Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A farewell to bowties

The world loves its yearly dose of Nick Gilbert.

It’s become an annual ritual, at the conclusion of every abysmal post-LeBron Cavs season – three in all. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert rounds up a contingent of famous Clevelanders and heads to New York. At the center of the contingent is Gilbert’s son, Nick.

A 16-year-old who suffers from a disease called neurofibromatosis, Nick Gilbert has used his series of 30-minute turns in the spotlight to raise awareness about his disease. Which was kind of the original reason for Dan Gilbert to put his son in the Cavs’ chair for the 2011 lottery. Nick gets to ham it up like all teenagers love to do, a worthy cause gets some much-needed publicity, and maybe the Cavs sell a few extra t-shirts.

But, things happen. And things happened for Nick Gilbert. He posed a philosophical question to the world on the subject of likability. Then the lotto balls turned a midseason trade with the Clippers into the No. 1 pick that would become Kyrie Irving. And Dan Gilbert, with his marketing radar ever-rotating, apparently made a silent declaration that his son would become the Cavs’ Mr. Lottery from that day forward.

Last year and this year, everyone in the Cavs contingent wore thick-rimmed glasses and bowties to match Nick’s trademark lottery look. To be fair, results are results. Last year, the Cavs were a coin flip (ironically, a flip they won) away from winning the lottery. They ended up picking fourth, where they took Dion Waiters.

Tuesday, Nick Gilbert got to celebrate in front of the cameras again. For the second time in three years, he was on the stage for a Cavs draft lottery victory.

Hey, it’s fun. It’s worthwhile. And maybe, as his father has repeatedly said, Nick is a walking good-luck charm.

But it’s also getting old. Father and son Gilbert both said as much on Tuesday.

Nick Gilbert was 14 at the 2011 lottery. He’s 16 now. It’s going to be a lot less fun if college-age Nick is still popping up to represent the Cavs at the lottery, still sporting the bowtie and glasses. Once Nick is fully an adult – it’s just going to be creepy.

The solution for that, as anyone with ties to the Cavs organization mentioned this week, is to make sure the Cavs are not back in the lottery for a long time.

The burning question is, how can they do it?

The news of the Cavs lottery victory was met with a very Cleveland response among the fans and media, as countless armchair pundits started concocting scenarios in which the Cavs could get rid of the first overall pick, hours after winning it.

It’s because the 2013 draft is, according to widespread opinion, going topless. There are no apparent franchise-changers in the draft this year. The top prospects all come branded with large question marks.

Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, at the top of a lot of draft boards, is recovering from ACL surgery, and likely won’t be ready to play until December. Even with two healthy knees, he’s going to need some substantial muscle gain and some kind of offensive game to succeed in the NBA.

The top wingmen prospects – Kansas’ Ben McLemore, Georgetown’s Otto Porter and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo -- all have size and skill issues that are worth red-flagging. Anthony Bennett of UNLV has an NBA body at 6’-7” and 240 pounds, but he’s a textbook ‘tweener who might be too slow to play small forward and too short to play power forward.

In short, all of the top prospects in this year’s draft are either projects, or have some kind of physical limitation that is worth noting. That alone shouldn’t chase the Cavs away from using the pick. But GM Chris Grant also has to consider his team’s situation.

The Cavs have lost 166 games in three years since LeBron left. They’ve finished with the league’s second-worst record once and third-worst record twice. That’s a lot of losing for ping pong balls. In the process, through a series of trades and careful financial management, Grant has amassed an extensive collection of draft picks and cap space.

With Irving blossoming into a star, and Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller rounding out a solid – at times impressive – core of youngsters, it would appear that the time is now for Grant to make some impact moves to put the Cavs back on the NBA map.

Rookies generally don’t make the kind of impact the Cavs will need next year. But if the Cavs were to trade the No. 1 pick, they can’t force-feed a trade in the name of getting their hands on whatever veteran players they can find.

It’s still the first overall pick. It still has to pay big dividends, no matter how Grant uses it. Therein lies the inherent problem with the Cavs’ current situation.

Knowing that his team needs to make a big splash for win-now talent this offseason, Grant will almost certainly hunt big game. He’ll call Minnesota about Kevin Love. He’ll call Sacramento about DeMarcus Cousins. But both of those franchises are undergoing regime changes, and neither figures to peddle major assets in the near future. The Timberwolves even sent Love to represent the team at the lottery, perhaps an olive branch from new GM Flip Saunders to his star player, who had developed a strained relationship with the club’s former leadership.

Grant will make phone calls. The odds of those calls yielding the type of blockbuster trade he’s looking for? Virtually nil.

Grant could fall back and take a more conservative approach, perhaps pawning off the first pick for supporting-cast players and/or future picks. Assets are assets. But if this draft is as weak at the top as all the scribes and talking heads think it is, what incentive does a team have to pay the price to move up? If the distance from Porter to Oladipo is barely noticeable, the teams sitting between Nos. 6 and 10 aren’t much worse off than the lotto’s big winners in the top three.

The next month could consist of Grant exhaustively exploring every avenue that doesn’t involve phoning in the first overall pick to David Stern on draft night, only to stare down an endless series of dead ends.

Ultimately, Grant might have to use the pick and simply take who his scouts and metrics say is the best player on the board, which is likely Noel. Certainly, you could do worse than take Noel at 1. He could be in for a rather steep learning curve in the pros, but he’s a tremendous defender who averaged nearly a double-double for Kentucky this past season, and blocked shots at an unreal clip -- almost four and a half per a game. A Year Three or Year Four Nerlens Noel, with 30 pounds of added muscle and some clue of what to do at the offensive end, could be a force in the league.

But as far as making the playoffs in 2014, Noel probably isn’t going to help much, if at all.

The good news is, the fate of the No. 1 pick isn’t necessarily tied to the moves the Cavs need to make in order to bolster the roster for a playoff run next season. Grant could take Noel, Porter or anyone else at the top of the draft, and make short-term moves later in the summer – or even later on draft night.

Once the first pick is accounted for, the Cavs will still have Nos. 19, 31 and 33 to utilize in subsequent trades. They also have three potential first-rounders in 2015 (their own, Memphis’ and Miami’s), and a Sacramento first-rounder that is still floating around out there, provided it gets used before 2017.

Using the first overall pick on a longer-term project player isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given the additional bartering pieces Grant has at his disposal. And using the first pick on a high-upside player is always better than trading it for pennies on the dollar in the form of players with less upside.

That’s as long as Grant somehow, some way, spends the remainder of the summer making the moves to ensure that Nick Gilbert, and the rest of his dad’s band of merry lottery men, can retire the bowties and glasses for good.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Silent turnstiles

The Indians probably owe their very existence in this town to their die-hard fans.

In the decades of the mid-20th Century, when losses outpaced wins on a yearly basis and postseason contention was a 35-year fantasy, someone had to form the small rind of humanity that barely clung to the dugout wall at Cleveland Stadium. Somebody had to be in that crowd of 3,000 on a chilly April night.

If you polled 100,000 people on who was at the Stadium to witness Len Barker’s perfect game 32 years ago, some percentage would actually pass a lie detector test. They were honestly there.

Various ownership groups at various points toyed with the idea of moving the franchise to Minneapolis and New Orleans. If the Gateway project had died on the vine in the early 1990s, the Tampa-St. Petersburg area would have likely made a play for the franchise.

But somehow, through all the strain that decades of losing, coupled with regional economic decay, put on the relationship between the Indians and the city of Cleveland, the franchise stayed put and hardy fans kept showing up in small, but passionate, numbers.

Then Jacobs Field opened in 1994, and the team started winning. Not just winning – winning with drama, brashness and arrogance. For a city that had, for so long, meekly submitted to its circumstances, it was a seven-year catharsis as the Indians made the walk-off home run a calling card, winning two pennants and six division titles in the process. Albert Belle might have departed in free agency after the 1996 season, but his pitcher-melting scowl was the team’s iconic image for the duration of the era.

And the fans fell in love. Did they ever. Tickets were harder to come by than they would have for a Beatles reunion tour circa 1976. Between 1995 and 2001, the team sold out 455 straight games. The Indians like to remind you of that every now and again, in case you’ve never noticed the giant “455” among the retired numbers in the right-field mezzanine at the now-named Progressive Field.

For the balance of the ‘90s, Tribe games were the place to be. Even if you didn’t like or understand baseball all that much, it’s what your coworkers would be talking about at the water cooler, so you paid attention.

It was the best of times for the Tribe. They might not have won a World Series, but they won just about every other conceivable accolade. And the turnstiles nearly spun off their hinges in the process. It paved the way for some fat payrolls as the 1990s gave way to the new century. For the first time ever, the Indians’ payroll eclipsed $90 million.

But as quickly as the love-fest started, it ended. Dick Jacobs sold the team to Larry Dolan in 2000. GM John Hart bolted town shortly thereafter. The team started to operate much more like a small-market outfit – bargain-conscious, spend-thrifty and, ultimately, talent-deprived. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Cleveland fans so used to winning and the accompanying spoils.

Some might say the fan base has yet to fully come around. Sure there have been some spikes in performance. The Indians won 93 games in 2005, losing out on the playoffs after a final-week meltdown. They held a 3-1 series lead over Boston in the 2007 ALCS, before crumbling to pieces and losing the series in seven games.

But consistent success – and even more fundamentally, franchise players to sustain consistent success – has and have eluded the Tribe. The 2005 and ’07 seasons remain their only winning seasons since 2001.

The fans have voted with their apathy. And maybe “apathy” isn’t a strong enough sentiment. This fan base is resistant, and maybe outright refuses to believe, that any uptick in performance by the Tribe is more valuable than fool’s gold.

Once again, we’re back to the Cleveland Stadium era, with the hardy few occupying a sea of otherwise-empty seats. As they were for much of last year, the Indians are dead last in Major League Baseball in attendance.

The so-called “casual” fans -- the fans that make the difference between a crowd of 10,000 and a crowd of 35,000 -- simply don’t trust this organization anymore. Even after a winter-long spending spree that brought quality veterans Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Michael Bourn to town, even after landing intriguing pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in a trade, the Indians are still background noise to a fan base that had once learned to fall in love all over again.

We have to make mention of the obligatory difference in circumstances between then and now. Then, the economy was in better shape. Then, we weren’t in the midst of a massive Innerbelt construction project that limits access to downtown. Then, the Indians weren’t competing with a casino for the public’s disposable income.

But that’s all antimatter in the end, because if the fans truly believed the Indians were a title contender, they’d show up. Nobody around here needs any prompting to remember the significance of the year 1964.

Yes, these 2013 Indians are dealing with the skid marks left over by flameouts in 2011 and ’12. Those were first-place teams around this time, too. They were both sucking wind by July and completely out of contention by September. But they’re also saddled by a 13-year legacy of distrust between the fan base and the club’s ownership.

They’re paying for the sins of years past, for two winning season in 12 years, for the heartbreak of ’05 and ’07, for the disastrous C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades. For the broken-down body of Travis Hafner, seemingly right after the club signed him to a massive extension. You can’t blame Hafner’s physical breakdown on the organization, but it get lumped in there with everything else, fair or not.

They’re paying for an endless string of quiet winters while the Tigers and White Sox spent handsomely to improve their clubs. The Indians do deserve credit for the biggest spending spree in franchise history this past winter, but one offseason of spending simply isn’t enough to reverse over a decade of little to no spending, and often making fruitless decisions with what money they did have – the Kerry Wood signing comes to mind, in addition to Hafner.

It’s not fair, because this is possibly the most talented team the Tribe has put on the field since the Jacobs-Hart era of contention ended after the ’01 season. So far, all of the Tribe’s offseason additions have contributed. Terry Francona is proving nightly that he’s still one of the best managers in the business.

This team, far more than the teams of the past two years, and maybe even more so than the ’07 team, has the ability to play contending baseball all year long. This is a playoff-caliber team.

But the Tribe’s reputation is in shambles around the region. It didn’t get that way overnight, and it’s not going to be repaired overnight. The only thing the players can do is keep winning, keep providing evidence to the fans that this team is for real. Beyond that, it’s a waiting game. We’re going to find out in August and September, and in the coming years, if the bridge between the Indians and the ticket-buying public can once again stand as strong as it did more than a decade ago.