The Sunday Drive with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the first place Browns, and Indians’ awards

1It’s hard not to be an optimistic Cleveland fan.

The Cleveland Cavaliers welcomed back LeBron James, and with every passing day, the team is clearly starting to iron out who they are, and what they can do.

The Cleveland Browns are 6-3 for the first time in 20 years, and have absolutely decimated both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers within the same month.

The Cleveland Indians just had two of their starters win a Silver Slugger award, and just may be adding a Cy Young award to their offseason loot.

So as you take that first sip of coffee this morning, stop for a second and take it all in. Do it quickly, because we are, after all, Cleveland fans.

What’s very interesting about all three major Cleveland sports’ teams is that they all seem to be at the beginning of what could be profitable times. The Indians have the bulk of their team signed to long-term deals. The Browns have the ninth youngest team in the NFL, and the Cavs have welcomed back LeBron James, have a 22-year old budding superstar point guard, and have just traded for another top ten, 25-year old forward in Kevin Love.

If everything clicks just right…well…you know…stuff could happen.

I just don’t want to say it too loud, because…well…you know…

Let’s get driving, before I get myself in trouble.

There will be several entertaining Cleveland Cavaliers’ story lines throughout the 2014-2015 season, but none will be more important to the team’s ultimate success than the relationship between returning King LeBron James and point guard Kyrie Irving. No, I’m not talking about their rumored “exchange of words” that happened between the two after the Cavs lost by 19 points to the Portland Trail Blazers. I am talking about how these two dynamic players mesh together in the starting lineup and how it will truly determine if the Cavs are an NBA title contender, or just another playoff team.

The Cavs offense looked solid in their victory against the Denver Nuggets to finish off their four-game West Coast road trip at 2-2 on Friday. There were moments when the Cavs looked like a veteran team, showcasing incredible ball movement that allowed the offensively challenged Anderson Varejao to make several easy early buckets. This is what’s supposed to happen with a team as talented as the Cavs, once they figure out each other’s on court tendencies.

LeBron did just about everything in this game, both offensively and defensively. He was a distributer early, took over the game at times in the second and third, and showcased the type of defense that makes him the best defender in the NBA peppered in throughout.

Kyrie was efficient, took smart shots (including a six-point run in the third quarter), but never stopped trying to keep his teammates in the game.

The Cavs had 25 assists, and truly WORKED to get everyone involved in the game. Everyone had their moments. LeBron nearly had a triple-double. Kevin Love had the most quiet 19 points and eight boards you could ever want. Kyrie had only 12 points and six assists, but was a factor driving into the paint, and keeping the defense off balance. Andy got his 15 garbage-ish points and seven boards thanks to doubles to the stars, and Dion Waiters poured in a season high 17 points. Shawn Marion (10 points) and Tristan Thompson (12 points) joined the double-digit fray as well.

It was beautiful.

But they played the Denver Nuggets, and they clearly were working to get each other into the game.

There will no doubt be more bumps in the road as the season goes on, as David Blatt tried to incorporate his offense with a line-up that’s still shaking itself out a bit.

But it all comes down to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

Nobody doubts that Kevin Love can fit with both. His high-low game is elite, and it’s going to be special to watch as the season progresses. When you have a post-up game as mobile and and dominant as his is, combined with that outside shot, he won’t have to worry about finding open shots with any lineup.

Dion Waiters is a question mark because of his past history, but he’s been 100% content with his place on this team, whether as a starter or a reserve. LeBron has handled his development well, and Blatt has been saying all the right things to keep Waiters focused on his job. He may be the best sixth man in the NBA when it’s all said and done.

Tristan Thompson looks possessed underneath, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ultimately turned into the Cavs starting center.

Anderson Varejao looks like he’s 20-years old right now. It’s amazing how good he can be when he’s healthy, and he’s such a fit with LeBron.

I could run down the roster, but it’s full of players that know how to win, and know how to be complimentary pieces. It all comes down to Kyrie and LeBron. Can the two former #1 picks figure it out on a nightly basis?

Here’s what I know.

When LeBron was here in Cleveland in 2010, his major flaw was the iso. In deference to LeBron, those Cavaliers weren’t exactly a superstar-laden team, but it still doesn’t make the LeBron-dribble-for-20-seconds-show-and-shoot-no-matter-what okay.

Kyrie’s biggest knock since he was drafted has been a similar motif. Kyrie’s strength, handling the ball and scoring, is often looked at as a detriment, and often for good reason. Kyrie scored 34 points the other night against Utah, which is certainly elite. He shot over 50%, which is also elite, but he didn’t have an assist.

LeBron also scored 31, and did manage four assists as well, but the entire team had six total.

Talk about an iso-fest.

I’ve been critical of Kyrie Irving over the years for his style of play, but at the same time, I can respect the elite level in which he can score. He may be the best pure ball-handler in the league, and he has a beautiful outside shot. He continually reminds me of Allen Iverson. No, he’s not as fast, but he has that same innate ability to get defenders off balance, get past them, and get to the basket. Where Kyrie is likely going to better than Iverson is that outside shot.

Just from a pure offensive standpoint, when Kyrie is on, he’s a lot of fun to watch.

Now, Kyrie’s being asked to distribute first. Now Kyrie’s being asked to become a catch-and-shoot scorer instead of his bread-and-butter, off the dribble.

Against Denver, Kyrie became a distributer, and while his numbers weren’t elite by his standards offensively, the team clearly was better for it. I just don’t think it’s going to take one game, and I also am not sure that the passive Kyrie is the one the Cavs need to win a title. I’ll get to that in a second.

LeBron has been anything but special this season, other than Friday Night’s game in Denver, and other select moments in which we’ve seen glimpses of the greatest player to ever wear a Cavaliers’ jersey. If you believe LeBron, he’s been overseeing the Cavaliers’ overhaul. If you believe your eyes, something’s just not right.

Is his back bothering him?

Is he trying to regain his stamina after losing weight this offseason, and going through “The Decision: Version 2?”

Is he not meshing with Irving?

It’s likely all of the above.

LeBron needs to find the happy medium that he found against the Nuggets on a nightly basis. James did a little bit of everything in the win, as I mentioned before, and finally began attacking the basket like an MVP. What will make this team special isn’t LeBron finding himself. We know he will.

The key will be whether or not James can find those moments in game in which Kyrie can be that scoring juggernaut within the confines of offense. When Kevin Love or LeBron is getting doubled, will the Cavs be able to find a way for Kyrie to, well, be Kyrie?

Don’t get me wrong. This team can be the best in the East with the facilitator that Irving was on Friday night. But, for this offense truly to be special, David Blatt and LeBron James have to find those moments in which Irving can take over the game, because he can.

LeBron taking over the role as the facilitator for both Love and Irving could be special. Who do you guard? On the flip side of that, imagine Kyrie and Love figuring out the pick and rolls that David Blatt knows so well, with LeBron standing in the corner?

This game is all about spacing, and the isos have left the Cavs offense in the wrong spots. Once they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and once they understand their tendencies, that’s when we’ll see  perhaps the best offense in the league.

If Kyrie and LeBron can balance and counter-balance each other within the confines of a team mentality, what we saw in Denver could truly be the tip of the iceberg.

The dichotomy of Dion Waiters is quite something to behold. Waiters wasn’t on the bench when the Cavs played the Utah Jazz this past Wednesday as the National Anthem began to play at the EnergySolutions Center in Salt Lake City. Waiters was taken out of the starting line-up prior to the game, and many speculated that he may have been pouting.

Then came the reports that he was Muslim, and that he wasn’t on the bench to honor his religion.

Then came a barrage of tweets this morning:

Take that all for what it’s worth.

The flip side of this is how Dion handled his on-the-court issues with Darrell Arthur, who jacked Waiters in mid-flight, and could have seriously injured him.

Arthur received a flagrant, and was ejected from the game. The NBA announced on Saturday night that he was suspended for one game.

Waiters didn’t retaliate, ended the game with 17, then had this to say about Arthur after the game when asked if the forward should be suspended,

“Nah, I don’t want anybody to get suspended,” he said. “He probably got a family. He needs his money to take care of his kids. The play is over, we won. I really don’t care about nothing else.”

Is Waiters an enigma, or what?

How about those Cleveland Browns. To put their 6-3 record into some perspective, this is the Browns five time since their return in 1999 that they’ve reached six wins in a season, and first time since 1994 that they’ve won at least six games before their tenth game.

Bill Belichick was their coach back then.

When you take into account the fact that the Browns are tied for first place in the AFC North with the Steelers, and are only one game out of a tie with the New England Patriots for the best record in the AFC, you can really put this season in perspective.

How good are these Browns, when it’s all said and done?

They dismantled the Cincinnati Bengals…in Cincinnati…without their three best receiving weapons. Josh Gordon was busy serving the ninth game of his ten game suspension. Jordan Cameron missed another game after his week eight concussion, but he’ll be ready to come back in week ten. Andrew Hawkins was a late scratch with a knee and thigh injury, but should be good to go win week ten as well.

How good will they be when they’re 100%?

You’d like to think it will only get better offensively.

We’ve seen the Browns run the ball well, and we’ve seen them not be able to run at all. We’ve seen Brian Hoyer look really, really good, and we’ve seen him struggle. What will this offense do with Gordon back, Cameron at 100%, and Hawkins opposite a top five receiver?

Presumably, Hoyer will look pretty good with some more consistency.

Presumably, the running game will look a lot better, now that defenses aren’t going to stack eight men in the box.

The big question will be that offensive line. I know that the world crashed in on Nick McDonald two weeks ago, but I still think there’s something there, especially as he gets more reps. He’s had two pretty good games sandwiching a really bad game subbing for Alex Mack, who will miss the rest of the season. The rest of the line varies from pretty good, to All-Pro caliber. Joel Bitonio has been a break-out star…well…as much as you can be a break-out star playing left guard.

The only question mark is Hoyer, if you believe he’s a question mark. I don’t. I think Hoyer is the ultimate manager of a football game, and when he’s on, he’ can be much better than that.

The running game will continue to improve as Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and Ben Tate continue to fall into their rolls, and as long as this line continues to figure things out without Mack. They each scored a TD on Thursday.

I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg from this unit.

Then there’s the defense.

Phil Taylor was back and played a significant number of snaps, and looked really good. He’s only been back a week, and will only get better. Desmond Bryant had back-to-back sacks during one stretch, and we finally saw the line be impactful. I’m still not a big believer in the depth of this line, or the talent, but Taylor is really good, if healthy, and the strength of this team is the linebackers anyways.

Teams fear Karlos Dansby. What a big pick-up he was in the middle, and if Bitonio is one of the best draft picks in the league, Christian Kirksey is certainly the second most impactful draft pick on this team this year. He’s moved into the bulk of the playing time, and Craig Robertson showcased the inside depth with a nice pick against the Bengals.

Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard had nice games, but were relegated to wandering about after Cincinnati stopped running. I’m still not sure what we have in Barkevious Mingo, but as of right now, I’m not all that thrilled.

Donte Whitner is starting to really be noticeable in this defensive backfield. While he isn’t the interception machine that Tashaun Gipson has become, you really get the feeling that Whitner is dictating the play, and is getting better by the week. Whitner was the player responded to the twitter garbage from Bengals “running back” Jeremy Hill, and led the team in a roaring pre-game speech that may have been the final straw that stirred the Browns drink prior to their big prime time win.

Buster Skrine still has holes, but he had two picks on Thursday night, and is having a really good season. Justin Gilbert didn’t look horrible in his brief time on the field, but Joe Haden is really starting to look like Joe Haden. I really like the combination of Haden at corner, and Whitner at safety. As this secondary begins to improve (the youth), and fit together, I think it could be special.

Haden absolutely shut down A.J. Green…again. It was fun to watch.

I think this team will have more than a few coverage sacks in the weeks to come.

So, what does this all mean?

The Browns don’t have a lot of holes, and this is a team learning a new system, incorporating a lot of new players, and trying to overcome injuries and suspensions. They’ve gone through a quarterback controversy, a struggling line, bad running backs, weak secondary play and bad rush defense…

…and they’re 6-3.

Remember Johnny Manziel? Was that even this year?

The Browns schedule over the final seven games isn’t all that difficult. Next week, they play the 4-5 Texans in Cleveland, and follow that game up by heading to the 2-6 Falcons and te 5-3 Bills. While all are dangerous games, it’s possible that the Browns could be favored in all three.

The come home for the Colts and Bengals, before ending the year on the road at Carolina and at Baltimore.

I see at least four wins there, if not more, especially when you take into account the returning Gordon, Cameron and Hawkins.

Of course, there are no givens in the NFL, and Browns’ fans are acutely aware of that fact, but it sure is nice to be in the conversation.

This week, Major League Baseball will begin to announce their award winners, and Corey Kluber is among the favorites to win the Cy Young award.

We’ve already talked about Kluber’s realities ad nauseum, but why stop now. He really should win the award. Oh, sure, we all know that their numbers are similar. We all know that there are some things that tip in Kluber’s favor, and some things that tip in Felix’s favor.

But…

C’mon…Kluber should win this thing.

How amazing would that be? Kluber would be the Indians third Cy Young Winner over the last eight seasons, with C.C. Sabathia winning in 2007, and Cliff Lee following suit in 2008, and he’d be the fourth Cy winner in franchise history.

It’s still hard for me to believe that the voters are going to go with Kluber, who didn’t even make the All Star game. While that was ridiculous in and of itself, Kluber has that Indians’ hurdle to jump.

Of course, Felix plays in Seattle.

Of course, Kluber is the underdog.

And…has a cult following, both for his “Chuck Norris-like” demeanor, and for his sublime sabr-stats.

Could it be that Kluber, the supposed underdog, is the true favorite afterall?

If Kluber wins the Cy Young, it would give the Indians a third post season award winner, after Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes brought home Silver Slugger awards. Way back on October 1st, I speculated that Brantley and Gomes would bring home the Silver Slugger awards, and true to form, they did.

Brantley is entering his prime, is wrapped up via a new contract through 2017, and may have some more upside to talk about in the coming years before it’s all said and done. He’ll be 30 when his contract ends with Cleveland.

Like Brantley, Gomes also signed a long-term deal that will keep him in Cleveland through 2019. He’ll be 32 during his free agent year.

This team is wrapped up for multiple years, and if it all clicks, it could be special.

Ponder this: you could argue that Brantley and Gomes aren’t the top two hitters on this team. You could argue that Carlos Santana is, and you could equally say that Jason Kipnis has that type of upside as well. What would happen if all four clicked in the same season?

What would happen if Jose Ramirez is the on base and speed machine he was in the minors?

What happens if Lonnie is the guy from last year, and not all those others? What happens if the starters are at the foot of the mountain, and not just wandering about, without a Sherpa?

What if this year, the Indians underachieved, even though we think they overachieved?

Look…I know that’s a stretch statement from the outside looking in. Many will point to that rotation and say, “Luck.” I might be pointing too.

But what if we’re wrong?

The Indians front office didn’t make a move for a starter, presumably because they didn’t have the money. They did spend money on David Murphy, but was he more important than the presumed need for a starter?

I just can’t shake this thought that these Indians don’t have to do a whole lot this offseason to really turn a corner next year.

They may have everything they need, starting-wise, right in front of their face.

That’s pretty damn scary.

The Rearviewmirror: Dear Greg Little, when the Browns drafted you, I remember thinking that while talented, the Browns made a mistake. Oh, you were talented, but there was trouble in North Carolina after you got kicked off the team. You proceeded to drop your way right outta Cleveland.

Rumor has it that you play for a team in the NFL, and that you are ready to make Cleveland pay for the sins of cutting you.

Well, Mr. Little, let me know when you actually play against the Browns, and I’ll…wait…what?

He already played?

Oh…

…must have missed it.

Just like when he played here.

See you Greg Little, and if I were you, I’d start practicing this phrase for your future employment, “Welcome to McDonalds, can I help you?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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