Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Stacking the Odds

When it comes to picking the new head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers, owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Chris Grant know that it’s mostly a crap shoot unless they’re choosing among very known commodities. That means that if Phil Jackson and a precious few others aren’t available, and they aren’t, then whether or not they get the choice right will mostly be a matter of luck.

It’s not a reflection on either Gilbert or Grant but a sobering assessment of the needle-in-a-haystack mysticism that is the finding of not just a coach who can win but of finding one that can take a team to the NBA title.

For the last several days, the Cavs have held vigil waiting for their target, Tom Izzo, to gather information and sort through the Tarot cards. What it came down to though was actually rather simple. Essentially, he said, without a guarantee that James would be back, the Cavs position was to much of a job to otherwise take on.

It was never certain that Izzo would have successfully made the transition to the NBA but I think Izzo made the right choice in staying in college. He’s too much of a coward for the NBA game.

Reading and listening to Izzo explain why he didn’t take the Cavs job, you get the sense that Izzo would only come to the NBA with the deck stacked in his favor. Maybe it’s where he’s at in his career and maybe that’s as it should be. It’s how I’d want it, too. But without the cards stacked in his favor he was far more willing to survive on just $3 million a year instead of Gilbert’s $6 million per package.

I suspect he’s right when he says that he’s at Michigan State for a lifetime. Owners and general managers across the league now understand that Izzo isn’t up for the challenge of what the NBA brings. He’s only interested in glory being mostly guaranteed.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Izzo, though. He’s 55 years old, a terrific college coach with a great track record at Michigan State. The college game is a grind, like any other job sometimes, but the ability to be around college aged kids, even ones with huge entitlement attitudes, can be far more invigorating for the soul than trying to deal with players like Delonte West all the time.

Still I am disappointed that Izzo, a good guy by all accounts, only wanted the Cavs job if there was a guarantee James would remain. That’s a little disappointing. But Cavs fans should be happy to know that now before Izzo was 18 months into the job.

What the Cavs need, what the fans need, is a coach who is all in under any circumstances. Even when you have the game’s best player on your roster, it isn’t all peaches and beans as Archie Bunker used to say. If you look at this past season with 20/20 hindsight, you realize that in leading the Cavs to the league’s best record former head coach Mike Brown had all manner of hassle to contend with in order to get them there.

There were all the problems with West, of course. But that was the tip of the iceberg. This team had to contend with its share of injuries. It also had to juggle some all-world egos both on the court and in the front office. Then, of course, was the endless loop of speculation and distraction that James’ pending free agency became.

The Cavs weren’t a team in turmoil this past season but neither were they a team sailing along blissfully either. The meltdown in the playoffs looks positively inevitable in retrospect.

I’m still not exactly sure what Brown did to get himself fired and I’m still not exactly sure why Danny Ferry decided to call it a career, though it’s easy to speculate and likely get most of it right. But all this did was further add to the confusion and yes, the stress, that a new head coach would inherit.

At 55, Izzo just decided he wasn’t up to the task and, again, Cavs fans should be thankful.

The speculation now, of course, is that Izzo’s decision doesn’t bode well for James remaining in Cleveland, not because James wanted Izzo but more because James wasn’t willing to help Izzo with his decision. Does that mean that Izzo secretly has some further insight about James’ future than he’s willing to share? Perhaps. Gilbert might as well. Even if neither does it’s not hard to imagine that they are reading all of the obvious signals James is sending at the moment about his future and none of those are good for the locals.

I can understand why James doesn’t want to get involved in the head coach search. That’s not a place where any player really wants to be. What I understand far less, though, is why James would let this franchise dangle like this unless he really doesn’t see himself re-signing. Check that, given all this franchise has done for him, I don’t understand why James would let this franchise dangle like this under any circumstances.

You could go all conspiracy theorist on this and say that James wants this franchise to look a mess in order to have outsiders shake their heads in acknowledgement when he tries to justify why he left for [fill in the blank]. He wouldn’t say that directly, certainly, but he’d do so by implication when explaining what an inviting and stable situation [fill in the blank] presents for James and his family.

You could also chalk all of this up to James just being an immature kid who, for all his worldliness, still doesn’t quite appreciate the implication of his actions or, more accurately, his inactions.

Whatever it is, though, I’m rapidly coming around to the notion that James won’t be with the Cavs next season. His lack of willingness to commit to Cleveland at this juncture is speaking volumes.

In a fashion, James really is like Izzo and had Izzo come to Cleveland he and James would have been a near perfect pair. They both see themselves having about another 8-10 years in their current roles and they both see themselves as having paid their dues. At this juncture, it’s less about scaling the entire mountain and more about having a huge head start on the race to the top.

Izzo didn’t see himself as wanting to grow up with a team and make a run a few years down the road and neither does James. If moves get made it will only be for titles and plenty of them.

I don’t begrudge either James or Izzo and I doubt whether I’d act any differently if I were in either of their shoes. You don’t get very many opportunities to legally rig the game in your favor and when those opportunities do come along you better jump on them quickly.

Izzo wasn’t sure that opportunity existed in Cleveland and I’m starting to think that James isn’t sure either. Where they diverge is the outcome. For Izzo, when the options in front of him were too risky, he opted to do nothing. For James, it’s the do-nothing option that looks like it might be the riskiest.


m. said...

the fact that brown did lead the cavs to the league's best record and had a mostly outstanding year before that as well, makes it absolutely baffling to someone like me that he was fired. less than a handful of coaches anywhere got as far as he did. and unless the cavs are getting a phil jackson[not], what was the point? find the truth in that story gary. it will take any new coach some time to even understand the dynamics of the players and their relationships. plus or minus james. and unless he and brown were enemies, it seems to me they could have tweaked their play into the winning performance next time or the time after that--but some time soon for sure. their season was not a failure until the end. watching the celtics spin the heads on their next 2 opponents, the cavs and their fans can rest assured they did not have a cake walk with the celtics. why do you think gilbert fired brown? some teams are rancid and need blowing up--the cavs did'nt stink of that and it is starting to look like a few babies were thrown out with the bath water. m.

Gary Benz said...

M: the Brown firing is a mystery around here. The speculation though is that Gilbert just felt Brown couldn't get the team to the NBA title. There were curious rotations during the playoffs and some other puzzling decisions by Brown that perhaps showed that he was having trouble handling the pressure of high expectations. I think, too, that Gilbert got the sense from James that there was friction between James and Brown and that James could no longer see himself playing for Brown. James never publicly criticized Brown and I have no information that he privately did so either. But the way things are lining up it sure looks like Gilbert thinks the key to retaining LeBron is not who the new head coach so much as who the head coach is not. I think Ferry was a huge supporter of Brown and just felt like he couldn't continue in his role as GM if Gilbert was going to over rule him on one of the most important decisions a GM makes--the head coach.

m. said...

i'm the first one to admit my lack of sophisticated insight when it comes to questions of rotation and other strategies--i enjoy and trust your insights. the psychology of a dynamic is something i am good at. i said before and still believe that james was distancing himself from brown in the two interviews before his last two games. he seemed to me to be putting the result squarely on the shoulders of the coach and his plan, while at the same time saying over and over again, "no excuses"--as if he was taking responsibility for his play--but i did not see the confidence in his coach. i think there was a clear disconnect between the two men and it showed every time lebron passed the ball instead of going for the basket.i think he handed brown's head to gilbert on a platter with his poor play and half-hearted efforts. so i agree with you on that one. what is baffling now is that it is obvious that the cavs will attract more viable candidates for coach if james is signed and the fact that he has not, leaves the team in double limbo. i know in an ideal world a coach should come for the team and not lebron--but sports, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. i'm a truly-madly-deeply kind of individual and waking up every day next to someone i did'nt love would feel like sleeping in a coffin. it also would not surprise me if either team playing tonight tried to get lebron into their bed--one way or another--or maybe someone exciting will jump into gilbert's arms--ah, favorite subject. m.

m. said...

well, the pillow fight is over, metaphorically speaking and the celtics are sleeping on the floor. the lakers are the darlings and watching phil jackson play lebron's kind of coy made me think this---they want eachother. i'm thinking too, the celtics could do it next year with lebron. ofcourse, only you and others [not many], like you, know what is possible with all the numbers and power plays involved. any thoughts? i like players on both teams but i'm not fickle. m.

Connor S said...

No argument that the Cavs lost to an excellent Boston Celtics team that peaked at the right time. But Mike Brown is not a regular season to finals coach.

With a team as talented as the Cavs, you can win a lot of games by just letting the guys do what they do. But in the playoffs, you need to be able to make adjustments, counter adjustments, and then counter the counter-adjustments. Every possession matters, as Game 7 of the Finals demonstrated, and Mike Brown doesn’t coach that way. He’ll let his players play and count on momentum shifts. He relies on his defense, but he can’t draw up a solid play to get you 2 points when you’ve gone on a drought.

Aside from the rotations being funky, Mike made very few adjustments in the Boston series. KG burned Antawn start to finish, every game - No adjustment made. And you weren’t really playing to his strengths there either… you brought Antawn in for his offense, not to be a defensive stopper. He spent all his energy trying to contain KG, he was just frustrated the whole series.

The games we won were due to fantastic, unsustainable individual performances (Game 1, Mo Williams, Game 3, LeBron). And Boston made adjustments after each. For example, in both games the Cavs won, Jamison led the team in rebounding. He had 6, 6 and 5 respectively in the last 3 losses. Mo Williams was fantastic in Game 1 and was nowhere the rest of the way. Heck, Lebron scored 38 in Game 3 and didn’t make it to 30 in the next 3 games.

m. said...

thank you for your thoughtful post and for explaining how coach brown operated in this series and in general. i live in california and have followed the cavs for 2 yrs, as i follow gary's writing and theclevelandfan writers. who do you think would be a good match for the cavs--with or without lebron? who is in the running? any news on lebron's state of mind these days? oh--and gary, jump in on any part of this...m.

Connor S said...

I live in NYC. I'm a long suffering Cavs fan. I cried when Shawn Kemp showed up 3000 pounds overweight. :)

I don't think we have alot of great coaching options out there. Byron Scott has a knack for getting on the bad side of his team's superstar. Jeff Van Gundy might be a good X's and O's guy but he doesn't seem interested in Cleveland - nor does Cleveland appear to be particularly interested in him. Both coaches don't strike me as being great big upgrades - especially since their resumes, like Mike Brown's, all include a trip to the Finals early in their head coaching careers, demolition while there, and disappointment after.

Sorry! No good ideas here. After you've eliminated Phil and Coach K, where else do you go?

m. said...

i was born in montreal but grew up in l.a. with pat riley and phil jackson, so was spoiled for all other coaches. i see basketball as ballet and riley and jackson as zen masters.l.a. is a stage for the golden child--the eternal sunshine of the creative mind gone corporate. all our references are from movies.rebels go north. i left 20 years ago. in the wake of the riotous fan display after the lakers win, i can't feel happy for l.a., just ashamed. m.