It was only three short weeks ago that everything seemed to be looking up in Cleveland. The Browns had just finished off beating the seemingly unbeatable (for us at least) Baltimore Ravens and were going into the bye week with playoff hopes that were so real you could almost touch them. That next Monday night the Cavaliers had a nice home win against a very good Minnesota Timberwolves team in which they staved off a fierce fourth quarter rally. It was still early and there were some kinks to work out obviously but the Cavs playoffs hopes hadn’t been daunted a bit either.
Fast-forward to today…and everything has gone to crap. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when it all went wrong. I suppose it was more like the steady unraveling of a ball of yarn rolling down a hill and try as you might but there’s no stopping it. And now we’re here, at the bottom of the hill, staring at an un-holy mess wondering if it’s possible to clean it up or if we should just throw it all away and start over.
This is probably just me being stuck in the moment where everything feels heightened, but I have a hard time imagining a worse Cleveland sports weekend. Especially when you consider that it seemed to be starting pretty good when the Cavs were up 12 on the Pelicans in the fourth quarter and playing well actually. But a lot of Kyrie Irving hero ball and not a lot of points, coupled with defensive lapse upon defensive lapse saw that 12 point lead turn into a four point loss…and that was just the start. Because then there was whatever happened in San Antonio. I don’t know exactly, because I didn’t watch it. I decided that Baylor/Oklahoma State would be a better use of my “live sports on TV” time and that the Cavs could wait for the DVR. I have yet to scrape out enough time and energy to view that debacle to this point. (And I add parenthetically…I’m not sure if I ever will.)
And then there’s the Browns. Oh, the Browns. After pooping the bed last week in Cincinnati coming off the bye week when you’re supposed to super prepared and fired up to take over the division, the Browns couldn’t muster much of a resistance against their supposed “rivals” and played so poorly that not even the Steeler faithful stayed to the end. And the cherry on top of this crap sundae was Jason Campbell going down with a concussion to re-start the Brandon Weeden era for the third time this season. As if the Browns fans didn’t have enough on their plate, now they have to exert all that energy booing Weeden every time he throws an incomplete pass. Talk about adding insult to injury.
In what amounts to little more than a blink of an eye, both the Browns are Cavs have gone from playoff hopefuls to top of the draft likely’s (made-up word). And now we’re left to try and figure out again, “where do we go from here?”
For the Browns the solution is simple, but not exactly easy: Find a quarterback. This is all that really matters. Sure they could use a running game, a better No. 2 reciever, a guard or two…but if you’ve watched any of the NFL this season you can’t miss what a difference having a good QB makes for a team. Heck, just look at our opponent on Sunday. Without Ben Roethlisberger where would the Steelers be? I was at Cleveland Browns Stadium last year when they showed up without him, they could have passed for the worst team in the league. But with him? They always have a chance. If you flipped QBs yesterday there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the score flips as well. Because it’s not always just what the QB does that makes the difference. Having a guy who has the physical skills as well as the temperament to inspire his team to victory is what wins in the NFL. It’s not just about being physically gifted. Just ask Weeden and Campbell, two former first round picks with undeniable “talent”. Yet in spite of their natural abilities they lack the ability to truly lead a team and instill a belief in their teammates. That’s the only logical reason I can come up with for why Brian Hoyer saw the most success this season at the QB position—besides the whole “getting great play from the special teams and defense in this two starts” thing. The players around him undeniably played better when he was behind center than they have done for the other two guys. I don’t know if Hoyer is the long-term answer but I doubt it. And even if he might be, Banner and Lombardi’s one job this offseason is go get a QB in here who can lead this team. Everything else is just window dressing. You take care of the quarterback, the rest will fall into place.
And then there’s the Cavs…I don’t know if I have enough time, energy, or will power to sift through all the issues with this team. I’ll start though by saying that I still believe the Cavs can make the playoffs, even as currently constituted. If for no other reason than just look at the teams that they’re competing with:
Bulls (6-6)—now without Derek Rose
Even with the Cavs at 4-10, a truly atrocious start for a team with playoff hopes, they’re only one and a half games back of the 8th spot and actually not even as bad (record wise at least) as the Knicks and Nets, who both had championship aspirations. So with that being the case, the Cavs, though far away from being anything resembling an actual good basketball team, are just as far from being out of contention. So it’s not time to start tanking the season…yet, at least.
My biggest issues with the team so far are all bound up with head coach Mike Brown. I basically hate every decision/move that he’s made except for his general handling of Andrew Bynum and easing him back into play—which might not, and probably wasn’t, even his decision. Whether Kyrie Irving is being a petulant little deva or not, it’s up to the head coach to deal with that. He seemed to figure out how to skirt those superstar issues with LeBron and Kobe so I don’t know if he’s trying to do things differently with Kyrie or not, but whatever he’s doing it doesn’t appear to be working. (More on this in a bit.) I am incensed at the way that Dion Waiters has been handled. I wrote just over a week ago how the advanced stats show that Waiters has been maybe the Cavs best player so far this season. No sooner had that column been posted then news started to swirl about the team meeting and the “confrontation” that may or may not have involved Kyrie and Dion. Now Waiters is coming off the bench and undrafted free agent Matthew Dellevedova is starting at shooting because, uh, he plays really hard I guess. I’m not here to hate on Delly, love the guy actually and does work hard. But starting??? It’s embarrassing actually.
If I’m coaching this Cavs team I’m using this part of the season to get them prepared for the end of the season. What I mean by that is that I’m getting the kinks worked out to find how to best utilize my players so that they’re performing at their optimum level come the end of the season, hopefully coming into form around the All-Star break. You have to coach with the end in mind. Does Brown really plan on starting Dellevedova in the playoffs should they actually get there??? I sure as heck hope not. And moving CJ Miles to the starting lineup (prior to his injury) wasn’t the best move either in my opinion. We all know he isn’t a very good defender and he was thriving in that reserve role as the gunner coming off the bench. Why mess with the only good thing going on your team like that?
And then there’s Anthony Bennett. The guy is so lacking for confidence right now and is having a terrible time finding his stride in the league. I wrote on Friday that I would let him spend some time in the D-League just to get some run. I understand that that would be a public relations disaster and could potentially further kill the kid’s spirit. But I can’t imagine riding the pine is helping anything either. He is no longer a part of the regular rotation so there’s no real telling if the guy has re-gained his confidence because he doesn’t see the floor. They say he’s playing great in practice but it just isn’t translating to the games. He’s clearly out of shape and won’t get into shape if he doesn’t actually play. And furthermore, when he was part of the rotation, I didn’t feel he was being best utilized and they weren’t trying to help him out. Has he played on the floor with Kyrie yet? I can’t remember it happening and from my limited research capabilities I can’t find proof that it’s happened. If it has, it hasn’t been much. Here’s a crazy idea…maybe let him play with your best player, someone who can break down a defense and create mismatches? Novel concept, I realize, but how do you know it won’t work until you try it. And how will you know when Bennett is over his confidence issues until you play him in meaningful situations? You can’t know. And this goes back to my feeling that you have to coach with the end in mind. You need Anthony Bennett to be a contributing member of this team for it to reach its highest potential. I don’t know how benching your No. 1 overall pick three weeks into the season helps this team long-term, and it’s not a move I would make. Again, Bennett needs to play in order to get better. And believe it or not, sitting on the bench is not playing—ergo, it’s not making him better.
Ultimately, the issues currently afflicting the Cavs fall on the head coach. We’ve seen literally all these players play better than they currently are. It can’t be just a coincidence that they’re all playing below their capabilities at the same time. It is the job of the head coach to put his players in the best possible situations to be successful. Brown has improved this team defensively, but they’re still middle of the pack in most categories. Unless they’re up in the top ten and probably top five they aren’t going to be able to get winning results with the current state of their offense. I know Brown likes to hang his hat on defense but it can’t be at the expense of running competent offensive sets. The only time when it appears that there’s actual structure or a plan of attack on offense is when Bynum is in the game and they work it through him in the post. That’s fine, but until he’s able to play 35 minutes a game you’re going to have to come up with some other game plans—especially closing games, when Bynum isn’t on the court. The offense to close games has been, at the expense of using too simple a word, terrible. Which leads me to Kyrie…
I expected a big season from Kyrie Irving this year. I am on record as saying that I believed he would vault himself into the top five players in the East and would even be an MVP candidate. Ultimately, I expected him to play like a superstar and put the team on his back and lead them to the playoffs having a season like Derrick Rose had in his third year in the league. We have not seen anything of a jump from Kyrie yet this season. And what’s more troubling is that he’s not even performing up to his previous standard. The only place where he’s really improved is in the assist category where he’s up a half assist per game from last season. But he’s down in points and even more damagingly he’s way down in field goal percentage, shooting only .410 from the field, .353 on 3’s, and .809 on free throws. Compare those with his rookie season: .469/.399/.872. While it’s not uncommon for a player’s efficiency to drop a little as their production increase, that doesn’t explain what’s going on with Kyrie because he’s not being more productive and his efficiency numbers have dropped dramatically. Now he’s still a very good player, let’s not go nuts. But why such a profound drop?
I’m gonna go all talk-radio for a moment and postulate that maybe it is that Kyrie has spent too much of his time in the offseason being a “superstar”, doing commercials, being Uncle Drew and all that and not enough time working on his game. I don’t know. But what I’m seeing right now certainly doesn’t make the case that Kyrie was in the gym all offseason refining his game and working to be great. Maybe it’s the case of a 21-year-old coming off an All-Star season and a summer where he dominated his peers at the Team USA camp, thinking he can just show up and his natural abilities will take him where he wants to go. Hopefully with this crappy start to the season he’s learning now that he needs to more of a leader and that you actually have to work hard to get better at this game. You can’t just show up.
In Cleveland we can hate on LeBron James all we want, and while I think it took him far too long to develop a post game, no one can deny that if there was ever a player who could have just rested on his natural abilities it was him. Yet he continued to work on his game (while doing loads of commercials for what it’s worth) to make himself into an otherworldly efficient, unstoppable basketball machine. Great players are great not just because they’re talented…they work harder than everyone else to take full advantage of their abilities. Paul George is another great example of this. He’s made the kind of improvements to his game to the point that he’s having a great season and is the leader of his team. He’s having the kind of season that I thought Kyrie would be having. He’s making the jump from All-Star to Superstar and it’s manifesting itself not just on the stat sheet but in the way that his whole team is performing. George’s elevated play has elevated his team to the best record in the East—funny how it works that way, huh?
The long-of-the-short of this whole diatribe is that if Kyrie doesn’t play like the superstar that I thought he was, then the Cavs are going nowhere this year. Whether it’s just Kyrie being lazy or it’s Mike Brown running poo-poo offense, things need to change to get the Cavs best player playing like a superstar. Much like with the Browns and the QB problem. Until this one key issue is solved, everything else is just worthless dribble. If the Browns go another year without a real NFL quarterback they’ll continue to not being a contending team. And if the Cavs don’t get superstar play from Kyrie then all the other crap about rotations and defense and Anthony Bennett won’t matter for beans because this team has no chance of contending without a superstar.
The NFL is a quarterback league and the NBA is a superstar league. If you don’t have those then your only goal should be to get one. The Browns need to find one and the Cavs need to get their guy to that level. It’s as simple as that.
If only it was as easy as that…
 I could go through the entire league and give you examples of this. Brady in New England, Rodgers in Green Bay, Peyton in Denver, Russell Wilson in Seattle…all these guys are the difference in their teams being losing franchises and Super Bowl contenders.
 Again, the insane thing to think about this season is that, as bad as the Cavs have been offensively, there are still five to six teams in the league putting up worse offensive numbers in pretty much whatever measurable you want to use (PPG, FG%, AFG%, etc.). As bad as the Cavs have been, there are still worse teams out there which means the Cavs won’t be out of contention, even playing like they are, for a long time.
 In Rose’s third year/MVP season his FG% dropped from .489 to .445. However, his 3P% went up from .267 to .332 and his FT% from .766 to .858. Kyrie’s drop in his FT% is the most puzzling of the drops. Normally that’s an area where guys only get better. Yet for Kyrie it’s dropped almost a hundred points since his rookie year.