Monday, December 30, 2013

Only the names change

In Cleveland, we've become experts at identifying failed football leadership. A decade and a half of being exposed to it will tend to have that effect.

Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, you fail. Please exit to the right, and continue collecting your paychecks for the ensuing five-odd years, per the particulars outlined in your lucrative contracts.

But ... They've only been on the job a year -- this is still a work in progress, right?

No. They've failed. It might not become evident until a few more losing seasons have accumulated and they actually receive their walking papers, but they've failed. This regime will end like all the others. With the main characters sitting at home, collecting ownership's money to not coach, not general manage and not preside, and the Browns once again looking for the same answers that have eluded the franchise for 15 years and counting.

They failed to hire a big-name coach last winter. Then they hired Rob Chudzinski, which they now admit was a failure by firing him after one season.

The firing itself was the result of a failure to step back and look at the situation from a global standpoint. Obsessed with the win-now culture that has infested the NFL, angered by the team's late-season swoon, and perhaps possessing delusions that the same types of big-name coaches that turned the Browns down a year ago will now beat a path to Berea, Banner and Lombardi -- with the blessing of Jimmy Haslam -- gave Chud the quick hook five hours after finishing a 4-12 rookie season as an NFL head coach.

That would be a 4-12 season in which Chud was forced to start three different quarterbacks due to injuries and ineffectiveness. A season in which the starting tailback was traded three weeks in, and replaced with a rotation of has-beens and never-will-be's.

A season in which Greg Little and Davone Bess couldn't hang onto the ball, and even budding star Josh Gordon had his share of drops.

A season in which Gordon didn't even know if he'd be a Brown all year, until the trade deadline safely passed in October.

A season that, in spite of all that, was actually more competitive than the final record indicates. The Browns were flat-out robbed of a win in New England by poor (or biased?) officiating. They held late leads against the Jaguars and Bears before losing at the end. They put a scare into the then-undefeated Chiefs before losing by six points at always-hostile Arrowhead Stadium. They held halftime leads in each of their first six games.

Yes, there are no moral victories in the NFL. But Chud's perpetual-underdog team competed most weeks. They had their low points, to be sure -- the 41-20, Week 11 loss to Cincinnati started the second-half slide, and counts as the worst loss of the season in terms of both margin and impact -- but Chud's teams competed, and with this roster, what more can any rational observer expect?

Reading between the lines, what does that say about the rationality of the executives currently running the ship?

By firing Chud after 16 games, Banner and his crew wanted to send a message: no excuses, no compromises and total accountability. Perhaps in their ivory ego-tower, they truly believe that's what they did.

But the message they really sent was all about their willingness to toss their coach under the bus, deflect criticism from the shortcomings of the roster they assembled, and their lack of desire to pay anything more than lip service to the ideals of continuity and stability. You know, those odd, foreign principles that have seemed to help out organizations like the Patriots, Steelers and Ravens over the years.

And they didn't just send that message to the ticket-buying public. They sent it, loud and clear, to the guys in the locker room. Veteran team leaders Joe Thomas and D'Qwell Jackson were among the most vocal in their criticism of the firing.

When a free agent is considering contract offers, and he wants to get a real-deal picture of what the organization is really like, do you think he's going to take Banner's or Lombardi's words at face value? Of course not. He's going to get in touch with the likes of Thomas and Jackson. And what are they going to say? Let your imagination run wild with that one.

The Browns have their own free agents, too. Most notably, Pro Bowler Alex Mack and Pro Bowl alternate T.J. Ward. If Banner is arrogant enough to think a better coach can do more with his roster, he's probably arrogant enough to think he can replace Mack and Ward through the draft. So maybe this is a moot point. But if the Browns did want to try and re-sign either, the next Browns coach will be Coach No. 4 for Mack (drafted in 2009) and Coach No. 3 for Ward (drafted in 2010).

New coaches mean new playbooks and new coaching styles, which are long, difficult, macro-level adjustments in the world of football. You probably couldn't blame them if they preferred to continue their career in a place with a bit more consistency -- or any consistency, for that matter.

Everything about Chud's dismissal reeks of a startling disconnect in the minds of club leadership between how they perceive things and how things really are. Even measured by the long, sorry, limp, tepid, foul, rancid precedent that the Browns have set since 1999, this firing is bad medicine.

This won't end well. But that probably depends on your definition of "well." If "well" means 18 holes of golf at an exclusive country club while you're cashing seven-figure checks to not work for the team that fired you before your contract was up, "well" is actually quite well.

If "well" means enduring a deepening spiral of loss-splattered football misery that only seems to get worse no matter how bad it already is, well … you'd have Cleveland.

That's the great thing about being a pro sports executive. Even if you fall flat on your face and damage your team for years to come, eventually it just becomes somebody else's problem. And you always come out smelling like greenbacks in the end. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Waiting on Waiters

Dion Waiters is the widget of the Cavs roster. If he were a mechanical device, he’d have a lot of lights and buttons that indicate he can do many different things. But he didn’t come with any type of instruction sheet, so you’re left to randomly press buttons, hoping to find the sequence that powers him up.

What can he do? Does he fit your needs? If so, where? All legitimate questions that don’t really have any solid answers through the first 100 or so games of Waiters’ professional career.

He came off the bench in his two years at Syracuse. The Cavs drafted him fourth overall in 2012 because, despite the fact that he was relegated to a sixth-man role, his scoring talent was apparent. Perhaps envisioning a better version of the Mo Williams and Delonte West backcourt that helped power the Cavs to 66 and 61 wins seasons in LeBron’s final two years here, the Cavs wanted to pair Waiters with Kyrie Irving in the starting backcourt.

Much like Williams and West, Irving and Waiters were both a tad undersized, but both could create their own shots, and both are adept passers. A backcourt comprised of a pair of point guard/shooting hybrids could be very versatile and very dangerous.

But there is only one ball. Only one player can create the shot per possession. Kyrie, being the anointed franchise player, would essentially get the right of first refusal, forcing Waiters to play off the ball.

It didn’t really work. Waiters never seemed comfortable taking kickout passes, curling off screens, and all of the other catch-and-shoot rhythm play that is expected of a shooting guard. Last year, he finished second among rookies in scoring behind Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, but his 14.7 PPG came on 13.4 often poorly-selected shots per game. He converted 41 percent of his shots as a rookie, but most of his converted shots were around the basket. He shot 31 percent from three-point range, exhibiting no ability to stretch the floor – a must-have skill for any starting shooting guard in the NBA.

This season didn’t begin much better. As the Cavs careened to a 4-12 start, Waiters continued to struggle in his starting role. Then the rumors started. He reportedly wanted out of Cleveland. He allegedly accused Kyrie and Tristan Thompson of playing “buddy ball” with each other, leaving him comparatively starved for touches and shots.

But as Mike Brown spent November searching frantically for anything that would stop the bleeding, one of the moves he made was perhaps one that was a year in the making: He shuffled the starting lineup. C.J. Miles became the starting shooting guard, and Waiters moved to the same sixth-man bench role that made him a top-five draft pick at Syracuse.

So determined was Brown to keep Waiters in that role that when Miles went down with a calf injury, Matthew Dellavedova – who will never be confused with an actual starting shooting guard – started in his place.

Waiters reportedly wasn’t happy with the move – who wants to lose their starting gig? – but since moving to the bench, the progress has been palpable. Since Nov. 27, Waiters has notched five 20-point games and a 30-point game. There have still been a few clunked in the mix (1/10 FG and 3 PTS versus the Clippers), but the good games have outpaced the bad games.

Waiters is playing with more confidence, even swagger at times. But even as Waiters starts to show signs of developing into a productive player, there are still a circus’ worth of elephants in the room.

Did the Cavs really burn a No. 4 pick on a guy who was destined for a bench role? If Waiters needs the ball and Kyrie needs the ball, can they ever play together in the same backcourt and be successful? Even with the renewal of hope spawned by his recent uptick in performance, will we simply come to the conclusion that Waiters is a mismatched part in Cleveland, and bound for the trading block?

It is an odd development to have a high level of redundant scoring in the backcourt – Jarrett Jack can also chuck it – while small forward languishes, occupied by the underwhelming trio of Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark and Anthony Bennett. But scoring is scoring, no matter where it comes from. And with a roster that appears to finally be stabilizing itself after a November of horrendous turmoil and blowout losses, now might not be the time to answer the questions regarding Waiters’ future in Cleveland.

If the players on this team can continue settling into their roles, absorb Brown’s complicated defense well enough to execute it at a reasonably high level and score enough points to win more than they lose, the best course of action might be to let the Jell-O set for the remainder of this season.

It’s a far cry from several weeks ago, when it looked like a transformational trade was the only thing that might save the season.

Chris Grant will almost certainly address the small forward position this coming summer, one way or another. And if the Cavs can sign or trade for a quality scoring forward, Waiters’ presence as a bench scorer could add first-string scoring punch to the second unit – a luxury that a lot of teams don’t have.

A fan base like Cleveland’s, starved for a championship – and recently, just starved for winning seasons and playoff appearances – doesn’t want to hear about works in progress. Fans don’t want to hear front-office buzzwords like “process” and “upside.” But that’s exactly what the Cavs are. They’re a work in progress, and all the holes and roles won’t be completely filled or defined this season. Even if the Cavs roar back to claim a top-four seed in the weak Eastern Conference, all the questions won’t be answered.

That includes how to best utilize the undefined widget that is Waiters. Starting shooting guard? Backup combo guard? Trade bait? Those questions will have to be answered at some point. But not right now.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The tackle that ruined a season

I generally don’t like to dwell on the past.

What would have happened if Earnest Byner hadn’t been stripped of the ball? If Jose Mesa had gotten a ground ball from Charles Johnson or Craig Counsell? If Joel Skinner had sent Kenny Lofton?

It didn’t happen. That alternate reality will never exist. So what’s the point in lamenting it? We have what we have, so let’s make the best of it.

Yet, in those quiet moments of lucidity, I can’t help but dwell on a small portion of the recent past. I can’t help but wonder what might have come of this Browns season if Brian Hoyer’s knee had stayed intact.

Heading into that Thursday, Oct. 3 game against Buffalo, Hoyer had been the freshest breath of air Browns fans had experienced in six years. The Browns didn’t look like world-beaters, but they certainly resembled a confident, competent NFL team since he had taken the reins and led the team to a come-from-behind Week 3 win at Minnesota.

Hoyer had been the third-string quarterback on the depth chart. Rob Chudzinski surprised a lot of people when he vaulted over second-stringer Jason Campbell to give Hoyer the starting nod after Brandon Weeden had injured his thumb in a second-week loss to Baltimore.

But Hoyer quickly made Chud look like a genius. He seemed to be a hand-in-glove fit to Chud’s offense. He made quick reads, quick throws, moved the ball and scored points.

In the span of two weeks, the Browns went from resembling their same old sorry selves to resembling a team that could make some noise in the AFC playoff picture.

That Thursday night game capped a crescendo of a week for Cleveland sports, after the Indians had clinched a playoff berth that Sunday, and hosted their first playoff game since 2007 that Wednesday night – the first playoff game Cleveland had hosted in any sport since May 2010.

The Indians lost under the national prime-time lights, but the following night, the Browns put the city right back under the national spotlight. And this time, we had a football team worth showcasing.

Then, barely five minutes into the game, Hoyer was flushed out of the pocket. He scampered for the first-down marker near the sideline, but his knee buckled as Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso tackled him, rolling over him in the process.

The initial reports said Hoyer might have a ligament sprain in the knee. Maybe he’d only miss a few weeks. Then we heard he might have torn a ligament. Maybe a partial tear? Maybe, hoping against hope, it wasn’t a season-ending injury?

But the next day, we found out he had torn his ACL and was done for the year. And all the air went out of the Browns season. All of the losing, negative inertia that has provided the wind for this franchise’s sails for the past decade and a half was jostled back into place. We were destined for more of the same old Browns.

It was more devastating than your typical season-ending injury to a key Browns player. It was more devastating because the various Browns leadership regimes have been on a 14-year quest to solve the quarterback position. Nothing has dogged this franchise more than poor QB play, and Hoyer, at the very least, offered a glimpse of what this team could be when not sabotaged by lousy QB play.

Hoyer’s two games and change as the Browns starting QB was a much-needed corrective lens that allowed us to view the rest of the team in a realistic light. When healthy, motivated and not assailed by the endemic “here we go again” losing culture that has anchored itself in Berea, the Browns are actually a decent football team. They’re not ready to contend for a Super Bowl by any means, but they have quality talent at some key positions.

This is not a barren roster. But it’s a roster that is going to play well below its potential if it has a low-performing QB at the helm.

Now that we’ve seen it, it’s encouraging and agonizing at the same time. We’ve seen what the Browns can be, but we’ve also seen how much it hinges on finding a quarterback who can play the position at a relatively high level. And we’re not talking Tom Brady or Peyton Manning here. Hall of Fame credentials aren’t necessary. We’re talking about someone of the Andy Dalton class. Just good, not necessarily great.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe we’d have found a solution at quarterback. Maybe the Browns brain trust wouldn’t feel the need to roll the dice on drafting a QB in a 2014 class that is being touted as one for the ages, but looks kind of iffy when you get down to it. Marcus Mariota’s decision to stay at Oregon next season isn’t helping that cause.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe the Browns are 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC wild card race, instead of 4-8 and playing out the string. You’d certainly have to think that the Browns could have beaten the Lions and Jaguars with better QB play. Maybe they could have stunned the Chiefs, who only defeated them by six points. Maybe one of those divisional blowouts against the Bengals and Steelers turn out differently with better QB play buoying the confidence of the entire team.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe this would have been a season of real progress, if not a playoff berth. Instead, we get the usual doses of opacity and uncertainty as the Browns stagger toward free agency and the draft, to be followed by minicamps, until we arrive at training camp at the end of next July. Hoyer will be there. Who knows what shape he and his knee will be in after nearly a year of rehab, but he’ll be there to compete with whomever the Browns trade for, draft or sign in an effort to create a quarterback competition in camp.

And we’ll begin the cycle all over again, hoping to find answers where there have only been questions, fortune where there has only been misfortune, wins where there have only been losses. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Just enjoy the show

The Miami Heat are in town to play the Cavs. You don’t even have to look at the schedule to know it.

All you have to do is click on a local sports website, turn on the TV, open the paper – and all the evidence is there.

LeBron is back in the news. People are talking about him. People are talking about him coming back to the Cavs. People are talking about him not coming back to the Cavs. People are printing t-shirts and handing them out. People are spending money on billboards outside of his old high school in Akron.

Maybe someone will jump out of the stands at tonight’s game and beg LeBron to come back, as happened two seasons ago. Maybe that person won’t get leveled and cuffed by security. Maybe they will.

Maybe the Goodyear blimp will hover overhead bearing a LeBron-themed message. Maybe someone will fork over the money for a plane banner, though it might be kind of hard to see against the typical gray November sky in Cleveland.

What is certain is that LeBron never comes back to these parts under cover of darkness. Every time his Heat play the Cavs, we undergo an intensive, self-funded feasibility study regarding the chances of him ever suiting up for the Cavs again. Usually, those studies end in tears as we talk ourselves out of the possibility – which is especially easy right now, with the Cavs off to another slow start – and the Heat seal the deal with a double-digit smackdown.

Invariably, the lead-up to Cavs-Heat games always serves, in the end, as an excuse for Clevelanders to feel sorry for themselves, which is a time-honored tradition around here.

We’re not over LeBron. Heck, the Cavs organization isn’t over LeBron. We want him back. If you say you don’t, it’s your defensive mechanism talking. The Cavs were fun when LeBron was here. They won. They played deep into May, every year. They won 60 games twice. They got to the Finals for the only time in franchise history.

These Cavs? They’re not really all that fun. They lose all the time. They often get blown out when they do lose. They probably need some kind of earth-moving trade to save this rebuild attempt from the scrapyard. But they’ll protect their 2014 cap space at all costs. Because LeBron can opt out of his contract after this season and become a free agent.

Call it desperate, call it anything you want, but the Cavs are going to make a run at LeBron next summer. Laugh all you want. If the best player on the planet decides to become a free agent, you’d be crazy not to make a run at him.

Will the billboards and banners and t-shirts and vocal love make any difference when LeBron looks at his options this summer? It certainly won’t make his decision for him. But at least he knows there is a percentage of the local population here that doesn’t hate his guts, that enthusiastically wants him to return. It’s a far cry from what he probably ever expected again in 2010.

As fans, what more can we do beyond expressing our opinion? Richer and far more powerful people will chart the course of history.

Maybe the key to negotiating the LeBron maelstrom isn’t to let LeBron himself go, but to let go of the rudder. Become a spectator. Be accepting of any outcome. Just expect entertainment.

If nothing else, that’s why you tune in. That’s why you pay for the ticket. To watch the sum total of what unfolds in and around a big sporting event. It’s as much about the signs and the chanting and the sound and the colors and the emotional, visceral response as it is about the mathematical outcome of the game – and certainly when your team is hopelessly overmatched, as the Cavs almost certainly will be against Miami.

LeBron’s latest return to Northeast Ohio, and the accompanying tidal wave, is some cayenne pepper mixed into what would otherwise be a bland, boring blowout of a game between the two-time defending NBA champions and a young, struggling team still trying to figure out how to tie the drawstrings on their shorts.

As long as you tune in with that mindset, and not perpetually cognizant of LeBron’s rejection, you can derive satisfaction from the experience.

Just tune in, sit back and enjoy the show. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Where to go from here?

We’ve been patient with the Cavs. We – or at least most of us – bought into the idea that the team was in needed of a complete rebuild after LeBron left. We knew it would take a few years. We knew there would be losing.

It’s been a few years. A few years that included two No. 1 overall picks and two No. 4 overall picks. Few teams get the chance to draft four top-five picks in the span of three years. Few teams win the NBA draft lottery twice in the span of three years.

But the losing? It’s still there. And it might be worse than ever.

After 166 losses in three years, Byron Scott was shown the door as Cavs coach. Mike Brown re-entered, ostensibly to rebuild a team culture centered on staunch defense. It would be worth any of the offensive shortcomings that typically plague Brown-coached teams if it means a defense that clamps down on passing lanes and challenges every shot the other team takes. Because you simply don’t contend for an NBA title without elite defense.

Twelve games into Brown’s second go-around as Cavs coach, and the Cavs are 4-8. The record is bad enough, but then you actually watch the team play, and you realize they’re lucky to even have won four.

In Wednesday night’s loss to the Wizards, the Cavs didn’t even try to play for three quarters. The only player who gave max effort on every play was Matthew Dellavedova – an undersized, undertalented and undrafted rookie who has to play all-out unless he wants a seat on the first bus to Canton.

The Wizards – a team that won’t be confused with the Miami Heat any time soon – rolled up a 27-point third-quarter lead. The Cavs didn’t play defense, they didn’t play offense, and they committed brain-dead unforced turnovers, which has become a staple of the season thus far.

A furious fourth-quarter rally cut the deficit to four, but you almost didn’t want the Cavs to win the game, lest it reinforce the idea that you can jerk around for three quarters and pull a win out of your nether regions in the end. They ended up losing 98-91.

Wednesday’s no-show came one week after a blowout loss in Minnesota that prompted a players meeting. The meeting was reportedly a heated, contentious affair that should have served as an airing of grievances, and above all, a wake-up call.

Two nights later, they looked flat in a home loss to Charlotte. Saturday night, they needed a late rally and overtime to win their first road game of the season in Washington.

In other words, that meeting did little to spark the team’s competitive fire.

The Cavs are pulling out all the stops at every level to try and find a solution. Players meetings haven’t worked. Lineup-shuffling by Brown hasn’t worked. It makes you wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes.

What is wrong with the Cavs? And where do they go from here?

The lack of effort would seem to be symptomatic of discord behind the scenes. Either players aren’t getting along with each other, Brown isn’t connecting with them or, worst of all, there is a mutiny in progress against Brown.

Brown isn’t the easiest coach to play for. Much like former Browns coach Eric Mangini, he’s authoritarian, he values heavy-handed discipline and he doesn’t really care whether the players like it or not. When he finally brainwashes the players into his line of thinking, he’ll get results. But initially, players don’t really like playing for him.

Secondary to that, Brown developed contentious relationships with the two superstars he’s coached in his career – LeBron and Kobe Bryant. They are, arguably, the two most influential players in the NBA. Knowing that there is a massive social network among NBA players, it’s easy to wonder who has said what to whom via texts and phone calls. Is Kyrie receiving negative feedback on Brown from very high places in Miami or Los Angeles? Is that coloring his opinion on playing for Brown? Maybe or maybe not, but it’s at least worth bringing up.

But players are ultimately paid millions of dollars to be professionals and play for the coach that the team has hired. If they’re not even trying to compete for large stretches of games, that’s a poor reflection on them, not the coach.

This is a problem with two solutions. Three, if you count standing pat and waiting for things to improve organically, but that seems like an option that is rapidly disappearing over the horizon.

The two active solutions are to fire the coach or execute a major trade that turns over a significant portion of the roster.

Brown was hired last spring and signed to a five-year deal. Brown certainly has his warts and caveats, and it’s understandable that he’s highly unpopular with the fan base right now, but he’s probably not going anywhere for at least several years. That leaves a large-scale trade.

Former GM Danny Ferry made that kind of trade in February 2008. It was a three-team deal with Seattle and Chicago that sent away Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Ira Newble and Donyell Marshall, and brought in Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith. The Cavs struggled in the short term, but that deal – along with a deal to acquire Mo Williams in the summer of ’08 – paved the way for the Cavs team that won 66 games the following season.

High-volume trades often involve more than two teams, and as such, are difficult to assemble and execute. It could take months of prep work and hours upon hours of phone calls to put the pieces together – and even then, large trades have been known to fall apart at the last minute.

But if GM Chris Grant wants to get proactive about improving this team, it might be the only option. This roster is apparently struggling to stay motivated. It’s a roster that is, overall, too young to contend and contains a fair number of mismatched and/or nonproductive pieces.

There are no scoring swingmen on the roster save for sporadic outbursts from C.J. Miles. Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack look like redundant players – all undersized backcourt volume-chuckers who need the ball in order to impact the game. Andy Varejao continues to do a poor impersonation of a rim-defending NBA center – but he has to, because Andrew Bynum can’t even play 20 minutes a night right now.

Both 2013 first-round picks are bringing absolutely nothing to the table – Anthony Bennett because he’s a hard-boiled hot mess between the ears and Sergey Karasev because he needs to spend about a year living in the weight room before he’ll have anything approaching an NBA body.

Everything – the attitude, the makeup, the remedial learning curve for Roker’s Ph.D.-level defensive schemes – all of it seems off. The only solution could be to try and find players with better attitudes who can bring more complementary skills to the table.

Brown, Bennett, Irving and company might serve as the whipping boys in the court of public opinion, but ultimately, the person with the most heat on his neck might be Grant himself. This rebuild was his vision. The draft picks, trades and signings are all his. The coaching hire was his. If this team doesn’t win, the buck stops with him. And it could be his job on the line if the Cavs trudge to another high-lottery finish this season.

Armed with that knowledge, don’t be surprised if this roster undergoes a transformation sometime between now and Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

2013-14 Cavs: The wild cards

“What if?”

It’s the most Cleveland of questions. The Indians liked it so much they turned it into their advertising slogan for several years. But this year’s Cavaliers team might have every right to snatch that slogan for themselves.

Perhaps no team in the NBA presently has a bigger factor of variables than the Cavs. We know the Heat, barring a catastrophic injury to LeBron James, are going to be the league’s best team. We’re almost certain the 76ers are going to be the league’s worst team, fronting the Andrew Wiggins lottery derby in 2014.

But the Cavs? They could fall just about anywhere in between.

What if Kyrie Irving takes the next step to superstardom? What if injuries limit him to fewer than 65 games again?

What if Andrew Bynum recovers to his 2011-12 form, when he had the best statistical season of his career? What if his knees can’t keep him on the floor?

What if Andy Varejao once again flourishes in Mike Brown’s defense? What if he keeps adding lines to his rapidly-lengthening injury history?

What if Dion Waiters really is Joe Dumars to Kyrie’s Isiah Thomas? What if he’s a chronic shot-chucker who consistently sabotages offensive possessions, and he never gets any better?

What if Tristan Thompson’s right-handed shot doesn’t work? What if it does? What if Anthony Bennett’s recently-revealed sleep apnea and asthma caps his conditioning level, relegating him to a part-time role? What if Jarrett Jack starts to play like a 30-something? What if his veteran leadership is exactly what the doctor ordered? What if small forward is a black hole of non-productive suck all season long? What if Alonzo Gee really can become Cleveland’s version of Bruce Bowen?

And what if Brown’s offensive acumen hasn’t improved since he last patrolled the sideline for the Cavs in 2010?

If the majority of those questions have positive answers, the Cavs could win upwards of 50 games and find themselves in the battle for a middle playoff seed in April. If the majority of those answers are bad news, the Cavs could be a 30-win team in the lottery hunt for the fourth straight year.

With the Cavs season set to tip off Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets at The Q, this is a closer look at what we know about the 2013-14 Cavs:


PG Kyrie Irving: When the media starts talking about Kyrie needing to make the third-year leap, it’s the height of praise. LeBron made the third-year leap in 2006 and took the Cavs to a hard-fought, second round exit against the Pistons in his first playoff appearance. Kevin Durant made the third-year leap for Oklahoma City in 2010. Chris Paul is a member of the third-year leap club. Now Kyrie has to do the same.

Kyrie has the goods to put himself on the outskirts of the MVP conversation in his third year. He’s not unseating LeBron and Durant just yet, but he could make his presence felt. He has arguably the best handle in the league, a reliable outside shot and a knack for making incredible finishes in traffic. And if the preseason is any indication, he’s already paying more attention to defense.

The one caveat with Kyrie is his body. Brittle bones and joints have already cost him significant chunks of his lone college season at Duke, and his first two NBA seasons. The injuries have been of a freak nature – nothing chronic or degenerative – but missed games are missed games. He has to stay on the floor for at least 70 games this year if the Cavs are to make significant progress.

SG Dion Waiters: His offensive talent is undeniable. Despite being a controversial No. 4 pick in 2012, he finished second among rookies in scoring last year. The problem with Waiters is harnessing that talent.

Waiters doesn’t have the best basketball instincts. He tends to hoist up the kind of jump shots that wreck possessions. But he appears willing to learn, and Brown is willing to teach. If Waiters can master playing in the flow of an offense, he could blossom into an 18-19 PPG scorer with a significantly elevated field goal percentage. If not, he’s going to become nary more than a poor man’s Stephon Marbury.

SF Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee: The mere fact that there’s a slash in the name doesn’t bode well for the position. Clark and Gee are interchangeable parts at this point. Both have some length that can help with perimeter defense – not that either of them are going to earn a spot on the NBA All-Defensive Team. Neither brings much in the way of offense.

The popular theory, of course, is that whoever mans this position is merely a placeholder until the Cavs make a run at LeBron next summer. But regardless of whether LBJ returns or not, this position will need an upgrade after this season.

PF Tristan Thompson: Give TT credit – he’s worked his tail off the past two years. He came into the league as a raw athlete with little in the way of skill. Now, you could make a case that he’s the most fundamentally sound of the Cavs’ five starters.

He’ll never pour in 20 points a game. He doesn’t need to. TT needs to defend, rebound and make the few open shots he gets – in that order. If his new righty jump shot lets him do that, there are few, if any, real questions about him. And that’s a great place for a third-year player to be.

C Andrew Bynum: He’s the guy on this roster who really makes your stomach churn and your heart pitter-patter. You really, really don’t want to place a lot of hope in the idea that he’ll recover to be the interior force he was with the Lakers. But if he does, he could be the ingredient that turns this team into something truly special.

Bynum, with his knees and head on straight, is the best post-playing big man in the league. Yeah, you have Pau and Z-Bo and an aging Tim Duncan – I’ll still take a healthy, motivated Bynum on the block. He’s big, strong, nimble and adept at shooting with both hands. He’s virtually impossible to stop if he gets deep position on his defender. He has to be double-teamed in many cases, which opens up shots for the other four guys.

A healthy Bynum paired with a healthy Kyrie? You can see why the defense mechanisms go up if you dwell on it. It’s too heartbreaking to think about it not happening.


F/C Anderson Varejao: In lieu of Bynum, Andy is the starting center. And that’s far from ideal, both because the increased workload of the past few years likely contributed to his recent string of injuries, and because Andy is at his best in a super-sub role.

Andy needs to be allowed to roam the floor, harassing players on the wings, drawing charges and being an all-around nuisance to the other team. As the starting center, he needs to stay close to the basket and play a much more static role. That’s just not his game, and it showed over the past few years. Despite Andy’s prodigious rebounding totals, the Cavs interior defense was quite porous when Andy was out there.

G Jarrett Jack: He’s going to be expected to be a human glue stick for this young team. He can bring scoring off the bench, but even more than that, his presence needs to be felt in the locker room by Irving and Waiters, both of whom need a role model who is still in uniform.

The primary worry with Jack is that he’s 30, and that’s right about when players start to trend downward in terms of production. Jack needs to bring a reliable 9-12 PPG off the bench, and if called upon to start, he has to still be able to shoulder a starter’s workload.

G/F C.J. Miles: He’s a gun for hire. He never met a three-pointer he wasn’t willing to take. That probably makes him worth the minutes, because when he gets hot, he’s a candidate for a 20-point quarter. But he brings little else other than those brief spasms of white-hot production. He’s a horrid defender, and that might cost him a spot in Brown’s rotation, despite his standing as a veteran player.

F Anthony Bennett: There are a lot of expectations riding on the first-ever Canadian taken with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and he’s facing a steep learning curve. Offseason shoulder surgery robbed him of his conditioning, and the recent revelation that he suffers from sleep apnea and asthma has raised questions about his ability to recover his conditioning to the point that he can play 30 to 35 minutes a night.

As it is, nobody outside the Cavs organization is really looking for Bennett to win the Rookie of the Year Award, which seems to already be gravitating toward Orlando’s Victor Oladipo. Unlike Oladipo, playing for a strip-mined Magic team that can afford to give him all the minutes he needs, Bennett will be fitted to a much more narrowly-defined role on a deeper Cavs team that has playoff aspirations. He won’t get the minutes that other rookies might.

Despite the conditioning issues, Bennett is a talented scorer. He’s already demonstrated his shooting touch throughout the preseason, and his fourth-quarter outburst to beat Oladipo’s Magic early the preaseason offered a tantalizing glimpse of what Bennett could become.

His first NBA season could be a tough one, though.

C Tyler Zeller: Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed in the morning. Zeller did everything that was asked of him this summer. He bulked up, adding a significant amount of muscle to his slender frame. He worked on his game, preparing to fight for a rotation spot on a roster that contains two veteran centers ahead of him.

His reward? Injuring his hip in the club’s first scrimmage, then having to undergo an appendectomy less than a week later. Zeller’s entire preseason was washed out.

Given the injury histories of Bynum and Varejao, Zeller still figures to be an important part of this team. But due to his preseason misfortune, his role is kind of undefined at the moment.

G/F Sergey Karasev: The Cavs’ other first-round pick from this past spring has a lot worth liking. He’s less than a week removed from his 20th birthday, but has already played professionally in Russia. He’s a heady player with a rangy jumper and underrated passing skills. He comes from strong basketball pedigree. His dad is Vasily Karasev, who was one of the best players in Russia in the 1990s, and later became a coach who has had a major hand in his son’s development.

The junior Karasev has said he models his game on that of Spurs great Manu Ginobili. If he becomes a next-generation Ginobili for the Cavs, I think we’ll take that without a lot of argument. As for now, he’s extremely skinny and not used to the physical nature of the NBA game. Let’s see what happens over the next few years, once he has a chance to fill out his frame and refine his game.

The Canton shuffle: Carrick Felix, Matthew Dellavedova and Henry Sims round out the Cavs roster. All three figure to log some major minutes playing for the NBDL’s Canton Charge this season, but depending on how hard the injury bug bites the Cavs, we could see some or all of them in action at The Q.

Felix is a second-round pick this past spring from Arizona State. The swingman is Brown’s kind of guy – a nose-to-the-grindstone worker who values defense. If he shows any scoring potential, Brown will find a place for him with the big-league club.

Dellavedova is an Australian import who played for the Aussies in the 2012 Olympics. The point guard is an undrafted product of St. Mary’s College in California. He doesn’t possess much athleticism, but comes with the reputation of a high basketball IQ and providing great court leadership, with enough of a jump shot to get by. His lack of athleticism, however, figures to be a major hindrance at the defensive end, where he’s already shown that he has trouble staying in front of other NBA point guards. He’ll have to compensate somehow, if he wants to carve out an NBA career.

Sims was the last man standing in the battle for the 15th roster spot. The center is an undrafted product of Georgetown who looked solid during the preaseason. The best thing you can probably say about Sims as a long-term NBA prospect is that he’s willing to do the dirty work of defense, rebounding and dishing out fouls.

Coaching: Mike Brown returns to the Cavs sideline for the first time since LeBron quit and/or choked his way out of the 2010 playoffs, and subsequently out of Cleveland. In the interim, Brown had a forgettable year and five games as coach of the Lakers, where he struggled to manage Kobe Bryant and the Lakers’ arsenal of mercurial talent.

Brown’s Lakers tenure wasn’t a success by any macro-level measurement, but he did have a positive impact on Bynum, pushing all the right buttons and enabling the often difficult-to-manage center to compile his best statistical season. Brown enthusiastically endorsed a Bynum signing to GM Chris Grant over the summer.

Bynum is the type of project Brown loves – a young player who tends to thrive when given a high degree of structure and discipline. The same can be said for the remainder of the Cavs roster.

Brown is, at his heart, a teacher. He’s at his best when molding wet clay. And the Cavs will provide him tons of wet clay this season.

Defense does win championships. The best teams in the league are almost always the best defensive teams in the league. For the past few years, the Cavs have been in desperate need of the type of structure and defensive fundamentals that Brown will provide.

But Brown also comes with the deserved rap of enabling poor offensive execution. He tends to let bad habits develop at that end of the floor, failing to eradicate them at the root the way he would at the defensive end.

The object of the game is still to put the ball in the hoop, and if Browns’ second Cavs tenure is to be longer and more successful than his first, he has to cultivate this team’s offense the way he does its defense.

To that end, he has compiled an intriguing coaching staff that includes NBA coaching stalwart Bernie Bickerstaff – Brown’s first mentor in the NBA – and Igor Kokoskov, a well-traveled assistant coach who will serve, in effect, as the team’s offensive coordinator.

Training: The Cavs underwent another sea change this summer by rebuilding their entire training staff. Gone is longtime trainer Max Benton, replaced by the newly-named “Cavs Performance Team.” The performance team will be led by Alex Moore, the former strength and conditioning coach for the U.S. Ski Team.

Results have yet to bear out the wisdom of the decision, but it’s an attempt by the Cavs to address the fact that they have a number of key players with long injury histories by building a training department much closer to what you might see in Europe or Australia. The Aussies are often credited as world leaders in sports training, rehabilitation and injury prevention.

The creation of the performance team is the result of months of research by the Cavs brain trust, comparing the common practices of American sports training with those in other countries. What Grant and his staff concluded from the research is that American sports training methods lag behind the rest of the developed world. Hence, the development of the new model.

If it keeps Irving, Bynum and Varejao on the floor and producing, it’s a great move. We’ll know a lot more by midseason.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Retiring Wahoo

Chief Wahoo has been the face of Cleveland baseball for more than 60 years. Originally designed in 1947 by 17-year-old draftsman Walter Goldbach, Wahoo was the brainchild of former Tribe owner Bill Veeck, one of the greatest marketers baseball has ever seen.

Veeck wanted a unique image for his team, something apart from the statuesque Indian heads in profile that had served as the team’s logos up to that point. Goldbach devised a grinning cartoon Indian with a large nose and yellow skin. That version of Wahoo was perched on the left sleeve of the Tribe’s uniforms when they won their last World Series in 1948.

In 1951, the logo was redesigned to its current form. Wahoo’s red face, white teeth and eyes, and blue hair correspond to the team colors. Since then, Wahoo has been somewhere on the Tribe’s uniforms at all times. He was perched on the cap, encased in a wishbone-C for much of the 1950s. He moved down to the left breast on the Tribe’s sleeveless uniforms of the 1960s. He was given a body in a 1970s logo revision that featured a leg-kicking Wahoo about to swing a bat.

In the early 80s, the head-only logo returned to the left sleeve, where it has stayed ever since. For the 1986 season, the logo returned to the cap, unadorned. Along with the Orioles and Blue Jays, the Indians were one of the few teams to place their logo on the team caps instead of a city-initial monogram.

The Indians wore Wahoo on their caps exclusively until the 2002 season, when a script-I version debuted. That cap was eventually retired in favor of a block-C cap, reminiscent of the early-‘80s caps. For the past several years, the Indians have alternated the Wahoo cap with blue-on-red and red-on-blue versions of the block-C cap.

But Wahoo has always been there. And it’s easy to see why.

In a sports landscape dominated by logos that feature balls and shields and ferocious-looking animals, Wahoo is something that stands out. Veeck and Goldbach set out to create something unique, and they did exactly that. Wahoo is instantly identifiable with the Cleveland Indians, and Wahoo-adorned merchandise still sells, both in Greater Cleveland, and among the large footprint of Cleveland expats who have fanned out across the country and globe.

But there is another side to Wahoo, and no matter how much we as a fan base want to dismiss it as a hot wind from politically-correct extremists, it’s something the Indians, their fans, the city of Cleveland and Major League Baseball will be forced to address at some point – and quite possibly sooner rather than later.

Wahoo is the product of a different era, with different social mores. At the time of Wahoo’s creation, it was still socially acceptable for cartoons to portray African-American, Asian, Hispanic and Indian characters with exaggerated features and mannerisms. Bugs Bunny in blackface? A Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring a slanted-eyed cat or mouse wearing a cymbal on his head like a rice paddy hat? Speedy Gonzalez stealing cheese for his lazy, shiftless, tequila-chugging Mexican mouse friends? No censor batted an eyelash.

But as America became more integrated over the ensuing half-century, the “we” and “they” of 1950 became the “us” of the 21st Century, and the culture shifted.  A new imperative developed: start viewing people as individuals, and not members of a generic race that possess a common set of lampoon-worthy characteristics.

Wahoo belongs to the old line of thinking, with his red face, big nose and prominent feather sticking up behind his head. As the decades have passed, people around the country have started to find less and less favor with the Tribe’s longstanding logo. The movement against Wahoo is growing, and soon, the Wahoo supporters will comprise little more than a small island of defiance.

The opponents of Wahoo are no longer limited to Native American protesters demonstrating on Gateway Plaza. Powerful people in prominent positions are aligning to retire Wahoo – by force, if necessary. The full force of the hurricane hasn’t hit yet, but it will.

If the Indians are determined to hang onto Wahoo until the bitter end, they can hide until the powers that be are done wrestling with the Washington Redskins. Recently, President Obama spoke out against the Redskins nickname – viewed as a blatant racial slur by many Native Americans – and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is on record saying the NFL has to do “what’s right” regarding the club’s nickname.

The Redskins nickname will likely be the first domino to fall. After that, they’re coming for Wahoo. Once the Washington Redskins are no longer the Washington Redskins, the next-most-blatant example of racially-stereotypical Indian imagery in professional sports is Chief Wahoo.

That is, unless the Indians take the initiative and retire Wahoo of their own free will, before having to face the judge, jury and executioner in the court of public opinion.

There would be life after Wahoo. Plenty of teams change their logos and color schemes. Every year, it seems like some team in some sport is debuting a new look. Even stalwart franchises like the Lakers, Cowboys, Celtics and Red Sox have been known to tinker with their uniforms.

If you’re worried that giving up Wahoo might lead to a slippery slope that ends with the death of the Indians nickname, those fears are probably unfounded. It should be a reasonable condition to request the retention of the Indians nickname. Plenty of Native Americans refer to themselves as Indians, so the nickname can’t be retired on the grounds of racism, like the Redskins’ nickname can. If I were running the Chiefs, Braves or Blackhawks, I’d dig my heels in on the nicknames, too. If the name isn’t explicitly derogatory, it’s defensible.

But imagery is another topic, and mascot-imagery is the real hot button. Nobody has raised much of a fuss about the Braves’ tomahawk icon, which has adorned their jerseys for much of the past 65 years. But when the Braves reportedly made plans to resurrect their “Chief Noc-A-Homa” screaming Indian logo on their 2013 batting practice caps, the idea was quickly shelved amid public pressure.

Could the Indians get away with a logo that features a bow and arrow? A teepee? A head dress or feathers that don’t adorn a human head? There isn’t a solution that will satisfy every person with an opinion on the matter, but a human face is the definite line in the sand. Any logo that renders an Indian person as a mascot will draw enough fire that the idea probably won’t get past the drawing board.

These are difficult discussions to have. Native American tribes and nations have their heritage, but Wahoo is a part of our baseball heritage, and when we are forced to give up a part of that heritage, it doesn’t seem fair -- especially when there are so many other pressing matters in the world.

But these are necessary discussions. Society has permanently changed, and any time stereotypes are shattered, it’s a change for the better. The burden is on us as a community of Cleveland baseball fans to have a long and frank discussion about the future of the Tribe’s image. The longer we put it off, the harder we’re going to make it on ourselves. Because it’s only a matter of time before Wahoo rides off into the sunset.

The debate is no longer about whether the logo is racist. It is to what degree the Indians need to alter their image to remain marketable amid current societal norms.

Either the Indians brass is going to take the initiative and update their image on the club’s own terms, or it’s going to be a sloppy, embarrassing procedure that involves lots of unwanted attention and pressure from bigwigs in Washington and the Office of the Commissioner.

But it’s going to happen, one way or another. It’s inevitable.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The gravity of the situation

Every playoff race has its moments. Tuesday night, the Indians had their moment.

Jason Giambi’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning might have been the single most important hit for the Indians as a franchise since Tony Fernandez lofted an extra-inning solo shot over the right field wall at Camden Yards in Game 6 of the 1997 ALCS, providing the Tribe with the run that sent them to the World Series.

Yes, it was that important.

Sure, there have been other memorable hits in memorable games since 1997. In 2001, Omar Vizquel lined a three-run triple into the right-field corner, driving in the tying runs during the Indians’ epic 12-run rally against Seattle. In September 2007, Casey Blake all but sealed the division title with an 11th-inning blast against Detroit. In the 2007 playoffs against the Yankees, Travis Hafner wrote the final verse of what has become known as the “Bug Game” with an extra-inning RBI single.

But none of those hits carried the gravity that came with the situation Giambi faced when he stepped into the batter’s box with a 4-3 deficit to the last-place White Sox, two outs, Michael Brantley on second and the smog wrought by a Chris Perez blown save still thick in the air.

It was a fork in the season road. The Indians were wedged in between Tampa and Texas in the wild card standings, one game’s worth of room on either side. Hundreds of miles away, those teams were winning their games. And the number of games left on the schedule was slipping away like fall’s evening daylight. The Indians had five more games after Tuesday.

A stumble, a slip-up, a several-day swoon, and the season could be over.

Everything about the 15 minutes leading up to Giambi’s at-bat had been migraine-inducing. Perez had coughed up two home runs in the top of the ninth, the first blowing the save, the second giving Chicago the lead.

The single that put Brantley on base was sandwiched between swinging strikeouts by Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles. On Aviles’ second strike, he swung wildly – as he often does -- then grimaced and shook his head, as if to say “Why did I swing at that?”

That was the story of the ninth inning to that point. The Indians were watching opportunity slip through their fingers. They were complicit in their own demise, but there was nothing they could do about it. It’s as if they had been taken over by some self-destructive compulsion.

If Giambi strikes out, if he lofts a lazy fly to the outfield, if he beats one into the ground to second, everyone – including the players in the clubhouse – goes home remembering the Perez flameout and the swinging hack-fest in the bottom of the ninth. The players leave the ballpark with their heads low and come to the park Wednesday with perhaps more tension than they would have otherwise. More pressure to right the ship, to make the perfect pitch, to get the hit, drive in the run.

Baseball is a sport that gives you a lot of time to think. And sometimes thinking can be your worst enemy.

If Giambi makes the final out, Tampa is two games up for the first wild card position. The Indians are tied with Texas and potentially a one-day swing from finding themselves back in the chase pack and no longer steering their destiny – not a good place to be with nary more than a weekend to play.

Giambi was the fulcrum upon which all 156 previous games teetered as he stepped into the batter’s box Wednesday night against Chicago closer Addison Reed. He waved at the first pitch, which caused our throats to tighten just a bit more. He took the second pitch, a ball.

When Reed left a slider high and dry on the third pitch, Giambi heaved his still-beefy 42-year-old shoulders into motion, lumberjack-chopping the night air and making solid, square contact. When the ball left his bat, it was instantly apparent he had sent it on a season-saving flight to the visitor’s bullpen beyond the right field wall.

And for a few moments, 21,000 in attendance on a cool late September night sounded like the crowds of 42,000 from years past.

Maybe Giambi didn’t put the Indians in the playoffs with his heroics, but he very well could have kept the window from slamming shut under the crushing weight of tension, pressure and lament.

After the celebration had died down, Giambi told reporters that he made Perez give him a hug. It was a pick-me-up for an embattled teammate who, largely due to his own actions, is finding it increasingly difficult to pitch well in front of the home fans. But it was symbolic of everything that was made right by Giambi’s home run.

The season could have started to spiral out of control on Tuesday. Perez could have all but punched his ticket out of town. We, as a city and fan base, could have taken a turn down the familiar path of blame and bitter resentment. It could have all been yet another dark, depressing chapter in Cleveland sports.

But it wasn’t. It was all salvaged, rebuilt and buffed to a mirror-shine by Jason Giambi and his timeliest of timely hits.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A carousel of insanity

You’re a Browns fan. You hate owner Jimmy Haslam, the slimy, crooked huckster who is trying to stave off a federal indictment by playing dumb about his company’s rebate fraud scandal.

You hate CEO Joe Banner, the squinty-eyed, lock-jawed little Napoleon who got run out of Philly and views the Browns gig as one big ego trip.

You hate GM Mike Lombardi, the sniveling, shadow-lurking weasel who has a vastly overinflated opinion of himself as a talent evaluator.

You hate them all. And if you have any interest in giving the Browns a fighting chance to chip away at one of the most firmly-entrenched losing cultures in professional sports, you’d better hope that you get to hate them for a long, long time.

For 15 years, the Browns have been on a nauseating, ever-spinning carousel of high-level turnover – really, a carousel of insanity – and it has to stop.

Wednesday’s trade of Trent Richardson to Indianapolis is symptomatic of everything that has been wrong with the Browns since 1999. You can agree or disagree with the move itself – for what it’s worth, I’ve seen enough of Richardson to agree with Jim Brown’s original assessment of  “ordinary.” Not bad, but certainly not the franchise-caliber game-changer you’d expect to get at the third overall pick. But what makes the trade so troubling is the underlying causes, which stab right at the heart of why the Browns have been so bad for so long.

In 14 seasons since the club’s 1999 relaunch, the Browns have been led by six distinct leadership regimes. Six different brain trusts, with six different leadership philosophies, in 14 years. Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark from 1999 to 2001, Butch Davis from 2001 to ’05, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel from ’05 to ’08, Eric Mangini in ’09 (the only year he was in charge of the entire front office), Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert from 2010 to ’12, and Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi for the past year.

The math whizzes can quickly figure out that 14 divided by six is 2.33. That’s right. The average tenure for a Browns leadership regime since 1999 is two years and four months. If you don’t include the just-launched Banner-Lombardi regime, the average balloons to a rocksteady two years and 10 months.

It’s a suicidal level of turnover. In any other industry, the Browns would have gone out of business quite a while ago.

It’s because when new leaders come in, they’re brought in because the old leaders, at least in the sample size they were given, didn’t perform at a high enough level. No brain trust comes into a situation like the Browns present thinking that the old regime did anything resembling a good job. Is it realistic to ask that of them?

New leaders will always arrive with their own ideas and philosophies, which are usually starkly different from what came before. That’s why they were hired. They think differently. They’re supposed to be a breath of fresh air. They’re supposed to strip away what hasn’t worked and replace it with a system, and talent, that does work.

Those factors are compounded in the ego-driven world of professional sports. No roster architect worth his seven-figure salary wants to win with the last guy’s players. Then, then previous guy gets all the credit as the “real” brains behind the success. In the world that Banner and Lombardi occupy, that doesn’t compute.

To peek inside their heads, Banner and Lombardi – and every president/GM who has come before them – haven’t come to Cleveland to win games. They’ve come to Cleveland to realize a vision. The wins will come as a byproduct of that vision being realized.

It likely makes you want to put your shoe through the screen to read that, but – welcome to the world of big business.

This is why it is painfully essential that Haslam not follow in the footsteps of former owner Randy Lerner, caving to fan and media pressure for change as the losses mount.

No matter what you think about Haslam, Banner or Lombardi, they need to stay here for the balance of a decade, or longer. They have to be given the space and time to see their vision through to fruition.

The majority of fans and media, and apparently Lerner, seemed to operate under the pretense that it’s better to cut bait with a leadership team that isn’t producing immediate wins than to continue on a treadmill to nowhere for years on end.

But all that does is produce an ongoing stream of executives making short-term moves to save their jobs, with no attention paid to the overarching problems that continually plague the franchise.

As the losing seasons continue to mount and the region-wide frustration with the Browns reaches a boiling point, the pressure to win now grows ever more urgent, leading to a snowball effect. If the latest brain trust can’t reverse the losing in Year One, we want them gone. Because it’s been long enough, and we, as a fan base, are simply fed up to the back teeth.

Again, this is the problem with perpetual reboots. Every few years, the Browns bring in new leaders who want to start from square one. They can only be held accountable for what happens on their watch. But beyond the gates to the Berea complex is an entire region enduring the sum total of 14 years of losing with no end in sight. We end up with the divergent goals of a leadership regime that wants to craft an organization in its own image, from the ground up, and a fan base that is beyond desperate for someone to end the losing as soon as possible.

This is bigger than the latest 4-12 season. This is bigger than an 11-game losing streak to the Ravens or going two-and-a-bazillion against the Steelers over the past decade. Turnover is the fatal, systemic flaw that is leading to all the other problems that are destroying this franchise, eroding the fan base and suffocating what was once one of the great football towns in America.

Do Banner and Lombardi have the answers? Do they comprise the brain trust that can finally turn the Browns around? Only time will tell. But that’s exactly it – time. More time than any previous regime since 1999 has received.

You might hate Haslam. You might detest Banner and loathe Lombardi. And maybe they aren’t the perfect football brain trust. They do come with a very prominent set of questions attached. But these are the guys who found the seats when the song stopped in this latest game of musical chairs. And we have to move forward with them for a good, long while – even if the wins don’t come this year, or next, or the year after.

The phrase “stability for stability’s sake” carries a negative connotation when it comes to the Browns and their various leadership regimes. But without stability and consistency, you have what the Browns have become.

The Browns very much need stability – and for stability’s sake.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It's still worth it

Is Cleveland a bad baseball town?

Apparently, we don’t like what we see in the mirror at the moment.

Heading into play Friday, the Indians were 78-68, 1.5 games out of the second wild card spot, 3.5 games out of the wild card lead, and in a deep but still-scalable six-game hole in the division.

They’re in the midst of a series in Chicago against the last-place White Sox. The remainder of the season includes three games against the third-place Royals, a four-game home series against the last-place Astros, two more games against the White Sox and four games to close out the season against fourth-place Minnesota.

This is exactly what we wanted in March, right? September finally matters for the Indians, and it’s one of the softest September schedules the team has ever faced.

We should be oozing confidence as a fan base. We should believe that the Indians not only could make the playoffs, they should make the playoffs. They should be able to tear through the remainder of the schedule at an .800 clip and, at the very least, end up on the doorstep of the top wild card spot.

But we don’t believe that. We’ve voted with our attendance at Progressive Field, where four-figure and low five-figure weeknight crowds are still the reality of the situation.

The first playoff-contending season in six years, and the Indians might as well be 20 games out to look at Progressive Field on most game nights. Much like the team stock that former owner Dick Jacobs issued in the latter part of the 1990s, people just aren’t buying it.

It’s not the economy. Not when the perennially-inept Browns also make a perennial killing at the season-ticket sales window. Not when nearly every decent restaurant in town has a 45-minute wait on a Saturday night. People still buy what they want to buy.

It’s not endemic hard feelings toward owner Larry Dolan. Maybe the fans really are cooler toward Dolan than they ever were toward Jacobs. It’s tough to follow an act like what the Indians put on the field from 1994 to 2001. But fans aren’t staying away in droves to spite Dolan.

The biggest culprits in the short-circuiting of the Tribe’s attendance are the numbers 6 and 27.

That would be the Indians’ combined record against the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees. The three highest-profile teams on the schedule, and the Indians completely wet the bed against all of them.

In other words, this team might make the playoffs, but nobody believes they have chances of making much noise once they get there. In a city that hasn’t seen a championship trophy in 49 years, the prospect of making the playoffs just isn’t enough to excite the fan base, because all it means is more heartbreak and embarrassment if they do get there.

In baseball, the small-market war cry is “Just make the playoffs, and anything can happen.” That’s true, but when you are all but assured of seeing at least one of the teams that combined to beat you 27 out of 33 games this year, the dreams turn to nightmares in a hurry.

If the Indians were in or near first place, if they had battled the Tigers to a draw this year, if they had the look of a 95-win team that could do some damage in October, chances are the hometown stands wouldn’t be a field of green silence. But that didn’t happen. We have the situation we have. Far from hopeless, but with enough negative warning signs to scare off the region’s emotionally-battered fans.

So is it worth it for this team to even make the playoffs, with the odds so heavily stacked against them once they’re there?

It depends on your definition of “worth it.”

If you just want the ring, you’re fully within your right to feel that way. Forty-nine years – with three teams for most of those years -- is a long enough drought for any city. Nobody in this space is going to tell you to just be happy with making the playoffs.

But then you really take a look and see how bad it can get. And in baseball, the postseason droughts  can reach legendary status.

The Indians themselves went 41 years without a playoff game. The Pirates are working on ending a 20-year drought that included no winning seasons from 1993 until this year. The Royals haven’t made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985.

The Orioles broke a 15-year playoff drought last year, and the Nationals broke a drought that dated to 1981, when they were the Expos.

Bear in mind, we’re just talking playoffs. No mention of the Cubs’ 105-year World Series title drought, the Red Sox’s 86-year “Curse of the Bambino,” the White Sox’s 88-year drought that ended in 2005 or the Tribe’s drought, at 65 years and counting.

World Series title droughts have their own poetic verse. They almost always involve episodes of failure and foreboding under the bright lights. They become so well-known, they get reduced to names and phrases: Bill Buckner. Steve Bartman. The Black Sox. The black cat at Shea.

Curiously, in a town that loves to attach “the” to every sports misadventure, the Indians’ meltdown in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series never really received a widely-accepted nickname. Even the main antagonist of that fateful ninth inning, Jose Mesa, has become little more than a minor sports villain in local lore. It would take 100 Jose Mesas to equal the rage inspired by one Art Modell or LeBron James.

The lack of resentment toward Mesa is a curious anomaly – good for Mesa, and probably good for our collective blood pressure, but still curious -- because he scraped closer to a World Series title than Modell ever did to a Super Bowl title or LeBron to an NBA title during their time in Cleveland. If you’re going to get mad at someone, it’s probably going to be the likes of Mesa. Those are the rules of the game when a world championship is at stake.

But playoff droughts? Failing to even make the postseason for years and decades? Those are just pathetic. Playoff droughts don’t make villains or tragic characters. They simply produce an endless, numbing parade of forgettable players and forgettable teams. 

The Indians have been playing baseball in this town for 112 years. They have made the playoffs in 10 of those seasons. That means roughly 92 percent of the time, an Indians season has ended on the last day of the regular season.

Regardless of how much of a buzz they’re able to create around the region, regardless of their record against other contenders, regardless of whether they make the playoffs with room to spare or squeak in on the last day of the season, it’s better for the 2013 Indians to become the 11th Tribe team to make the playoffs than the 103rd Tribe team to miss the playoffs.

There have been enough dark Octobers in our past. There will be more dark Octobers in the future. This year – even if it’s for a moment – we can have October baseball again. Maybe it won’t possess the electricity of 1995. Maybe it won’t possess the magic of 1997. Maybe it won’t become a surprise ALCS gift dropped in our laps like 2007. But it beats the all-too-familiar alternative.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Et tu, Kyrie?

Where have we heard this before?

The Cavaliers’ franchise player is cornered on the subject of his future by a press corps eager to stoke the flames of intrigue by further-moistening the already-sweaty palms of a fan base that knows “fate” as the filthiest of four-letter words.

The player does nothing to allay the anxiety of the fans. He plays it coy, sidestepping the question with ambiguous generalities, such as: “I’m only focused on right now. I’ll worry about the future when it gets here.”

LeBron James tap-danced like that for seven years as a Cav. He now plays for the Miami Heat. Kyrie Irving tried on his tap shoes this past Saturday when reporters questioned him on his future plans at a basketball camp he was conducting in Independence.

Irving can sign a max extension next summer – five years and about $80 million – and the Cavs will almost certainly offer it to him. The only reason “almost” is even worth discussing is due to any unforeseen catastrophic injuries that could threaten his career, life-altering criminal charges or an irreconcilable falling-out with Cavs management. The statistical equivalent of being flattened by the remnants of a satellite falling to Earth, but you at least have to put it on the table.

In other words, he’s getting the offer. Now, whether he’ll accept that offer?

“Right now I’m a Cavalier,” he told the assembled reporters. “This is where I am. All that future stuff, I’m not really worried about. I’m living in the moment right now and I’m just trying to get better with the teammates I have now and make the playoffs for Cleveland. That’s the only thing I can do right now is give it my all as it stands right now and that future stuff, I’m not really worried about it.”

When you read it, the Cleveland parts of your mind start to squirm. You see all the negative space around the words – everything that wasn’t said.

Has he been taking advice from LeBron? Is he planning to hook up with LeBron? Is he planning to hook up with LeBron in a place other than Cleveland? Is Kyrie going to be another burgeoning superstar who ditches Cleveland right as he’s rounding into championship form?

Nobody can give you a cure for that bellyache. If Irving wants out of Cleveland at some point, he’s going to get out, one way or another. That’s how the game is played. When it comes to stars and superstars in the NBA, they get what they want. GMs can be strong-armed, coaches can be fired, rules can be manipulated.

Star power is the fuel that drives the NBA. The owners don’t run the league. Their best players do.

However, despite all of that, and despite the fact that New York-based radio gabber Brandon Tierney tweeted a few weeks ago that Irving is not long for Cleveland (which, to be fair, was rebuked by Irving himself), there are some concrete reasons to not panic just yet.

First of all, the Cavs hold Irving’s rights for three more years. That’s important not just due to the competitive window that Irving could allow, it’s also because it gives the Cavs a breathable window to make any decision that might be necessary.

If Irving were to turn down or table an extension offer next summer, or try to negotiate an early opt-out that would drastically shorten his commitment to the Cavs, the Cavs would have from the summer of 2014 to, at least in theory, the trade deadline in February 2016 to decide what to do. If they decided to trade him, they’d have ample time to shop around and find the best deal.

Yes, that approach could backfire if Irving keeps suffering nagging injuries, or is felled by the aforementioned career-threatening injury, but nowhere does it say that the only guarantees in life are death, taxes and NBA players staying healthy.

And that’s if he were to turn down an extension next summer. While Cleveland sports has a well-documented history of setting negative precedents, it is unheard of to this point for an NBA player to decline an extension coming off his rookie deal. The whole reason the media questioned Kyrie about his future is because the Wizards’ John Wall – one of Irving’s contemporaries in rising crop of young NBA point guards -- recently inked a five-year extension.

Even LeBron extended with the Cavs once, in 2006. When a player is only three years into his career, he still has to wade through so many checkpoints to get to unrestricted free agency – his base contract, teams options, qualifying offers – that it’s easier to take the money sitting right in front of him, even if the team isn’t positioned to make a Finals run at the moment.

It is possible for Irving to be planning an exit strategy from Cleveland as we speak. It is possible that he’s eyeing star-laden rosters and warmer climates, dreaming of rings and bling on South Beach, or Hollywood Boulevard. It’s also possible that Irving is quite happy in Cleveland – right now – and has no overt intention of leaving unless circumstances force his hand. To that end, there is a lot of pressure on Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Bynum to become the supporting cast LeBron never had here.

What we do know is seven years of LeBron made us, and the Cavs, smarter, more streetwise and a heck of a lot more clinical about the NBA, their superstars and their culture of entitlement. No more talk about family and loyalty. This is a business. Every party acts in its own best interest.

Dan Gilbert has said it, and Chris Grant has repeated it, in so many words: The Cavs are not going to let themselves be held hostage by one player again. If Irving turns down an extension or tries to negotiate an escape hatch after two or three years, he’s obviously not committed to the Cavs over the long haul, and as such, is not a reliable franchise cornerstone.

No more waiting around to see if his loyalty increases. No more letting your best player coast all the way to free agency while you have your fingers and toes crossed, hoping that he re-signs. That’s a recipe for disaster. That is the summer of 2010 all over again.

If Irving balks, Irving gets traded. That’s the bottom line. And, yes, it sucks. Because all we want in this town are great players that are motivated to stick it out and try to win us our first title since the height of Beatlemania.

But that emotional response gets in the way of good business. It’s better to punt away a good player for draft picks than to lose him for nothing. And when a Cleveland player turns down an extension, it’s not because he wants more money. He wants more money from a team in a bigger city.

As soon as they discover an ocean of oil under Cleveland and we can start building zillion-dollar skyscrapers like a Great Lakes version of Dubai, that will change. Until then, we have our reality.

Of course, this is all pre-emptive. There is a season of basketball to be played between now and next summer, and for the first time in three-plus years, the Cavs look like they might be worth watching, even for casual fans that tuned the team out as soon as LeBron skipped town.

Kyrie’s words are actually quite wise: Enjoy now. Let tomorrow brings what it brings. Most likely, it will bring a five-year contract extension, negotiated with little drama. But if it doesn’t, the Cavs have a backup plan.

That’s more than we could have said for them during the last superstar’s reign.