Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Another Day, Another Firing Edition

Another month, another firing in Cleveland professional sports.  Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert today fired general manager Chris Grant amidst one of the most dismal seasons by a team not named “the Browns.”  Unlike his counterpart with the Browns, no one is much questioning Gilbert’s sanity.  If anything fans are wondering what took Gilbert so long to figure out that Grant was Isiah Thomas without the name recognition.

A firing like Grant’s is littered with mistakes large and small.  But the two that bubble to the top first in this cesspool of despair are the drafting of Anthony Bennett and the re-hiring of Mike Brown.  There’s still time for Bennett to develop into, perhaps, a serviceable piece or part.  It’s hard to imagine though that he’ll ever be seen as anything less than one of the biggest draft busts in recent history.

As for Brown, his act is far more developed.  It’s hard to imagine how he survives losing the guy that stuck his neck out to rehire him.  Brown may survive the season, he may not.  Either way Gilbert has to be near suicidal for having been talked into giving Brown a 5-year contract.

Brown was hired because the Cavs had no interest in playing defense last season.  It’s Brown’s calling card. What’s been lost in translation though is that the team assembled by Grant still has no interest in playing defense and seem to be rebelling against Brown as if to emphasize the point.  It’s as if the players deliberately used Grant’s goofy press conference criticizing the players’ effort as a stepping off point.
The season is near half over and the transition to Brown’s approach seems to be getting worse not better.  It’s a hard sell and Gilbert knows it will be hard to convince fans that it’s always darkest before dawn.  No one will ever buy that the Cavs are near the dawn of their existence.  They are on permanent midnight at the moment.

Here’s what happens in any organization when there is a major change: players/employees inevitably fall into one of three buckets.  At one end of the spectrum are those that immediately get on board with the change and are anxious to follow the new lead.  Those are your keepers.  At the other end are those that won’t get on board ever.  They hate change and can’t fathom on any level that they’re wrong about anything.  They should be dumped immediately.  In the middle are those who can understand why the change was made and understand the need to change themselves.  Nonetheless they struggle with change.  Their efforts are earnest but uneven.  Eventually that group will trend to one of the other two buckets over the weeks and months following the change.

Life being the bell curve that it is, the first and second buckets are small at the outset.  The larger bucket is the third, those that understand but earnestly struggle with the change.

You can do your own math but at best there are maybe two players on the current team that got on board immediately with the Brown hiring.  Similarly there are maybe two at the other end of the spectrum.  That would put about 8 players in the middle.  Given the nature of this team it really doesn’t matter which bucket any player but Kyrie Irving occupies.  Based on recent results, even if Irving was in the struggling middle at one time he clearly was trending in the wrong direction.  His almost complete lack of effort against the Lakers on Wednesday evening was the most telling sign, even to Brown who sat him the entire fourth quarter.

The reason Irving matters most is that he’s the putative leader, the most recognizable face of the franchise.  His reputation league wide has always exceeded his actual accomplishments but he’s been given a large benefit of the doubt due to the state of the Cavs organization.  His fellow players see it much the same way and so if they see him bucking the system they’ll follow suit because they’ll think he’s right.

If Brown has any hope of surviving it will hinge almost entirely on his ability to turn Irving around and get him to buy into what he’s selling.  It may be an impossible task.   Irving already is making Gilbert nervous by whispering strategically about a future that doesn’t include the Cavs.  Grant leaving but Brown staying doesn’t much change that.  Alienating him further with a coach he doesn’t like won’t help the situation. Besides, Gilbert has a track record when it comes to placating stars at the expense of coaches.

Had Gilbert simply retained Brown in the first place once LeBron James left it’s far more likely that the Cavs would be closer to his dream of making the playoffs this season.  But he didn’t do that and is now paying dearly by fielding a collection of players at the expense of a team.  His team is as far from the playoffs as it ever was.

Gilbert has always had a mixed reputation among the fans and the mess that his franchise is in at the moment isn’t going to help it much.  Gilbert has never been the fussy tinkering owner in the model of the Washington Redskins’ Dan Snyder, but he is neither a particularly patient one either.  So it doesn’t surprise that on a seemingly random day he dumped Grant without a specific replacement in mind.  He knew at the very least that something, anything had to be done.

I suppose some credit should be given to Gilbert for trying to right the ship by attacking first the failings of the front office before taking on the coach whose hiring he just approved.  Players matter more than anything else and Grant simply was awful at assembling players.

But it’s more than fair to note that Gilbert probably waited too long to make the move.  That’s what comes when one is distracted.  In that Gilbert is not unlike Browns owner Jimmy Haslam whose distractions have literally thrown the entire franchise off kilter.  Only Gilbert really knows how much time he’s been spending on his burgeoning gambling empire at the expense of the Cavs but put it this way, it’s far more than before he started his quixotic quest to become a gambling mogul.

What the Grant firing really suggests more than anything is that Gilbert finally woke up to the disaster his Cavs asset had become.  It also suggests that sadly Gilbert hadn’t been paying close enough attention for too long.  There are other moves to make and other moves that will get made.  Gilbert might think that his first task is to find a general manager but it’s not.  His first task is to take a long look in the mirror and re-assess his own commitment to this team.    Like Haslam is finding out the hard way and now too is Gilbert, it really does start at the top.

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