Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Lingering Items--Chutes and Ladders Edition




Usually I end my Lingering Items columns with a question to ponder but today I flip the conceit: Are sports fans in general cynical or is it just Cleveland sports fans?

Though I don’t usually weigh in on the answer but ask because I'm concerned.  About me, about you about the nature of sports in Cleveland generally. I had just finished writing my once or twice a year column on the Cleveland Cavaliers and decided to let it sit for a few days.  Something about it didn’t seem quite right.  When I returned to it, the problem became clear.  It seemed to be drenched in a baseline cynicism that can best be summed up as “the Cavs suck, what’s new?”  That really wasn’t what I intended to say.  Thus beget the question to ponder and then another, more existential variation: did I have anything more to say about Cleveland sports that I hadn’t already said?

At that moment, the answer was “no.”  I seemed to be saying “of course the Cavs need to fire Byron Scott because, well, it’s just their turn in the barrel.  This is Cleveland and this is how we roll.  The Browns and Indians have just done another in their various yet endless resets and so it just stands to reasons that the Cavs are now on the clock.”

It’s almost beside the point that on some level it happens to be true.  What I was really dealing with was not the quixotic attempt to find a different angle to the same ol’ same ol’ but a better way of talking about what really is interesting to me about the fact that the Cavs do need to fire Scot.

Let me deal with the Cavs for a moment in the form of a casual observer, which I am not.  It’s true that I don’t write much about the Cavs, but there are two reasons for it.  First, there are many better suited to school you on the nuances of just how lousy the team plays defense.  Second,  I don’t find the NBA a particularly compelling form of professional sports entertainment.  The individual games, especially when played by third tier teams, are about as meaningful as a Pringles commercial.  If the Cavs beat Orlando by 10 or lose to them by 20, it means nothing except in the race for ping pong balls.

But what is compelling about them and hence what makes me far more than just casual about them (and the town’s other two teams) is the inexorable journey they’re on as they try to become relevant in a sport that seems more relevant to a billion Chinese then a 100 million Americans.  Indeed if I had to really ferret out exactly what interests me about sports in general, it’s that journey and all the various missteps that are taken along the way.

When I consider that context, I realize that I’m not particularly cynical about sports or even Cleveland sports because after all these years the results hardly matter.  What I am cynical about is the ability of those that control Cleveland sports to do the right thing when it comes to navigating the path from the outhouse to the penthouse.  It’s not exactly like I need to go chapter and verse on each of the teams in this town but I will if you dare me to.   Until then, suffice it to say that no matter how many days and weeks and months and years seem to pass the ability of any Cleveland team to build itself into a winner always seems fanciful.  It’s like the fans are stuck playing an endless game of chutes and ladders except that the team rarely finds a ladder but always lands on the chutes and usually the one that takes you not just one or two rows back but the one that takes you all the way back to the beginning.

And so it is with these Cavs at these moments.  They have cap space.  They have one verifiable talent and they have one incredibly bored fan base.  Is it right to hold only Scott accountable for it?  Of course not.  But it’s not right to give him a pass, either.  Let's look at what's really driving the conclusion.

**

The Cavs are approaching Ted Stepien-era level futility and it’s not as if the fans aren’t noticing.  The shine of LeBron James’ reign here has long since dissipated and so too has the insane promise owner Dan Gilbert made that the Cavs will win a championship before the James-led Miami Heat.  The truth is that the Cavs won’t even make the playoffs before the James-led Heat win their third or fourth championship.

The reason that the Cavs are a futile, boring, mind-numbing mess has something to do with Scott, something, maybe more, to do with the front office and plenty to do with the NBA.  Let’s take it in order.

Scott is starting to feel some pressure, finally, from the media and the fans and you can tell the crisp collars on his dress shirts are feeling a bit tight these days.  Frankly I’ve not seen the media give a bigger pass to a head coach since Eric Wedge was manipulating the Indians’ starting lineup on a nightly basis.  Indeed the Wedge comparison is most apt.  The local media gave Wedge a pass even though he was a mostly ineffective micromanager mostly because the Indians were terrible and who was managing or mismanaging the lousy product the front office was putting out there seemed almost irrelevant.  The same holds true for Scott I suppose.

The Indians’ front office seemed to notice that Wedge wasn’t wearing any clothes right about the time it became clear that Wedge didn’t have the ability or temperament to develop young players.  By comparison, the series of nitwits the Browns have hired as their head coach have garnered far greater scrutiny and given far less rope than the Indians gave Wedge or that the Cavs, at the moment, are giving Scott. But should Scott really enjoy the freedom to underperform night in and night out?  It may not be fair to judge the team in terms of wins and losses because their talent is so far inferior to the better clubs in the league.  But it is fair to judge them by intensity and effort and on this score even Scott has noted several times this season (and last year) that too often the team doesn’t seem interested in competing.

I’ll take his word because he’s closest to it but even from the cheap seats and my outdated overstuffed leather recliner there’s no reason to argue the point.  Scott told the Plain Dealer last Thursday that he’s aware of the muted rumors about his job and he didn’t have much to say about them, except that in not saying much he said plenty.  He pointed out that injuries and an overall lack of talent have kept him from fielding a competitive team.  All true.  Yet, curiously, he said that if he had to grade his own performance, he’d give himself a “C.”  Maybe he was being self-deprecating, but can that be true if the grade is correct?  This team has been playing out the string for most of the season and by playing out the string I mean going through the motions, giving half effort and generally hoping to get through the game unscathed and to dinner before the restaurants close.

It may not be Scott’s responsibility to acquire the players and I won’t blame him for the horrid roster.  But I will blame him for an almost complete inability to reach these players in a way that at least guarantees a team that’s willing to fight for a win 82 times a season.

If there is such a thing as coaching out the string, Scott is doing it.  He seems to alternate between being lost and being uninterested.  If your life depended on your ability to name one positive thing Scott has brought to this franchise, particularly this season, could you do it?  I couldn’t.

I’m not even sure Scott is actually a lousy head coach.  But I am sure he’s a lousy head coach of a team with lousy talent.  I don’t know what exactly Scott works on with his team in practice but the results aren’t impressive.  The young talent under him hasn’t developed either technically or professionally.  What is apparent is that he hasn’t instilled in them the work ethic they’ll need to better compete.

It would be interesting I suppose to see what Scott could do with a talented roster, but there’s no reason to give him that chance in Cleveland.  By his own admission he’s done just an average job.  Is that really the kind of coach owner Dan Gilbert wants for his team?  Would he tolerate “C” level performance in any other part of his organization?

**
The front office is more than culpable in this mess, maybe more than Scott.  The roster they have compiled is not particularly interesting save for Kyrie Irving.  It's a mish mash mostly of spare parts and projects.  It's compiled that way I suppose in order to retain a mythical flexibility for some future point when they'll spend that flexibility like drunken sailors at a strip club.

What too of its decision to hire Scott in the first place?  He had an impressive resume as a player but to call his resume mixed at the time the Cavs hired him is being generous.  After a rough first year, he had a very successful two year run with New Jersey.  Then the team stopped listening to him and he didn't make it through what was turning into a miserable fourth year.  Since then he's mostly found himself coaching at the bottom tier of the league.  It's true that the New Orleans Hornets made the playoffs twice under him, most of the time they were near the bottom of the standings.

In other words, Scott's resume reads like the resume of a typical journeyman head coach in any sport.  He's Bobby Valentine without the fake mustache and glasses.  What makes his hiring curious is that Gilbert had to sign off on it and did so knowing that there wasn't anything particularly compelling about Scott as a head coach.  You could argue that the most distinguishing thing about his career is that shortly after realizing any level of success his employers were quick to fire him thereafter almost as if they couldn't wait to rid themselves of him. The other thing that was more than clear though, which makes his hiring even more strange, is that he has virtually no record of actually developing a young roster.

So it's not a surprise the Scott is on the edge of losing another job when you consider his history.  But the thing to worry about is now the  “when” of the Scott issue but the “what happens next?” issue that follows.  This same front office that's put together a middling roster while keeping its powder dry for a mythical future it can only describe in mystical terms is the same front office that hired Scott and the same front office that will hire his replacement. Does that inspire confidence that they'll get it right?  Should it?

These are the questions Gilbert ought to be asking because while it was always taken as hurt feelings his boast about the Cavs' near term fortunes vs. the Heat's, what will not be taken is a long walk through the desert without a canteen of water in sight.  Gilbert has a record of accomplishment in most of his business dealings but right now he's failing not just the fans or the team, but himself.

**
Finally, let's talk about the NBA as an entity.  The cycling through of lousy season after lousy season, the revolving door of marginal talent, the constant lottery picks, the wheeling and dealing, the saving of cap space on the if-come are all part of the 10-year cycle of team’s that occupy the outer boroughs of the NBA.

I’ve written about this before but it bears mentioning again that the NBA statistics are as iron clad on this fact as any other sports statistic you’re likely to see:  when a team hits the skids it takes at least 10 years to get back to any level of respectability.  So the fact that the Cavs are in this hellish cycle of dread isn’t really a surprise.  Nor is the fact that this team is still several years away from legitimately competing.

Gilbert certainly is aware of this and while not completely powerless to do anything about it, he's going to have to do more then just look engaged. He has to demand more from the basketball people, including the head coach, brought in to steady the ship.  The NBA deck is stacked against bad teams and the only way out is to hope that the ping pong balls bounce your ways more than a few times in a row.  Teams like the Cavs need to consistently pick in the top 5 every year until they get good enough to get the hell out of the lottery.  In the meantime they have to find other ways to supplement the roster so that when they graduate from the lottery they don’t get stuck too long in the next inner ring of hell occupied by teams just good enough to squeak into the playoffs but not good enough to make a legitimate run.

Fans will get excited the next time the Cavs make the playoffs, which is about 5 years away by my calculations or longer if the team is unable to hold onto Irving because he, like James, sees greener pastures in warmer climates.  But at some point the team will squeak into the playoffs and after the initial fun of it wears off two years in the Cavs will have to do something dramatic to get into the better neighborhoods.  That’s the time when saving all that salary cap money will especially come in handy.  Again, though, assuming the NBA history holds true (and in few if any cases hasn’t it held true) the Cavs are at least 7 years and probably two or three head coaches away from facing that dilemma.

**

So let me end this interminably lengthy column with one final question to ponder: Given what you know about the process, can you ever actually imagine a scenario where James leaves Miami after the 2014 season to come back to Cleveland?

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