Fault Lines

February 28th, 2012 by Colin McGowan

On a basic level, sport can be a great equalizer. At least that’s the sentiment we’re sold by beer ads in which a partisan bar erupts after a play so spectacular it brings disparate demographics—truckers, college professors, sycophants, serial killers, oil tycoons, pacifists, large-breasted women—together like Pangea. As reductive as Anheuser-Busch’s depiction of this phenomenon is, it’s not entirely untrue. Most of us don’t walk around high-fiving people we don’t know, but it’s acceptable behavior after a touchdown or game-winning bucket. Cities build stadiums and arenas for the purpose of allowing thousands of strangers with the same rooting interest to assemble and watch their favorite teams play; a couple drinks and a close game can dissolve one’s misanthropy long enough to have a moment with one of these strangers.

Achieving this state of harmony with one’s fellow fan requires a certain single-mindedness. Two Bulls fans, for example, during the third quarter of a playoff game against the Heat, are likely in such a state. They might disagree about whether Luol Deng should guard Dwyane Wade or Lebron James or what offensive sets the team should utilize to free up their shooters, but their desires are in concert. They want the Bulls to win, and they’ll be satisfied with a victory regardless of whether or not Tom Thibodeau runs enough screens for Rip Hamilton.

This is a single-mindedness afforded to fans of good teams. Fans of poor or mediocre teams—Cavs, Bucks, Bobcats, whoever—tend to think about more than what’s happening in front of their eyes during a game. My experience of watching the Cavaliers this season has been one of constant evaluation. Kyrie Irving needs to focus on improving his defense this offseason. Is Alonzo Gee a rotation player? If the Cavs don’t find a center soon, I’m going to throw my coffeemaker through a window. Not that a Bulls fan is a Pavlovian dog while watching a game—sports talk radio and blogs are forums tailor-made for game-to-game critiques of a team’s players, coaches, and front office—but his or her thoughts don’t extend three years into the future as often as the fan of the mediocre team. Why spend much time projecting the kind of player Derrick Rose will be in four years when championship contention is your present?

Here’s the other peculiar feature of the Cavs fanbase: it’s not united behind winning. I know this isn’t as strange as it sounds to someone not familiar with the NBA. A young, unexceptional team like the Cavaliers are a blank slate upon which fans project their philosophies about how to construct a winning basketball team, and one of those philosophies calls for two or three consecutive seasons of prodigious losing, of which the Cavs have endured only one. But it’s an unnatural feeling, to be down ten with six minutes to play and half-hope one’s team doesn’t bridge the deficit. We’re supposed to use comebacks as an opportunity to bond with like-minded strangers, after all, and wins are the lifeblood of the fan beaten down by sub-par performances and losing streaks.

But part of being human is the ability to let logic drive the bus once in awhile. Losing this season gives the Cavaliers the best chance of winning in the future. It’s a percentage play more than anything. Losing leads to better lottery odds; better lottery odds might lead to a better draft pick; a better draft pick might lead to a better player; and a better player wins basketball games. Two gigantic “might”s are involved. But logic drives the bus. Andre Drummond, according to scouts, has a better chance of becoming a franchise-altering talent than Brad Beal. If you walk up to a craps table, and the casino gives you 40-to-1 odds on a hard eight, you take it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to roll correctly, but at least the numbers are in your favor.

This is a difficult philosophy to internalize because it forsakes the present without the guarantee of a better future. Some fans would rather see the Cavs win games, perhaps compete for a playoff spot, let the draft pick fall where it will, and build upon the relative success of Kyrie Irving’s rookie season. Hope Tristan Thompson sprouts wings, and the Cavs make steady progress over the next three years. This argument makes sense, but it’s myopic. The Cavaliers will likely improve over the coming seasons regardless of whether they have the third or twelfth selection in the 2012 draft. Irving possesses special talent, and if that talent gestates over the coming seasons, he’ll begin to win bunches of basketball games by himself. If he has some decent role players around him, Irving will be able carry the Cavaliers into the playoffs. But what is the ceiling of a team with Irving, an aging Anderson Varejao, Thompson, Alonzo Gee, a couple late-lottery/mid-round draft picks, and whatever free agents the Cavs have to overpay to lure them to Cleveland?

If Irving evolves into a superstar over the next half-decade, then the sky is ostensibly the limit. The 2015-16 Cavs could be one month of Irving unleashing holy hell upon the league from a championship. But why not make it easier? Why not flank him with superior young talent with which he can grow? Derrick Rose’s Bulls have a chance to win a title this season, but pretending D-Rose wouldn’t sell Carlos Boozer’s left arm for a young scorer like James Harden or Steph Curry is ignoring the fact that he shoulders too much of the burden offensively. A team can surround one supreme talent with great role players and win a championship in the NBA (Dirk’s Mavs did it last season), but if two months of losing separate the Cavaliers from an opportunity to pair Irving with a top 5 talent, why wouldn’t they take those odds? What’s the harm in grounding this rocket until day one of the 2012-13 season?

I have no doubt similar fault lines run through the Cavaliers’ fanbase and their front office, because I can see how two intelligent people would come to different conclusions about which course of action is best. But Chris Grant and company aren’t fans; they don’t have to sit by passively and hope the team succeeds or capsizes. If they want to burn this season to the ground, there’s a matchbook and some kerosene at their fingertips. Flipping Andy Varejao, Ramon Sessions, and Antawn Jamison for whatever assets they can acquire during a season when a playoff push is a legitimate option is a hard sell to people who hate losing.

I fear Dan Gilbert’s hatred of losing. I feel about Gilbert the way Jews felt about Old Testament Yahweh: he means well, but that doesn’t mean he won’t fly into a blind rage and rain down meteors from time to time. I’m even more afraid that Grant—who, to Gilbert’s credit, seems to have been given a lot of latitude to conduct this rebuilding process as he sees fit—thinks that the Post-LeBron Cavs are ready for phase two. Sticking with the roster they have and hoping for the best is a big red button that can’t be unpressed. Grant watched LeBron James become a Sisyphean figure without an All-Star wingman. (And no, Mo Williams doesn’t count.) I wonder if enduring repeated failure during the LeBron Era informs Grant’s philosophy at all.

A team’s management can unite a fanbase in two ways: uncensurable success or repeated failure. It was unfathomable at this time last season that the Cavaliers would be at a crossroads two months into Kyrie Irving’s rookie season, but here they are: staring down a series of long, twisty roads that disappear at the horizon. It’s time to take a scissors to road maps and start consulting holy books. Crucial decisions begin now, and they will determine whether the fans unify into a chorus or a mob.