Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Silent Dan

It used to be easy to a Dan Gilbert fan. How could it not be? The owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers was a do-something person with a history of success. Besides, compared to the owners of the other two professional teams in town, Gilbert is number one almost by default.

Gilbert got an undeserved reputation early on in his career as a NBA owner as being meddlesome. To the contrary, he came across as a committed owner willing to approach his franchise not like a toy but like another critical business in his empire. He recognized that his main job was to find competent people to run the basketball operations on a day to day basis and once that was accomplished he would sit back and enjoy the view from the preferred seats.

In fact that’s what Gilbert did. It helped tremendously when the ping pong balls allowed LeBron James to fall into their laps. But Gilbert then did everything he could to capitalize on that fortune. That the Cavaliers fell short wasn’t for his lack of trying.

Lately, though, Gilbert is trying the patience of even his staunchest supporters mostly because he’s no longer the Gilbert that the fans were growing to trust. At a time when the franchise is struggling to find an identity, a face, Gilbert has adopted a bunker mentality as his team embarrasses its way through the 2010-11 season.

Since the whole James fiasco, in fact, Gilbert has changed and not for the better. The same goes for the front office. Instead of being out front, it comes across as left behind. The lack of noise is deafening. Meanwhile the fans are screaming as the team is in the midst of foisting upon its fans all the history it thought had been erased once Ted Stepien sold the team to the Gund Brothers.

Maybe there isn’t much Gilbert could do anyway, but right now the Cavs are coming across as an organization that simply doesn’t care. There is no evidence at the moment that anyone is in charge. Games appear on the schedules at regular intervals and losses pile up like the snow in Chardon. You don’t even get the sense that anyone inside the Cavs front office notices, let alone sympathizes with what the fans that have to endure this disaster. If they do, they’re doing a great job at hiding their empathy.

No one expected the Cavs to compete for a NBA title this season. Indeed, the playoffs always seemed like a bit of a long shot. But right now, 15 wins doesn’t even look possible.

Injuries are hurting this team, certainly, but so too is the lack of leadership. James was every bit the straw that stirred the drink when he was in town but it’s nothing short of amazing how small his supporting cast now looks with him gone. There isn’t a leader among them, not one player willing to step forward in a meaningful way.

It would be nice to think that head coach Byron Scott could demonstrate that leadership but frankly he looks just as lost as his players. Besides, it’s not as if the players even look like their craving leadership. What they look like most, at least the ones who are suiting up, are a collection of NBA bit players trying half-heartedly to keep their skills from dulling too much before they move on to a real team as a bit part in that team’s run up to the playoffs.

There was a column in Tuesday's Plain Dealer that suggested that a Cavs rebuild is at least 10 years in the making, if teams like Chicago are any indication. Without any sort of superstar to fill their void, the Bulls post-Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the same sort of directionless mass.

Some of that was due to the team never being truly bad enough for long enough to stockpile lottery picks. The other part of it though was due to a front office that seemed paralyzed about what direction to take. Maybe that’s the natural course of things when you’ve had the greatest basketball player in the history of the game suiting it up for you every night.

Right now a 10-year turnaround for the Cavs seems wildly optimistic and that’s why it falls to Gilbert to explain why that won't be the case. Gilbert may not realize it. He may be preoccupied with casino gambling. He may think that if he could endure the mortgage meltdown over the last few years he can endure anything. Well, welcome to Cleveland, pal. There is a malaise enshrouding this franchise and it is taking hold like a toxic mold in the basement, creeping up the walls. Cavs fans have been down this road. They know the way in their sleep.

Putting better players on the court right now isn’t going to be possible. The NBA operates under a salary structure of loosey goosey rules and exceptions that no one much understands except that the only thing really worth knowing is that teams with superstars end up being able to exploit the rules in ways that defy reason or logic while the also rans are left hamstrung by the process.

And while that will help explain the dismal product on the court at the moment, what it doesn’t explain at all is why the Cavs seem like a franchise lying back and taking it as if they have no other choice.

Every franchise is going to go through rough patches, although in Cleveland rough patches is the standard while stretches of success are the exception. The franchises that survive best are those that find ways to engage the fans as they work diligently behind the scenes to fix the problem.

I used to think of Gilbert as being that guy. I couldn’t fathom a scenario where he’d allow this asset to wallow. Instead he’s become the Dolans and Randy Lerner but with a twitter account.

For the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone these days would attend a Cavs game, even the ones that Gilbert cajoled into paying for season tickets before they knew that James would skip town. The games aren’t even competitive. The only selling point, really, is that they’re over quickly.

Next season, though, will be even worse. The season ticket base will dwindle to nothing and it wouldn’t’ surprise if the Cavs take to using curtains to shrink the size of the Q in order to make it look more crowded.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way but Gilbert’s lack of action and attention are going to have devastating consequences to this franchise unless he wakes up. There are probably worse head coaches he could have selected than Scott but it’s hard to imagine he could have picked a worse public communicator than Scott. Rarely engaging, he’s vacillates between testy and aloof. General manager Chris Grant executes his position as if he still thinks he’s just the assistant. Maybe he is.

That leaves it in Gilbert’s lap to be the face of the franchise. Instead, Gilbert has mostly disappeared from the scene and left the team and its fans to struggle to identify why exactly anyone at the moment should care. Not surprisingly, they’ve both groups have come to the same conclusion; nobody does, so why should they?


m. said...

Your observations, as usual, are astute. I'm disappointed to hear that Byron Scott, whom I had high hopes for, not only isn't getting it done, but maybe can't. Disappointing because I respect your judgment.I grew up in L.A. and I think Pat Riley and Phil Jackson are two of the best coaches to grace the NBA.That Scott, a former Laker, hasn't absorbed enough from watching those two coach for all these years, is disheartening. Goes to show that all the desire in the world can't compensate for a lack of talent. And what one has as a player doesn't morph into coach. I wonder, could having walked into a wasps nest after Queen,[whoops-King] wasp has left home, have something to do with the general malaise? I've got one question for you, Gary---Who is the HMFIC?

Dave said...

What would you have Gilbert or Grant do? Should they have a press conferance telling us that they are trying to rebuild the team? You said yourself that they cannot make any useful trades now. The team stinks, that is obvious, but your article lacks any suggestions that Gilbert could act upon.

He twitters his thoughts. I read articles about Chris Grant working the phones and seeing what is out there. I just do not know what anyone can do until you have different players. I agree with your comments on Byron Scott, however, I believe it falls on the players and their pride. Again, what can Gilbert and Grant do now, but have a press conferance telling us that they are trying? Have hope things will get better? I do not need that. Wait until March, after the trading deadline, before passing judgement about their action or inaction. Again...what could Gilbert or Grant do??

Gary Benz said...

Here's what Gilbert and Grant can do. Give press conferences. Let the fans know they understand the problem. Let the fans know they aren't satisfied. Let the fans know this will get fixed. My basic point is that they need to come across as leaders, people that understand the gravity of the situation, the needs and feelings of the fans, and are working to make it better. It doesn't take just one press conference. It needs to be a constant dialogue. Gilbert has gone into the bunker and says absolutely nothing. Sending his thoughts on Twitter (and I follow him) isn't particularly useful since most fans aren't even on Twitter. Gilbert needs to be the face of this franchise. Put it this way, if the Dallas Mavericks were struggling this badly, I doubt Mark Cuban would go underground. He'd write letters to the fans, he'd address it on his blog on a regular basis. He'd give interviews. Instead, Gilbert twiddles his thumbs and says nothing. Times like these call for a leader to step forward and no one has. Gilbert should be at every game conducting every post game press conference.

M. said...

And then there is this-- noticing your Twitter sidebar on this site, I would paraphrase the genius architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose career really took off after he was 70---"To be young implies a specific age in time, but to be youthful is a timeless quality one can possess all of one's life". Probably a sense of humor helps and you're a funny guy. M.

M. said...

And here's a question for you-- having left the kingdom he called home and so easily ruled, is king James now the queen bee in his new wasps nest in the Miami Heat, where he isn't the one and only? M.

M. said...

.....I ask because I have not been able to bring myself to watch him and the dynamic with his new team.