Friday, June 29, 2007

Draft Status

It’s nearly July, the Indians are fighting it out for first place in the American League Central and so, naturally, all anyone can talk about is whether Brady Quinn will be signed before training camp begins in a few weeks.

Let’s start with the basics: a few notable exceptions aside, there is no question that Quinn will sign. They always do. Not signing is nearly always disastrous for a player’s career. Consider the examples that most Cleveland fans can remember: Tom Skladany, Tom Cousineau and Danny Ferry. While none of these players would likely admit it to this day, not signing with their teams essentially robbed each of them of some prime years of their careers, ultimately to their detriment and that of their teams.

In the case of Skladany, he was a second round pick of the Browns in 1977. If that seems like a reach, in retrospect it clearly was. Some things never change with the Browns. In any event, Skladany was a three-time All American punter with Ohio State, so there was a basis for such a high draft status. But despite his impressive college credentials, in the end he was still a punter. The difference between a good and a great one is not all that noticeable and while a key role on any team, it is one of the more easily replaceable jobs.

Nonetheless, Skladany, on the advice of one of the worst agents ever, Howard Slusher, held out. And held out. And held out. Slusher was notorious in the 1970s for advising clients to holdout for the last dollar, a strategy that had proven successful in some respects for Slusher, although not necessarily for his clients. In this instance, though, the Browns never blinked to Slusher’s outrageous demands and Skladany sat out the season. A punter, sitting out the season. Never happened before Skladany and hasn’t happened since. The Browns eventually gave up on him and Skladany eventually signed with the Detroit Lions after missing an entire season, much to their disappointment.

It’s hard to say how missing a year of football hurt Skladany or whether his lackluster career resulted from the reputation he gained by holding out in the first place, but either way, he hardly lived up to his college accomplishments. Although punting and place kicking are the least physically demanding positions in the NFL with even mediocre players having lengthy careers, Skladany last only six seasons, which is kind of hard to fathom given his college resume. For a simple comparison, consider that former Browns punter, Bryan Wagner, lasted eight NFL seasons, albeit with five different teams, but he wasn’t even drafted, let alone drafted in the second round.

If Skladany’s was the unfortunate collision of an egomaniacal and incompetent agent and a player who was delusional about his own talent, Cousineau and Ferry were different stories altogether. More so than Skladany, each was clearly the real deal coming out of college. Their long list of accomplishments coming out of college are beyond dispute. Yet neither accomplished all that much on the pro level and it’s fair to suggest that their inability to reach a contract at the outset and the decisions that followed were partially responsible.

Cousineau, for example, was the number one pick in the 1979 draft after an incredible career with the Buckeyes. He was all-everything with the Buckeyes and, to this day still, one of the greatest players in Buckeye history. While it’s not unusual for players, particularly the number one draft pick, to hold out for big dollars, the only real leverage most have is withholding their services and allowing fan pressure to build. Canadian football isn’t much of an option. It’s football but it’s hardly the NFL. Those who play in Canada do so mainly because they aren’t good enough to play in the NFL. They are usually too slow or too small. Often they are both. It’s like the difference between the Big Ten and the Ohio Athletic Conference. For someone who is considered a pro prospect, particularly the top pro prospect like Cousineau was, it’s simply not a consideration.

Yet, for all that, Cousineau constantly played the Canadian football card in his negotiations with Buffalo, except he wasn’t bluffing. When the Montreal Alouettes offered him more money, most likely in an effort to raise the profile of the league, Cousineau took it and played three seasons in Canada, where he was a star, relatively speaking.

In 1982, Cousineau wanted to return to the NFL. The Bills still held his rights under the arcane rules of the NFL and when Cousineau reached a free agent deal with the Houston Oilers, the Bills matched it, almost out of spite. But due to the great relationship between Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Browns owner Art Modell, a deal was struck between the clubs, a deal that ultimately was a disaster for the Browns. Cleveland sent its 1983 first round pick, the 14th overall, to Buffalo. Of course, that picked turned into Hall of Famer, Jim Kelly. Cousineau, meanwhile, was solid, if unspectacular in his five seasons with the Browns. Although he was All-NFL twice, he never made it to the pro bowl, perhaps because he was never really a part of the NFL fraternity. He went on to play two more seasons, with the San Francisco 49ers and retired in 1987.

Ferry’s story is very similar. Like Cousineau, Ferry was one of the greatest college players in his day and is still one of the greatest players in Duke history. As a senior, he won the Naismith award, the Oscar Robertson award and was the UPI national player of the year. He still ranks among the all-time leaders for Duke in a variety of statistics, which is all the more impressive because it is Duke.

Like both Cousineau and Skladany, Ferry was the recipient of some bad advice. He was the second pick in the 1989 draft but he refused to play with the Clippers. When he couldn’t engineer a trade to a more favorable team, he signed with Il Messaggaro of the Italian league. While he may have enjoyed the atmosphere and the food, he lost a valuable season of experience by instead playing with inferior talent.

Of course, Ferry’s intransigence with L.A. came back to bite Cleveland. After Ferry signed with Il Messaggaro, the Clippers traded his rights to the Cavs in exchange for Ron Harper and two first-round picks. Harper was just coming into the prime of his career but Cavs GM Wayne Embry was nervous about Harper’s off-court associates and decided to part ways. Compounding the problem, Embry also signed Ferry to a 10-year contract which proved to be an anchor around the franchise when Ferry underperformed.

As with Cousineau, it’s hard to know how much Ferry’s time away from playing at the highest level hurt his game. Perhaps Ferry was never destined to become a star in the league anyway, mainly because his lack of quickness made him a liability defensively. But had Ferry played that season with the Clippers, he likely would have never landed in Cleveland and the trade of Harper may not have happened. It might not have made any difference with the Clippers, nothing does, but it certainly altered the face of the Cleveland franchise.

Which brings us full circle back to Brady Quinn. It’s extremely unlikely that Quinn will ever come close to making the mistakes of Skladany, Cousineau or Ferry. For one thing, he has a well-respected agent in Tom Condon who, while always driving a hard bargain, is hardly a lunatic who would put his client in such a bad position. For another thing, given what happened to Quinn on draft day, he enters the league with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Great careers have been made out of less.

While the contract posturing already is now in full swing, if Quinn is in the advice-taking mood, here’s a little, unsolicited: study your playbook, work out hard, and don’t let your agent fill your head with unrealistic expectations. Whether you were supposed to be one of the top five players drafted isn’t nearly as relevant as where you were actually drafted, and that was 22nd. No team, including the Browns, is going to pay the 22nd player in the draft as if he was one of the top players in the draft. Bide your time and get yourself in a position to make your money on your second contract, not your first.

But things being what they are, it’s unlikely Quinn is taking that kind of advice. Consider his words the other day while attending the NFL’s rookie symposium in Florida when he stated “I have complete faith in the Browns in getting this done. I'd think they'd want to get me signed if they want me to compete for the starting job.”

Of course the Browns want him to compete for the starting job, but that decision is really Quinn’s not the Browns. The Browns already have two quarterbacks ahead of him. The best way for Quinn to earn the job is to be in camp from day one. Even then, his chances of being the starter when the season opens are virtually nil. As between the two, the Browns are much better positioned to withstand a Quinn holdout than the other way around. If Quinn were to holdout for more than a week, the likelihood of him every starting a game this upcoming season drops precipitously each holdout day thereafter. Training camp is simply too valuable, particularly for a skill player.

Whether Quinn understands that or not is hard to say. But the fans needn’t worry either way. While we’re in the advice-giving mood, here’s a little for the fans, again unsolicited: Relax. Don’t be manipulated by the media or Quinn’s agent or Quinn or Phil Savage or anyone else. In fact, ignore the contract talks completely. Remember, with Quinn, as with every other draft choice, it’s not a question of if he’ll sign, only when.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Carl logic

There was an interesting letter to Sheldon Ocker, Indians beat writer for the Akron Beacon Journal, published on Sunday. Given how cranky and dismissive Ocker usually is, it’s a wonder why anyone bothers writing to him in the first place. But write on they do and this one asked:

After the news of Roberto Hernandez's release, I realized, ``Wow, Mark Shapiro is terrible at signing free agents.'' This past year, Mark brought in David Dellucci, Trot Nixon, Hernandez, Aaron Fultz, Joe Borowski and Keith Foulke.
In years past, his free agent signings were Aaron Boone, Todd Hollandsworth, Brady Anderson, Ramon Vazquez, Eduardo Perez, Jason Johnson, Brian Sikorski, Lou Merloni, Alex Cora, Jose Hernandez, Chris Magruder, Bill Selby, Chad Paronto, Shane Spencer, Jeff D'Amico, Jose Jimenez, Chad Durbin, Rick White, Scott Stewart, Ricky Gutierrez, Matt Lawton, Jason Bere (twice!), Jeff Liefer and finally Scott Sauerbeck.
Outside of Millwood, Borowski and probably Fultz and Scott Elarton, Shapiro has done awful at signing free agents.
I am not completely bashing the guy because I do realize that he has pulled off some great trades involving minor-leaguers, but that is not enough. This team has a very limited budget and, basically, money is getting thrown away to a collection of stiffs.

In answering the question, Ocker made the legitimate point that the writer was mixing in major league free agents, minor league free agents and trades. But he also pointed out what is also more or less obvious: when you’re only shopping for bargains don’t be surprised when it doesn’t work out.

What Ocker should have done but didn’t was expand on this answer by addressing the writer’s real point: that Shapiro repeatedly throws money away with little or nothing to show for it.

This raises a more interesting question, which is the flip side of that same proposition: can a team be successful shopping only in the cut-out bin or does in need to buy from the designer racks once in awhile?

This kind of debate reminds me of a guy named Carl that I used to work with at a local factory. I was earning money for college and Carl was earning money for, I guess, booze. Carl used to tell me that he’d rather buy 10 cars for $100 each than one car for $1000. His logic was that occasionally one of those 10 cars would run just as well as $1000 car and he’d still have nine other cars to tinker with. Of course, Carl had trouble showing up for work on time due mostly to the unreliability of his fleet of vehicles and eventually he got fired for it but he was passionate about his theory nonetheless.

As theories go, it’s fine for Shapiro to essentially utilize Carl logic in stocking the Indians every off-season, but at some point someone in the Dolan household is going to wake up to all the money that’s been frittered away and realize that maybe, just maybe, Shapiro might have been better off buying one or two quality free agents instead.

There is no dispute over why Shapiro is forced to employ Carl logic, year after year. He simply hasn’t been given the budget space within which to do anything else. But the flameouts of most of the free agent crop that Shapiro bought this last off-season just emphasizes that the Indians success to date is at least as much smoke and mirrors as anything else.

Right now, the Tribe is blessed with strong starting pitching with enough depth to withstand a fair amount of ineffectiveness at the bottom of the rotation. This is a tribute to Shapiro’s ability to find quality arms through the draft and trades and a farm system geared toward developing them. The concern though, once again, is in the bullpen. Two of Shapiro’s 2007 crew of free agents, Roberto Hernandez and Keith Foulke, aren’t with the club anymore, Foulke having given up the ghost before the first nerve was pinched in spring training. Joe Borowski, another free agent pickup, has been a pleasant surprise to date with 21 saves. But he’s basically Bob Wickman, albeit at a lower salary. The only thing Shapiro really accomplished in foolishly trading Wickman last season is that in Borowksi he saved some money to get similar results. This isn’t necessarily a bad formula for success, but the few million saved in this arbitrage just got wasted anyway, along with an extra million, with the signing and release of Hernandez. One step forward, two steps back.

What’s truly puzzling about all of this in terms of the bullpen is given how critical it is to a team’s success, why do the Indians constantly take such risks? It’s not as if their history just this decade hasn’t demonstrated two or three times now that good starting pitching, good hitting and a weak bullpen is a recipe for mediocrity not the playoffs.

The other truly puzzling aspect of Shapiro’s approach to free agency is the over reliance on the so-called “veteran presence.” Trot Nixon certainly embodies that approach. Nixon is a really decent guy who had a great career in Boston. You can’t always measure someone like Nixon’s effectiveness by pointing at the statistics. But on the other hand, he is taking up $3 million in salary on a team that simply cannot afford that luxury. Put it this way, if Boston couldn’t afford that luxury, and their payroll is about $82 million more than the Indians, how can Cleveland?

All Nixon does is take up salary space and retard the growth of what look to be legitimate prospects just hankering for a legitimate chance: Shin-Soo Choo, Ben Francisco, and Franklin Gutierrez for instance. Thus, if you’re keeping track, utilizing Carl logic, Shapiro bought two agents for over $6 million, which is nearly 10% of the payroll of the Indians 40-man roster, instead of one quality free agent for $6.3 million. Of course, Shapiro would say that spending that much on a middle reliever is foolish and perhaps he is right. But a reliable closer that would have allowed Borowski to assume the set-up role would have been a decent alternative, too. In short, there is any number of ways that Shapiro could have done better than simply giving away such a substantial portion of his limited budget.

This really highlights another flaw in the thinking of both Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge. Despite the chances that both of them were given at relatively young ages, they are extremely reluctant to take similar chances on young players. It’s exactly why this team has Dellucci, Nixon and Jason Michaels on the roster.

But combined, those three make over $8 million. Maybe having one of the three was necessary, but all three seem excessive, particularly since that is money that easily could have been better spent on the bullpen.

One can play this game all day with the Indians roster and salary data for this year or, really, any year of the Shapiro regime, but the overarching point is that Shapiro keeps doing the same things in the same way each year hoping for a different result. Whether that makes him insane or simply stubborn is of little consequence given the fine line between the two.

But what it does do is highlight perhaps the major flaw in Shapiro’s continued quest to build a team that consistently contends: his dogged adherence to Carl logic isn’t working any better for him than it did for Carl. Not only does it makes it a guessing game from season to season and within each season what kind of team the Indians ultimately might have, it is also robbing this team of a fair amount of what little money the Dolans are actually willing to spend in the first place.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Manuel Labor

When Eddie Murray was fired last week as hitting coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Indians fans undoubtedly had a “been there, done that” expression on their face. But no sooner did that expression get wiped off then it appeared again, this time spurred on by Charlie Manuel and his return to Jacobs Field as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Without having to read one Philadelphia newspaper article or one Philly fan blog, Indians fans instinctively know that Manuel and Philadelphia aren’t likely in it for the long haul. In fact, it’s hard to believe the relationship, however tenuous it might be, is still in tact, if only because it’s Philadelphia.

As most will likely recall, Manuel essentially engineered his own firing here by demanding a long-term contract just as General Manager Mark Shapiro was blowing up the team as part of the rebuilding process that was scheduled to come to fruition just about now. It was summer, 2002, and the Indians were struggling, to put it charitably. By early July, they were nine games under .500 and 9.5 back of division-leading Minnesota. Well before that, however, they had officially entered rebuild mode by trading Bartolo Colon after owner Larry Dolan ordered that the payroll be trimmed dramatically.

Manuel was in his third season as Indians manager after having taken over for Mike Hargrove, whose own relationship with Shapiro was always strained. Manuel’s contract was due to expire at season’s end and since the Indians were entering a different phase, Manuel demanded that his contract be extended, viewing himself as the best person to aid the development of a new crop of younger players. Whether or not Shapiro agreed with that assessment, he clearly didn’t want to pushed into a quick decision given the major changes taking place on the roster.

According to media accounts at the time Shapiro and Dolan asked Manuel to stay on through the end of the season but Manuel was adamant—extend the contract or let him go right then. With this demand, Manuel committed one of the great sins any employee can make by painting his employer into a corner. To accede to the request would have been at the expense of their position in the hierarchy. Even in sports, there is a pecking order. Thus, irrespective of how either Shapiro or Dolan felt about Manuel, they really had no choice but to let him go right then.

Though Shapiro has never said, at least publicly, that he wouldn’t have eventually extended Manuel’s contract, although it’s easy to see why Manuel might have been worried. In the first place, he had a front seat to Hargrove/Shapiro cold war. It would be hard to blame him for wanting a repeat of that mess. Moreover, whereas the team Manuel was managing, at least prior to Shapiro tearing it down, had a lot of familiar faces from Manuel’s days in the Tribe’s minor league system, that was no longer true of the new roster. In fact, in that context, hiring Eric Wedge, who had been managing in Buffalo, made more sense than retaining Charlie Manuel.

But no matter how the actual firing played out, it seemed pretty safe to assume that Manuel and the Indians weren’t in it for the long haul either, whether because of Manuel’s recurring health issues or simply because Manuel never fit the mold of what guys like Shapiro and his ilk, i.e. the modern-day GM, envision in selecting the manager. If nothing else, Manuel is certainly “old school” and Shapiro is certainly “new school.”

Manuel has now been with the Phillies for two and a half seasons, the same as his tenure with the Indians. Although the record isn’t stellar, according to their web site his 173 wins are the most of any Phillies manager in his first two seasons since 1915. That might not be as impressive as it sounds since most new managers take over struggling teams. Right now, the Phillies are playing about the same as they have since Manuel came aboard, not bad not great. They find themselves only two games behind the Mets, having picked up four games on the division leaders in the last week and a half. But they are barely above .500, so it’s really a matter of divisional mediocrity more than anything else.

But it’s doubtful that Phillies general manager Pat Gillick envisioned a .500 ballclub when he hired Manuel. And irrespective of where the mistakes lie—player acquisition, player motivation or a combination of the two—if the Phillies do find themselves continuing to struggle at climbing to the upper tier of National League teams, the “fire Charlie” chorus, which has been in place since the day he took over with only the level of active members fluctuating, will get louder.

When that occurs, not if, mainly because it is Philadelphia after all, the real drama that will be interesting to observe is how Manuel handles it. Will he follow in the same footsteps he laid in Cleveland or will he learn from that debacle and play the politics as they demand to be played?

All this probably matters little to Tribe fans except that, like Murray, Manuel was part of something special when he was here in Cleveland, though, like Murray, not necessarily because of the last role he had in the organization. Murray’s presence in 1995 as a player helped sparked the renaissance. Manuel, who joined the Indians as hitting coach for the second time beginning in 1994, schooled that offensive juggernaut. Their contributions to Tribe history can’t be diminished.

But Manuel was always a much more engaging and beloved figure than Murray. He was accessible to the media and fans alike. Though his tenuous grasp of grammar made some question his intelligence, he was sincere at a time when slick played so much better.

Still, in the end, it was hard to get a good read on Manuel’s managerial skills while he was in Cleveland. He was managing under vastly different circumstances, with a payroll that was $91 million in his last season. In many ways, the Indians were on auto-pilot then and needed a caretaker, not a manager. When the Indians decided to blow it all up and start again, maybe it wasn’t the place for a good ol’ boy with health problems.

Perhaps his managerial career with the Phillies is really the better barometer. Hard to say, of course, but if that is the case, letting him get away in favor of making a long-term commitment barely registers a blip on the list of mistakes Shapiro has made during his tenure with the Tribe.

It’s likely that Cleveland fans don’t think much about Manuel these days, either way. He’s been tucked away in the National League for several years now and the Tribe is off in vastly different directions as well. While his presence here this week will never evoke the same sort of emotional response from Tribe fans as does each and every return of Manuel’s prized student, Jim Thome, hopefully if it evokes anything at all it won’t be so much of a “been there, done that” nod as much as it is even a slight smile for what he did accomplish here. Just like Murray.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Axed. Again

Here’s an item that will have Indians fans wearing a knowing smirk: Eddie Murray was just fired as the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach. What’s amazing about the story is how eerily similar it was to Cleveland’s experience with Murray.

As most will recall, the Indians in 2004 were a mediocre 80-82, but it wasn’t for lack of offense. Sound familiar? That year, the Indians had a team average of .276, which was fourth in the American League and scored 858 runs, which was fifth. But they were 10th in the league in ERA and teams batted .271 against them. Really dragging the team down, however, was the return of the bullpen from hell.

Although 2004 was Murray’s third season as hitting coach and he seemed to be having success, there had been numerous rumblings throughout his tenure about his my-way-or-the-highway approach. He was surly as a ballplayer and didn’t seem to change all that much as a hitting coach. There were plenty of rumors about his inability to connect with the players. Still, entering the 2005 season, offense didn’t appear to be the problem.

But on June 4, 2005, with the Indians struggling mightily to score runs, they essentially conceded what was apparent to everyone else: Eddie Murray had to go. At the time of his departure, the team was batting a miserable .243. They replaced Murray with Derek Shelton and almost immediately went on a tear offensively that continued for the remainder of the season. The Indians ended up hitting .271, which was fourth in the league and scored 790 runs, which likewise was fourth.

When he was let go, Manager Eric Wedge told the media “We don't make hasty decisions. It was a process, and ultimately we decided to do it after the game today. There wasn't one particular thing.”

There isn’t anything particularly remarkable about that quote except that it’s nearly identical to what the Dodgers said today when they released Murray. Upon dumping Murray, General Manager Ned Colletti said “We don't do anything here quick or without a lot of thought and a lot of compassion. We feel like there's a lot of the season left and the offense can be a lot better than it is. We decided to do it now.”

Not only are the reasons similar, but so too are the circumstances. Last year, the Dodgers led the league in hitting with a .276 batting average. They were fourth in the league in runs scored with 820. This year, their batting average has dropped 15 points to .261, which is 7th in the league and they are 9th in runs scored. Murray has been replaced on an interim basis by Bill Mueller, just as Derek Shelton was hired on an interim basis with the Indians. Not surprisingly Mueller, like Shelton, said his first order of business will be to build a rapport with the players.

In the end, that was always the problem with Murray. He didn’t communicate with the media and, despite front office statements that Murray was more animated in the club house, he apparently wasn’t very communicative with the players either. It was said in both Cleveland and Los Angeles that one of the biggest problems was that Murray waited for players to approach him rather than the other way around. Maybe he felt that was the respect he deserved given his accomplishments as a player or maybe it was because as a great hitter himself, he felt that advice resonated best when it was sought not forced.

But whatever it was, at least this much is clear: Murray basically didn’t learn any lessons from his firing in Cleveland.

For all his shortcomings as a coach, the temptation to otherwise trash Murray should be greatly resisted. As a player, he was amazing. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame and it was well deserved. He hit 504 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .287. By the time he came to Cleveland in 1994, he was somewhat a shadow of the player he once was. But he was brought in as the consummate veteran leader for a young and upcoming ball club and delivered mightily in that role. In the breakout year of 1995, Murray hit .323 and had 21 home runs in only 436 at bats. He also had 21 doubles and 82 RBI. It was Murray on the offensive side, with Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez on the pitching side, that combined for the final pieces of the puzzle to make 1995 such a magical year. For that Cleveland fans will always owe a debt of gratitude to Murray.

It’s hard to say where Murray may end up after his latest flameout. Given his experiences in both Cleveland and Los Angeles, it may very well be that he won’t find any coaching work anytime soon, which is probably just as well for everyone involved. Thus, in short order, this Hall of Famer will probably be out of baseball entirely, an ignominious end for one who brought so much to the sport.

Pain Infliction

Is there anything more painful in sports than watching a team in an offensive slump? As Cleveland sports fans, you can take your pick: the Indians or the Cavs. Whichever you chose, though, is mostly irrelevant. The local teams lately have been an assault on the eyes and the senses.

While it may be difficult for the moment to forget about the results of the Cavaliers-San Antonio Spurs snore-fest in Game three of the NBA Finals, try. While you’re at it, dispense with the notion that the game was some sort of sublime defensive struggle. Focus instead on what you were forced to endure: 48 minutes of really bad basketball by two teams playing in their sport’s premier event.

One team had to win that game and one team did, the better one. But if San Antonio is truly the elite team of the league, a dynasty in the making, then the league needs to do some serious soul searching and figure out how to re-introduce offense to the game. The level of play by both teams has been remarkable only in its ability to sap the enthusiasm of even the most die hard fan, let alone the casual fan whom the league needs to really reach.

A good game need not result in a 122-118 score, but neither should it ever devolve into a 78-72 grind. The supposedly top two teams in the league played 48 minutes of basketball, collectively took 185 shots (38 of which were 3-pointers) and made only 70, for a rousing shooting percentage of 37.8%. If you want to get picky, the Cavs 3-19 from the three-point line was a major contributor to that figure, but looked at from the other angle, the Spurs 10-19 shooting on their three-pointers helped raise the two teams overall shooting percentage .8%. From inside the line, the teams were a collective 57-147, or 37.0%. When professional basketball players can’t even make four out of every 10 shots with the championship on the line, something is wrong.

There is always a certain amount of defensive pressure that results in forced shots. But anyone witnessing Tuesday nights’ game knows that defense was hardly the reason. The Cavs had so many open looks at the basket from nearly everywhere on the court, they could have been playing the Knicks. Players were missing all manner of layups and 10-footers. Time after time, player after player bounced shots off the back of the rim. Maybe it was defensive pressure or maybe it was the pressure of the moment, but when players are missing long, it tends to mean they are having trouble controlling their emotions. Besides, if defensive pressure was really the culprit, then why were the teams a collective 10-31 from the free throw line?

If you dig deeper into the statistics of this series you’ll see that in each game the Cavs have had two quarters in which they’ve failed to score even 20 points. In game one, it was quarters one and three. In game two, it was the first and second quarter. In game three, it was quarters one and three again. That accounts for half of all the quarters played in the entire series. More to the point, the Cavs simple inability to put the ball in the basket in the first quarter has set an offensive tone that has carried on throughout each game. Thus, if the Cavs are to be successful in game four, and they have to be, a good place to start would be a way to score at least 20 points in the first quarter. It hasn’t happened yet.

You could point to the second half of game two to counter the argument that the Cavs haven’t scored all series, but you can’t consider the second half without taking into account how deep of a hole they dug for themselves in the first half. The Spurs had a whopping 25-point lead going into the second half of that game which obviously changed the nature of how the rest of that game would be played. Moreover, it’s hardly as if the Cavs carried over that momentum in game three. They scored only 38 points in the first half and 34 points in the second half. At best, the second half of game two was the anomaly. Game three was the standard.

While the Cavs and their offensive woes are partially responsible for a series that is devoid of any real drama, the Spurs shouldn’t be given a pass. They have failed to score 20 or more points in three quarters and have scored only 20 points in three others, which accounts for exactly half of the entire series as well. No wonder you’re left with a sense that this series is being played in monotone. Maybe the grind of the playoffs has taken its toll on both teams, but if that’s the case then the NBA needs to find a better system quickly or they’ll find themselves splitting time on the Versus network with the NHL begging people to watch their playoffs.

And as if the Cavs offensive ineptitude hasn’t been enough to cut the legs out from most Cleveland fans, then the Indians are doing their level best to complete the job these days. In the month of June, they are 5-7. While two of those losses were against the Detroit Tigers, five have been against the relative dregs of the league: Kansas City, Cincinnati, Seattle and Florida. The formula for success in baseball hasn’t changed in a hundred years: beat up the bums and play .500 against the rest. That’s certainly not the formula the Tribe has used lately, but if they plan to return to post season, they simply can’t keep playing down to their level of competition, something they seem to do all too frequently.

Where the Indians have really suffered of late, though, is on offense, much like the Cavs. They’ve been shut out twice in their last four games. Against Florida on Wednesday and on the heels of just being shut out the night before (and two nights before that), the Indians remained in a coma until the 6th inning, when they scored six runs. But that “explosion” was aided greatly by some really bad baseball on the part of the Marlins as five of those runs were unearned.

The one really bright spot of that inning was David Dellucci’s three-run home run. Prior to that and even going back over the previous three games, the Indians hitters were having trouble getting themselves into good hitting counts and even when they did they either popped out or grounded out. You’d search in vain for a hard hit ball. Even more difficult was finding a way to take advantage of a pitcher in trouble, exemplified by their ineptness on Sunday against the Reds with the bases loaded and the game on the line.

When Dellucci came to bat against the Marlins in the sixth inning, it was just after relative chaos had ensued. Byung-Hyun Kim, as most will recall, is a converted closer after having been run out of Arizona following his post-season Jose Mesa impressions while with the Diamondbacks. As a starter, he’s been the kind of pitcher that would make a team long for Scott Elarton. In other words, his appearance on a major league roster wouldn’t be possible without expansion. Still, there he was shutting out the Indians until his defense took on the character of a Sunday morning beer league and booted the ball around.

Taylor Tankersley, who is hardly Dennis Eckersly, came in for relief, an appearance notable only because he was summarily tossed by home plate umpire Brian Knight for drilling Grady Sizemore in the shoulder on a 0-2 pitch. By that point, all manner of argument had broken out and Aaron Boone (yes, that Aaron Boone) another beneficiary of baseball expansion, found himself with an early shower as well. By the time order had been restored, Lee Gardner was suddenly on the mound for the Marlins and four pitches later Dellucci put the game out of reach.

It’s hard to know when a team’s offensive slump might end, but an at-bat like Dellucci’s is often a good start. Not only had it been awhile since any Indian had gone deep, but it also was the first time in awhile that the Indians had actually taken advantage of a gift-wrapped situation. While this may not be the most critical point in the season, it is pretty clear that the Tigers aren’t going away. As such, the Indians can ill afford a prolonged offensive slump, particularly with the Atlanta Braves making their way to Jacobs Field this weekend.

As for the Cavs, they really have no choice but to end their offensive slump. No team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit and nothing the Cavs have done thus in thus far in the series foretells any change in that precedent. All that says is that it’s unlikely that the Cavs will win the championship. What it doesn’t say is that they shouldn’t at least use every opportunity they still have in the waning days of this season to find their stroke, if only to make watching the game a bit less painful.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Getting Whacked

Well, that happened.

Feel free to apply that to any one of the three events of Sunday, none of which could have made anyone very happy: the Indians extra-inning loss; the end of The Sopranos or the Cavs deer-in-the-headlights performance against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

It’s hard to draw any cosmic connection between the three events beyond the obvious disappointment underlying each. Still, if bad things happen in three then that quota was certainly reached yesterday, which mean that things are looking up for Tuesday.

At last look, the Indians, entering game two of their own version of the neverending story with the Seattle Mariners, had lost five of their last nine. There certainly is an ebb and flow to the season and sometimes a team wins when it should lose and vice versa, which is why it is often better to not get lost among the trees that represent each individual game and just take stock of the forest. But every once in awhile there is a game that demands strict scrutiny, Sunday’s game with the Reds being a prime example.

Manager Eric Wedge called it one of the worst offensive efforts he could remember. Who’s to argue? Outside of pitcher C.C Sabathia, who had two hits, one would be hard pressed to find a quality bat among the 27 outs made. It’s not even so much that the regular hitters appeared to have no approach toward any of the Reds pitchers, it’s that they didn’t even look like they were trying. As Wedge noted (courtesy of Paul Hoynes game story) “you can't allow a game like that to happen . . . not collectively. There are going to be individuals that struggle, but you can't have a total breakdown from the entire ballclub.”

But a total breakdown it was, which is why, in the end, a stellar effort by Sabathia was wasted. For those keeping track, the Indians offense has turned pathetic with Sabathia on the mound. In his last two starts, he’s been the recipient of exactly one run. Amazingly, he’s 1-0 in those starts, which pretty much is all the evidence that is needed to place Sabathia on the All Star team.

Part of that may be due to the fact that when Sabathia is on the mound, the Tribe is usually facing the opposition’s best pitcher as well. But that just further fuels the urgency for the hitters to ensure that they remain disciplined and focused at the plate because the opportunities are likely to be fewer. For whatever reason, though, the Indians hitters were neither disciplined nor focused on Sunday. Perhaps they, too, were waiting for the finale of The Sopranos to begin.

But no such excuse could be made for the Cavs. They were actually playing opposite of Tony and the crew, which was probably a good thing if you care about the team’s reputation nationally. It’s easy enough to record one show and watch another in this day and age, but hopefully most decided against it and tuned into The Sopranos instead. At least then those viewers would have missed one of the most miserable halves of basketball the Cavs have played all season.

It’s true enough that the Cavs also, naturally, played a miserable third quarter Sunday night. But by the time the third quarter rolled around, the Cavs were already pretty much out of the game due to, as Wedge might say, a total breakdown by the entire club.

If fans of The Sopranos were disappointed in how writer David Chase chose to end his opera, at least they can take solace in the fact that it was, after all, only a show. The Cavs, on the other hand, were real life and whatever one might think of Chase’s final Sopranos script, it still ran rings around whoever scripted the Cavs first half approach.

At this point, the conventional wisdom is putting the blame on head coach Mike Brown and his decision to continue to start an injured Larry Hughes. His inability to guard Tony Parker has created a sort of domino effect that seems to have taken the other four, including LeBron James, out of their rhythm. There is a fair amount of validity to that wisdom, but it misses the point. It’s unlikely that a healthy Larry Hughes would be faring much better.

It’s pretty likely at this point that Brown is merely trying to protect rookie Daniel Gibson, preferring to bring him in off the bench rather than place undue pressure on him by starting him over Hughes. While it’s hard to argue with a coach when he is in a much better position to know his players than the average fan, nothing in Gibson’s make up even whiffs at him being intimidated by the enormity of the situation. Brown’s caution seems, at the very least, unnecessary.

In this regard, Brown should take a page from Mike Hargrove’s handbook when he started rookie pitcher Jaret Wright in the fourth and seventh games of the 1997 World Series. Wright was a much more heralded rookie than Gibson and, consequently, had more pressure on him. But Wright also had the kind of swagger and bravado that allowed him to easily handle the situation. And handle it he did, winning game four and giving up only one run in 6 1/3 innings in game seven. Not only was Wright not the reason the Indians lost that series, he was the reason they almost won it.

Gibson is in much the same situation. Though seeming to lack the overt swagger and step of Wright, he doesn’t lack for confidence either. Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals proved that. He doesn’t seem to need Brown’s paternal approach, particularly when he has James covering his back on the floor. The guess is that Brown will give in and Gibson probably will start on Tuesday night. If not, then Brown will have exhibited the true flaw of the inexperienced coach: stubbornness. It was on full display Sunday night and if Brown, like the rest of his team, is going to take the step to the next level, then he has to have the courage to admit when something’s not working and try something else. If not, then the Cavs in this series will quickly find themselves suffering the same fate as The Sopranos: canceled.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Are You Worried Yet?

Cleveland fans, as the Cavs enter Game 2 of the NBA Finals…

Are you worried that the Cavs will lose and then get swept in four games?
Are you worried that the real LeBron James never does show up?
Are you worried that the real reason the Cavs got to the ultimate stage is to perpetuate another cruel joke on Cleveland sports fans? Another set up for disaster?

If you’re a Cleveland sports fan and you aren’t at least secretly asking yourself those questions and more then, well, you’re not a Cleveland sports fan.

That same shovel of dirt need not be turned over again, here, as the national media are doing a good enough job of reminding the locals of all the wretched failures that sports fans of this city’s professional teams have had to endure. But perhaps there is another way to look at it. For example, have the fans of any team been as prepared as fans of Cleveland’s sports teams for failure? Probably not, which is what puts them a leg up and everyone else. As Carl Spackler might say, we’ve got that goin’ for us, which is nice.

But the whole truth that is that if you never know failure, you can never fully appreciate success. That’s why the Cavs just getting to the NBA Finals was so exhilarating. Years of failure had taught fans what it was like to finally scale the mountain. But remember this. Though the Cavs wait to get in the NBA Finals was the longest for any franchise, it was actually half a decade less than the drought suffered by their Gateway neighbors, the Indians, when they finally made it to the World Series in 1995. Looking back at that accomplishment, the feeling among the fans then and the fans when the Cavs finally broke through was nearly identical; an intense release from an overmatched pressure valve that had been building on the seeds of failure stretched over 41 years.

But despite the fact that the Indians team of 1995 was exceptionally strong and its appearance in the World Series, given how the baseball season plays out over its long season, was hardly a surprise, there was still a rather deep feeling of dread underlying the giddiness. The concern then, as now, was that having gotten to the big show the Indians would crap all over themselves. If you’re being honest, when the Indians lost the first two games of that series, you were worried. Not about winning the whole thing, but about whether the Tribe would be swept and how often the comparisons to the 1954 team would be thrown in your face.

Thus, as satisfying as it was when the Indians won the American League Championship, their victory in game three of the World Series was even bigger. Not only would the Indians not get swept, but suddenly they were only down two games to one and it was a series again.

Remember that as you turn to ABC Sunday evening. On the minds of most Cavs fans right now, conditioned as they are by the countless stories since game one describing the brilliant awesomeness of the Spurs and the overmatched awfulness of the Cavs, is that the Cavs will get swept. Of course, those same writers, just prior to game one were telling a slightly different story, but no matter. Even if the Cavs don’t find a way to solve Tim Duncan and, more importantly, the soon-to-be Desperate Husband, Tony Parker, the Cavs come home Tuesday with the opportunity to make it a series and a decent chance that they will do just that.

The cynic in most Cleveland sports fans will rightly point out that the Indians went on to lose in 1995 so it mattered little that they weren’t swept. True, of course, but not the whole story. For one thing, despite all the accomplishments of the Atlanta Braves, they lost the World Series in 1991 and 1992 before getting to the top in 1995. And even after beating Cleveland in 1995, they lost again in 1996 and 1999. In other words, winning the ultimate prize isn’t a matter of destiny. Often, it’s a matter of luck. But luck, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, is something you tend to find the harder you work. And, with all due regard to Yankee fan, nobody has worked harder in baseball than the Braves at staying at the top.

Which is something else to remember about the Cavs. In owner Dan Gilbert, they have one of the hardest working owners in sports. When Gilbert first arrived on the scene, there was great trepidation about whether he was to the NBA what Daniel Snyder is to the NFL, a self-made and self-absorbed multi-millionaire who figured because he watched a few games he knew everything about the sport. But some early public relations stumbles notwithstanding, Gilbert has proven the complete opposite, to the point that most fans are wondering why he can’t also own the Indians and the Browns.

What makes Gilbert such a great owner is that he understands that professional sports is, in many ways, just like any other multi-million dollar business. It needs structure and rigor and people with talent and vision to make it successful. The players, like employees in any business, tend to come and go, and thus it is imperative that a fundamentally solid structure striving always to continuously improve be put in place. Work hard enough and luck will inevitably follow. Indeed, in that vein Gilbert’s following the business model that has proven so successful for the business that made him his money in the first place, Quicken Loans.

When you enter the Q, there is a culture that Gilbert has put in place that is built not simply on customer satisfaction but customer loyalty, which is really the more important of the two attributes. One may quibble with all of the trappings that surround the game experience at the Q, but one cannot quibble with the intent. Gilbert wants to ensure that he is delivering value always, something not easily achieved given the ticket prices.

Compare that to either the Indians or the Browns. The Dolans have achieved some business success, to be sure, but not on the scale of Gilbert. Randy Lerner may have more money, but it’s inherited. Lerner’s best attribute, like the Dolans, is that he’s a fan first and truly understands the psyche of his fan base. But his struggle in building a successful franchise stems from the simple fact that he’s never had to build a business from the ground up. He’s still in the trial and mostly error phase. Gilbert, on the other hand, is the consummate entrepreneur. He scraped and scratched and tried and failed long before he got to Cleveland. He may not yet be a man in full, but he’s much further along the path and Cavs fans are the beneficiaries.

Sure, the fact that the Cavs are in the NBA Finals is a surprise to most, perhaps even to Gilbert. But there is no question, as we’ve said before, that if the Cavs didn’t get in the finals soon, they would do so sooner anyway. That prediction was borne initially out of the sheer brilliance of LeBron James, who is likely to be considered one of the all time greatest players when he retires, in a Cleveland uniform, a hundred years from now, but it also was a nod to the business acumen of Gilbert as well.

Cleveland fans will always have something to worry about. In the short-term, it’s whether or not the Cavs will get swept. But the real takeaway in all of this is that behind the scenes a successful franchise is beginning to emerge. And if “luck” isn’t on the side of the Cavs this time, it will be inevitably.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Shifting Priorities

These are rather confusing times for most Cleveland sports fans. It’s early June and they’re still rooting for a team whose season started nearly eight months ago. Meanwhile, the team whose attention usually occupies their minds right about now is all but being ignored for the moment. And that other team, the one that appears on the scene by mid-July, can hardly get any ink at all.

Making matters worse, as usual, is the local media, particularly the television stations. They know of only one way to act and that’s to overreact, mainly because most of them are carpetbaggers. You had to like the intrepid reporter on Channel 5’s morning news program Tuesday, a reporter who probably just recently learned how to pronounce Cuyahoga, interviewing Trapper Jack (yes, Trapper Jack!) the morning disc jockey on a local soft rock radio station. What the reporter wanted to know was what callers were telling Trapper about the Cavs. The reporter couldn’t possibly have looked more awkward if she were wearing a barrel and smoking a pipe. Not to do her job for her, but if you’re going to check in with callers to a radio station, perhaps a visit to, say, WTAM, which actually runs a morning talk show, would have been more productive. And so it goes.

Soon, you’ll see the hosts of the local news shows, when they aren’t proclaiming themselves the exclusive this or the official that with regard to the Cavs, adorned in Cavs colors and reading their teleprompters from sets covered in Cavs pennants. By Thursday, Wilma Smith will probably be wearing a LeBron jersey and doing a live remote from the Riverwalk in San Antonio. That may not be the end of the world as we know it but it’s at least the 3,243rd reason to ignore the local media.

But if you’re a Cleveland sports fan over the age of 35, these are legitimately confusing times. For those, there used to be a very specific rhythm to Cleveland sports, which the Cavs playoff run as disrupted. The sporting year began in early April with the Indians home opener. The baseball season would end sometime around early July when the Browns reported to camp. Whether the Browns were good or not, it usually carried fans interest until at least Christmas. Once the Bowl season ended, it was nearly Super Bowl time, which, until a few years ago carried you into late January. Now it’s early February. But then came the dark days for the next two or so months that had to be endured until the Indians trekked off to Tucson (now Winter Haven, soon to be Arizona again) for spring training. But the interim was used to complete the chores that had been piling up, things like painting and wallpapering, for example. And then, come lat March the cycle began again.

Though the Cavs have been around since 1971, they had never realized enough sustained success to actually alter that rhythm. There was nothing particularly magical about opening night and unless the Lakers were making their once yearly appearance, scant reason to head to actually head to a game.

Certainly this wasn’t only true, just mostly. There was excitement during that first season or two and then came the Miracle of Richfield season of 1975-1976. But for the next decade thereafter, the highest the Cavs ever finished in their division was 3rd and that was in 1977. When the Gunds bought the franchise and the team dodged a huge bullet by getting Brad Daugherty instead of Len Bias, the Cavs made more than a cameo appearance in the fans collective conscience. The teams during the period of 1987-1997 featured, at various times, Mark Price, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Hot Rod Williams. Though the Cavs made several playoff appearances during that run, they made it past the first round only twice. Once injuries and age creeped in, the Cavs began a significant tailspin that didn’t truly end until LeBron James arrived, following an unprecedented high school career just down the road in Akron.

In addition to a lackluster history that has featured only 16 playoff appearances since 1971 another factor contributing to the general malaise was that the Cavs played in a nice arena in the nice country town of Richfield. Unfortunately, it was too far off the beaten path from the main population centers of the Cleveland area. And other than Whitey’s Booze and Burgers, the Tavern of Richfield or Barney Google’s in the Holiday Inn there wasn’t anywhere to really go either before or after the games.

Moreover, during this same time period, the growth in the Cleveland area was mostly in the suburbs east and west of the city. It wasn’t a perfect storm, necessarily, but it was a huge factor nonetheless contributing to the indifference. Venturing to a Cavs game in Richfield and having to traverse I-271 in the winter was always a cruel request. It’s the reason, frankly, that the Gunds were all too willing to bring the team back downtown even though the Coliseum was one of the nicer venues in the league.

Additional factors also conspired to keep the Cavs mostly off the radar screen. For example, because the Cavs were not an elite team, they were hardly ever on national television and though they were broadcast locally, for the formative years of their existence, when loyalty is nourished, this was well before cable and ESPN. If you were lucky, maybe one game a week was on Channel 43, competing for time with Johnny Powers and Big Time Wrestling as well as reruns of Star Trek.

Additionally, to most fans NBA players were the most difficult to relate to, perhaps because Cleveland has never had much exposure to big time college basketball. And it wasn’t as if NBA players had the best of reputations. Indeed, until Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league, the NBA itself was having a huge image problem resulting in large part from its own sordid drug history. There’s always been the perception, too, that NBA players refuse to play defense, that the officials refuse to call fouls, particularly on elite players, and that with such an expanded playoff format, the regular season was essentially meaningless.

So a perennially bad team playing in a league that featured an inferior product competing for attention with fans in a football town with an undying affection for a bad baseball team always reduced the Cavs to also-ran status.

But just as Magic and Bird saved the NBA, with a huge assist from the Michael Jordan, LeBron James has saved this franchise. Particularly in the last two years, the Cavs now have a place on the calendar of most Cleveland fans, even if the hold on that calendar is still on the flimsy side. While no one was looking, the Cavs caused a reshuffling in priorities.

This season, given the Cavs playoff run, the Indians have all but been ignored, despite the fact that they have played 55 games, a full third of their season, and find themselves in first place over the Detroit Tigers. True, the weather this spring has been mostly miserable, but the Indians just aren’t drawing yet. That probably isn’t completely or even mostly attributable to the Cavs and their fortunes, but the attention that the Indians neighbors on Gateway Plaza are drawing, particularly now, is a factor.

The Indians will find their audience, just not yet. When the Cavs complete their season in the next few weeks, fans will realize that this Indians team is unlike most of the Indians teams of their youth. This team isn’t likely to swoon in June and die in July. When fans can refocus their attention they will see that this team is more like the teams of the late ‘90s, featuring a nice mix of pitching and hitting, that should make them a factor through September.

In reality, the team that is going to suffer from attention deficit is the Browns, and they only have themselves to blame. Cleveland may always be a football town first, but the local franchise has certainly tested the patience of its fans over the last decade and a half and it is having an impact. When Modell moved the team to Baltimore and Cleveland was without a team for four years, interest didn’t die but it waned considerably. The return brought new excitement but since then the new Browns have been nothing short of an embarrassment to the great tradition they inherited. Though the franchise, for the first time ever, has an owner rich enough to not have to take out bank loans to sign overrated receivers, the team has otherwise been a mess from the top down. As it stands, the Browns are having trouble renting out loges.

The drafting of Brady Quinn and Joe Thomas has brought renewed optimism, to be sure, but in the short run the only interest the Browns will probably draw will be in the preseason and then only to see Quinn’s first few professional games. Once that occurs, Cleveland fans will return to the Indians and a potential playoff run. In other words, by the time real interest in the Browns returns, they will be four or five games into the season and if form holds, sporting at best a 1-3 record. Good luck with that.

In the end, the re-ordering of fan priorities is one of the more intriguing aspects of the emergence of the Cavs and the Indians. Whether the shift is permanent will play out over time, but it would be unwise to bet against Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. As hard as he has worked to this point, he’ll work twice as hard to ensure that his place in line isn’t squandered. The Browns will find if they haven’t yet, that the years of mismanagement won’t be tolerated forever. For once, they will have to earn their place back in the hearts and minds and wallets of Cleveland fans. Whether they truly are up to the task is iffy, at best.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

All is Well

At least the Spurs don’t represent the state of Florida. Otherwise Cleveland fans would have one more paranoid thought on their minds as they ready themselves for the Cavaliers first appearance ever in the NBA Finals later this week.

For most Cleveland area sports fans, this is really the third crack they have at national glory in just the last year. The Ohio State Buckeyes went to the National Championship games in both football and basketball this past season, only to fall short to the Florida Gators. Indeed, the last Cleveland professional sports team to play for the championship was the Indians who lost to, who else?, the Florida Marlins when Jose Mesa melted down in Game 7. But the Cavaliers are facing the Spurs, who reside in San Antonio, and thus from that perspective alone one has to like their chances for getting a local team over the hump.

With the first game still several days away, there will be plenty of time for analysis. But one thing is probably for certain, it’s unlikely that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili will melt down like the Pistons Rasheed Wallace did several times against the Cavaliers. In fact, it’s fair to say that it was Wallace’s raging frustration, as much as anything else, which cost the Pistons their chance to return to the NBA Finals and an opportunity to claim their fourth NBA title.

But feel not sorry for the Pistons and the aging, toothless loudmouths they literally transformed into over the course of the last week. The Pistons found themselves up two after the first two games of the series and displaying the kind of false swagger that comes with failing to acknowledge that in each game they were nonetheless outplayed. After each loss, with the roar getting louder and the on-coming rush taking form, Pistons guard Chauncey Billups sounded like Kevin Bacon’s character in “Animal House,” telling Pistons fans to essentially remain calm and that all was well.

But anyone watching this series knew that this was an act. At every key turn, it was the Cavaliers, not the much more experienced Pistons, which remained calm, repeatedly finding a way to finish what they had started. The Pistons, on the other hand, seemed to take their cue from Wallace and as he panicked as the series deepened, so too did the Pistons. In Saturday night’s fourth quarter, the house finally collapsed on Wallace and the rest of his team and thus, as Sunday morning dawned, a new pecking order had clearly emerged in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

In many ways, this series was actually won over a year ago. When the Cavaliers advanced to the conference semifinals last year, they were given no chance whatsoever against the Pistons and indeed a 27-point loss in the first game seemed to confirm those predictions. But then as now, the Cavaliers found a way to survive, inflicting enough body blows on the way to a Game 7 loss to take the fight out of the Pistons in their match-up with Miami. It was those same body blows, however, that never did sufficiently heal and with the Cavs constantly pounding at their kidneys throughout this series, the Pistons never found their sea legs. As a result the Pistons never did find their rhythm as well, either offensively or defensively, and when the final horn sounded Saturday night, the Pistons knew that this was not just another loss but the end of an era that was never fully realized in the first place.

Because LeBron James is, well, LeBron James, he will always be the focus of this team. But for whatever rarified accomplishments James might achieve next, it’s still a team game and there is simply no way to get to the finals in any sport without having enough supporting players around you to make a difference. That, in the end, is what really cost the Pistons this series. Their bench was horrible, to put it charitably. Other than Jason Maxiell’s performance in Game 2, Pistons fans would have a hard time finding any Pistons reserve that made a meaningful contribution in this series.

The Cavs, on the other hand, got significant minutes, as they usually do, from Anderson Varajeo. But he was hardly alone. With Larry Hughes nursing a sore ankle, Cavs coach Mike Brown was forced to improvise. That led to some meaningful minutes for Damon Jones who played better defense in the limited time he had in this series then he’s ever played while in a Cavs uniform. But the biggest assist of all goes to the youngest player on the court, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson. Looking like he should be attending his Senior Prom rather than playing in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson made the Pistons pay dearly for their one-note defensive scheme in Game 6 that seem designed solely to keep James from again lighting up the scoreboard. James repeatedly found a wide-open Gibson who calmly knocked down five three-pointers on his way to a game high and career high 31 points.

Perhaps what is most amazing about the fact that the Cavaliers are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history is that it was hard to see this coming. Though the Cavs did win 50 games this season, it often seemed like a struggle. At no point did they find, let alone maintain, the kind of consistency they have found in the playoffs. In fact, when owner Dan Gilbert told reporters at halftime of the final regular season game that it was important for the Cavs to take another step in their growth by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, no one disagreed but the optimism was hardly universal that this growth would actually be achieved this year.

But James never has followed the more typical path, which this year would have been a good showing in the Eastern Conference Finals. Like he’s been doing since junior high school, by force of will he literally accelerated his personal growth and that of the team as a whole during the Pistons series, not allowing either himself or his teammates to be satisfied with just showing up. With his performances, particularly beginning with Game 3, James seemed to say, if we have to play, we might as well win and his teammates followed suit. It’s a mentality that will serve them well when they take on a vastly more experienced team in the Spurs in the Finals.

But again, there is plenty of time between now and Thursday to analyze the Spurs series in mind-numbing detail. Today is for the long-suffering fans of Cleveland sports, one of whom is James himself, to relish. Like the Indians pennant in 1995 or the Buckeyes National Championship in 2002, the Cavs victory over the Pistons represents both a historical footing and a context for all that comes next. Hopefully what’s next is a victory celebration on Public Square in about two weeks.

Friday, June 01, 2007


You’d have to go back to Tiger Woods’ chip shot on the 16th hole at Augusta in 2005 to find anything close to the perfect marriage of marketing and reality that occurred Thursday night at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

LeBron James, whose Nike slogan is “Witness” made everyone do just that, particularly a tired and frustrated Detroit Pistons team, as he single-handedly gave the Cavaliers control of the Eastern Conference Finals with an adrenalin-pumping two-point double-overtime victory. Those lucky enough to witness one of the great performances in NBA playoff history, whether in person or on television, will forever be able to point to James’ career-defining performance as the singular reason to forever silence whatever critics might remain of James.

The statistics, as they often can be, were head-shaking. James played nearly 51 minutes, meaning he sat for only about seven. He was 18-33 from the floor, which would be special if most of the shots were of the 7-10 foot variety. Instead, they were an amazing array of lay-ups, dunks, three-pointers and fade-away 20-footers, proving that James has every shot imaginable in his personal arsenal. He scored the team’s last 25 points and 29 of their last 30, and it wasn’t out of selfishness, either. The team had a total of 13 assists, seven of which were from James. It was simply that James was in the kind of zone that only the rarest of athletes can attain and his teammates and opponents knew it. James was double and triple-teamed repeatedly. Pistons head coach Flip Saunders said that they tried all manner of traps and defensive schemes to stop him, but nothing worked. Indeed, the Pistons had no chance.

We noted before and will say it again, even if the Cavaliers find themselves coming up short in this series, the Pistons know their run is about to end. While many see James and his performance in the last three games as nothing short of the international emergence of perhaps the best player in the NBA, what really is being witnessed is the sea-change of transition in the Eastern Conference. The Pistons are the aging giant trying to hang on to one last moment of glory before they are forced to reload their roster with enough youth to take on James and the Cavs for the next several years.

There have been any number of moments in this series that underscore that point. Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace provided his own private catalogue in game four alone, from throwing his headband in disgust and earning a fifth technical foul to the jersey toss in the tunnel to the visitors locker room after the game.

But for a real signature moment, look no further than Antonio McDyess’ clothesline takedown of the Cavs Anderson Varejao at the end of the first quarter Thursday night. Varejao is a handful, to be sure, and has a tendency to infuriate the opposition in even the most insignificant of regular season games. But the McDyess flagrant foul, borne out of the frustration that comes when a series isn’t going the way it should, in the end played more like pathetic attempt to intimidate the Cavs early and take them out of their game.

But where the Pistons were able to make that tactic work last year when Wallace took an elbow to Zydrunas Ilgauskas and drew blood, this year was different. No one, including James, seemed to come to Ilgauskas’s defense at the moment of impact last year, but as soon as Varejao went down, James literally jumped him and into the face of McDyess. That action cost McDyess his evening, cost James a technical, and sent a message to Wallace and the others that this isn’t last year, as if they didn’t know that already.

For all the swagger and pomposity that can be the Pistons, they seem, frankly, toothless in this series. Though they have won two of the five games, they have not dominated the Cavs at any point. In fact, it’s really been the opposite. The Pistons have had trouble finding any traction in any game that would take them on an insurmountable run. The Cavs, feeding mostly off James but displaying on a team level the kind of tenacity that makes Varejao such a pest to his opponents, have refused to be run off the court. Even during those miserable third quarters, excluding Thursday night, the Cavs have still managed to keep it close enough to put themselves in a position to win at the end of each game.

In some ways coincidental and in other ways ironic, it is nevertheless fitting that James’ signature game came at the same time as all manner of controversy is swirling around Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant, who at various points has been the best player in the game, is frustrated and lonely and can’t seem to figure out where he wants to be and what he wants to do next. James, on the other hand, looks like the model of consistency and decorum on the court and off while singularly ensuring for David Stern and the rest of the NBA that as long as the Cavs are in the playoffs, good ratings likely will follow.

And while there is always a larger context to everything, for the local fans this is nearly as good as it possibly can get. Right now, in LeBron James, Cleveland sports fans have in their midst the opportunity to watch and appreciate as one of their own one of the top two or three greatest basketball players in the world. Clevelanders have had their share of superstars in a variety of sports, but you’d have to go back to Jim Brown to find the last time any Cleveland team had one of the greatest players in the game. That isn’t necessarily an indictment on the mediocre teams fielded by the various Cleveland teams in the ensuing years as much as it is an emphasis on the fact that the truly greats are in short supply.

If the James and the Cavs are not able to finish off this series, a smattering of critics will re-emerge, just as they did when James passed to a wide-open Donyell Marshall in game one of the series. If James and the Cavs advance to the Finals, those same critics will nit-pick if they can’t get past San Antonio which, for all intents and purposes, are the New England Patriots of the NBA. That kind of scrutiny comes with the territory and is something James has faced since his sophomore year in high school. But a performance like Thursday night’s can’t be denied and while it may not lead to the ultimate prize right now, it leaves no doubt that James has the ability to bring this town the championship it so desperately craves if not sooner, then soon anyway.