Monday, August 31, 2009

Cavs offseason: Risks and rewards

The Cavs offseason is all but over. Barring an unforeseen move (no, Stephen Jackson is not coming to Cleveland), all that's left to do is wait for the start of training camp, and hope that Shaq doesn't suffer a freak reality-show injury.

Other than that, we can step back and take a look at the summer that was. And it was extremely active, as Danny Ferry proceeds to build his closing argument to LeBron James in advance of his 2010 free agency.

The moves have both risk and reward potential -- some more than others. But if you can't give Ferry credit for anything else, you can certainly give him credit for identifying the weaknesses on the roster that were exposed by Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals, and taking steps to address them. And you can give Dan Gilbert credit for alloting Ferry the money to make this summer possible.

Let's take a move-by-move look at the summer of 2009, and how it will affect the upcoming edition of the Cavs.

June 25: Cavs trade Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a 2010 second-round pick and cash to the Suns for Shaquille O'Neal.

Obviously, this is the marquee move of the offseason, maybe in the entire NBA. It was painfully apparent in the conference finals that the talent chasm between the Cavs' interior players and Orlando's Dwight Howard was massive. Howard abused Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace over the span of the six-game series.

While it's sometimes folly to make a move to match up with one player, here it's justified. If the Cavs are going to defeat Orlando in any future playoff series, they needed someone who could at least shrink the talent chasm at the center position to a manageable rift. The same applies to matching up with the Lakers' Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

Risks: Shaq's advancing age means injury concerns. He'll turn 38 in March, and was starting to break down physically during his final couple of years in Miami. He was rejuvenated during his year-plus in Phoenix, his physical fitness overseen by the often-celebrated Suns training staff. The Cavs have an experienced training staff of their own, but keeping Shaq's aging body spry and limber is another challenge altogether.

Even more of a question mark than Shaq's physical well-being is his budding relationship with LeBron. This is the hinge upon which the 2009-10 season will swing. Shaq and LeBron don't need to become close friends for this relationship to work, but they need to be able to forge a positive working relationship based on mutual respect and a willingness to not step on each other's toes. Unfortunately, there will probably be some degree of friction between two players with such massive egos. How they work through that friction might go a long way toward determining whether this season is a success, and whether Shaq is still a Cav after the February trade deadline.

Rewards: Take a player with an unprecedented combination of speed, size and power, and put him together with the most physically imposing player of the past quarter-century. If you're an opposing team, who do you defend first? That's the game of Russian roulette that every opposing coach will face when preparing for the Cavs this year.

Both Shaq and LeBron will draw double teams regularly. Most opponents will have to commit so many resources to stopping the two of them, it will leave openings all over the place for the other three players on the floor. The Cavs have probably replaced the Magic -- minus Hedo Turkoglu -- as the toughest matchup in the East.

On defense, Shaq said it best during his introductory news conference in June: "We're not doubling anyone." In other words, no more cut-and-paste defense on Howard in the post. Howard could still give Shaq fits if he gets space to operate and use his superior athleticism, but in traditional low-post, bump-and-grind situations, Shaq is going to slow Howard down and allow his teammates to play up on their men. The Cavs now have a goalie to defend the hoop, which they didn't really have last year after Wallace broke his leg.

June 25: NBA Draft -- Cavs selected Christian Eyenga 30th overall, Danny Green 46th overall and acquired Emir Preldzic at 57th overall

Ferry let his Spurs black and silver show through in drafting Eyenga. The Spurs have always had an affinity for tapping international talent on draft night. Eyenga, a Congolese swingman, is still working his way up through the ranks in European ball, and will stay overseas for at least one more season. To draft Eyenga, Ferry left potentially more immediate help on the board, such as Pitt's DeJuan Blair and Sam Young.

Green, a North Carolina senior, was recently signed by the Cavs and will be a part of training camp. Preldzic, a Slovenian forward, was acquired from the Suns and will stay in Europe for the foreseeable future.

Risks: Eyenga is a project player, and at a time when the Cavs need immediate results, Eyenga will take time to grow into an NBA player. There were, without a doubt, more immediate solutions available at No. 30. Given that Eyenga largely flew under the radar prior to the draft, it is entirely possible that he could have slipped to 46, allowing Ferry to draft an NBA-ready player at 30.

Rewards: Eyenga reportedly made a positive showing during the Cavs' summer league session, indicating that he's going to find his way to the NBA sooner rather than later. And once he arrives, the 6'-6" guard-forward with the 7'-2" wingspan and excellent hops could become a star in the making.

Green will almost certainly find himself cemented to the bench for most of this season, but he has a consistent outside jumper and an ability to get his own shot, so it's not outlandish to think that he could contribute this year if needed. Green has the makings of a solid role player who could stick in the NBA for a while.

July 13: Cavs sign guard Anthony Parker to a two-year, $6 million contract

In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic exploited two glaring roster weaknesses for the the Cavs. Shaq's acquisition is aimed at addressing addressing one of them. But Orlando also exposed the Cavs' lack of tall, athletic swingmen who can make plays at both ends of the floor. The Cavs desperately needed upgrades over Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak, and the signing of 6'-6" Parker was the first step in improving Cleveland's non-LeBron wing game.

Risks: Parker wasn't Ferry's first choice. The Cavs turned to Parker when neither Ron Artest nor Trevor Ariza would take their full midlevel exception. Parker is a solid role player who starred in Europe between stints in the NBA, but he's 34. He contends that due to the fewer games played in the European season, he's been spared a couple seasons' worth of wear and tear on his body. But 34 is still 34, and he's going to have to work that much harder to keep up with the younger, faster players he'll be guarding.

Rewards: Age is the only real downside to Parker. He's a heady defender, good outside shooter, strong enough to drive the ball inside on occasion, and brings with him the veteran smarts gained from a long career in basketball. As a second- or third-option scorer, Parker is likely miscast. But as a jack-of-all-trades off the bench, he's an excellent fit. And all for significantly less than the Lakers and Rockets shelled out for Artest and Ariza, respectively.

July 17: Cavs sign Heat forward Jamario Moon, a restricted free agent, to a three-year offer sheet worth nearly $9 million. On July 24, the Heat declined to match the offer, officially sending Moon to the Cavs

Moon is the other piece of the Cavs perimeter improvement plan. Moon is 6'-8" and naturally plays small forward, but could play power forward against smaller lineups. With long arms and pogo stick legs, he can play taller than his height, and can make athletic plays around the basket. In an NBA career that has spanned just two years, he's already gained a reputation as a vicious dunker.

Risks: Moon didn't make his NBA debut until the age of 27. For six years following college, he lived a basketball vagabond life that included a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. Like Parker, Moon owes his NBA career to the Raptors' willingness to take a chance on him. Unlike Parker, he was never drafted, hanging on in pro ball through his willingness to change uniforms and log air miles. In translation, that means he's always had NBA-level athletic ability, but it's been a long journey to attain an NBA-level skill set. At an age when most NBA players are beginning the back nine of their careers, Moon is still learning his NBA game.

For all his athletic ability, Moon still won't stuff a stat sheet. He's averaged nearly 27 minutes per game for his NBA career, but his scoring average stands at 7.8 points per game and his rebounds at 5.4 per game. He'll turn 30 next June, so it is logical to question how much longer he'll possess his celebrated vertical jump before Father Time starts to make withdrawals.

Rewards: Moon is a late bloomer, but now he's a late bloomer playing alongside LeBron -- and Moon should definitely play alongside LeBron, not just spell him as the backup small forward.

Moon is the closest thing to an athletic equal that LeBron now has on the roster. If the pair can learn to run together, they should benefit greatly from each other's size, speed and leaping ability. If Moon can maximize the scoring chances that LeBron makes for him, his scoring average could jump by several points per game. LeBron is used to flushing alley-oop passes, but with Moon on the floor, LBJ might actually get a chance to throw a few alley-oop lobs for a change.

August 12: Cavs sign forward Leon Powe to a two-year, $1.8 million deal

Powe is a rock-solid, hard working power forward with a critical flaw: his knees. In May, he had his third ACL reconstruction on his left knee, accompanied by a microfracture procedure. It's why the Celtics cooled considerably on one of the heroes of their 2008 NBA title run, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent by not tendering him a qualifying offer. In turn, that's why Powe is now a member of the Cavs. He won't be ready for game action until February at the earliest.

Risks: Powe's contract is minimal risk, with the second year held by the Cavs as an option. If he bounces back, he could play himself right into the Cavs' future plans. But there is still risk involved. Powe's signing basically slammed the door on any chance of re-signing Joe Smith, who left for the Hawks, lured by the possibility of more playing time.

That leaves the Cavs to rely on Darnell Jackson and J.J. Hickson, who is still fighting through back problems, to battle for minutes as the fourth big man until Powe can return -- and no one can predict the state of Powe's battered knee upon his return.

Rewards: Powe is a big-game player, so if he's healthy, he's a major addition for the stretch run and playoffs. He'll likely never average more than eight points and five rebounds per game due to his knees and athletic limitations. But he seems to have a knack for pulling out a 20 and 10 game right when his team needs it the most.

The Celtics benefitted greatly from Powe's spotlight performances during the past two seasons. His 21-point outburst in Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals will live on in Celtics lore. Hopefully Powe brought his lucky leprechaun with him to Cleveland.

August 15: Cavs and forward Rob Kurz agree to a non-guaranteed contract

Kurz was a non-drafted find by the Warriors last season. He's a 6'-9" power forward with three-point range on his jumper, so he could find minutes alongside Shaq if he ends up in Cleveland -- which is probable, but not certain. Kurz will likely come to camp with the Cavs, but that could change if he somehow finds a team willing to offer him a guaranteed contract.

Risks: It would be a loss if Kurz signs elsewhere. In the battle for the fourth big man spot, Kurz would be a nice insurance policy on Hickson's back. He is the closest thing the Cavs would have to a "stretch four" -- an outside-shooting big man who can take some of the heat off the Cavs' frontcourt, which is stacked with bumpers, grinders, slashers and drivers who make their money close to the hoop.

Rewards: If you truly believe that a stretch four is a key ingredient in the Shaq championship formula, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Results: Inconclusive

It shouldn't be the most compelling story in Browns training camp. Not nearly a month in. But it is, and it will continue to be. And the team is going to suffer for it.

The Browns have a quarterback competition. That bloated horse carcass has been flogged for quite some time. Eric Mangini has already gone on record as saying he will wait until all four preseason games have been completed, and examine the whole body of work produced by both Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, before deciding on an opening day starter.

The burning question should be, what are the final two preaseason games going to show that the first two didn't show?

In the exhibition opener at Green Bay, Quinn had a solid game while Anderson's was migraine-inducing. In the second game against Detroit, Anderson had one of his Peyton Marino Montana games and impressed, while Quinn finished with a pedestrian 3-for-5 passing effort on a couple of penalty-marred drives.

Eight quarters of exhibition football in the books, and no clear-cut leader. Anderson exhibited his numerous flaws and so did Quinn. Anderson threw picks, Quinn threw a pick. Anderson looks like the more experienced passer, Quinn looks more composed more often.

Another two exhibition games probably aren't going to produce any new revelations for Mangini. And unlike the exhibition season, it's generally a bad idea to wait until game day to name your starting QB once the games start to count.

I've made my feelings known about the situation in this space a few weeks ago. Quinn needs to be given the '09 season to make his case, just as Anderson got '07 and half of '08. Anderson is what he is: a great arm for vertical passing, a suspect decision-maker, and tends to wilt mentally when under pressure.

If Mangini is hoping his decision will become clearer over the next two weeks, he probably has another thing coming. Sooner or later, Mangini is going to have to make a decision, even if it means closing his eyes and pulling a name out of a hat. That might be the only way Mangini can create any separation between two talented but flawed QBs.

And it's about a heck of a lot more than who is under center versus Minnesota on Sept. 13. If the Browns are to build upon any progress they achieve, if they are to make any headway in evolving out of the primordial rebuilding soup, they need a starting QB. It's an essential building block, if only because right now they have two, and having two quarterbacks might be worse than having none. It's certainly true when you have two QBs who are playing cat and mouse with the starting assignment.

Mangini's decision affects not just opening day. This is about the Browns of 2009 and beyond. This is about defining a direction and living with the results. This is about being right or wrong. Through this process, we might find out more about Eric Mangini as a coach than Quinn or Anderson as quarterbacks.

There is only one right outcome: picking the better of the two quarterbacks, not just for this year, but for the coming years. The first wrong choice is selecting the less capable of the two quarterbacks. The second wrong choice, with longer-reaching consequences, is continuing to ping-pong between Quinn and Anderson, keeping the team in a permanent state of flux.

The fear of the first wrong choice might drive Mangini to the second wrong choice, which will expose him as a waffler, and might cause him to lose face, both in the locker room and with the public at large.

If Mangini commits to either Quinn or Anderson, parting ways with the other, he opens himself to the possibility of watching the cast-off become the "One That Got Away," blossoming into an elite passer in another team's uniform.

But if that's Mangini's worst fear, that alone says a lot about the Browns' new coach. He needs to worry about the future of his team, not what might happen elsewhere if he lets go of the wrong QB.

In other words, building a sense of stability, at this point, might be more important that being right about your QB choice.

Even if Quinn becomes nothing more than a mediocre NFL quarterback with the Browns, while Anderson moves on to another team and sets passing records -- or vice versa -- it's still better than the current setup, with a team once again in the fragile, embryonic stages of rebuilding, facing a cloudy future due to the instability of the cornerstone position on any football team.

Teams can win without a great passing attack. But they can't win without stability or leadership. That is what the quarterback position needs to provide, before it provides passing yardage and touchdowns.

But the quarterback can't provide stability and leadership if the coach doesn't provide it first. And many times, that requires tough decisions from the guy who wears the headset on Sundays.

This might prove to be Mangini's toughest decision as coach of the Browns, because of what it affects, both this year and beyond. Picking the wrong quarterback could have damaging consequences. But picking neither -- or perpetually waiting for a clear-cut winner to emerge -- could be devastating well beyond a Week 1 loss to the Vikings.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Zebra stripes and leopard spots

The Browns' home preseason game on Saturday against Detroit won't be blacked out locally. On Tuesday, the team brokered a deal with the TV carrier of its preseason games, WKYC Channel 3, to split the cost of the remaining unsold tickets.

In Cleveland, this might actually be bad news for a fan base that was expecting so much more than what Eric Mangini's squad delivered in Green Bay last Saturday.

It was one preaseason game, on the road, in one of the NFL's most intimidating environments for visitors, against a Packers team that is less than two years removed from the doorstep of the Super Bowl. But it meant so much more for Browns fans hanging over their television sets like starving dogs, ready to lap up any morsel of anything that could be construed as progress, anything that might show us that the organization is rising from the ashes of the Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel led train wreck of last season.

What we got was a 17-0 beatdown that wasn't even that close. Outside of Brady Quinn and a small handful of others, no one else had anything close to a decent performance. The defense was embarrassingly slow, exhibiting no pass rush, little ability to stop the run, lousy tackling, and safety Abram Elam was beaten deep on a first-quarter touchdown pass to boot.

The offense was inconsistent. Quinn moved the ball on a couple of drives and should have had a touchdown pass, but Braylon Edwards did what Braylon Edwards does and dropped the ball in the end zone. Beyond that, Jamal Lewis looked to be 29 going on 50, Derek Anderson's mental static was alive and well on an air-mailed interception and Mike Furrey might have been the best receiver of the night.

One more thing -- penalties. Still a problem.

The anger of the fan base was palpable after Mangini's Browns coaching debut. Exactly what has Mangini been teaching these guys? Isn't he supposed to be a "real" coach, not the couch potato poking holes in the air until he could draw a pension, like Crennel supposedly was? Isn't Mangini supposed to be a fully-indoctrinated Bill Belichick disciple, thoroughly grounded in the Ph.D.-level strategy and discipline of The Gray Hoodie?

So what gives? Why did our first glimpse of the Mangini Browns look so terrifyingly like the junk heap that Crennel and Savage left on our doorstep as they scurried out of town with their severance packages last January?

Maybe Mangini is an ineffectual, incompetent goof. Or, more likely, the players play the game, and that junk heap from last January was still on the field last Saturday, just with a new coach.

Zebras will continue to have stripes. Leopards will continue to have spots. And a lousy football team with a gaping hole where the impact talent is supposed to be will continue to lose games.

The Browns looked bad because they are bad. This is a franchise that has been cracking under the weight of botched draft picks and inert free agent signings for a decade now. Mangini might be able to coach some of the penalties away. He might be able to instill better discipline, better prepare his team for game day and make better in-game adjustments. But the only antivenin that is going to cure this snake-bitten team is better performances during the free agent signing period and, more pointedly, during the draft.

Unfortunately, that's a process that is going to take years before we know if Mangini and GM George Kokinis possess the ability to drag this moribund franchise back to daylight, or whether they're just the latest in a long line of failed management teams.

That's the reality. The expectation, however, is still that Mangini is going to be able to spin moldy barn straw into 24-karat gold, or at the very least, something brighter and shinier than we've seen recently. It's an expectation Mangini undoubtedly carries for himself.

Allegedly, one of the selling points that got Mangini the Browns job was his belief, professed to Randy Lerner, that he could win with much of the current roster intact. If true, you'd have to believe that it's exactly what a desperate Lerner wanted to hear. After three regime changes in 10 years, who wants to have to go through another full-scale rebuild again?

The idea that the Browns don't have to undergo a complete rebuild is half-right. They don't need another five-year plan or a three-year plan or even a one-year plan. As fans, we don't need more promises of better days ahead. Those promises never get delivered.

What the Browns need, and what Mangini needs to provide, is steady, incremental improvement. Better drafting, better development, better game management. We don't need more grand schemes fashioned in the mold of the Patriots, Steelers or Ravens. What we need is a coach and a front office that is going to define and cast a new Browns mold.

The job Mangini has in front of him is a lot less glamorous than trying to follow in Belichick's footsteps. It's to re-define and re-assert what it means to be the Cleveland Browns. Somewhere along the line, that meaning was lost. And it was probably lost even before Art Modell plucked the original franchise from Cleveland.

It's going to become reality through acquiring good players and providing them with good coaching. No more, no less. And there are no quick fixes. That was the shooting star that Savage chased, and he got burned.

Until Mangini can build a Browns Way that is not merely a watered-down derivative of the Patriots Way or the Steelers Way, you will continue to see variations on what you saw last Saturday. Because the Browns just aren't very good.

Now is not the time to pass judgment on Mangini. He's slogging through the swamp just like the rest of us. Only time will tell if Mangini has what it takes to recreate the Cleveland Browns.

And time, regrettably, is one of the few things that isn't in short supply around here.

Post 1,000

It took me nearly five years, but here it is.

If you've been reading since December 27, 2004, I thank you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Powe the Show

I probably sat up and took notice of newest Cavalier Leon Powe at about the same time as everybody else. But maybe not in quite the same way.

It was the spring of 2008, and the Celtics were on their way to winning the city of Boston roughly its 490th pro sports title of the decade. As much as those of us in Cleveland hated to admit it, the Celtics had all the championship ingredients: A dogged defensive mentality, star-power leadership from Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, a breakout young star in Rajon Rondo, and a deep bench led by James Posey and Eddie House.

Even so, the Celtics needed a bit more to win it all. They survived seven-game scares against the Hawks and Cavs in the first two rounds of the playoffs before dispatching the Pistons and Lakers for the right to hoist the franchise's 17th title banner.

On the fringe, creeping ever-closer to the center of the spotlight, was this kid with bum knees and the heart of a lion. Everyone will remember Leon Powe's 21-point performance in Game 2 of the NBA Finals that year as his coming-out party. But from the perspective of a Cavs fan, as my team did a good deal of bumping and grinding with Boston that season, Powe's presence was announced more like the rising Sun than a bolt of lightning.

By the time the Cavs squared off with the Celtics in the second round of the '08 playoffs, the equation seemed to come together. The name, the face, the green jersey with the number "0" planted squarely in the middle of the back. That one player that every team needs to have step up in the biggest games of the season, that one unsung hero that wasn't in the equation at the start of the journey, Boston had found him. The Celtics simply would not have won the NBA title without the contributions of Powe.

That could have been it. A lot of players catch their 15 minutes of fame and fade into obscurity. Some even get lucrative contracts before regressing to the mean. But Powe kept popping into the headlines and highlight reels. When Garnett seriously injured his knee last winter, Powe stepped up, helping to salvage a 62-win season and the second seed in the East for the Celtics. Along the way, he burned the Cavs for 20 points and 11 rebounds in an early March game.

Powe kept playing the role of extra-strength bandage until a late-season knee bruise was followed by a torn ACL -- his third -- and microfracture surgery during the playoffs. That's been the trend of Powe's career. In a lot of ways, it's probably been the trend of his life.

The details of Powe's early life, outlined in this East Bay Express article from 2003, read like the first half of a movie script: Growing up impoverished in Oakland, single mother, many siblings, had to skip school to change diapers, house burned down, family forced to live in a car, mother eventually arrested and served prison time on theft and welfare fraud charges.

There were a million ways Powe could have gone down a wrong path in life, could have ended up in and out of the penal system or worse, but his was one of a few scattered hoop dreams that came true -- Powe found a mentor in former Contra Costa College player Bernard Ward, himself trying to right his life after drug-related run-ins with the law.

Ward helped Powe set the ball rolling toward high school stardom, which led to a spot on a star-studded AAU squad that included LeBron James, which in turn helped pave the way for Powe to earn a scholarship to Cal-Berkeley.

Then Powe attains college stardom, goes to the NBA, makes millions and wins a championship, right? It could have been, because Powe had ascended from obscurity to certified prep blue-chipper by the time his senior year of high school rolled was within view. But while playing AAU ball during the spring between his junior and senior years, he tore his ACL. It would become a recurring problem. He clawed back, played his senior year and made it to Cal. Then he tore his ACL again in college, downgrading him from NBA lottery pick to second-round project.

The Nuggets drafted him in the second round in 2006 and traded his rights to Boston, where he became something of an afterthought until the Celtics traded for Garnett and Allen in the summer of 2007, launching the Celtics back onto the national stage and giving Powe the chance to play a role on a contending team.

He seized the moment, playing with as much intensity and ferocity as his body would allow. At 6'-8", he played taller than his height, blocking shots and crushing dunks. He looked like a core member of the Celtics moving forward.

From Cleveland, all I could do is wish we could get our hands on a player like that. In fact, when I first became honestly conscious of Powe, that was one of the first thoughts that entered my head. The Cavs needed a Leon Powe, someone with an intangible fearlessness and physical presence, someone alongside LeBron with a reputation for rising to the occasion in big games. The need became more pronounced as the Cavs wilted against Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals this spring.

As the chain of events would have it, that's exactly what happened. The Cavs found a player like Powe. Exactly like Powe, in fact.

When Powe underwent a combination of ACL repair and microfracture surgery on his left knee this May, Celtics management scaled the love way back. Powe went from important role player to injury case with a cloudy future. Powe told The Plain Dealer that he was at least looking for a one-year deal from Boston, but GM Danny Ainge wouldn't even commit to that degree. In July, the Celtics declined to give Powe a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.

The Celtics might have been banking that interest in Powe would be minimal, and that they might be able to re-sign him at a later date if his rehab went well. But for all intents and purposes, the bridge between Powe and the Celtics was burned at that moment.

The Celtics, through inaction-by-design, opened the door, and Danny Ferry walked in. The Cavs aggressively recruited Powe throughout July and August, and despite overtures from other contenders, Powe signed a two-year deal with the Cavs -- with the second year being a team option.

A great many Celtics fans are upset. Powe was well-liked in Boston, and a lot of Celtics fans seem to think Powe was given a raw deal, loved then left by team management. Of course, other Boston fans seem to think they'll get along just fine after having substituted Rasheed Wallace for Powe.

Signing Powe and banking on his return to 2008-09 form is a risk on the part of the Cavs, no doubt. Powe's knees are ravaged at this point, and he's only 25. Even if Powe does come back midseason, he is still an undersized power forward who will need to fit into the Cavs' system somehow. Powe thrived playing alongside defensive-minded center Kendrick Perkins in Boston. The Cavs' version of Perkins is Shaq, but his game is a little different, and he takes up a lot more space in the paint.

These are the wrinkles that will need to be ironed out. For now, the Cavs are taking a minimal-risk chance on a player who deserves such a chance.

It may be months before we get a chance to see Powe in the wine and gold, but I'm honestly thrilled that Powe is coming to Cleveland. It's not just what he might bring to the table for the stretch run. It's that I'll get a chance to root for a player that I've been wanting to root for.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sweating it out at Camp Mangini

Does the Browns roster really need to have its collective hide toughened this much?

That's what a lot of Browns fans are starting to wonder as the first preseason game approaches this weekend.

Less than two weeks into the first training camp of the Eric Mangini Era, and there are already media-conveyed squeals coming out of Berea that say certain players, who are nameless as of yet, are unhappy that Mangini is working their well-compensated fingers to the bone.

Well, not entirely nameless. Jerome Stanley, the agent for Syndric Steptoe, took his beef with Mangini to the media following Saturday's rainy practice, in which Steptoe suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season before it began. The full-speed practice in the rain was excessive, Stanley asserted, essentially accusing Mangini of handling his client in a reckless fashion. Steptoe, who was fighting an uphill battle to make the team to being with, was waived by the Browns on Tuesday.

The complaint of Steptoe's agent is just a scratch on the surface. A Yahoo! Sports article by Jason Cole notes that there is an emerging trend of players complaining at the Berea complex. Cole said Braylon Edwards -- a well-known squeaky wheel -- has been particularly irritable since camp started. Much of it might have to do with a lack of a new contract, and a springtime trade to the Giants that went belly-up. But it's clear that Edwards is, at least right now, not having a lot of fun playing for Mangini.

The grumbling is probably going to get worse before it gets better. There is blame to shoulder on both side of the equation.

The players -- at least the ones who were here last year and beforehand -- are guilty of having to be dragged kicking and screaming into a camp where Job 1 isn't necessarily to minimize contact and keep everyone healthy. At least to the naked eye, that appeared to be Romeo Crennel's primary goal every summer.

The results of Camp Romeo were actually counterproductive. The Browns suffered more injuries and were less-prepared for physical football with Crennel's spare-the-rod approach. Even worse, the players became conditioned to expect a relatively low-impact camp atmosphere. Going through the motions was enough.

Mangini now has to uproot that culture, and predictably, the players are going through a great degree of culture shock. Their island in the Sun has just turned into Parris Island, and they're not liking it.

With that in mind, it's easy to see why Mangini brought so many ex-Jets along for the ride this year. This isn't Dwight Clark filling out the roster with 49er castoffs because it's a quick fix. Mangini wanted to bring some Jets players along with him, in part, to help ease the transition for the guys who weren't used to his style.

“Guys will get used to it,” Jets transplant David Bowens told Cole. “The second year, he eases up. He’s just trying to establish himself.”

Mangini had better hope that guys like Bowens can start to gain followers in the locker room. Because while Crennel tended to take a minimalist approach to leadership and discipline, Mangini's style is heavy-handed for first-time users. He is a coach with new-school methods built on a foundation of old-school discipline, taking bits and pieces from the leadership styles of his primary mentor, Bill Belichick, and the likes of Bill Parcells and Ted Marchibroda, who he assisted early in his coaching career.

Mangini has spent the past 15-plus years as a football sponge, absorbing information from two of the best football minds of the past 25 years, sanding and polishing his head coaching style in three years with the Jets, and hopefully what we'll witness in Cleveland is a veteran head coach employing a system that works. But the byproduct of football saturation bombing is what we're seeing so far in Browns camp.

Mangini is ramming all things football related down the throats of his charges, and his players aren't taking well to it. Transition is never easy, but Mangini could alienate his players as easily as he could burn off the baby fat of the Crennel regime and turn his team into hardened warriors.

That's the groove Mangini needs to find. He needs to toughen his players and acclimate them to his system without burning them out, to the point where they tune him out and call their agents en masse, asking for the next ticket out of Cleveland.

For now, the burden is primarily on the players to adjust to Mangini. As much as they might not want to, the players need to recognize that this is what an NFL camp is supposed to be -- physically grueling and mentally challenging -- as compared to what Crennel let them get away with for the previous four years.

But once all are aboard who are coming aboard, Mangini needs to make good on Bowens' promise and back off the accelerator a bit in Year Two.

Discipline is good. Education is good. Tough love is good. Alienating half the roster and antagonizing the coach is not good. Sooner or later, the players will be within their rights if they get upset with Mangini for cracking the whip too hard. We're not at that point yet, but when we reach that point, Mangini had better be the first to notice.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

LeBron: The saga continues

The upcoming NBA season could be a memorable one in Cleveland. Talentwise, the Cavaliers are poised to field quite possibly the best team in franchise history. They might not take the league by storm and win 66 games like last season's squad, but they're going to win a lot of games and strongly contend for the NBA title.

Given the Magic's loss of walking mismatch Hedo Turkoglu, and the unavoidable age and injury issues enveloping the Celtics, it's realistic if you'd like to peg the Cavs as the early favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Certainly, Shaquille O'Neal gives the Cavs their own age and injury issues, but a slowing Shaq is still 7'-1" and 325 pounds. His size alone is a weapon.

For Cleveland fans, things should be looking rosy if you view the 2009-10 season in a vacuum. Unfortunately, no one will. The entire upcoming season will be viewed by fans, media, players and team executives through the prism of the summer of 2010.

An early-summer memorandum from the league office, predicting a sharp decline in the 2010 salary cap figure, might have thrown some foam on the fire. But it didn't put the flames out. And by late next spring, it's going to be a conflagration.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh headline what might be the deepest and most star-studded free agent class in league history. For several years now, teams across the league have been angling for next summer, acquiring expiring contracts, pinching their pennies, all in the name of reeling in a big fish next summer.

In Cleveland, it means that we're going to have to really work to enjoy the upcoming season to its fullest. The biggest prize is LeBron, and for the next 11 months, regardless of how outstanding or lackluster the Cavs perform, the leaguewide conversation will center on where he will play in 2010-11 and after.

By next summer, when New York honks like Tony Kornheiser and Stephen A. Smith have promoted the idea of LeBron as a Knick for the thousandth time, when Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski has written his 500th column blasting Cavs management for their ineptitude in assembling a team around LeBron, when Bill Simmons has half-jokingly predicted that the post-LeBron Cavs will become the new Seattle Sonics by 2015 (you know it's coming), when we've heard for the zillionth time from the likes of Charles Barkley about what a backwards stinkhole Cleveland is, and why on Earth would anyone stay in that dirty little town if given the chance to get out, us Backwards Stinkholites will be .... well, more than a little weary of it all. Maybe we're already reaching that point.

If you live in Greater Cleveland, and you want a shot of civic pride, national NBA coverage might not be the best place to get it for the next year or so. Cleveland is going to be trashed from all sides, writers and TV yakkers will have LeBron pre-emptively signed, sealed and delivered to the open arms of New York, be it the Knicks or Nets, and pre-column chin-stroking from national scribes will have LeBron casting his lot with every team from the Heat to the Clippers.

LeBron can't really put the kabosh on it, because speculation is one of the staples of 24-hour cable news networks, be it hard news, sports, celebrity gossip or otherwise. But he can withdraw from the situation with his previously-established company line of "I'm happy in Cleveland, I've never given an indication that I want to play anywhere else, but I'm not going to discuss my free agency in any greater detail until next summer. Right now, I'm all about helping the Cavs win a championship."

Instead, LeBron stirred the drink a bit with his comments Friday, during the media event to launch his new Nike sneaker line. He was asked if he would consider signing an extension with the Cavs prior to becoming a free agent. This was his reply:

"I signed a contract in 2006 with an option. It would make no sense for me to sign that contract if I didn't keep my options open," The Plain Dealer quoted him as saying. "I'll let you fill in the blanks."

All of that is true. LeBron signed a shorter extension to keep his long term options open. However, the tone of his remarks is a little jarring if you're a Cavs fan looking for any reassurance that King James is still leaning toward re-upping with the Cavs next summer. There was no mention of his satisfaction with his situation in Cleveland.

He did mention that bringing national events, like his Nike shoe lauch, to his hometown of Akron "is big for me," but it bears mentioning that LeBron almost always makes a distinction between Akron and Cleveland in his remarks. As residents of Northeast Ohio, we tend to lump the two cities in the same general region, separated by a county line and 30-odd miles of Interstate 77.

But to LeBron, Akron is home. Cleveland is where he works. For LeBron, the benefit of playing in Cleveland is that it's close to Akron and his Bath Township home in Summit County. It's a big benefit, but if you think LeBron feels the same attachment to the "216" as he does the "330," that's probably not the case.

It's not necessarily an indication of his chances of re-signing with the Cavs, but anyone who wants to believe that hometown loyalty is going to be the deciding factor had better forget about sentimentality. LeBron's hometown loyalty is to Akron, not Cleveland, and there's a difference, at least to LeBron.

It's easy to overanalyze LeBron's comments on Friday -- particularly what was not said. Did the extremely disappointing playoff loss to Orlando rock LeBron's blissful marriage with the Cavs to the point where he is seriously considering a move? Is LeBron trying to cover his tracks after Trevor Ariza made public his reported comments about staying with the Cavs? Or do we all just need to take a chill pill?

Given that we all need to get through the next 11 months without going completely nuts, I'd choose Option C. Rationally, LeBron has numerous reasons to re-sign with the Cavs. It's a 40-minute car ride from central Summit County. He can find privacy here. There aren't paparazzi waiting to hit him with volleys of shutter-clicks every time he leaves his house. Most importantly, the Cavs can offer him the most money, most years and highest percentage raises on a new or extended contract.

That will not change, per the rules of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. Any other team that wants LeBron will have to make an airtight case to him as to why he should leave the Cavs' money on the table. And next summer, that will be a lot of money. A lot more than the three years and $65 million max he could be extended this summer.

Based on everything I've seen this summer and in summers past, free agents are all about the money. Charlie Villanueva and Hakim Warrick were among the free agents that spurned the Cavs to play for less-competitive teams, because the less-competitive team had more money to offer.

There is the ever-present "LeBron needs to conquer New York to conquer the world" argument, but the national media types who contend that LeBron can't become a worldwide icon and billion-dollar athlete playing in small-market Cleveland obviously haven't been paying attention to their own content for the past six years. In the age of 24-hour cable networks and instant Internet access, the media's spotlight is very portable. If LeBron played in Siberia, they'd find him, cameras in tow. ESPN and their competitors are actually disproving their own anti-Cleveland arguments with their obsessive fawning over LeBron.

But all the rational arguments in the world can't appeal to the irrational what-if monster inside our own heads. The hungry monster that gets fed every time the Cavs lose, every time we hear more speculation, every time we see another talking head tell us that the Cavs haven't done right by LeBron, that he needs to resurrect the Knicks for the good of the league, every time we read that another writer has had an encounter with a "source close to LeBron" who, invariably, never has anything good to say about LBJ's chances of staying with the Cavs.

Unfortunately, LeBron likes to feed the what-if monster, too. And he will do just that over the next year, honing his skills as a conveyor of non-committal soundbites. He has his reasons. Some of them are legitimate, some of them are because he loves the attention and wants to keep his name in the headlines.

The best-case scenario is if LeBron re-signs next summer. As the next year progresses, however, we might come to the conclusion that the second-best outcome is that, should LeBron leave, we're so fed up with the media circus, the flirting, the suspense, the New York self-righteousness, the nationa media taunting and Cleveland-bashing, that we almost welcome his departure as a chance to regain our peace of mind.

We all want to see this relationship between Cavs fans and LeBron to continue to be positive and fruitful. But in the end, if it doesn't work out that way, it's best that the split be a mutual decision. And to that end, there's hope -- if you want to call it that.

If LeBron is sick of Cleveland and the Cavs a year from now, there is a good chance that we're also going to be sick of him. Blasphemy? Get back to me next summer, when we'll know for sure.

Monday, August 03, 2009

1 + 1 = 1 too many

At the outset of 2009 Browns training camp, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn are on a level playing field.

Eric Mangini says he has no preconceived notions about who will be under center for the regular season opener. Both quarterbacks will start from zero, and the better man over the next six weeks will lead this team onto the field Sept. 13 against Minnesota.

That's what worries me.

Why? Because I know that the Browns need to move on from Derek Anderson. They need to move on from this two-year QB controversy masquerading as a QB competition. They are a rebuilding team and they need to know what they have in 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn, and the only way that is going to happen is if Mangini gives Quinn the reins for an entire season. If Quinn succeeds, you breathe a sigh of relief. If not, quarterback just got moved up the list of priorities for next offseason.

But this need to hold onto Anderson and Quinn as a security blanket to guard against injuries and outright failure has to stop. Unfortunately, based on Mangini's early-camp comments to the media, it appears he's going to hang onto both QBs all season.

If Quinn is under center on opening day with Anderson holding the clipboard, I can live with that. I still don't like it, but the net result is Quinn starting. But what really has me wary is Anderson's ability to tease.

Anderson is completely capable of looking like the better QB through camp, through the preseason and even into the early part of the regular season. And when Anderson is at his best, Quinn just can't measure up. Anderson has all the physical attributes. At 6'-6", he's among the tallest QBs in the NFL. His power arm is well-documented. And, perhaps most attractive to a coach, Anderson is not a thinking man's QB.

That's not a criticism of his level of intelligence, but let's just say that line-of-scrimmage audibles aren't Anderson's strength. He won't scrap the playbook in the huddle and run his own game. He has the plays strapped to his wrist, and that's that.

Somehow, I get the feeling that Mangini values submissive coachability in his quarterbacks. Think Bill Belichick circa 1993.

When Anderson is throwing 35-yard completions on a frozen rope, his physical attributes look sublime. It's so easy to get sucked in by Anderson's height and strength when he's cooking. And for a coach like Mangini, who likely has no shortage of belief in his ability to mold players, it can be extremely tempting to look at Anderson and believe that he can be a franchise QB if he's placed in the right system and taught the right things.

If Anderson bursts out of the gate like he did in '07, hanging among the NFL's elite passers through September and October, the illusion becomes even more crystallized. Brady Who? This Anderson kid has finally turned the corner. All he needed was a real system and a real coach.

Anderson is scary because he's perfectly capable of doing exactly that. If he gets his act together, he can blow Quinn out of the water for several months. It won't be by design, Anderson will just happen into a groove and look unstoppable for a certain period of time.

But Mangini, for all the hours he's certainly spent watching video of Anderson, hasn't yet experienced December Derek. For all the hours of sterilized video, free of emotional involvement, free from that horrible gut check we received on that cold day in Cincinnati two years ago, Mangini hasn't experienced December Derek until he's experienced him.

And that is when Mangini will realized he was snookered. He was seduced, courted and left at the altar by a quarterback whose trademark pose is walking back to the sideline with his hands on his helmet after throwing another interception.

That is Derek Anderson with the pressure on. That is the DA that you want no part of. That is the DA you never see coming in August when he looks like John Elway in 7-on-7 drills. The worst part is, by the time Anderson makes a compelling enough case to get benched -- compelling to a coach, not to fans -- three-fourths of the season has passed and Quinn is little more than a stopgap until the coaching staff can go back to the drawing board during the offseason.

After a two-season roller coaster with Anderson, we can safely arrive at the conclusion that he can be judged at face value. Big, strong, rocket arm, can heave the deep ball with the best of them, can't complete precision passes with any regularity, questionable decision maker, and tends to wilt in pressure situations, when QBs generally earn (or fail to earn) their large paychecks.

Another season of DA won't produce any new revelations, even with a new, more competent coach.

The previous regime invested two draft picks in Quinn, and it's time to give him a season to show his stuff, whatever that may be. For at least one proving-ground season, before the Mangini Era gets too far along, he has to know what he has in Quinn. Quinn's chance to prove himself can't be short-circuited by Anderson's peak-and-valley performance peaking just in time to save his hide from the recycle bin, once again.

The only things that will be accomplished by keeping Anderson around is to keep him in the conversation, keep Quinn looking over his shoulder, and risk the possibility of Mangini falling in love with his potential. Just like Romeo Crennel and, before him, Phil Savage.

If I can't be sure of anything else with this team, I can be sure that's a powder keg waiting to blow up in everyone's face.