Monday, March 30, 2009

The light at night

Following a winning Cleveland team is a sensory experience for me.

It's more than just flashes of pixel-color in the squared off world of the TV set. It's more than e-mail banter at the office or picking up the newspaper to see the day's headline after a big win.

To me, it's all five senses. The team colors visible around town, the music that marks the era, the smells and tastes on the air, how the air feels against your skin. Not just at the ballpark or arena, but in day to day life. It's more than just a season of dreams. It's a series of snapshots in time taken through all my senses. I want to drink it all in and hold it, so I can pull it back out and live it again in a future daydream.

When the Indians were a force in the 1990s, October would signal its arrival with shorter days and chilly nights that seemed to add to the electricity around town, particularly in the mid-'90s when winning was new and exciting. It did something to the air. It wasn't just the drop in temperature. The air felt different. It smelled different. Anticipation made it different.

Growing up as a Yankees fan in New York, Billy Crystal used to refer to it as "World Series weather." Of course, that was back in the days before playoffs decided the league pennants each year. Now, World Series weather is also the property of the ALCS and NLCS, maybe even a few divsion series games if a cold front hits the right area.

What is climatologically true in New York is also true in Cleveland or any other city in the country's northern tiers. Maybe we'd have the same feelings if we were all living in Florida as Marlins and Rays fans, and the baseball playoffs occurred in the same cloak of heat and humidity that drapes itself over most of the regular season. But I don't think it would. Maybe that's just my cold-weather upbringing talking.

The crisp nights and shorter days make cities like Cleveland snap to attention, out of the lazy late-summer doldrums and into the here-and-now of a championship run.

Following the Cavs through a couple of deep playoff runs, and gearing up for what might be the deepest run in team history, I've spent the past few springs looking for the same feelings that I used to get in the Octobers of my more formative years.

Can there be an October in May and June? It turns out, there can be.

The feeling is there, with a reversal of the weather. Just like the October chill brings something extra to a pennant chase, the spring thaw brings new excitement to a contending basketball season. Night basketball games with daylight starts mean something. It's spring. Your team is in the playoffs. If you're so fortunate, you team might still be playing when shorts and t-shirt weather arrives.

Basketball on the precipice of summer is the best kind. It the kind that fans in just two or four cities get a chance to experience each year. It's national-stage basketball -- heck, world-stage basketball. It's an experience just to touch the hem on its garment, especially in a city like Cleveland, where something that big can't possibly be ignored.

In 2007, on the off-day between Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, I made it a point to head downtown just to see the pomp and circumstance, the giant inflatable Larry O'Brien Trophy out on the plaza next to The Q, all the signage, the souvenir stands. I wanted to be a part of basketball's biggest stage on a warm June night. The Cavs were in an 0-3 hole and about to be swept, but I just wanted to take it all in. A lot of fans had the same idea. Hundreds stood, watched, took pictures, lapped the Q to take in the whole scene.

It was something of a pilgrimage by fans who had never experienced the NBA Finals before. They wanted to drink it all in, because who knows when the circus is going to come to town again.

This is basketball, away from winter's grasp, just like baseball removed from summer's embrace. Every time it comes around, it means something different. Something unpredictable. Something that rallies the whole city.

Something, we endlessly hope, will someday produce a title, a trophy, and a parade attended by thousands.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A strange equation

What do you get when mix two potential starting quarterbacks with a depleted-by-design receiving corps, and top it off with the mentoring of Brett Favre?

It's kind of hard to tell, but we might find out this summer. What we do know it that the long, strange saga of the Cleveland Browns might become palpably more interesting in the next six months, if not more successful.

If nothing else, Eric Mangini is walking to his own beat as the guru of Browns football operations. He's scrapping the receiving unit with little indication of what is to follow. Kellen Winslow is gone, Joe Jurevicius is gone, Braylon Edwards' name has reportedly come up in trade talks, and David Patten has made his triumphant return to Cleveland.

Oh, yeah -- Donte Stallworth killed a man with his car, too. That adds another layer of complexity to the matter of who is going to be catching passes for the Browns this fall.

While the receving unit withers away, Mangini and GM George Kokinis are apparently committed to returning both Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn to training camp this summer, and letting the pair battle it out for the starting job in an open competition.

If this isn't a rebuild, it sure as heck feels like one. Mangini is throwing two quarterbacks against the proverbial wall to see which one sticks better. If Edwards is jettisoned, neither one will have much to work with in the way of playmaking receivers, thanks to the "remodeling -- pardon our dust" sign hung on the entire unit.

Unless Mangini has some unforeseen tricks up his sleeve, 2009 looks to be a season of discovery for the new Browns regime. And by discovery, I mean lots of tinkering coupled with losing as Mangini tries to figure out how to piece together a winning organization from a hybrid of his personnel and Phil Savage's personnel. The result for '09 will be some kind of transitional, mutant football team.

It's perhaps the most maddening part of a regime change -- all the truths that we as fans have already found to be self-evident need to be proven all over again to the new guys in charge. We already know that Anderson completes underneath passes with the same velvety touch as a jackhammer. We already know Jamal Lewis will cry to the media when he doesn't get his totes. We already know Kamerion Wimbley is a one-trick pass rushing pony. Mangini and Kokinis have yet to discover some, or all, of these things. Film can give you an idea of what you're getting yourself into, but until a coach has actually watched his players in action, it's hard to pass accurate judgments.

For the fans who have watched the pathetic football parade of the past 10 years, however, we can go ahead and flip to the back page of the novel. We already know the answers to the questions.

Perhaps the most glaring evidence that Mangini is still feeling his way along is the news on Wednesday that he has reportedly asked Brett Favre to come to Cleveland as a quarterback consultant, helping to perhaps tutor Anderson and Quinn, or maybe simply to help Mangini sort through the oncoming QB controversy.

It would be a thrill in many ways to have one of modern era's truly elite quarterbacks in camp, wearing the team colors, imparting years of knowledge onto the Browns' pair of young signal-callers. But the backfire potential is also great.

It's hard to envision Favre accepting a background role. Maybe he would. Maybe he's finally content with his decision to retire. I'd rather labor under the assumption that once a waffler, always a waffler. And the last thing the Browns need in camp is two young QBs and an aging QB who has once again caught the football bug.

Don't just imagine Brett Favre in a Browns uniform. Imagine the firestorm of media coverage and heaven knows what else that would descend on Browns camp if Favre suddenly decided that he enjoyed playing for Mangini, if he decided that the best way to solve the Browns' QB problem is to strap on a helmet and take the field. Who is going to deny him, especially in an organization desperate for success and positive PR?

Imagine Anderson and Quinn stapled to the bench because Favre, once again, couldn't let the spotlight go, and try to tell me that would be healthy for the Browns organization in the long run.

Maybe I'm jumping way ahead of myself, but Favre has already backtracked once. Even if he is 100 percent retired, Favre would still overshadow a great deal of the goings-on at Browns camp by his mere presence, even if he's just wearing a cap and t-shirt and pacing the sidelines.

Favre has a lot of information that could be valuable to a young quarterback. Maybe he could help Mangini sort out this two-horse race. But there are too many plot threads dangling out there for me to think it would be as simple as Favre coming to town and teaching Mangini's young charges the ABC's of winning in the NFL.

At this point, it's all speculation. You could still color me surprised if Favre is in town at the start of training camp. But there is a little food for thought to go along with the intrigue.

When you step back and take it all in -- the dismantling of the receiving corps, the decision to stick with both Anderson and Quinn, the invitation extended to Favre -- it's a curious equation that might only make sense to Mangini and Kokinis at this point. But whether or not it makes sense to fans and scribes in March is immaterial. The bottom line is, it has to lead to wins on Autumn Sundays, if not this year, then certainly next year.

As long as there is a method to the madness, I'm willing to give it a chance. In eras past, we placed our hope in a long line of leaders who we thought had a grand plan, only to find out that Carmen Policy was a glorified mouthpiece, Butch Davis had paranoia issues and Phil Savage was out of his element as an administrator.

Maybe Mangini, Kokinis and their offbeat 2+0+1 equation is exactly what the doctor ordered. It certainly can't be worse than anything presented to us by Policy, Davis or Savage, right? Right?

Monday, March 23, 2009

All eyes on 65

Rules are made to be broken, history is created to be rewritten at a later date. But as we watch the Cavaliers stride down the home stretch of what has been to this point a magic carpet ride of a season, we can keep our eyes on one near-certainty that has been proven time and again in the NBA:

Teams that win 65 games during the regular season almost always win the NBA title. And the Cavs are currently on a 66-win pace, nudging very close to a 67-win pace. Another week of wins could have them on a solid 67-win pace.

The list of 65-win teams in NBA history reads like a who's-who of basketball: Michael Jordan's Bulls won a league record 72 in 1995-96 and followed that up with 69-win effort in 1996-97. Jordan's Bulls also won 67 in 1991-92.

Larry Bird's Celtics won 67 in 1985-86, nearly matched by last season's Celtics of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who won 66. The Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Lakers of 1999-2000 won 67. Magic Johnson's Lakers won 65 in 1986-87. Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers won 68 in 1966-67. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks won 66 in 1970-71. The Lakers of Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West won 69 in 1971-72 and were largely regarded as the greatest single-season team of all time until the '95-'96 Bulls.

All of those teams won the NBA title. Finding a 65-win team that didn't win the NBA title is a needle-meets-haystack proposition. The 1972-73 Celtics won 68, but lost to the eventual NBA champion Knicks in the conference finals. The Dallas Mavericks won 67 in 2006-07 and managed to get bumped out of the playoffs in the first round by the Warriors, who were coached by Don Nelson, the man who installed the Mavericks' offense in the late '90s. It's hard to fight your shadow and win.

The 65-win mark isn't an arbitrary number pulled from a fishbowl. There are a number of 64-win teams that didn't win the NBA title, including the 1995-96 Sonics and the 1996-97 Jazz, both of whom fell victim to Jordan's Bulls in the Finals. The 2005-06 Pistons won a franchise-record 64 games, but lost in the conference finals. The Spurs won a franchise-record 63 in 2005-06, but lost a hotly-contested seven-game series to the Mavericks in the conference semifinals.

There are certainly many years in which teams with fewer than 65 wins walk off into the sunset with world championship hardware. But reaching the 65-win plateau seems to mark a dramatic increase in a team's chances of winning the title.

Of course, many of the championship teams listed above were the undisputed alpha dogs of the NBA in their title-winning years. It's much easier to win the whole ball of wax when you have the rest of the league on a string. This year, 65 wins won't even get the Cavs undisputed alpha dog status. Both the Cavs and Lakers stand strong chances of winning 65. It would make for an epic NBA Finals showdown, but it would also mean that some team is getting added to the short list of 65-game winners that didn't win the NBA title.

But if the Cavs can simply outpace the Lakers and finish with a better record, the Lakers' final win total might not matter. Reaching the 65-win plateau is a sign of a team's ability to dominate for long stretches, but the correlation between 65-win seasons and championships is rooted in something more cause-and-effect: Homecourt advantage.

If you win 65, you probably have clinched the best record in the league in most years. If you have the best record in the league, that means homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Having Games 5 and 7 of conference playoff series and Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals on your home turf can do wonders for swinging a series in your favor.

Homecourt advantage is more valuable to the Cavs than any other team. Not so much because the Cavs are less capable of winning road playoff games than other contenders, but because Quicken Loans Arena has been the Cavs' ace in the hole this season. They're 32-1 at The Q entering play Wendesday.

There is a good chance the Cavs will go as far as homecourt advantage takes them. In a season during which the first overall seed has been hotly contested among four potential 60-win teams, that is the significance of reaching the 65-win mark for the Cavs.

To the victor goes the spoils. The spoils, in this case, is the right to host Game 7.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

To rebuild or not?

There was a point in time, from the 2007 draft to roughly mid-2008, when former Browns GM Phil Savage was lauded around town as the anti-Mark Shapiro/anti-Danny Ferry.

While the general managers of the Indians and Cavaliers played it close to the vest with trades and free agent signings, laboring under the supposed pretense that no move was better than an overly risky move, Savage was a riverboat gambler. He had cap space, he had the deep pockets of Randy Lerner, and he wasn't afraid to use them.

Savage became known around Cleveland as the GM who would bring a free agent to town and not let him leave Berea without a contract. That's how he landed Eric Steinbach and Joe Jurevicius. Both of those marquee signings helped the Browns seemingly turn their fortunes around with a 10-6 season in '07.

That following winter and spring, Savage used the same aggressive approach to try and improve the defense, trading away the team's '08 second round pick to the Packers for defensive lineman Corey Williams, and dealing their '08 third-rounder plus Leigh Bodden to the Lions for Shaun Rogers. The latter trade occurred after a trade that would have sent Rogers to Cincinnati fell through at the last minute. It was a headline-grabbing example of Savage's opportunism.

If you looked hard enough, you could certainly find critics, those who cautioned us that pawning off draft picks like Monopoly money is generally bad business in sports (see Stepien, Ted). But most of us were as lightheaded as bobby-soxers at a post-World War II Frank Sinatra concert. A Cleveland GM? Aggressively trying to improve his team? Yes, please.

Fast forward to March 2009. The Browns are coming off a 4-12 season. The names of Savage and Romeo Crennel have been relegated to the team's history books. George Kokinis and Eric Mangini have replaced them, and distance has offered some perspective on Savage, Crennel and the jobs that Mangini and Kokinis have before them as they drop the engine and become the latest tandem of mechanics to attempt repairs to the Browns roster.

The overarching question facing Mangini and Kokinis: Is the Browns roster in need of a rebuild?

According to media reports, Mangini felt he could win with much of the current roster intact. It was allegedly one of his main selling points to Lerner when he interviewed for the head coaching job. Scott Pioli's reported desire to scrap the Browns' roster and begin anew might be the biggest reason why he is now the main football operations man in Kansas City and not Cleveland.

But anyone can say anything to land a job, and Mangini, for all his built-in-Belichick's-image secrecy, probably did a great job of selling Lerner on the idea that the Browns have a talent to win, but they need the right coach and front office to facilitate winning. Likely followed by a smile and thumbs-up reminiscent of "Bob" from the ubiquitous Enzyte TV commercials.

When Mangini arrived on the job and finally brought aboard his right-hand man in Kokinis, their opinions on what to do with the Browns roster might have started to change. If it hasn't, circumstances might force their collective hand. The Browns roster is not as healthy as we might want to believe.

In retrospect, many of Savage's most praised moves from the past two years now look like the work of a GM who was playing for the immediate future, a GM who was unsure of whether he was going to retain his job if he didn't start winning right away. It's great to expedite the rebuilding process when you can, but in 2007 and '08, Savage simply did not care about the fallout his moves might cause in 2009 and '10.

Savage's thinking was probably something like this: If he could put a winner on the field in '07 and '08, it would buy him more time to figure out what to do when age, injuries and the salary cap brought the piper to town looking for his pay. If he failed, he'd be fired, and the mess would be someone else's to clean up. The second scenario became reality in January.

Now it is, in fact, time to pay the piper for the short-term moves of Savage, and Mangini and Kokinis have some difficult decisions to mull over.

They've already started, trading away Kellen Winslow -- a player Savage inherited from Butch Davis. Winslow likely would have been dealt no matter who had been running the team. Winslow had simply worn out his welcome in Cleveland. Winslow wasn't a Savage move, but it marked the beginning of the deconstruction of the Savage roster -- or at least the problem areas therein.

Since then, notable cuts have included Joe Jurevicius, an extremely popular local boy who is now a 30-something possession receiver coming off seven knee operations, due to post-surgical staph infections. Kevin Shaffer, a major offensive line free agent signing three years ago, was also cut. Both were cut, in part, to avoid a combined roster bonus of $1.25 million. The payment of roster bonuses is a major drawback of trying to reorganize an NFL roster filled with expensive free agent signings. It inevitably leads to cuts if a team is looking to save money.

That's before we even broach the subject of Shaun Rogers, who last month asked for a trade or release because either A) his feelings were hurt because Mangini didn't greet him on several occasions, B) his feelings were hurt because Browns officials asked him to come to camp in shape and not pushing 400 pounds, or C) he saw the fat contract awarded to Albert Haynesworth by the Washington Redskins, and wants a piece of that action.

Now, Mangini and Kokinis have another curious case to deal with in Donte Stallworth, who reportedly struck and killed a pedestrian while driving in Miami on Saturday. Charges hadn't been filed against Stallworth as of Saturday night, but if blood-alcohol tests find that he was over the legal alcohol limit in Florida, it instantly becomes an imprisonable offense upon conviction.

Keep in mind that Stallworth inked a seven-year, $35 million contract with the Browns a year ago. About $10 million of that is guaranteed. There is a chance that Stallworth's deal could be voided if he is charged and convicted, and those circumstances violate his contract. But regardless of the outcome, it's another sideshow the Browns don't need, and more money they don't need to pay out for little or no production.

Losing Stallworth might be viewed as a positive by many fans, but it would also deprive the Browns of their supposed No. 2 receiver and create serious depth problems at the position when combined with the losses of Jurevicius and Winslow. Mangini and Kokinis might be forced to draft a receiver they weren't otherwise planning to draft.

That's on top of glaring needs at linebacker, in the secondary, on the right side of the offensive line, the lack of a true pass rusher, and the knowledge that Jamal Lewis is running on fumes, necessitating the acquisition of a feature running back within the next two offseasons.

Put it all together, and the new Browns regime is not in an enviable position. Perhaps they're doing all they can at the moment -- purging the sideshows, bringing in some solid-if-unspectacular help through Mangini's Jets connections, and preparing for the draft. The last item is the most important on the checklist.

In the NFL, team building is all about the draft, and successful drafting is the only way a team achieves what the Patriots and Steelers have achieved this decade. There is no way around it.

Savage tried to find a way around it. He left Mangini and Kokinis with a roster full of Band-Aids, short-term fixes designed to save the jobs of Savage and Crennel, but never designed to promote a long term winning culture. And in the end, that's exactly what Savage received for his efforts -- a quick-fix 10-6 season that saved his job for the immediate future, followed by a cold splash of reality as his team crumbled around him one year later.

That reality is what Eric Mangini and George Kokinis are dealing with presently.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Cavs: Lucky and good

If the Cavaliers win the NBA title this June, and newly-signed forward Joe Smith plays an important role in breaking Cleveland's 45-year title drought, we might have to revise our whole perception of Cleveland sports.

Those of us under the age of 40 have been raised to believe that random good luck simply does not happen to Cleveland sports teams. Sure, the ping-pong balls of the 2003 NBA draft lottery delivered LeBron James to us, but it took a 17-65 season to tie the Nuggets for the highest number of ping-pong balls in the NBA's lottery machine that year.

Former GM Jim Paxson put a lot of work into making the Cavs bad enough to have a shot at LeBron, and believe it or not, much of it was by design as he pawned off Lamond Murray, Wesley Person and Andre Miller in salary dumps. In short, landing LeBron was ultimately a game of chance, but the pre-lottery maneuvering was far from an uncalculated move on the part of the Cavs.

Fast-forward five and a half years, and LeBron has formed the backbone of an elite team. It was a bumpy road at times, as LeBron pulled the team to their first NBA Finals berth in 2007, only to have the team imploded and rebuilt midway through the following season, as GM Danny Ferry assessed his team and came to the accurate conclusion that, as constructed prior to the 2008 trade deadline, the team couldn't win an NBA title.

We know the story by now. Ferry jettisoned nearly half the roster in a transformational three-way trade with Chicago and Seattle. Among the players acquired was Smith, a veteran forward known to history as the player who never really lived up to the billing of the No. 1 pick of the 1995 NBA draft, but a player known in NBA locker rooms and front offices as a hard worker and excellent teammate.

While Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace nursed bad backs through last year's playoffs, it was Smith who stepped up against the Wizards and Celtics, becoming arguably the Cavs' most reliable big man. He helped give the Cavs a puncher's chance against the Celtics juggernaut, but the upset big came up about two minutes too short in Game 7, and the Cavs' season ended on a cloudy day in May.

From that point, Smith moved into the final year of his deal and went from valuable bench contributor to valuable expiring contract. When Ferry had the chance to add a frontline starting point guard in Mo Williams, he reluctantly parted with Smith as part of the three-way trade, sending him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was the only real drawback to what was otherwise a heist of a trade for the Cavs.

The absence of Smith hasn't prevented the Cavs from attaining the best record in the Eastern Conference and securing a playoff berth more than two weeks before the vernal equinox, but the consensus among the fans and media (and we'd assume the big thinkers in the Cavs front office) was that the Cavs lacked veteran big man depth. Rookies J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson have showed promise, but playing unpolished rookies big minutes in the playoffs is a fool's bet.

Having traded Smith after July 1 of last year, the Cavs couldn't reacquire Smith via trade during this season per NBA rules. But the idea of reacquiring Smith via a buyout was likely always in the back of Ferry's mind.

This is where the random luck comes in, because there were so many ways in which the reunion of Smith and the Cavs could have been thwarted. Yet the pieces, many of which weren't under the control of Ferry or the Cavs, still fell into place.

Here is some of what it took to bring Smith back to Cleveland:

Ferry stood pat at the trade deadline.

Obviously, this was under Ferry's control. Ferry could have made a trade prior to the NBA trade deadline, using Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract to add a major piece. But in the end, Ferry decided he didn't want to alter the roster to that degree.

After watching Shaq storm through Florida like General Sherman marching to the sea this past week, running smack on Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard in Orlando and giving Dwyane Wade the full Kobe Bryant treatment in Miami, it almost makes you glad that Ferry passed on the chance to bring Shaq and his perpetual sideshows aboard. Almost.

Tyson Chandler's ankle didn't pass a physical.

On Feb. 17, the Hornets sent Chandler to the Thunder in exchange for Smith and Chris Wilcox. But the Thunder's bigwigs didn't like what they saw when their doctors examined Chandler's ankle, and the trade was rescinded on Feb. 18, sending Smith and Wilcox back to Oklahoma City.

A buyout wouldn't have happened with the Hornets, a playoff team that was looking for veteran frontcourt help. But thanks to Chandler's bum ankle and the Thunder's skittish reaction to it, Smith was returned to the bottom-feeding Thunder and the buyout speculation could resume.

Danny Ainge might have panicked.

Think NBA GMs are always cool, calculating life forms who never feel any pressure from outside sources? Celtics head of basketball operations Danny Ainge is here to dispel that myth right now.

After months and months of hearing media members across New England and the nation talk repeately about how the Celtics needed more bench depth the way a man stranded in the Sahara needs water, Ainge seemed to get a bit hasty in the days after the trade deadline.

Saddled with no real tradeable assets, Ainge needed to add pieces via free agency. If Ainge had waited until March 1, Smith could have been a very real possibility for the Celtics. The Celtics have the hardware to prove that they can give an aging veteran a legitimate shot at a ring. The Celtics also have Kevin Garnett, a close friend of Smith's dating to their days with the Timberwolves. Both of those facts could have trumped the Cavs' ability to offer a couple million more in salary.

But lucky for the Cavs, Ainge didn't wait on Smith. He quickly snatched up Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury. Moore is a seven-footer and has a reputation as a pest, but his skill set is more limited than Smith's. Marbury hadn't played in an NBA game since last season, and even at his best, he usually needs a lot of playing time, touches and shots to make an impact.

It would appear that at this point, Smith has more ability than Moore or Marbury to add quality depth to a contender's bench. Ainge might very well have gone with the quickest fix instead of the best choice, and Ferry's team might now reap the benefits of Ainge's decision.

Ben Wallace broke his leg.

How is this a stroke of good luck? It's doubtful Smith, at 33 and with some gas left in the tank, would have joined a contender to play the role of window dressing. Like any veteran player, he wanted to be put to work.

The prospect of joining the Cavs to fight with J.J. Hickson for minutes behind Ilgauskas, Wallace and Anderson Varejao probably wouldn't have appealed to him. But with Wallace on the shelf for the next few weeks, Smith knew he'd have a chance to come to the Cavs and draw significant minutes right away.

If Wallace can return to the starting lineup before the end of the regular season with no ill effects from his injury, it might have been the best kind of bad break a team can hope for.

The Cavs have laid the groundwork with their play.

In years past, it was the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Pistons snatching up the veteran players looking for a shot at a ring. Six years ago, the Lakers grabbed Karl Malone and Gary Payton at cut-rate prices. The Celtics snagged James Posey, P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell for pennies on the dollar last year, and all played significant roles in returning Boston to the top of the NBA.

The Cavs just didn't have that kind of reputation. But now Smith's return might have changed some of that. The Cavs have played so well this year, a veteran player like Smith is willing to come here during the middle of the season, of his own accord, to try to win a title here.

Maybe playing here a year ago helped increase Smith's comfort level with returning, but the bottom line is he wouldn't have agreed to come back to Cleveland if he didn't think the Cavs offered him a real shot at a title.

You have to win in order to lure players who can help you win. And now, thanks to some random luck, some foresight from Ferry and elite-level play from the Cavs all season, they have another player who can help them win.