Monday, June 07, 2010

The Gunslinger

The Cavaliers are an unstable organization with an uncertain future. They have no coach, a rookie general manager and a superstar free agent who is going to do a lot of observing of offseason moves, in Cleveland and elsewhere, before committing to a team.

If there was ever a time to strive for consistency and stability, you'd think now would be it. But at least in the mind of Dan Gilbert, it's not.

The alternative was to maintain the status quo, retain Mike Brown and give Danny Ferry no reason to step down as general manager. But faced with the reality of back-to-back league-leading regular seasons with not even an NBA Finals berth to show for it, Gilbert saw a system that needed an overhaul.

So overhaul he did. Mike Brown, arguably the most successful coach in franchise history, was shown the door after two straight years of lackluster playoff performances against other contenders.

Ferry, who has always been in Brown's corner, likely didn't agree with the decision. But if he was to stay on as GM, he at least wanted to maintain full control over basketball operations -- and hire his own coach.

Gilbert wanted to remove total autonomy from Ferry's job description, opening the door for a big-name coach who might want some say in how the roster is constructed. Ferry didn't like what he was hearing, and with his contract expiring, saw the opportunity to bow out. Chris Grant, Ferry's top assistant, has taken over the general manager's role. Gilbert was emphatic in his assertion that Grant is not a placeholder, and will not carry an "interim" tag on his title.

But that doesn't mean that Grant will have final say on all basketball matters as Ferry did. He could end up developing a specific specialization, such as the draft. Grant has handled the Cavs' drafts for the past few years. He could end up as a puppet GM -- George Kokinis to a new coach's Eric Mangini. That's a setup that is bound to end badly, but that's another discussion.

What we know for certain is that Gilbert is the only figure lending any stability to the Cavs organization right now, and he is in the process of installing his second leadership regime with no guarantee that LeBron is coming back.

There really isn't a blueprint for what Gilbert is trying to accomplish. LeBron is the only selling point that would attract a big-name coach to Cleveland. Landing a big-name coach is a major key to reassuring LeBron that the Cavs are committed to winning titles. So how do you sell a big-name coach on coming to Cleveland when the superstar that makes the job attractive is waiting to see if you can make the hire -- and might still bolt even if you do make the hire?

A only if B, and B only if A. It's a maddening Catch-22. How can Gilbert do it? We're getting our first case study in Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

Several days ago, Gilbert reportedly offered Izzo a lot of money -- up to $6 million a year, double his salary at Michigan State -- to come to Cleveland and root the Cavs in the philosophy of dogged competitiveness and staunch defense that has helped lead the Spartans to six Final Four appearances and a national championship in Izzo's 15-year tenure.

At first glance, it looks like a well-connected Michigan State graduate in Gilbert overvaluing Izzo as the be-all, end-all who can cure everything that is wrong with the Cavs. But once you start peeling back the layers on Gilbert's line of thinking, the interest in Izzo does make a bit more sense.

Despite a vast improvement in roster talent over the past two years, the Cavs regressed at the defensive end. When you look at the small army of defensive liabilities they added to the roster -- namely Mo Williams, Shaq and Antawn Jamison -- it's easy to blame Ferry for the shift away from defense.

But Gilbert is right to look to the coach to set the tone for defense, and Izzo would coach defense -- not just on a cerebral level, as Brown did, but on a level that promotes mental toughness and aggression.

Izzo has no NBA experience, but his college success has made him a national celebrity, which means he has the presence to coach someone like LeBron, who is knowledgeable about college ball and likely appreciates Izzo's body of work.

But would the money, even an outright cause-effect guarantee that Izzo's arrival would signal LeBron's return, be enough to lure Izzo to town?

It would be wise to assume not. Like a lot of in-demand college coaches, Izzo can use Gilbert's hot pursuit to put a scare into the Michigan State athletic director's office. And scared executives can be far more giving of both praise and money.

Darn near worshipped throughout much of his native state of Michigan, with a sterling reputation that has been buffer to a mirror shine, there just isn't a lot of incentive for Izzo to do more than listen to the Cavs and keep his mouth shut long enough to make Michigan State sweat a bit.

Maybe he'll see an extra three million greenbacks a year and cave to Gilbert's siren song, but the cash is all Gilbert really has to work with. His vacant coaching position could be a dream job or a prison sentence, depending on LeBron's loyalty.

And if Izzo says no, Gilbert has to find another coach to try and court. And once again, he has to sell any coach worth pursuing on the mere possibility that LeBron is coming back. And that's as basketball power broker and LeBron entourage member Wes Wesley is trying to convince anyone within earshot that LeBron is on the fast track to the Chicago Bulls.

As the Summer of LeBron warms up, it seems as though Dan Gilbert is more of a gunslinger than any of his players could ever hope to be. About a month after his players tip-toed out of the playoffs with one of the most tentative postseason performances you'll ever see, Gilbert is sticking his neck far out in pursuit of improvements to his team -- and by extension, in pursuit of LeBron's signature on a contract.

At a time when it would seem that the proper plan of action is to get in the blast bunker and lock the door, Gilbert has dismantled the bunker and begun a search for new raw materials.

It's either going to be a significant triumph or a massive failure. But at least he's going to try, which you have to admire. Having said that, you are fully allowed to admire Gilbert's moxie with your hands over your eyes, peeking out from between your fingers.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Tradition trumps history

There are few places where the past and future dance around each other more than they do in Major League Baseball.

Few entities combine a strict adherence to the laws of the past, written and unwritten, with landscape-altering gimmicks that completely break from the past.

Baseball is the sport that can't implement a salary cap, thanks to more than 100 years of contentious labor relationships between players and owners, and that baggage it has packed to this day. So while the NFL, NBA and NHL have succeeded to a degree in leveling the competitive balance between small market and big market teams, baseball is still a sport in which the privileged few spend about 90 percent of the time ruling over the less-privileged many.

Baseball is the sport with two leagues playing by two different rules because, roughly 40 years ago, American League owners liked the idea of having a professional hitter designated specifically to take the pitcher's turn in the batting order, with the idea that it would increase offense. The National League decided against it, and since 1973, the designated hitter has been a battle line in the war between new school and old school.

Baseball is the sport that embraced artificial turf first, but it's the sport that loathes the memory of the symmetrical, cylindrical multi-purpose stadiums that kept the artificial turf industry afloat for more than 30 years.

Baseball introduced interleague play in 1997, then counteracted it with the introduction of the unbalanced schedule a few years later. Now, the Indians sacrifice dates with the Yankees and Red Sox not only to play the Reds and Pirates, but also to play the Tigers and Twins 19 times a year.

Baseball is also the sport in which umpires still have virtually unquestioned authority. And Wednesday night in Detroit, unchecked human error crept into the equation in the Tigers-Indians game, robbing Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game.

Replays showed that Tribe hitter Jason Donald was out, and it really wasn't that close. With two outs in the top of the ninth, Donald hit a grounder to first for what would have been the 27th and final out of the game. Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera picked the ball cleanly, and delivered a throw to Galarraga covering first.

The throw was a little low, but Galarraga corralled it with little difficulty and put his foot on the bag. A freeze-frame showed Donald's lead leg was about a half-step away from the bag when Galarraga had the ball in his glove and his foot on the bag. But umpire Jim Joyce -- an accomplished umpire with more than 20 years on the job -- called Donald safe.

It was a flat-out blown call. An honest mistake, to be sure, but a major mistake. One that corrupted what should have been a historic night.

It would have been a continuation of one of the great statistical anomalies that make baseball distinctive. Heading into this season, 18 perfect games had been thrown in the history of Major League Baseball. Dallas Braden threw the 19th on Mother's Day. Roy Halladay threw the 20th this past Saturday. Galarraga should have had the third perfect game in less than a month. But Joyce's error, and baseball's unwillingness to put processes in place to correct it, left Galarraga with what is likely the most hollow one-hitter in baseball history.

Jim Leyland and every Detroit coach, player and fan within audible distance emphatically disputed Joyce, who argued back. Confronted later with the evidence, Joyce was quick to admit his error.

"I just cost that kid a perfect game," he told a reporter afterward. "I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay."

But once Joyce's arms went out in a "safe" signal, there was no turning back.

Perhaps Bud Selig and the rest of baseball's policymakers feel that, by putting 100 percent of the burden on umpires to get the call right, they're forcing the umpires to stay sharp by promoting total accountability. What baseball doesn't want is a setup like the NFL, where replay all but drives officiating, where side judges will routinely get out-of-bounds and possession calls wrong, seemingly guessing on the right call, knowing that coaches will challenge the call and replay will correct any mistake.

But what baseball has is a replay policy that has changed little from the days of Honus Wagner and Napoleon Lajoie. In the past two years, baseball has begrudgingly instituted replay on home run calls, allowing umpires to review whether a ball was fair or foul, or if it hit above the line that separates the outfield wall from the stands.

But on questions of balls and strikes, safe or out, not much has changed from the horse and buggy days.

Balls and strikes are, admittedly, another animal altogether. Baseball couldn't possibly institute a system in which every questionable ball and strike call is reviewed, or games would take six hours. But on the bang-bang play at first, the swipe tag on the stolen base attempt, the diving catch that TV replays showed to be a trapped ball -- in this era of high definition television feeds and 12 different camera angles, there is just no excuse to get those calls wrong anymore.

It's time for baseball -- the sport of the designated hitter, interleague play and the all-star game that determines homefield advantage in the World Series -- to cease clinging to the archaic ideal that replay technology will somehow corrupt the purity of the game, or turn umpires into robots. Because the only thing that's getting corrupted is history in the making.

Jim Joyce failed Armando Galarraga on Wednesday. But the office of the commissioner failed Joyce. Now Joyce is shamed and Galarraga might never scrape so close to greatness again.

That's a crime. But the real crime occurs when Selig and his cronies avert their eyes and continue to pretend that it's a bygone era where nothing can be done about it.