In a few hours the Cavaliers will do something no Cleveland team has ever done: enter the playoffs as favorites to win a title. Of course, this is no small challenge. Standing in their way are two likely matchups in the Eastern Conference that could bruise (Chicago) and befuddle (Atlanta), although almost certainly not beat, them. Any team that makes it out of the West (and I think all eight are realistic possibilities) could absolutely take them in the Finals.
Added pressure: if the Cavs don’t win it all, no Cleveland “big three” sports team will likely win a title in any of our lifetimes.
Before defending what I believe is a somewhat obvious assertion upon examination, let’s explore its significance. Why even care about professional sports? I am nearly 30 years old; I do not get paid to write or care about sports and I never have. Most of the athletes I follow are younger than me. A 29-year-old running back is considered to be well past his prime, although I may qualify as a reasonable candidate for a mid-level exception deal in the NBA. Also, the Mets would probably sign me to a 15-year, fully guaranteed contract paid in Bitcoin.
At many points in my life (college, for instance) the amount of time I dedicated to following pro sports certainly had negative externalities, including my paltry GPA. Most single women aren’t hugely interested in sports; downing beers wearing a Joe Thomas jersey while yelling about how Johnny Manziel “doesn’t even have SEC speed” hardly makes me more attractive to the opposite sex. Sports are just sports. In the grand scheme of things, they never have been important, and they become even less so as I reluctantly slip into adulthood.
But as life inevitably happens, following pro sports so enthusiastically provides two critical bulwarks. First: it is a serious bonding activity. The Browns have, through their 16 disappointing games every season, given me reason to meet in person with friends I may otherwise not see too often. The Tribe gives me an odd kinship with a New Jersey-born fraternity brother who is the only Indians-Oklahoma City Thunder-San Francisco 49ers fan in existence. The Cavs give me a reason to catch up with high school friends. (Women: because men are emotionally stupid, the concept of a guy texting a friend just to say “hi” is a Very Weird Thing.) Meanwhile, living in perhaps the least-friendly city in America, wearing a Cleveland team t-shirt has yielded numerous friendly conversations with strangers. While Putnam is a statist and his politics are stupid, this is his “social capital” thesis in action.
Second, sports are an important distraction against life’s various daunting realities. We all have our skeletons and ghosts; suffice it to say, it is nice to be able to spend time following something where the outcome doesn’t really matter.
So why am I so bearish on Cleveland teams in 2016 and beyond?
For the Indians, it’s a mater of finances. Ticket and beer prices at Progressive Field can’t be cut any more; the stadium is great. Clevelanders just don’t want to go to games. This is a problem, because the team’s owners have made it clear that they don’t want to take a loss. And payroll matters a lot in baseball. Since 2000, only one team has won the World Series without a top-15 payroll (the 2003 Florida Marlins). This year’s squad is 25th out of 30 teams, which is right around where they’ve been in the Dolan era.
They’ve smartly invested in advanced analytics, and their front office is admired by baseball people. Unfortunately, the rich teams have mostly wised up (LOL Mets). There really aren’t any more competitive edges for the team to find. You’d have to run a ton of simulations for the Indians to come out on top.
The Browns face the inverse problem of the Indians. Owner Jimmy Haslam is willing to spend his riches, but he’s too stupid to get out of his team’s way. This didn’t work for Al Davis, and it’s been arguably worse for Haslam. The past two years’ problems haven’t been an aberration. When your owner insists on influencing personnel decisions, chaos will ensue. Sure, at some point the Manziel saga will end. The team will probably, eventually, luck its way to a competent quarterback. But just like Haslam has prevented a savvy GM (Ray Farmer) and head coach (Mike Pettine) from succeeding, so too will he find a way to meddle with a good QB’s development. (I’m not counting Manziel, because see above SEC quote.)
With the feds off his back, money to burn, and decades the late Davis’ junior, Jimmy Haslam should be running the Browns for a while. This is not good for Browns fans.
The Cavs’ situation is unique in the league. Working against their aggressive, win-and-spend-at-all-costs ownership and incredible front office is the fact that Cleveland is simply not a free agent destination. When the current core dissipates, they’re going to have to hope that another Hall of Fame talent falls into their laps via the draft.
And if the 2015 Cavs don’t win a title, a major part of the core could leave. Kevin Love is obviously not happy in Cleveland. Winning fixes, or perhaps hides, that. But these sky-high expectations also mean that even winning the Eastern Conference may not be enough to keep Love around. Subtract Love, and you still have two premier players. The problems?
Even if the Cavs re-sign Tristan Thompson, a Thompson-Mozgov-hobbled Varejao big rotation isn’t good enough to win a title. And because Thompson shares the same agent as LeBron and is having a fortuitously good statistical year, he’s going to get massively overpaid. Iman Shumpert, perhaps the team’s second-best perimeter defender and best bench player, will either leave or get a contract that, with Thompson’s, will remove all salary cap flexibility.
Meanwhile, the team’s success has cost it its own high draft picks, a potential Hall of Famer (Andrew Wiggins), and the bevy of other teams’ picks accumulated by previous GM Chris Grant. Finally, it’s not as if the Cavs have years to fix the roster should Love bolt. LeBron has already logged over 35,000 career minutes. His decline will likely be sharp and fast.
If, however, the Cavs win it all this year, Love will almost certainly re-sign, and the vaunted core will remain intact for another few years. This probably would lower Thompson and Shumpert’s price tags too, even if it would do nothing to fix the dumpster fire of an organization known as the Cleveland Browns.
So there are big expectations and even bigger stakes for the Cavs this postseason. Alas, let’s not get distracted! Watching the Cavs outscore a Boston team by 15 points per game will be fun to watch.