On Lebron, the Cleveland sports vortex, and being a fan

Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE

It is a heady time to be a Cleveland sports fan. The unprecedented amount of young talent in the Cleveland sports landscape is staggering. 2014 appears to be the first time in Cleveland sports history* that all three major franchises (NFL, NBA, and MLB) have assembled homegrown talent that is poised to take the team to the next level. Similarities exist with all three teams, and the maelstrom of action on social media surrounding the possibility of LeBron James return emphasizes the biggest point; each team is one major piece away from making a title run. Please skip to the bottom if you would like to argue about Lebron James.

* - I haven't actually researched if this has happened before, so please write in if you remember a similar golden age of sports.

1. On approaching the precipice of greatness

The Indians, Browns, and Cavs all share a common national media perception. Currently, national pundits all continue to share the belief that the record of the team is not indicative of the talent that has been collected.

The Indians, winners of 92 games(!) a season ago, have seen a breakout season from hitters Lonnie Chisenhall and Micheal Brantley as well as young rotation stalwarts Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. Justin Masterson has faltered as the "ace" of the rotation, potentially because of health concerns, but a resurgence from Josh Tomlin and the solid (if unspectacular) pitching of TJ House has provided some stability to the rotation. Danny Salazar seems to be regaining his form in Columbus, and the back end of the bullpen has done a great job after some early season struggles.

The Cavs lucked into the #1 overall draft pick and took a player many consider to be the best athlete in college basketball, Andrew Wiggins. The roster features five players drafted with the 1st overall pick or the 4th overall pick, and have seen marked improvement from individual talents in each of the last three years. Players like Anthony Bennett and Dion Waiters are impossible to project, but still have the capability to become major pieces for a championship contender.

The Browns quietly assembled a ferocious, relentless, and attacking 3-4 based defense in 2013. Unfortunately, fans saw the proverbial wheels come off late in the season due to an inability to get pressure or stop the pass on 3rd down, and a complete failure of the offense to sustain drives or put points on the scoreboard. They used the draft and free agency to bolster the defense by adding premium defensive backs and inside linebackers, raising the ceiling for defensive play from "scary" to "ridiculous". The Browns strengthened the offensive line and added punch and depth to the running game. Scheme could account for a change in the win/loss column in 2014, but the upgrades in critical talent areas is also impressive.

2. What's missing?

The Indians feature a lineup that is 6th in baseball and 10th in pitching. Using runs scored/earned runs allowed is the most basic of measurements, but provides a snapshot for how teams are performing. (Using Pythagorean math is more concise, in a vacuum)  The Indians league worst defense cements the fact that this Indians squad is incredibly average, as constructed, and has an unpredictable output that is related to the streakiness of its run producing bats. Hitters like Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, David Murphy, and Nick Swisher are expected to be middle of the order bats that can stabilize a lineup, and they have only been able to do that in spurts. Carlos Santana has put together an incredible stretch at the plate since returning from his concussion, but was dreadful to begin the campaign.

With the Indians pitching staff rounding into form and facing the possible return of young stud Danny Salazar, consistency from the lineup and even average defense could propel the Indians back into playoff contention, and one or two hitters playing to their expected capability could provide that force.

The Cavaliers struggled to score points in Mike Brown's offense last year, looking confused and sluggish. David Griffin has spoken repeatedly of "team fit," and that poor fit was obvious to fans last year as defenses collapsed in the paint, taking away driving lanes, and suffocating players ability to work in space. The team improved it's spacing by adding Spencer Hawes at the midpoint of the season, but still clearly lacked an identity and shooting.

More than that, though, the Cavs were absolutely terrible, defensively. They ranked 17th in defensive efficiency for the season, using a system predicated on defense and featuring a premier defender in Loul Deng. Personally, i'd say middle of the road defensive capability is a best case scenario for the 13-14' Cavs roster, and featuring it came at a huge cost.

For the Browns, the missing piece is obvious to even the most casual observer of the team. Without a suffocating defense and capable run game, NFL teams rely on capable quarterback play to keep them involved in every game. The Browns defense was unable to get off the field on 3rd down or run the ball, so they threw the ball more times than any team in the league, with predictable results. The worst trio of quarterbacks in the league struggled to move the dial on offense, and the team crumbled as a result. National and local writers agree on one point; if the Browns had anything resembling capable QB play last year, the results would have been tremendously different.

3. Recipe for change

The missing ingredients for a title run in Cleveland are attainable, and the rest of the 2014 seasons will be dictated by how the teams get the last piece they need.

1. Indians dream scenario: The Wahoos need a middle of the order thumper who can drive in runs in the clutch. Most importantly, find one that isn't strikeout prone, can play solid defense for the position, and is right handed. Bonus points for not gutting the farm system in the process.

2. Indians most likely scenario: Pray to Jobu that at least 2 of the current middle of the order hitters regress to expected levels of play, that the curse he's placed on the left side of the infield (defensively) is lifted, and that the pitching remains solid enough to get back to around 90 wins this year. Give Masterson some time off to rest and fix mechanical issues, and know that a 4 man playoff rotation of the Klubot, Masterson, Bauer, and Salazar could be really fun and potentially dominant, not just this year, but in years to come.

1. Browns dream scenario: Either of Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel proves to be the lottery ticket the franchise has been looking for since 1999 and rights the ship. It will not take a superhero to win games by Lake Erie in 2014; it will take a positive TD/INT ratio, composure on 3rd down, and lack of momentum changing mistakes. The offensive line is one of the best in the league, and the defense has the ability to punish opposing quarterbacks with relentless pressure from multiple fronts while being stout against the run. The Browns can afford to lose Josh Gordon and still win games, they can not afford anything less than capable QB play.

2. Browns most likely scenario: It's easy to bet against the Browns and QB's. Fans have been burned by so many different types of quarterback archetypes, from veteran FA's to rookie gunslingers and soft-tossers, that observers have developed a very real and crippling form of QB fear. The 2014 off season hasn't served to engender confidence in either QB candidate thus far, with Brian Hoyer's ACL recovery and Johnny Manziel's struggles in camp and with his lifestyle choices. Time will tell whether the Browns are able to cash in on historically minute percentage chances that a veteran can find new life and new capability late in his career, or that a 6'0 208 lb dual threat quarterback can survive and thrive. The Browns front office hitting on blackjack with one of these two prospects will be critical for the 2014 success.

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1. Cavs dream scenario: Cleveland is in the eye of the sports storm as the NBA soap opera of free agency hits a fever pitch. Lebron's agents and inner circle are flirting with the Cavs, and as expected, the Cavs are all in on bringing the former golden child back to the city. Here are some irrefutable facts about LeBron playing for the current iteration of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

a. The current cast of supporting talent is light years beyond what LeBron had in Cleveland for his previous run and arguably better than the 2014 Heat roster. Cleveland is flush with shooters and athletes, would be able to score without him initiating the offense, and still has flexibility with the roster (due to having so much young talent on cheap contracts) to be able to add a piece or two of complimentary talent. Kyrie Irving is a better sidekick than anyone Lebron has played with, and has not begun to scratch his own potential. Andrew Wiggins will develop into an outstanding defender and rebounder, and should be (at worst) a hyper-athletic role player. Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson hustle, rebound, defend, and have always been close with James. The match is not as outlandish as the national media would have believed, a month ago, and a big part of that is due to the Wiggins pick.

b. Lebron James is not the same player that he was with the 2000's Cavs teams. In Miami, Lebron fixed the greatest hole in his game by developing a post game and learning to play off of the ball. He has become a monster of efficiency. In Cleveland, Lebron was the de-facto point guard, and late in games, his teams would stagnate due to a poor offensive scheme and iso play that demanded the ball in James hands on every posession. In Miami, the team continued to be able to work the ball around on posessions, and James wasn't forced to drive from the top of the key into the teeth of the defense on every critical late game posession. Players like Karasev, Jack, Irving, Waiters, and Wiggins will ensure that defenses are unable to focus exclusively on Lebron, and the motion and movement in Blatt's offense should keep the "Lebron and 4 guys waiting for a bus" offense in the archives, where it belongs.

c. Lebron James would provide an immediate presence on the defensive end. Combining his strength and length with the potential that Wiggins has shown on the defensive end would be tantalizing and incredibly disruptive. The ability to have two defenders with that kind of length in the back court also provides the worst nightmare for other teams; the ability to get out in transition with two unstoppable finishers leading the break.

d. For those readers of Dawgs By Nature who do not follow The Association, I will pass one last inarguable fact: LeBron James is the best basketball player in the NBA, and it's not close. LeBron could go to any team in the NBA and get them to the playoffs at a MINIMUM. His an unstoppable force of nature, and is only vaguely related to the guy who played for the Cavaliers, philosophically. I could link the articles, highlight videos, and advanced analytics to this article, but it's far easier to do this. I assure you, if ANYTHING other than "character" moves the needle in the argument for best NBA player alive, LeBron does it.

e. Cleveland is FLUSH with draft picks. Young, interesting talent will continue to be available for the next 3 years, regardless of free agency.

f. The last week of social media interactions with Cleveland fans has been passionate and predictably hilarious. First, twitter user @Josh_Tep leaked "sourced information" that leads him to believe that LeBron's advisors are pushing for a return to Cleveland. This devolved into national media reporting similar stories, and culminated with the Cavs twitter world following Dan Gilbert's plane to South Beach, where a mysterious (and unknown) passenger debarked, did stuff, and then flew back to Michigan. Clevelanders await "The Decision 2.0," which will arrive with considerably less fanfare, with bated breath.

2. The Cavs most likely scenario:  Everything doesn't add up, to me. LeBron James will be playing this contract in the height of his prime, with his best chances (age-wise) of winning multiple championships resting on the team that he picks. I understand the logic of staying in the East, where he will not have to travel through the same meat grinder of challenging opponents to get out of the conference, but I don't understand why the Cavs would be the best chance to win NOW. The team still lacks experience, cohesion, and impact defenders in the front court, and has a coach that is a rookie HC in the NBA. I was furious that LJ embarrassed the city on national TV, and respect the idea that a return could be the only route to restoring a legacy and public opinion that appears to be long gone, otherwise. (LeBron's Q rating has only recently returned to pre-Decision levels, and that's only after proving himself to be the best player in the NBA and winning two championships) Lebron will be stuck with the core of players currently in place, because Cleveland has managed to lure an in-his-prime elite player to one of its professional franchise exactly zero times in my lifetime. I want to believe that LeBron is capable of sacrificing his best possibility of winning a ring in the next 3 years by going to a team with more established veterans and stable coaching by going to Cleveland, but it just doesn't add up.

I expect the Cavs to make major additions this offseason, but the luster of these additions will be dulled after the pursuit of Lebron is over. The Cavs will look to add shooting and defense in the front court, and have the cap space to be able to accomplish it handily. Remember: the Cavs in 2014-2015 will be better regardless of the FA additions they make, based on the acquisition of Wiggins and the improvements made in the coaching staff. Kyrie Irving is still amazing, Wiggins will still be an incredible player to watch, and youngsters like Waiters and Bennett should improve by leaps and bounds. The current Cavs roster, plus smart spending of the available cap space, should be a force to be reckoned with.

TL;DR: Viva la 2014. The future is brighter than ever.**

** Ed note: I like to make statements like these at the end of articles. It provides a focus for the self-recrimination and monumental failure two years later, when I go back and review it.

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