Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Dan Gilbert Edition

Dan Gilbert is clever, you have to give him that.  Early in his career as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers he came across as the prototypical meddling owner who had made money in one line of business and figured that genius translated into the world of sports.  To fans, Gilbert was a huge red flag, a combination of Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones. 

At some point Gilbert became sensitive or at least aware of the impression that was developing. He toned down the act, seemingly turning his attention away from the Cavs and more toward becoming the Moe Green of the Midwest.  Turns out, that perception was the deceiving one. 

Behind the more stealth look that Gilbert crafted beats the heart of an owner whose goals are simply amorphous platitudes about winning and excellence that cannot be achieved because he lacks the temperament to reach them. 

In his 9 years as owner of the Cavs, Gilbert has had 3 general managers and four head coaches.  Let that roll around the inside of your head for a moment.  Three general managers and four head coaches in 9 years. 

That’s almost the exact trajectory of the Cleveland Browns, easily the worst run sports franchise in the last 20 years.  Gilbert’s lay low approach of the last few years belies an impetuousness and an incompetency that rivals that of Randy Lerner.  The reason it gets less attention is that the Cavs are and always will be third in the hearts and minds of Cleveland sports fans.  Most simply don’t care. 

When you’re running a private business with no outside shareholders, the public results are harder to discern.  For all anyone knows or cares, Gilbert chews through vice presidents at Quicken Loans at the same rate he chews through executives and coaches at the Cavs.  That doesn’t matter.  What does is that the Cavs’ business is in the public eye and at the nearly 10-year mark of Gilbert’s ownership, the picture isn’t pretty.   

Gilbert has shown no greater competence than the Gund brothers before him. The Cavs under Gilbert have been transcendent only when they had a transcendent player that fell into his lap.  When the planets realigned, the franchise became decidedly non-transcendent, again.  Gilbert isn’t just the figurehead on which to level the blame.  He’s the perpetrator and instigator of a highly dysfunctional and withering franchise that is still years away, at best, from being any sort of contender and then only if something dramatic happens at the top. 

Undoubtedly Gilbert would like the team to be a success.  It would certainly help bring in more people to his downtown casino during the winter months if the Cavs were contenders and Quicken Loans arena was sold out 41 times during the cold Cleveland winter.  But the Cavs aren’t successful under Gilbert, except around the fringes.  Gilbert, the only one in the franchise with actual power to wield, is the only consistent piece remaining in place these last nearly 10 years.  It’s easy to see where the buck stops and the blame lies.   

The NBA is, without question, the hardest league in which to construct a champion.  That may seem counterintuitive given the relatively small rosters when compared to baseball and football, but the numbers don’t lie.  When a team is down it stays down for years.  A shallow pool of new, NBA-ready talent each year and a salary cap riddled with exceptions are the primary reasons. 

As a result, the league at any given time has essentially 3 groups of teams.  The top group is the very small handful of teams with enough talent to actually threaten for a championship.  Teams in this group feature at least one super duper star and enough almost super duper stars to give them the depth to survive the grind that is the NBA playoffs.  The Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs are two obvious examples.

The middle group is the larger group of playoff teams looking to get into the top group.  The group has its own hierarchy.  There are the teams that just squeak into the playoffs, usually with losing records, which is the equivalent of NBA purgatory because it’s very difficult for those teams to improve without outside help.  The draft is a non-event for them so they improve, if at all, somewhat organically but mostly by prying free agents away from other teams. Then there are the teams on the higher end of this group that seem on the precipice of getting into the top group.  Think Oklahoma City, maybe Indiana.  Some make it, some regress.  Much depends on organic growth or the pick up of a missing piece here or there.   Either way it’s still a slog. 

The bottom group are, naturally, the bottom feeders.  When a team enters this group it is a minimum of 10 years before it can even get to the upper level of the middle group, let alone membership in the top group.  You can look at virtually every former playoff team in recent history that thereafter entered this group.  It is 10 years before they get back into the playoffs. 

The Cavs, for a brief period, were a top group team because they had the league’s best player.  But for a variety of reasons, some having to do with LeBron James’ psychological profile and some having to do with Gilbert’s, the Cavs couldn’t hold on to James.  In retrospect, they weren’t really even in the conversation.  Once James left the Cavs dropped to a bottom feeding team and there they remain.  While James is pushing the Heat to a third straight NBA title, the Cavs can’t even seem to work their way up to membership in the middle group.  Gilbert’s meddling is the primary reason. 

It’s actually quite fascinating that Gilbert can’t seem to learn from the bad examples in front of him all the evils that visit a franchise when it constantly reboots.  The Browns’ are a mere few miles away and dominate the local papers and talk radio stations.  Gilbert must be in some serious denial about his own track record to think he’s not that kind of owner even as he goes about his business every day proving that he is. 

Here’s the dangerous game in all of this.  You can make a case, perhaps even a compelling case, for each of the moves that Gilbert has made in his 9 years.  It might have been a mistake, as Gilbert said last year, to fire Mike Brown the first time, but it also was an obvious mistake to hire him the second time.  The two concepts can coexist.  But that is seeing the trees and ignoring the forest.  Gilbert’s track record, irrespective of how compiled, is that of a meddling owner who can’t be satisfied. Why would a gifted free agent, let alone James, ever want to get involved in this mess?  The same goes for a gifted coach. 

So much of what’s been happening is that Gilbert can’t land on a general manager he trusts long enough to let a direction, any direction, of the club take hold.  It is exactly why the Browns are the mess they are.  Gilbert, like Jimmy Haslam now and Lerner before that, falls in and out of love quickly with his management hires, but not quickly enough to avoid the damage done.  Gilbert wants to win but deep pockets and force of will aren’t enough.  It takes temperament and discipline and at least in this business venture Gilbert falls short. 

Anyone who watched the jumble that was the Cavs last season completely understands why the season ended as it did.  That jumble was the most visible manifestation of all the dysfunction, impatience and impetuousness of the ownership and management team.  A new, permanent general manager and a coach of his own choosing could help on the margins.  But real, permanent change for the better isn’t going to be achieved until everyone in this franchise can stop looking over their shoulders in fear at what Gilbert might do next.

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