Thursday, February 24, 2011

Excess baggage

Baron Davis' career has followed a fairly typical story arc for an NBA player of his skill level.

At his best, he's been a star. Not a league-defining superstar, but a prolific scorer and the best player on his team. It was the role he filled during his first career stop with the Hornets and during his most productive career stop with the Warriors.

His stint as a 20 point per game scorer in Don Nelson's 78-r.p.m. Warriors offense artificially inflated his value, and in 2008 earned him a 5-year, $65 million contract from the league's sucker-betters, the Los Angeles Clippers.

Davis was overpaid. His contract began to strain the Clippers, and they started looking for a team to take the lead weight off their hands.

Thursday, the Clippers found their dance partner in the Cavaliers. The Cavs are armed with the deep and open pocketbook of owner Dan Gilbert and were in the market for a first-round draft pick, which the Clips were willing to part with, if it meant offloading Davis' contract.

Exit Mo Williams and Jamario Moon, enter Davis and what appears to be a second lottery pick in the 2011 draft.

In Cleveland, we know the trade was made for the pick. Davis is collateral damage. He won't be here when the Cavs start making their upswing through the Eastern Conference in a few years -- or at least, that's the plan.

But in the interim, the Cavs are stuck with Davis. He's signed for two more years and due about $28 million over that span, so his contract is going to be difficult to buy out in any type of lump sum. The length and size of the contract also mean he'll be nearly impossible to trade until the 2012 offseason at the earliest, when his deal with reach its final year. And by then, a new collective bargaining agreement will likely be in effect, throwing another spoonful of uncertainty into the recipe.

The finances make the Davis situation a calculated risk. His attitude is a wild card that makes the deal combustible.

Davis has long been known as a mercurial player. He's quarreled with coaches and has never been afraid of expressing displeasure with a situation. His most famous friction was with Byron Scott, when Scott coached Davis in New Orleans. Davis once likened Scott to a dictator in an interview.

That would be the same Byron Scott who now coaches the Cavs. Reportedly, the two have smoothed things over from their Hornets days. But distance alters perception. With the two sharing a locker room again, proximity could cause old arguments to resurface.

Then you factor in the losing, and the fact that Davis is going from warm-weather L.A. -- his hometown -- to cold-weather Cleveland. If Davis was losing in L.A., he was at least comfortable. In Cleveland, he'll be losing, in unfamiliar surroundings, enduring miserable weather and reunited with a coach he couldn't get along with five years ago.

It doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for a successful career stop.

Ultimately, it's up to Davis to be accepting of his new situation, and if he isn't, that's his problem. He's a 31-year-old veteran, and he should be expected to suck it up and play hard for his substantial paycheck, no matter where his team calls home or what place it occupies in the standings. But that brings accountability into the equation, which is a foreign concept to much of the NBA.

Davis might not play hard. He might not get along with Scott. He might produce a lousy attitude. And unfortunately, that does become the Cavs' problem, especially next year whenever the Cavs' two lottery picks venture onto the practice floor for the first time.

Davis is a veteran with all-star credentials. He's going to pull weight with any young players. He's going to be a role model of sorts. The question is, what will Davis be teaching? How to use a screen to get open, or how to sabotage your coach? How to set up the offense, or how to get your touches and chucks, and forget about everyone else?

A lot of Cavs fans want to see Duke point guard prospect Kyrie Irving in a Cavs uniform next season. If you want Irving, you do not want Davis to be his first mentor in the NBA unless you can somehow ensure that Davis the all-star will be doing the teaching, and not Davis the moody diva.

Somehow, Scott and his staff are going to have to ensure that the latter Davis shows up, because unless Davis suffers a major injury that keeps him away from the team for a long period of time, they'll have to figure out how to assimilate Davis and all his idiosyncrasies into a team of wet-clay youngsters that will begin a critical formative process starting next season.

This might be a throwaway career stop for Davis, but after this season, it's not a throwaway period of time for the Cavs. Those two divergent viewpoints have to be reconciled. Something tells me it's not going to be easy.

The Cavs should receive high marks for making the deal. Dan Gilbert once again opened his wallet and paid big money to try and benefit his team's on-court product. He assumed a burdensome contract to get a draft pick that, properly used, can help expedite the Cavs' rebuilding process. Chris Grant deserves a thumbs-up for waiting until the deadline to get the highest possible pick.

One NBA columnist thinks Mo should have been dealt last summer. If he had been dealt last summer, it likely would have been to a playoff team. So the Cavs could have received a pick at 20 or below by dealing last summer, or they could have gotten an unrestricted lottery-bound pick by waiting. Decisions....

Of course, this is a draft weak on star power, and you might be able to get the same type of player with the third pick that you could with the 13th. I'll still take my chances with a pair of high picks. If any cream rises to the top during the NCAA Tournament, I'd want a shot at it.

That's the good part. The more iffy part is life with Baron. You can hope for an injury -- which just seems wrong -- you can hope for a mature, professional Baron Davis to show up. Or you can hope all of this is avoided and the Cavs negotiate a buyout with Davis by the end of the month.

Davis is supposed to report to the Cavs by Saturday. If that doesn't happen, that last plot might thicken. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Awaiting further instruction

For years, the Browns have needed a First Monday in January Guy.

The first Monday in January is normally the start of the offseason for perennial dregs like the Browns. It's the day when the postmortem begins. It's the day when the front office takes stock of what went wrong and starts formulating the initial steps to try and fix it.

It's also the day when the coach often gets fired.

Mike Holmgren was brought to Cleveland and paid a lot of Randy Lerner's money to be the man making the calls on the first Monday in January. To be the organizational guru who can identify what is wrong with his team and how to correct it.

Monday, he made his first big call, firing Eric Mangini after a second straight 5-11 season. It's a move that is at the same time defensible and questionable.

In a business driven by wins and losses, Mangini didn't improve. In the division, he didn't improve, leading the Browns to a 1-5 record for the second straight year. His team appeared poised for bigger and better things after a pair of impressive wins over the Saints and Patriots, then fell apart in the second half of the campaign, sustaining embarrassing losses to the Bills and Bengals, and punctuating the season with a 41-9 humiliation at the hands of the Steelers.

But the Browns played competitive football for all but the final game. Mangini got the most out of a very limited roster for the season's first three months. Injuries to Colt McCoy and Scott Fujita slicked the Browns' second-half slide.

This truly was a judgment call for Holmgren, and by his own admission during his afternoon press conference, he hadn't totally made up his mind on Mangini's fate until Monday morning.

"I didn't sleep very well (Sunday) night," Holmgren said during his press conference, as quoted on "I was up a fair amount of the night thinking about this, thinking what I might have to do and trying to make the correct decision."

Mangini is a good coach. Not a great coach, but a good coach. Which is far more than we can say for any other Browns coach in the expansion era. The Browns might gain more from Mangini's replacement, or they might not. But they definitely lost something with his dismissal. They lost the coach who did the initial dirty work of taking the Browns from a circus of ineptitude to something resembling a competent, professional organization. And he took a lot of heat from the players and media to get there.

Mangini came in with the wrong idea about himself as a football guru in the mold of Bill Belichick. He botched the 2009 draft and alienated former GM George Kokinis. But when the time came to reform, Mangini swallowed his pride and became a team player with Holmgren.

He's a better coach than he was two years ago. His time in Cleveland made him a better coach. You could make a case that Mangini deserved a shot to see his vision for the Browns through to completion, maybe with a new offensive coordinator and a couple of new receivers.

That's what makes all of this more than your average bilge-water purging of NFL coaching flotsam. That's what makes this potentially a polarizing move by Holmgren.

Holmgren has placed himself on the hot seat by doing exactly what every one of us wanted him to do when he took the team president's job a year ago: put his stamp on the organization and make this a Holmgren team.

That's about to happen. Holmgren the football executive is about to build an entire franchise in his image. He plugged in his front office last year, and it yielded arguably the best free agent and draft class of the Browns' expansion era. Now we get to see if the former coach who has thrice tread a Super Bowl sideline has the right stuff to hire the best possible coach for this team.

But really, what is Holmgren's vision for the Browns' on-field product? It might still be murky, even to the man himself. Which, honestly, is a little disconcerting for those of us who want to see the most accomplished Browns executive since Ernie Accorsi move forward with a definitive plan for rescuing the franchise from the NFL's sewer.

It would be one thing if Holmgren were dead set on building the Browns around the West Coast offense and Bill Walsh football. That was never going to be Mangini. Sometimes, the pieces just don't fit. But according to Holmgren's comments on Monday, even that isn't an absolute. He says he wants the best candidates. He'll beat the shrubs looking for the best coaching candidates, no matter what corner of the football universe they come from.

"If I hire a coach, I'm going to hire a coach," he told reporters. "He's going to run what he runs, what he's comfortable with, what he knows. Will (the West Coast system) be a part of the consideration in the process? Absolutely, but I'm not going to interfere that way as the president"

Holmgren stated he won't return to the sidelines himself at this point, which eliminates the possibility that Holmgren was angling for the job all along. Apparently, he truly wants to build this team from the executive level.

So what does Holmgren want? The best possible people. That broad definition serves as Cleveland's guiding light for the time being. Maybe the coming weeks and months make the picture a little clearer. For now, we have a team president with respect-demanding credentials discarding a decent coach with room to improve for an undetermined better coach.

Holmgren has the hammer and chisel. He could sculpt a classical masterpiece to rival Michelangelo's "David," or he could scuplt a backyard garden gnome. Right now, this really could go either way.

Frankly, I was hoping for a little more from Holmgren. And I'm going to be hoping for a lot more in the coming months.