to guy in the second half. He's the clutch-shot drainer. He's the guy who takes on the other team's best scorer in games of one-upsmanship.

That's exactly into what Pierce was trying to convert Friday's game. A repeat of last spring's Game 7 between the Cavs and Celtics, when LeBron went off for 45 and Pierce for 41, and the Celtics edged the Cavs out of the playoffs en route to a 17th NBA title.

Last season, LeBron might have obliged Pierce's challenge to go mano-a-mano. Last season, a game like this might have disintegrated into LeBron and Pierce exchanging shot after shot while the other eight guys on the floor ran the in-game equivalent of suicides, baseline to baseline.

But this is a wiser LeBron, who realized that if Pierce caught fire from the floor, that would be Boston's best chance to get back into the game. With Pierce as his responsibility, LeBron made it a personal crusade to keep Pierce from finding clean looks at the basket.

LeBron has made defensive highlights before. Many times it involves an emphatic block. He had one of those on Friday night, too. But his defensive highlight of the evening came on a Boston possession late in the third quarter when, without the benefit of a double-team or the edge of the court to act as another defender, he physically walled Pierce off from doing anything with the ball.

Pierce was attempting to post LeBron, looking for any way to clear space for a shot. But LeBron stayed on him like a 260-pound wet t-shirt, blocking his attempts to go right and left, or pass the ball to a cutting teammate. Pierce was utterly walled off from any action moving toward the hoop. He had to relent, reset himself, and before he realized it, the shot clock grew late, and he was forced to fling a weak pass to Leon Powe, who tossed up an awkward miss.

After that sequence, Pierce -- and by extension, the Celtics -- started to lose a bit of their composure. Pierce's final stat line: 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting, 1-of-5 from beyond the arc.

When, exactly, LeBron learned that suffocating defense can intimidate opponents as much as an offensive barrage is not as important as the fact that he can now count it among his vast array of weapons. And that embraces the fact that he can use his superlative talent to play lockdown defense.

LeBron's individual defense added momentum to the Cavs' team defense, which held Boston to 41.3 percent shooting from the floor. The Celtics' inability to solve Cleveland's defensive attack seemed to reveal something about their character. After attaining so much success in such a short period of time last year, it's apparent the Celtics are having a hard time dealing with their current struggles in a manner that doesn't involve sulking and pouting.

Down by three and four possessions late in the fourth quarter, with Pierce and Kevin Garnett already sent to the bench muttering what we could assume were some not-nice things under their breath, Celtics coach Doc Rivers resorted to fouling Ben Wallace repeatedly. Wallace is a career 41.8 percent free throw shooter -- the worst of all time.

Once or twice, it made sense to resort to a "Hack-a-Ben" strategy. But as Wallace kept splitting his pairs of free throws and the strategy failed to pull the Celtics any closer, Rivers continued to foul Wallace, in an apparent act of denial-slash-frustration.

LeBron banked in a 40-foot shot on one of the Wallace fouls. It was a shot released in anticipation of the foul, and had LeBron released it a fraction of a second sooner, it might have resulted in a four-point play attempt, with three points going to LeBron and one possible point to Wallace.

It would be foolish and incredibly premature to say the Celtics and Cavs are headed in opposite directions. But on Friday night, LeBron reached a new pinnacle while the Celtics -- and their collective composure -- continued to slide.

We already knew LeBron could impose his will on a game from a pure athleticism and stat sheet-stuffing standpoint. But now, we are seeing a different type of LeBron emerge. One who excels at the psychological warfare of defensive basketball. The type of basketball that wins in May and June.

If Friday's game is an teaser for LeBron's prime years, his prime will be a prime unlike any other.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Boobie Gibson interview

...Such as it was.

Thursday evening, on assignment for, I got the chance to pull aside one Mr. Daniel "Boobie" Gibson of the Cavaliers for a round of quick-fire questions, as Gibson finished up an autograph session at a cell phone store in North Olmsted.

The line for autographs was insanely long, and the public relations rep in charge of coordinating the event told me I was Gibson's 14th interview of the day. So I was understandably told to keep it short.

Herded into a back room of the store along with Gibson and a bunch of other people, I wedged 11 questions into somewhere around five minutes. All the while, Gibson signed a few extra items for various people and prepared to make a dash for his nice, warm limo.

That's the back story. The interview in its entirety can be read here.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Chemistry class

Chemistry on a professional sports team is a delicate thing. With million-dollar salaries and million-dollar egos in every direction, the players on a team basically have to make up their minds that they are going to coexist with teammates.

Even then, as playing time is distributed and redistributed by the coaches, as players find their way onto pedestals and into doghouses, on and off the injured list, the happy little locker room is in danger of catching a stray virus that can quickly spread into rampant discord.

So far, the Cavaliers have fended off any large-scale threats to their team's chemistry and remain an overall cohesive bunch that continues to win games at a thrilling pace -- 27-5 after Friday's win over the Bulls.

But that doesn't mean that Danny Ferry can take his hand off the rudder. Choppy waters lurk ahead as the 2009 portion of the schedule toughens considerably, and Ferry will find himself forced into making some critical decisions over the next couple of months.

There are two main schools of thought on the current state of the Cavs' roster. One school says that the Cavs are still a major trade away from the ability to take on all comers and win an NBA title. The other school says the Cavs have a cohesive roster winning at a franchise-record pace, so why fix what isn't broken?

Both schools of thought have some solid reasoning behind them, which makes Ferry's decision on what to do with the expiring contracts of Wally Szczerbiak and Eric Snow all the more difficult.

The injury to Zydrunas Ilgauskas' ankle throws another wrench into the works. Z originally sprained his ankle in early December. He returned after several games, but it quickly became apparent that the ankle wasn't healing properly. A second MRI this week revealed a small bone chip in the ankle, which will sideline him for up to a month.

The extended stretch without Z will give Ferry a definite sense of how this team will operate minus one of its key players. Until further notice, Anderson Varejao will start at center, and Varejao's bench minutes will go to some combination of J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson and Lorenzen Wright.

It means that rookies Hickson and Jackson will continue to develop their NBA games. It also means that Mike Brown could be forced to play his rookies in critical situations where they might make rookie mistakes, commit critical turnovers and possibly cost the team a win or two.

Generally, rebuilding teams play their rookies in critical situations, not teams trying to win 60-plus games and a world championship.

Ferry cannot allow injuries or other circumstances pressure him into making a trade he wouldn't otherwise make. But he also cannot let himself become convinced that great team chemistry is a golden egg that must be protected at all costs.

Yes, roles have been defined on the Cavs roster. Yes, a team generally performs at its best when players know what is going to be asked of them, night in and night out. But if Ilgauskas' absence proves an unsealable leak and the rookies aren't ready for the training wheels to come off, Ferry's strength of position in trade negotiations will become somewhat compromised, as the prospect of adding another veteran big man will become more of a necessity than a luxury. If the loss total creeps upward in Z's absence, the red flag will morph into a warning siren.

Come playoff time, and maybe even beforehand, the Cavs will need the best possible roster Ferry can deliver. That might prove to be the roster as it currently stands. But now that the injury to Ilgauskas has become a longer-term issue, chances are the Cavs' lack of veteran frontcourt depth is about to be exposed on some level, and Ferry won't be able to plug his ears, whistle "Dixie" and hope everything falls back into place with no front office intervention.

Ferry likes the makeup of his roster. It's hard to find a ton of fault with a 27-5 team, and a lot -- both good and bad -- can happen between now and the late February trade deadline. But if Ferry shuns potential trade partners just because he's trying to preserve harmony in his locker room, he's chasing the wrong goal. It's ultimately about hardware, not harmony. Good chemistry is merely a means to an end, but it's only one of the means.

In the end, a GM has to trust that his players are big boys and can work together if they're all focused on the common goal of winning a championship. As long as Ferry isn't bringing in a player with a longstanding reputation as a troublemaker and polarizer, the burden ultimately falls on Brown and locker-room leaders like LeBron James and Mo Williams to assimilate a new teammate.

Making a move just to make a move, or as a knee-jerk panic reaction to an injury, is a bad idea for a GM. But sitting on your hands just to preserve the status quo is almost as bad. In the past year, Ferry has done a great job of picking and choosing his spots to make bold moves. It has paid off. But now that he's seeing the payoff, it's not time to develop a case of cold feet.

The Cavs roster is very good, but it can still use some shoring up if Ferry can make the right deal happen. With Z on the shelf until possibly February, Ferry might face escalated pressure from within the organization (read: Team LeBron) to seek out and make that deal.