Tuesday, June 26, 2012

LeBron was right

LeBron James was right. The way he left was wrong, but his reasoning was right. He needed better teammates to win a title.

Not because Dwyane Wade is better than Mo Williams, or Chris Bosh is better than Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But because LeBron respects those guys in a way he didn't respect any of his teammates here. Because the Cavs never had a superstar-commanding presence like Pat Riley in the front office.

We thought LeBron signed a shortened contract extension in 2006 because he wanted to pressure the Cavs front office to remain aggressive in building a contender around him. Actually, he signed the shortened extension to give him an escape hatch, which he used two years ago.

There was never any real sense of urgency for LeBron while he was here. Obviously, he wanted to win. But he didn't need to win. How could LeBron develop any sense of desperation when he was surrounded by legions of people both inside and outside the Cavs organization who would do anything to placate him? When he looked at the roster and saw nobody he viewed as close to an equal? When that 2010 escape pod was fueled up and ready to launch, should he decide to use it?

He simply couldn't win a title here. He didn't respect the organization enough to get desperate, to fight tooth-and-nail for a championship.

That all changed when he went to Miami, when he was faced with upholding the legacy of Riley, when he shared a locker room with Wade and Bosh, two adopted brothers from the 2003 draft class. Wade is now 30 and his body is starting to wear down from the years of brutal punishment absorbed on countless kamikaze drives into the lane. His game is gradually eroding under the weight of deteriorating ankles, knees and shoulders. In a couple of years, Wade might be a slow, depleted, pain-wracked has-been on retirement's doorstep.

Somehow, cementing the legacy of a close friend, someone you view as a competitive equal, is infintely more motivating than trying to do the same for Mo Williams or Anderson Varejao.

The first NBA title for LeBron was the culmination of two years of growth. After seven years in the cocoon of Cleveland, where no one carried the sway to demand he suffer some hard knocks and grow up, he left town in one of the most immature, self-aggrandizing ways imaginable, making his departure into an hourlong spectacle on national TV.

Then, when the public turned on him and the media made him into a villain, he added fuel to the fire by spending much of the 2010-11 season whining about how nobody likes him, how everyone wanted him to fail.

Then the Heat lost the 2011 NBA Finals to Dallas after holding a 2-1 series lead, mostly because LeBron's team disappeared in the fourth quarters of the final three games.

The summer of 2011 was the nadir for LeBron. He took a major gamble abdicating his throne in Cleveland to hook up with two other superstars in a setting where he would face extreme criticism for failure. And that's exactly what was happening.

In Cleveland, that's where we thought the story ended. LeBron the overhyped crybaby who lacked the fortitude and icy resolve to ever become a true champion, like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

It's true that LeBron lacks the nasty streak of Jordan or Bryant. He doesn't have an internal gland that manufactures competitive fury. But to say he's a wimp who lacks the heart and stomach to be a champion is, at the expense of Cleveland's collective schadenfreude, flat-out wrong.

What motivates LeBron? Go back to his high-school days at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron. As an only child, LeBron craved a sense of belonging and togetherness within a group, which he found with his high-school teammates en route to three state titles.

In Cleveland, he never had that. He had a small army of people looking to him, asking him to be the savior -- teammates, the coaching staff, the front office, a fan base starving for a championship parade. As the saying goes, it's lonely at the top. LeBron resented the burden placed on him. He longed to recapture the special relationship he and his teammates had at SVSM. In the NBA, it's all but impossible, but he figured the closest he could come was to partner with Wade and Bosh in Miami.

Which brings us to the 2012 Finals, Wade on the wrong side of 30 and Bosh pulling himself back from an abdominal strain suffered in the second round to average 14 points and 9 rebounds for the series.

Everything that LeBron experienced in the two years since he left Cleveland finally clicked. The criticism, the failure, hitting emotional bedrock, learning from experience, going through painful rounds of self-discovery. The result: He finally played like a man possessed with the desire to taste championship champagne. He neutralized Oklahoma City's beefy interior. He mauled James Harden, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. He outplayed Kevin Durant, points per game totals aside.

For the first time, we saw LeBron play hungry, desperate, obsessed with getting the ring that had eluded him for nine years. For the first time since high school, LeBron had tapped into what truly motivates him. He had found a new band of brothers, and he couldn't let them down again.

That's not to say LeBron is a selfless saint. We only need to go back to the summer of 2010 to remind ourselves that's not the case. But he is anything but a lone-wolf assassin. He needs to belong before he can need to win.

While we all would have rather LeBron's maturation happen on the Cavs' watch, at least it happened, and he finally overcame his demons enough to win a ring. If it represents a corner turned, LeBron and the Heat will probably win several more. Father Time will probably prevent LeBron from equalling Jordan's six, but three or four isn't out of the question.

It's time to throw away the 2010 images of LeBron, sitting across from Jim Gray as he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, then talking about winning five, six, seven titles like it was as easy as breathing. It is a different superstar we saw this spring. One who grew up and finally appreciated how difficult it is to win a title, how much you need to care, how much you need to find what makes you care.

Even with all the bridges burned between LeBron and Cleveland, it's still pleasing to see him realize his potential as a champion. He is, quite simply, the most gifted basketball player to ever set foot on a court.

If LeBron went down in history alongside ringless court jester Charles Barkley instead of the game's true royalty, that would have been a crime against basketball. If you think any differently, you need to take off the Cleveland-colored glasses and look again.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The quarterback puzzle

Seneca Wallace is right. Someone has to go.

With the Browns presently carrying quarterbacks Colt McCoy, Thaddeus Lewis and Wallace behind presumed starter Brandon Weeden, someone is the odd man out. Chances are, it won't be Lewis, who rides the bench for cheap, and who team president Mike Holmgren seems to like as a developmental quarterback.

That means Colt and Wallace are left to battle for the No. 2 slot behind Weeden. Somebody is going to end up traded or released between now and the season opener against Philadelphia on Sept. 9.

My question is, why not both?

It has very little to do with Colt's brother, Case, pre-emptively spouting off on Twitter following what turned out to be a fake ESPN report that Colt had been traded to the Eagles. It has very little to do with the notion that you can't keep your current starter and your ex-starter in the same locker room, for fear of fracturing the team. It has very little to do with anything that spews forth from Wallace's maw, which tends to be open a little too much at times.

It has everything to do with the simple facts of the situation.

Holmgren and/or GM Tom Heckert and/or owner Randy Lerner, depending on who you believe, pushed for the selection of Weeden at the 22nd pick precisely because the mounting organization-wide opinion was that Colt lacked the necessary physical tools to excel as an NFL QB. He didn't have the arm to make all the necessary throws. He didn't possess the reflexes to make split-second decisions. His lack of height exacerbated the other two problems. Wallace, at 5'-11" and just over 200 pounds, isn't in a much better position.

In short, the Browns had a pair of short, suspect-armed, quick-footed, scrambling quarterbacks who would just as soon make plays with their legs. Weeden is at the other end of the spectrum. He's a mountain of a man compared to Colt and Wallace -- 6'-4", 225 pounds with a long bullwhip of a throwing arm. He's going to make his dropback, make his read and throw the ball. His legs are only mobile enough to shuffle around in the pocket, perhaps buying a couple seconds to make a throw before the pass rush closes in.

So if you're going to give Weeden the first-team reps during OTAs, if you're presumably going to make him the first-team QB in training camp, if all signs point to Weeden under center on Sept. 9, barring a cataclysmic turn of events, why would you take out an insurance policy in the form of two quarterbacks who have completely different playing styles from the starter?

If Weeden were to suffer an injury, the Browns' entire offense would have to adjust on the fly to a QB with a completely different playing style. Maybe a veteran offense could make the transition. The 49ers of the 1980s won with both pocket-passing Joe Montana and fleet-footed Steve Young under center. But for an offense full of youngsters, in just its second year of learning the intricate West Coast Offense scheme, putting them in a position to potentially go from protecting a rifleman to throwing downfield blocks for a scampering human pinball doesn't seem like a recipe for success.

The better option, it would seem, would be to cut ties with Wallace and Colt -- ideally trading at least one of them -- and bringing in a veteran backup who is a dropback passer in the mold of Weeden. Free agent A.J. Feeley, who is well-schooled in the West Coast Offense, would seem like a logical fit. He's 35, so he wouldn't be more than a stopgap. He's 8-10 in his career as a starter. But at least he'd offer some degree of continuity in the event he had to step in and play. And for a young team that still doesn't figure to do any contending this year, continuity is one of the most important seeds to sow and cultivate. Lack of continuity, lack of stability and lack of organizational philosophy, have been smothering the Browns since they returned to the league 13 years ago.

Why give the gremlins a chance to creep back in?

If you still want to hold onto Colt with the idea that he might not get the job done as a starter, but he could be a quality backup, ask yourself the difference between a starter and a backup.

One play. One James Harrison shot to the head. One wrong-way knee twist. One rolled ankle. That's the difference between clipboard duty and the starting assignment -- perhaps for the rest of the season.

So if Colt is an inadequate starter in your book, he should be an inadequate backup, too. Same goes for any other quarterback. If you won't trust him to lead the team onto the field, you shouldn't trust him to wear the ballcap and hold the clipboard.

And even if Colt develops into a QB who is capable of starting and playing at a reasonably high level, he still won't develop as a plug-in replacement for Weeden.

It's simply the decision the Browns' brass has made: They wanted a tall, big-armed pocket passer. If that's the template for Holmgren and Heckert's ideal QB, Colt isn't that, and Wallace isn't that.

Even if it means bringing in a stale retread like Feeley, it still means a much-needed fresh start for the bench portion of the Browns' QB corps -- which is very nearly as important as the fresh start Weeden is giving them in the starting role.

Re-entering the living world

After 16-plus months, I'm going to try to re-launch this thing, with at least several columns a month. As always, my columns will also be cross-posted at www.theclevelandfan.com.