Tuesday, January 31


I wanted to follow up on Nick's fine article in favor of what should be, yet oddly isn't, the most natural thing for a sports fan to do: root for one's own favorite team.

I didn't realize at the time that his piece was a point-counterpoint to another article on The Cleveland Fan, namely Demetri Inembolidis' article that comes out semi-in-favor-of losing. I see his angle, but it's just not well-argued, and I want to deflect a few of the points he raises.

Inembolidis opens with the concept that it's impossible for a mediocre team to rise to championship level, that being middle-of-the-pack is "the worst place a rebuilding team can find themselves: Too good to have a shot at the lottery, but not good enough to even think about winning a playoff series."

This is not true. Consider two recent dynasties:

- The Chicago Bulls lost three straight opening-round series in the mid-80's, then broke through with one post-season series win, then reached the conference finals twice, then claimed three straight NBA titles.

- The LA Lakers rolled up 8th-9th-8th conference finishes in the early '90's - the worst place you can be, we're told - then rose to the middle of the conference playoff pack for several years before breaking through with three straight titles of their own.

These 8-7-8 conference finishes and first-round exits were clearly not so disastrous given what followed, so I think it's time to retire this notion that mediocrity can only beget more mediocrity. Part of what we see often in building a champion is getting that early experience, and it usually involves taking those lumps in unwinnable playoff rounds. Even though the #6-era Cavs never claimed the big prize, their surprise visits to the postseason and early forging at the hands of the veteran Pistons helped them in playoff runs down the road. I refuse to believe that these young Cavaliers overachieving and having some playoff struggles wouldn't pay off in the long run.

The author then goes on to argue against bottoming out, correctly pointing out that, "A losing culture is something that is very difficult to exorcise from a team. Those of us who 'want the Cavs to lose games' do not want the Cavs to be in the situation that the Wizards are in." This seems to be the opposite of his general pro-losing thesis, and supportive of the idea that we should be relishing the development of the young Cavaliers and that development manifesting itself as wins.

Inembolidis favors the "Oklahoma City Thunder model," which is to have two more awful years, THEN reach the playoffs as an eight seed, then lose in the first round like OKC did. The Thunder are now a top team, so this series of events has paid dividends. Yet I fail to see how this is a better approach. Why not play it more like Derrick Rose's Bulls, a bunch who everyone agreed were far from contention in Rose's rookie campaign, yet took the Celtics to seven in a thrilling seven-game first-round series? Those same Bulls lost to the Cavs in five the following year and now sit among the NBA's elite just two years later. Those years in the dreaded eight zone dropping first-round series have not stunted their development too much.

My point is that history doesn't back the notion that so-so teams cannot improve steadily and make the leap to contender status without tanking for a couple of years first. It's not that the Oklahoma City Thunder model can't or doesn't work - it's that the Chicago Bulls one does too. His claim that "Getting swept out of the playoffs in the 1st round or getting the 12th pick in the draft every year is guaranteed to not be effective team building" is simply not supported by historical fact. Gotta get those playoff reps.

Inembolidis then moves on to the current Cavaliers roster and deems it insufficient, as currently constructed, to be a top-tier club. No doubt he is correct in this assessment. This team absolutely needs more pieces. Then he moves to an odd claim from recent history that, "the Cavs were destined to lose because LeBron James made the team too good too fast," apparently in the same fashion that San Antonio was destined to lose because Tim Duncan made them too good too fast or how Dwyane Wade's early success in Miami (4th seed first year, 1st seed second year) pretty much sabotaged that franchise (championship third year). OK, I promise, no more counterexamples.

Then Inembolidis goes on the attack:

Nobody actively roots for their favorite team to lose.
Perhaps, but you're kind of advocating just that.

It is a matter of pragmatism
Here's what I see as a pragmatic view: my rooting for or against a team doesn't affect how well they play. May as well have fun with it!

There is a very real problem of the Cavs not being good enough to contend now or in the future and we simply want to change that.
As I've demonstrated, this can and has been changed many times previously without fans having to go through this soul-crushing wanting-the-club-to-lose experience.

As the Herm Edwards crowd would like to make you believe, it doesn’t make us any less of fans.
This sentence needs to be rephrased, but I think I take the meaning. I don't think this fellow is any less of a fan - I just think he's taking a poor approach to supporting a club by not enjoying wins when and as they come. If anything, he's more actively smearing my perspective than the other way around.

We all want the same thing, but it is a matter of having different philosophies of how to get there.
Kind of. It's also a matter of recognizing that there is more than one path.

I am willing to wait a few years like Thunder fans did to get a team that is favored to win their conference instead of having the cheap thrill of simply making it to the playoffs.
Getting kicked around in the first round is not a "cheap thrill" and I resent this potshot. If I wanted cheap thrills from sports, I wouldn't still be a Cleveland fan after 26 title-less years. "Simply making it to the playoffs" is almost always a necessary precursor to teams ultimately hoisting the Larry O'Brien, and those early-round exits are usually more painful than thrilling. And once again, this is a completely false dichotomy he's establishing.

It's the final part where I have the most disagreement:

Nobody is asking the front office or coaching staff to actively try and lose games. That would be transparent and going against the nature of competitive spirit.
Root for the Cavs to win then! Basketball is fun! Slam dunk!

The current NBA system penalizes teams that are kind of good and rewards great teams (by contending for a championship) and very bad teams (by having better lottery odds).
I hope I have provided enough examples to convince everyone that this is not the case.

It would be silly for the Cavs to stubbornly make personnel decisions that do not put the team in the best position to win. The Cavs need to avoid making any trades that will bring an established player that will help them win. They should probably sell high on veterans at the expense of winning games. They need to give the rookies larger roles and extended minutes. They need to consider buying out Antawn Jamison if they cannot trade him at the deadline. If the front office does these things, they will be putting the Cavs in a worse position this year, but it will give the team a brighter future moving forward.
I'm good with all of this. What he's missing here is recognition that the Front Office behavior is not the same as fan behavior. Fandom doesn't need to be the same rational, calculating endeavor that effective sports management does. We're free to pull for our team and enjoy exciting wins like yesterday's 88-87 thriller in Boston without fretting about trades and salary caps. Enjoy the wins, and when the Cavs lose games (and don't worry, they're going to lose a bunch more) take some solace in the knowledge that they've likely improved their draft position, which may help in the future.

Making the playoffs this year is fool’s gold and will stunt the team’s growth and potential.
This did not happen to the '04 Heat and '09 Bulls, for example.

The question is what matters more, winning some games now or winning playoff series in the future.
This is absolutely not the question - this is a straw man. Every fan of every team ever in the universe ever would pick the latter. What I'm saying is: enjoy the games. Enjoy the wins, sparse though they may be. I had an absolute blast during that win over the Heat last March and we still have Kyrie Irving. Watch the games and root for Irving, Varejao, Jamison, Gee, Samuels, and the gang, and if/when they fall short, they'll get some new blood and keep improving.

Go Cavs!

Photo by Michael Dwyer, AP

1 comment:

Nick said...

I agree with your Bulls (twice) examples, but the Spurs and Lakers probably weren't the best examples. The Spurs caught a huge break, won the lottery, and got their best player out of it. The Lakers got Shaq and had a mid-first round pick develop into the league's best player. Those things certainly could happen to the Cavs, but seem very unlikely.

I obviously agree with the crux of your argument, just playing devil's advocate and nitpicking.