The Cavaliers failed to win a title with LeBron James.
The Cleveland Indians failed to win a title in the 90s.
The Cleveland Browns failed to make the playoffs in all but one season since returning in 1999.
What counts as a failure in sports? Is it simply not winning a title? That’s the goal, right? Winning a championship. That means that only one team succeeds during each season.
Did the Oklahoma City Thunder(Cavs!) fail last season when they lost in the NBA Finals to LeBron James and the Miami Heat? Sure, Kevin Durant and a team full of 23 yr olds stormed through the playoffs, knocking out a number of the old guard (Dirk and Mavs, Kobe and the Lakers, Duncan and the Spurs) to make their first Finals appearance. But they lost. And since they didn’t win a title, they failed.
We’re all aware that no Cleveland team has won a title since 1964 1 . Because of this prolonged drought, we’ve become obsessed with winning a title. We debate which of our three franchises are closest to that championship celebration 2 . We eschew short term goal for the long term outlook. And I’m as much to blame as anyone, as I spent last season arguing that the Cavs would be better set up for a future title run if they didn’t make the playoffs. We crave that title. We need that title.
But if it doesn’t happen, does that mean our teams failed?
I started thinking about this subject after I read this passage in Bill Simmon’s recent NBA/Game of Thrones column:
To Danny Ferry, who became an immediate cult hero for dumping Marvin Williams (and his relatively offensive contract) and Joe Johnson (and his undeniably offensive contract) for expiring deals in a much-needed change of direction for Atlanta fans, who had felt nothing other than “lukewarm” about their Hawks for five solid years. Sadly, they don’t have quite enough left for a legitimate Dwight Howard run — it’s too bad Al Horford isn’t 22 percent better at basketball or they’d be right there. But if any team needed to be thrown in the washing machine for a few minutes, it was the Atlanta Hawks.
The best thing going in Atlanta’s favor: There’s a historical precedent for a much-ballyhooed hire eventually bombing in Cleveland, then making the most of his second chance and winning titles. (See: Belichick, Bill.) The second-best thing going in Atlanta’s favor: God hates Cleveland.
I know that the national consensus is that LeBron did everything here in Cleveland by himself. He had absolutely zero help. None. His teammates were the worst. The WORST, I say! 3 Plus his coach was bad and his owner is a big jerk who stops Chris Paul from going to the Lakers or Dwight Howard from going the Nets 4 . It was LeBron, by himself. With no help. At all.
And Danny Ferry bombed. Really?
Yes, the Cavs failed to win a title on Ferry’s watch. We were all witnesses. But Danny Ferry built two 60+ win teams while LeBron playing playing was footsie with the entire league. If anyone thinks that is something easily done, take a look at Orlando’s record these last few years with Dwight Howard. And thanks to Jim Paxson, Ferry didn’t have many draft picks to work with and was forced to upgrade through trades and free agency. And for all the crap Ferry takes for his Hughes/Marshall/Jones signings, 5 he eventually moved all of those players (who, you know, helped the Cavs make their only Finals appearance) and upgraded the roster on the fly (again, to two 60 win teams).
I happen to like the “Danny Ferry, GM” era (certainly more than “Danny Ferry, Guy We Got For Ron Harper” era). I like that Ferry didn’t overpay his own role players (both Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao held out to force better deals, Ferry let them sit) and that he made the most of his trades (like trading Joe Smith and Damon Jones for Mo Williams or basically netting Antawn Jamison for a late first round pick). The only real criticism I have is not trading Wally Szczerbiak’s expiring contract at the ’09 deadline for Shaq, but even that is somewhat defensible (you really want to disrupt a 60 win team so Mike Brown can incorporate Shaq into his offense on the fly?) 6
The Cavs didn’t win a title, therefore Ferry “bombed” and the Cavs failed. But were those years not fun? Sure, the Orlando series was heart breaking and I still feel like they should’ve beaten Boston in 2008 but the Cavs were competing for a title, year-in, year-out. Sports are supposed to be fun and for all the ugliness at the end of the LeBron-era, those 8 years were f-u-n.
This “championship or bust” mentality has definitely affected this current Indians season. You have this chicken/egg scenario of the Dolans not spending til the fans show up vs the fans not showing up til the Dolans spend 7 . Meanwhile, the Tribe has been in contention for the division all season and the Indians are last in majors in attendance (whether they’re in contention simply because Detroit has under performed in a whole other matter). The Indians are fielding a solid, possibly playoff bound, team but no one is showing up because they’re not a championship contender 8 . We want a title contender! Not a .500 club!
One of my favorite quotes in sports is from the Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto: “don’t let millionaires ruin your day”. I very much subscribe to this. Every so often I like to rag people on twitter who are complaining about ESPN’s latest slight to Cleveland. I’ll joke with them that if you’re mad that ESPN made a Cleveland joke, that’s your fault for watching ESPN. Stuff like that used to bug the hell out of me, but then I just stopped watching ESPN. 9 You choose how much enjoyment you take out of sports. To me half of the fun is the journey itself, regardless of the final outcome.
Take the Indians of the 90s. They didn’t win a World Series, so they might be considered a failure. But man, did I love those teams (and I expect many of you feel the same). They were good. They were in contention year-in, year-out. That ’97 playoff run was absolutely magical and is something that I’ll never forget. Those years were fun.
When a professional sports team is making a title run, the sense of civic pride that envelopes a city is something I cherish. I love when buildings set up “Go Browns!” in office lights or when we see hokey bets made between the competing city’s mayors. There’s nothing I love more than walking into a gas station during a playoff game to pick up
beer snacks wearing a Tribe/Cavs/Browns/Buckeyes hat and having complete strangers ask me “hey man, do you know the score?” To me, that’s the best part of following sports, the camaraderie it can foster between strangers (let alone between family and friends).
Just because a team had a shot a title and missed doesn’t make them a failure in my mind. Winning a title is hard. A million little things have to go right. The refs have to make the right calls at the right time. You can’t have players break their foot in practice or miss a routine grounder 10 . And you certainly can’t run into Pedro Martinez or Michael Jordan in their prime. Ask LeBron. He spent a year in media hell because Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t miss for roughly a week and Jason Terry hit a few of those “nononononononoYES!” shots. Winning a title is hard.
To me, failure is when a team doesn’t make the playoffs for roughly a decade. Or when the fans stop caring enough to even complain. That’s failure. Losing in Finals? That’s unfortunate. That sucks. That’s heartbreaking. But that’s not failure. Losing in the championship round means that the previous four months were freaking amazing.
I want a championship as much as the next person but sometimes I feel we miss the forest for the trees. Sports (especially of the professional nature) are supposed to be fun, entertaining distractions. If this stops being fun, what’s the point? If you can’t have fun watching Kyrie Irving or Jason Kipnis or (I hope) Trent Richardson because their teams aren’t elite title contenders, that my friends, is failure.
Enjoy the ride.
- With apologies to Otto Orf and Hector Marinaro [back]
- if you would’ve asked me two months ago, I might’ve said the Indians. But now I think the Cavs and Browns are even, pending Brandon Weeden kicking major ass [back]
- Nevermind that playoff teams gladly picked off LeBron’s former teammates. Z followed him to Miami, Shaq and Delonte West ended up in Boston (West then landed in Dallas), the Lakers just signed Jamison (and have Mike Brown as their coach) and JJ Hickson… um, yeesh, let’s move on [back]
- Gilbert is such a jerk for not taking on Kris Humphries (a player they could’ve signed outright) in a sign-and-trade for four years, just to help Brooklyn land Howard [back]
- I’ll even defend these signings. When Gilbert hired Ferry, the Cavs had had LeBron for two seasons and missed the playoffs both times. LeBron had the option to extend his contract following the upcoming season and folks were rightfully worried. The Cavs had a ton of capspace and had to use it; Cleveland couldn’t go into that season with Ira Newble as their starting SG. So Ferry
settled forsigned Larry Hughes (as Ray Allen and Michael Redd stayed home for more money, per NBA rules) and added two veteran outside shooters that the Cavs desperately needed. I feel that’s defensible [back]
- My best woulda-coulda-shoulda dream move would be the Cavs trading for Chris Bosh at the ’10 deadline, rather than testing the waters for Amar’e Stoudemire or trading for Jamison. Cleveland didn’t pursue Bosh because he said he wasn’t going to resign with the Cavs. I would’ve liked to see them call his bluff. Put Bosh on that roster with LeBron, Shaq, Varejao, Williams, etc and see what happens. If he and LeBron still bolt to Miami, you’re no worse off than you were anyways. The bonus of this totally fake-scenario is that LeBron would look like an even bigger a-hole and I wouldn’t have had to suffer two-plus seasons of watching Antawn Jamison not play defense [back]
- Although it’s not like they’ve made any moves, offseason or in-season, that have inspired much confidence. Grady Sizemore! Derek Lowe! Feel the Lowementum! [back]
- Also, poor pitching and an anemic offense make for not-very-entertaining baseball [back]
- I’ll get my sports news on the internet, thankyouverymuch! [back]
- or have that dirty cheater Rashard Lewis make every effing shot [back]