Best Of 2006

After fighting to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs have finally lived up to their promise. But it was the way they pulled it off that earned them this title: They did it with a rookie head coach. They got help from unexpected places, like Flip Murray and Anderson Varejao. And even in losing, they offered plenty of fun for postseasons to come, as fans can now embrace Detroit as a new rival.
When Danny Ferry hired a rookie head coach, he was counting on three veteran free agents to make the transition easier. Instead, Larry Hughes missed much of the year due to injury, while Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones barely showed up. That left LeBron and . . . well, that's about it. But Brown, who at 36 is the league's second-youngest coach, persevered with class. He slowly put in place the defensive building blocks that carried the Cavs all the way to a seventh semifinal game against the Pistons. And while Brown could stand to get more creative on offense, he was smart enough to get the ball into the right hands at the end of close games. Best of all, Brown's management created a drama-free locker room -- which in today's NBA is a worthy feat in and of itself.
After he spent three of his first four seasons injured, Cavs fans wondered whether Z would ever live up to his incredibly cool name. But since getting healthy in 2002, Ilgauskas has been a steady offensive force, drilling midrange jumpers with guardlike consistency and averaging more than 15 points and close to eight boards a game. And last year, while LeBron emerged as an MVP candidate, Z often was the only other cog in the Cavs' offensive machine.
Last November, NBA Commissioner David Stern declared that Dan Gilbert is the kind of owner who will lose sleep over both his team's record and the fans' experience. Not so far. Gilbert has made a pair of winning hires in GM Danny Ferry and head coach Mike Brown. Fans and staff alike wear Anderson Varejao wigs. Now the only question at the Q is: Finals next year?<
With the Indians' season lost to a circus of bad pitching and even worse fielding, this won't be a popular pick. But the smart money says that Mark Shapiro is still the best sports exec in town. His roster remains stocked with names like Sizemore, Hafner, and Sabathia. It's the kind of top-flight young talent that's key to competing in mid-market baseball.
The Cavaliers' ascendance from mediocrity to league powerhouse and then heartbreaking defeat against Detroit were all writ in the shot that got them there: not a LeBron slash and dunk, not a Zydrunas baby hook, but Damon Jones, shooting from deep on the bench. With the Cavaliers down by a point and the Wizards poised to seize the momentum, all the defenders swarm to LeBron, while Jones drifts unnoticed into the left corner. One quick pass later, he tosses up the prettiest rainbow jumper of his life and down go the Wizards. The buzzer sounds, and a mob of wine-and-gold jerseys buries Jones on the hardwood.
Yes, it arrived with a corporate swoosh, but it also looked very cool written in the windows downtown when the Cavs were making a surprisingly good showing in the playoffs. The six-story LeBron billboard-- looming like the eyes of Doctor Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby -- is the perfect visual complement. As the mantra of King James' court, the phrase sounds appropriately biblical. Yes, we are all witnesses, and thanks to this year's contract signing, we will continue to be for at least three years to come.
Four home games, four hot teams, and superstars galore. When the Pistons, Clippers, Heat, and Lakers come to town, get thee to the Q.
Rail about the Indians all you want, but the kids can flat-out rake -- and none more majestically than Pronk. For a 29-year-old with just a couple solid seasons to his résumé, Hafner is sure well on his way to racking up veteran numbers. This year alone, he whacked 42 homers, scored 100 runs, drove in 117, and hit .308 before being shelved by injury in early September. Also, he quickly developed that all-important flair for the dramatic, blasting a Major League record-tying six grand slams this season.
For the last two seasons, the Tribe's pitching has been more than suspect. C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Jake Westbrook are solid, but the team needs fourth and fifth arms. Last season the Tribe gave Kevin Millwood a one-year deal, then watched him bolt for Texas after leading the American League in earned-run average. He was replaced with a pair of No. 5 starters, Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson. (Johnson, awful here, lasted two months.) Sowers, the team's top pick in 2004, could be the answer. Though not a power pitcher -- only 54 strikeouts in 97 innings at Triple-A Buffalo -- he rocketed through the farm system. And he won 9 of his 10 starts there, with an ERA of 1.39.