The Sunday Drive with back issues for LeBron James, and trading for Yeones Cespedes and Marc Gasol

1LeBron James doesn’t look right.

How’s that for a lede.

A little more than a day after James torched Chicago to the tune of 36 points, eight boards and four assists, it’s pretty clear that he’s either not 100%, or there’s a new plan in place for the King going forward.

He still filled that stat-sheet.

He’s still LeBron James.

But if you really paid attention to his game, he was passive in attacking the rim. He scored 36, but there were moments in the game when I found myself asking how? It was as quiet a 36 points as he’s ever scored.

What was missing was that Brauma Bull approach we’re all familiar with when LeBron launches himself toward the basket and has defenders diving out of the way. He’s still dominant, but he seems to be avoiding contact around the hoop. He’s making buckets, but he’s just not finishing the way he did in both Miami and his first run in Cleveland.

How many times did one of his shots rim out from within five feet? How many times did he not take a shot within ten feet for a pass that made you scratch your head?

There are several scenarios to take into account though before we really travel down the path of worry.

It’s possible that James is beat-down exhausted with this outrageous summer in which he decided to carry the city of Cleveland (and Akron) on his back.

It’s equally possible that he’s just “playing low,” as Shaq used to say. There’s no need for James to play in beast mode until next spring, and maybe that’s what we’re seeing.

But what if it really is his back, and what if that’s why he decided to lose all that weight?

He still scored 36, and he still played in 40-plus minutes (which may be the problem to begin with), so enough worrying for now, but it’s something worth watching going forward.

Let’s get driving.

There’s Johnny Manziel-needs-to-start talk daily, but is there really as much “controversy” as you thought there would be? It’s an interesting argument considering the legitimacy of Brian Hoyer as a long-term starter, but I really don’t think that the Hoyer/Manziel controversy has been anywhere near the level I thought it would be heading into week eight.

Sure, it’s bantered about every day on Cleveland talk radio and on Twitter, but compared to the offseason Manziel-mania, the season has been much-ado-about-nothing, and that’s the way it really should be.

The Browns are 4-3 for crying out loud.

Sure, I’m curious about Manziel and what he could bring to the Browns’ offense down the road. As much as I like Brian Hoyer’s story, and as much as I can appreciate what he’s done for the Browns this year…I’m equally curious about Manziel’s overall ability.

But that’s all it is…curiosity.

I don’t truly believe that he should see meaningful snaps at quarterback in a starter’s capacity until Hoyer legitimately loses the job. Could the Browns offense be better with a rookie quarterback under center?

Perhaps, but the percentages aren’t high.

The Browns’ running game, as chronicled by Steve Orbanek in Saturday’s orbservations, has been sub-par over the past two weeks. Of course you can point to the quarterback as part of the problem, but how many other factors are there on this Browns’ team. Does Manziel fix all the problems??

He’s not the type of quarterback that makes an impact as a starter in year one. Look at Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr and Blake Bortles. They’ve been spectacular…right?

Yeah, not so much.

Perhaps I’m not being fair to Manziel’s talent here, but my gut on this is that he shouldn’t enter the equation until 2015, or until Hoyer actually loses the job.

Remember, the Browns current win total is already at last year’s entire total, and they are over .500 with Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Houston and Atlanta in their windshield. Do any of those teams scare anybody at this point in the season?

I really want to see what Hoyer does when Josh Gordon returns. I still don’t think we’ve seen the best of this offense in its current make-up.

Is anyone as worried as I am about Jordan Cameron? He’s had three concussions over the past two seasons. I know that Mike Pettine is trying to downplay it during his pressers, but any time you begin talking about head injuries in the NFL in 2014, it could be trouble.

Cameron is a potential top five tight end in the NFL. That’s hardly important in the grand scheme of his health, but certainly a concern for a Browns’ offense that already is without its top receiver in Gordon.

Without Cameron and Gordon, opposing defenses have been stacking eight in the box fairly regularly. Go back and watch the tape last week. The Browns’ line was forced to consistently offset a defense that was trying its best to stop the run. It wasn’t the only reason the Browns’ rushing game couldn’t find lanes, but it certainly was a part of it.

The Browns countered this with a healthy dose of  Andrew Hawkins, who has 12 receptions for 200 yards over his past two games, after getting blanked against the Steelers.  How good has Hawkins been so far this year? He’s had five or more receptions in five of the seven games that he’s played in, and he’s averaging a healthy 13.1 yards per reception. Imagine what happens to the Browns should Gordon come back, along with a healthy Cameron.

Do you think the run game will improve then?

Seriously?

The Browns’ defense against the run was vastly improved last week against the Oakland Raiders. Before we get too excited, please re-read that again, and tell me why they were improved.

Oakland anyone?

I’m not trying to say there weren’t pluses that you can point to in this game outside of the team they were playing, but Oakland is Oakland.

The secondary clearly was playing better, and Joe Haden showcased why the Browns made him the highest paid cornerback in the league. He defended two passes, had nine tackles and recovered a fumble. He just looked like the Haden of old, and he really could be the game changer in this defense.

But it’s the Raiders.

Paul Kruger also tore up the Raiders with three sacks, two more quarterback hits and a forced fumble. I haven’t been a Kruger fan, but he certainly earned his keep this past week.

But it’s the Raiders.

The key to the Browns going forward, especially as their schedule toughens up a bit, will be the ability for their secondary to continue to shutdown the passing game long enough for the defensive line to get penetration and plug the gaps.

The Browns linebackers are the strength of this defense, but if they are getting stretched too thin trying to make up for the line in front of them, and the secondary behind them, a promising season could get away from them quickly.

The bonus is that Pettine is a very capable defensive coach. I can’t imagine that this continues to be an issue all season. The Browns’ defense was supposed to be a strength, and it will need to be if they are going to make a legitimate run at a playoff spot.

There’s some concern with regards to the Cleveland Browns’ rushing game, but I’m not as concerned as most. I watching the Raiders’ game over this afternoon, and feel a bit better about the line going forward. I’m not trying to say that the offensive line is perfect in the absence of Alex Mack, but I am trying to say that it appears as though the Browns and Mike Pettine have made a decision in his stead that they will be sticking with going forward. Nick McDonald moved into the center position, with John Greco moving back to his guard spot, and I like it.

Consider this about Nick McDonald.

He can be a solid center in the absence of Mack. He has a familiarity with Brian Hoyer from their days together in New England. He didn’t play in 2013, and only signed with the Browns after the San Diego Chargers released him after he broke his wrist in a car accident in July. The Browns activated him a couple of weeks ago after he missed OTAs, training camp, and the start of the season.

When you take that all into account and incorporate it into his pretty solid play in his first start, perhaps this line will have some time to shape up over the course of the year into something pretty special without Mack.

McDonald’s story is both interesting, and inspiring. He and his three siblings were abandoned after his mother passed away when he was 14, and his father left the family as he was dealing with the loss of his wife. The four siblings were able to last as a family unit for two years, but eventually couldn’t pay any of the bills.

The fact that he was able to hold it all together as a person, let alone a player, while bouncing from household-to-household, was miracle enough. The fact that he actually made it to the NFL is absolutely unbelievable.

He almost flunked out of school at Division II power Grand Valley State, but managed to make it through. He went undrafted in the 2010 draft, but managed to sign on with the Green Bay Packers. He was released after that season, but latched on with the Patriots for two years, before being released again.

Seems like playing Center in the NFL might not be that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

Another player that’s been overlooked to some extent is Left Guard Joel Bitonio, who is clearly the best Browns’ rookie so far in 2014. He has started every game as a rookie, and had stretches of dominance while doing it. 

Bitonio has proven to be as athletic as they come on the line, which has helped the guard in Kyle Shanahan’s pull-blocking schemes. In multiple instances, he’s allowed the trio of Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West to follow him as he’s pulling to the right side of the line. Multiple times in both games against the Steelers, Bitonio was able to clear out Troy Polamalu and the Steelers’ linebackers for gaping holes.

What may make him excessively special going forward though is his quickness to attack blockers in front of him. You can often find him two or three yards ahead of the play standing up his target. He is a master of balance, and gains the advantage by tilting defenders away from the play. This also is his downfall, as his upright play is when you see him get driven backwards.

While the Browns’ first round picks may look suspect right now, their second round pick is busy tearing up NFL defensive lineman. I think the line will be fine, if they just give it time to settle and learn together. If McDonald and Bitonio continue to improve, they may not end up missing a beat.

On November 12, the Cy Young Award winners will be announced, and I’m banking on Corey Kluber taking home the award. Alright, if I’m to be honest, I’ve already predicted that Felix Hernandez would win. I just can’t believe that a populace that didn’t put Kluber into the All-Star game will make him the Cy Young award winner.

Does anyone doubt that the media making the selection willactually say that?

“Well, to be fair, Kluber wasn’t even in the All-Star game, so clearly he can’t be the Cy Young winner.”

Don’t shake your head…you know it could happen too.

BUT IT SHOULDN’T.

I’m not going to run down the stats here, because truth be told, Hernandez and Kluber’s numbers are very similar in every way. They really are about as balanced as it gets…

…until you talk defense.

As Orbanek mentioned a couple weeks ago, calling the Indians defense bad would be understating it. Grantland’s Jonah Keri said similar words and thoughts in his awards piece. Even ESPN’s Cy Young predictor said Kluber, and it wasn’t close.

So how good is the ESPN predictor? It correctly predicted Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw last year. It correctly predicted David Price and R.A. Dickey two years ago. It correctly predicted Justin Verlander and Kershaw in 2011.

But in 2010, while they picked Halladay correctly in the National League, they blew the A.L. Cy Young, and by a lot. Their prediction was that Price would win, then CC Sabatha, then Rafael Soriano, then Jon Lester, then Neftali Feliz, then Clay Buchholz.

Who won?

Felix Hernandez.

So I’m worried.

There’s some talk that Yeones Cespedes is available in a trade, and I’m pretty sure that the Indians will kick the tires if it’s true. Cespedes can crush the ball, but Carlos Santana is just a better player all around. He hits just as many home runs and doubles, and walks three-to-four times more than the Red Sox outfielder.

That’s not to say that he’s not worth acquiring, but you can’t put a shine on Cespedes without putting the same shine on Santana.

I think he’s a pretty solid defender. He has a nice arm that would fit in right field, and if the rumors are true that the only reason he was in left in Oakland was because of Josh Reddick, then he would be the perfect fit.

But what would Boston want in return?

My bet is that they would start with Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer, and I actually meant to say and. If the Indians would even consider that, I would lose my mind. I’d actually consider one of them, but when you think about team control for both youngsters, I just couldn’t do it. Salazar is going to be great. Bauer is going to be at least good.

Which leaves T.J. House.

Now I’ve followed House for many years, and the fact that he’s even entered the equation says a lot about what he’s done since leaving Carolina. If you talk to anyone that knows baseball, they’ll spout predictors for House that are far below average.

I just see it differently.

I think House is set to improve, and I’ll get into why in the coming weeks.

I wouldn’t even deal House for Cespedes.

That’s just me.

There’s a big part of me that thinks the Sox would be slightly interested in Jose Ramirez as a back-up option, with Pedroia struggling last year, then going under the knife, but he’s signed through 2021, so that doesn’t make much sense.

Which leads me to the conclusion that the Indians will likely stay away.

It’s November though, so the rumors should be coming hot-and-heavy pretty soon. Of course, we live in Cleveland, so you know what that could mean.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the outcome of the Cleveland Cavaliers home opener this past Thursday wasn’t important, but was I the only one that thought it was secondary?  As a matter of fact, when fellow EHC Managing Editor, Steve Orbanek, asked me what I thought about the game earlier that day at our weekly staff meeting, I said, “I think they’re going to lose.”

I’m not a rocket scientist, but do you have to be one to understand how much pressure that LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers team had on them heading into the game?

It really does go to show you where we are in the land of instant gratification.

It was David Blatt’s first game in the NBA. There were some comparing Derek Fisher to Blatt because both were coaching their first NBA game, but didn’t Fisher just finish an 18-year career playing in the NBA? It’s funny how much we hear from the media about how different the Euro-game is to the NBA, until it doesn’t suit their purposes.

I’m not making Blatt-excuses here either. He could have done some things different…but that’s just it…that game was different.

You can’t quantify it in words, or compare it to anything else.

New coach.

New Kevin Love.

Renewed LeBron James.

Brand new bench.

New roles.

New offense.

New full-time GM.

New scoreboard.

New energy.

New banner.

New commercial.

New everything.

LeBron is back, but this isn’t the same rodeo, and that played out in a special way.

Here’s what I saw from the Cavs late in the game against the Bulls in their 114-108 victory: a ton of hustle and some really scrappy defense. Kevin Love was all over the place, and Kyrie, while still trailing everything most of the night, looked different as the game progressed.

There was something there…and that’s all that I need to see.

I am telling you right now, this Cavaliers team can be better defensively than people think. No, they don’t have a rim protector, and that will hurt, but they do have talented players who have never had to work hard defensively in their lives. If Love and Kyrie play average defense, I think the Cavs can be serious title contenders.

I firmly believe that Cleveland stayed away from Centers this offseason because they know they can go out and get a rim protector when the trade deadline gets close. There are some interesting unrestricted free agents out there that the Cavs could rent for the right package of players and first round picks. Who are some centers that teams may be willing to dump if they aren’t contending?

I think the Memphis Grizzlies are a team to watch, but I’d love for them to stink it up this year, because Marc Gasol is an unrestricted free agent next year. How would he look with the Cavs down the stretch?

Lamarcus Aldridge isn’t a center, but he could be another quality big that could fill their need. Omer Asik is out there, as will be Paul Milsap, Robin Lopez and DeAndre Jordan. All are playing with playoff contenders, but if one of those teams falter, I’d give the Cavs a 90% chance of dealing with them for an expiring, and a #1 pick.

The Cavs will make a move.

I’ve already waxed poetic about what the Cleveland Cavaliers game on Thursday night meant to me.  As a matter of fact, I’ve done it more than once. Sure, the outcome could have been different, but it most definitely didn’t take away from what it meant to me as a fan of Cleveland Cavaliers’ basketball. There are just so many layers to all of this for me…for us.

I take Cleveland sports seriously. I know that I don’t have to explain that to anyone that’s made it this far into my column. When people ask me about Cleveland sports, there are a million stories I tell. There’s the day I forced my mother to take me to Fisher Big Wheel in Avon Lake in 1977 so I could get an autograph with former Browns All Pro Mike Pruitt. There’s the day I sobbed at work because I called to get Indians’ tickets a few hours after they went on sale, and they were sold out…for the season. I still carry around my Pete Franklin, “I hate the Yankees” hanky whenever they play, and I still listen to Joe Tait and Herb Score calls at least once a week for fun.

I have all the same quirks and habits that every EHC reader has.

I bleed Cleveland.

I’m passionate about Ohio.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven by a car with a Cleveland sticker, or an Ohio plate, or an Ohio State logo, and O-H-I-O-ed while driving 75.

There’s no city that I love more, and there’s no state that I would ever call ‘home,’ wherever I live.

I want that title, but I’ve realized over the years that while I crave the title, there’s nothing more important than hop. I am so content watching the teams I love every year either up close, or from afar, but when there’s something out there to attain, it’s that much more special.

The Browns in 1980 were my first taste of hope, and of course, the Bernie Kosar Browns’ were knocking on the door for the city as well. The Cavs were all about the Lenny Wilken-led late 80’s and early 90’s. The late 90’s Indians were sledge-hammering that door too.

Then came LeBron, the best player in the NBA. He took the hope with him when he left, but he brought it back.

And it was special.

Fifteen years ago, I left the area for many of the same reasons that LeBron did, albeit for much less money, without the championships at stake, and without an idiotic presser. One of the top-rated places to work as an educator was available to me, and I wanted to see what was out there in the world, perhaps enjoy some nice weather, and make some money doing it. When I left, it was clearly the right move for me to make. I had just gotten married, didn’t have any kids, and just needed to go.

Two years ago, my priorities were different than they were when I left. I was blessed with two kids, and the thought of coming home and allow my kids to attend my alma mater seemed special. The south is an amazing place to live, but I missed home.

In July, I received a job offer that was too good to pass up, and just like LeBron, I was on my way back.

When LeBron left, I was pissed, but my wife looked right at me when he did it and said, “how is that different than what you did?” When I explained to her, using many colorful words, that it wasn’t just that I was leaving, it was how he did it, she told me to shut up and that I’d get over it.

She was right.

I have never apologized for how serious I take the sports that I watch, and I have loved Cleveland sports from the day I was born.

What did Thursday night mean to me?

Hope….

Jim Pete is a founder and Managing Editor at Everybody Hates Cleveland, a former Senior Editor and Columnist at Indians Baseball Insider, and a really makes every hat he wears special. Follow him for advice on correct running posture and which fork to use first on twitter@JimPeteEHC, and follow the our website twitter @evrybdyhatescle. We will help you choose all the best IPAs

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