Could the Indians Learn From the Cavs?
Jonathan Knight | On 29, May 2015
It’s easy to forget that not that long ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers – the newly crowned champions of the NBA’s Eastern Conference – were an embarrassment.
As late as mid-January – roughly the midpoint of the season – the Cavs were a wide-awake nightmare. Despite the return of LeBron James and the assembly of the most talented trio since Superman II, the Cavs were only marginally better than they were a year ago. A six-game losing streak dropped a moribund team that was supposed to lose only about 15 games all year to 19-20.
It appeared LeBron had lost his mojo, Kyrie Irving wasn’t hitting it off with LeBron, and new head coach David Blatt was being compared with Yakov Smirnoff.
Then, incredibly, with the pilots throwing punches in the cockpit and the nose of the plane tipping vertical, they turned it around. They ripped off 12 straight victories en route to an incredible 32-7 stretch, roared into the playoffs, and now are headed to the NBA Finals.
Could the Indians follow the same script?
So far, they’ve effectively mirrored the Cavs’ crummy start, watching as lofty expectations corkscrew down the toilet in a one-step-forward, one-step-back type of season.
Perhaps the six-game winning streak the Tribe carried into this week indicates something of a turning point. But if not, here’s a thumbnail sketch of three things the Cavs did and loose translations for how the Indians can follow suit:
1. Fresh blood
Any and all discussions of the Cavs’ turnaround must begin and end with the trades that scored Timofey Mosgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert. They became a different team with these guys, and redefined the entire season.
That’s not to say the Tribe necessarily needs to make a deal. But there have been moments throughout these first two months when it looked like the Indians could use some new energy (like Francisco Lindor), some fresh faces (like Francisco Lindor), and something to get the fans excited (like Francisco Lindor).
Of course, bringing up Lindor – or anyone else – isn’t necessarily the solution. Or at least the only solution. Maybe that fresh blood is already on the roster.
Maybe Lonnie Chisenhall snaps out of his season-long doldrums and becomes the type of hitter he was a year ago at this time. Maybe Brandon Moss becomes the type of player the Tribe needs rather than the type they already have. Maybe Shaun Marcum becomes the fifth starter the Indians have been sorely lacking all season.
We’ve already seen the positive impact a healthy Jason Kipnis has provided and just how much the Indians missed him a year ago. And of course, Yan Gomes returning after a six-week absence is another boon that has already appeared to bring some of that elusive energy to the lineup.
There are lots of ways to get there and lots of candidates to lead the way. But the point is that the Indians need a shot in the arm like the one the Cavs got in January.
2. Found identity
What’s really interesting is that none of the three players the Cavs acquired are stars. Nobody jumped up and down when these trades were announced, because none of those guys is the type of player you throw onto a team and then expect it to become an instant title contender.
The most important thing they did was change the Cavs’ identity. In one swoop, the Cavs transformed from a finesse team that needed to score 115 points a night to win to the best defensive team in the NBA. For the first time, they had an identity other than “the team that LeBron, Kyrie, and Kevin Love play for.”
What’s the Indians’ identity right now? They were supposed to be a team built on pitching, but for most of this season, that hasn’t worked out. Again, perhaps the recent six-game winning streak shows they’ve turned the corner. But overall to this point, both the starters and the bullpen have been – at best – wobbly. And with the offense being as underwhelming as many expected, the Indians have been easy to beat.
Whether the Indians emerge as the dominant pitching team they were supposed to be or something happens to boost the lineup to turn them into a club that strikes a comfortable balance, the Indians need to decide who they are.
3. Let the cream rise to the top
And once you find yourself, it’s amazing how simple things can get.
In their darkest hour, the Cavs were able to change the roster just enough so that their tumblers clicked into place.
With the new faces and fresh identity, the “Big Three” didn’t have to go out and win games all by themselves. Guys were no longer being asked to play positions and roles not suited to them out of necessity. LeBron and company could trust in the structure of the team and allow their talent to naturally emerge. And like a 9-to-5 dad with a great home life, it translated into success at the office.
Corey Kluber shouldn’t need to go out every fifth day thinking he needs to pitch eight shutout innings and strike out 18 in order for the Indians to win. Nor should Michael Brantley feel like he needs to knock in four runs by himself each night to prevent a defeat. But if the Indians can find a way to caulk their leaky windows, then guys like Kluber and Brantley will feel an immense weight lifted off their shoulders. And probably get even better.
Plus, with the right pieces in place, the other pieces can fit in where they should rather than where they’re needed. (Ryan Raburn batting cleanup, for example.)
Just as the Cavs realized in January, the Indians need a special sauce. The two all-beef patties, cheese, lettuce, etc., are all there. But it ain’t a Big Mac without the special sauce.
Admittedly, to make regrettable back-to-back food analogies, all of this is comparing apples to oranges. You don’t build a contender in basketball the way you do in baseball. It’s not as simple as looking across Eagle Avenue and trying to imitate what the neighbors are doing.
But considering the eerie similarities between the way the Cavs and the Indians started their respective seasons, there have to be some lessons the Indians can learn from a team that triumphantly emerged from the wreckage and now stands four wins away from a world title.
Photo: Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports