The Coming Lost Decade

Last night was a momentous one for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thanks to a pair of supremely athletic blocks by forward JJ Hickson, the team put an end to the longest losing streak in NBA history, beating the Los Angeles Clippers 126-119. The fans filling a sold out Quicken Loans Arena, most of whom had purchased their tickets before LeBron James’ exit, erupted with cheers of jubilation and relief. Having witnessed their team drop 26 straight contests, even an ugly overtime win against one of the league’s worst teams was cause for celebration.

Cleveland sports fans should hope that such optimism in the face of epic putridity is a lasting trait. Last night’s modest success aside, the future of the city’s professional sporting triumvirate is extremely gloomy. And the coming lost decade will test every morsel of patience of even the most devoted Browns, Cavs, and Indians loyalists.

The term “lost decade” originates from the economic crisis that beset Japan from 1991-2000, in which one of the world’s preeminent industrial powers saw its GDP stagnate as the result of credit, stock market, and banking woes. While lacking both the previous dominance and extreme significance of the Japanese economy, Cleveland sports could nevertheless suffer a relative decline just as precipitous. And as it was with Japan, these woes will occur despite the presence of extremely bright individuals running things.

This is not to bring in any sort of fatalistic, “woe is Cle” sentiment. Several writers from the area have bemoaned the city’s “rotten luck”, preferring to place responsibility on false deities rather than corporeal beings. In the process, they elevate sports beyond what they are (a distraction), and give the town’s sports discourse a frighteningly Bostonian tone. Rather, it is to acknowledge a set of clear realities and take a sober view of things as they stand.

As it stands, the Cavaliers have the talent of a team that has just endured a fire sale without any of the assets to show for it. In the wake of James’ departure, owner Daniel Gilbert cannot be blamed for wanting to give his fans the best possible team he could. Gilbert likely would have allowed the team to battle for the playoffs until the February 18 trade deadline. Presumably by this point, the team would be out of contention, and the rebuilding effort could begin without a fan revolt. Unfortunately, the team’s best trade chip (Anderson Varejao) suffered a season ending injury. Varejao’s absence worsened the already awful defense of the team’s next best trade piece, Antawn Jamison. Guard Mo Williams, when not injured, has been ineffective as a volume shooter. If they are lucky, the team will deal Jamison or Williams for little more than an expiring contract. More likely is that both are faced to toil in Cleveland until their deals end in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Though the Cavaliers’ domestic policies have been complicated, foreign affairs will present even more problems. There is no savior coming from either of the next two NBA drafts, and free agents brought in as franchise players have rarely worked out well. Furthermore, even if the team were to miraculously assemble a talented core, standing imposingly in their way would be a Miami squad that should only improve over the next five years as it picks up better role players to support James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade.

If the Cavs have recently fallen off of a mammoth wave, the Indians missed the wave entirely. Operating in a league without a salary cap, Indians management long ago decided to build for 2-3 year windows of contention using cheap young talent. In “off” years, this means that the Tribe can be extraordinarily bad. The strategy, however, has yielded impressive success; the 2007 Indians were an unlikely collapse away from the World Series. Following the 2007 season, the plan was that staff ace CC Sabathia would be traded for multiple core players, who would join Travis Hafner, Fausto Carmona, and Grady Sizemore to resume contention in 2009 and beyond. Fausto lost his control, Hafner lost his shoulder, and Sizemore lost his health; coupled with the lack of central pieces acquired for Sabathia, this means that the Indians have missed the wave entirely. The farm system now has a plethora of potential MLB caliber players but few stars. Division doormat Kansas City, meanwhile, has assembled the best minor league system in the league according to Keith Law of ESPN. Getting out of the AL Central basement will be hard enough; beating better funded organizations (Chicago and Detroit) will be even tougher.

It is quite fitting that if there is any potential escape from the lost decade, it will be via the Browns, a team that Clevelanders have supported through thick but mostly thin. Team president Mike Holmgren has already shown his drafting prowess by netting three rookies who already grade out as above average starters: safety TJ Ward, cornerback Joe Haden, and quarterback Jeff Garcia Colt McCoy. Holmgren also conducted one of the most criminal heists in NFL trade history in acquiring 1,000 yard rusher Peyton Hillis and a sixth round pick for Brady Quinn. Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack give the Browns elite anchors for the offensive line for years to come. That’s the good news.

The bad? The Browns are unlikely to crack the top 50% of the uber-competitive AFC North for the next five years. Both the Steelers and Ravens feature young, elite running backs, young, above average quarterbacks, and imposing yet flexible defenses. The former teams’ prescient front offices, intelligent coaches, and proven schemes mean that several things will have to go the Browns’ way for them to make the playoffs.

The future indeed looks bleak, but readers should take the above with the following grain of salt: Like most politicians, the majority of my predictions have been thoroughly contradicted by eventual reality.

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