Browns GM hopes to return next season


Browns GM hopes to return next season

BEREA, Ohio (AP) Tom Heckert has rebuilt the Browns, infusing them with talent and adding depth to a roster with none.

And now, just as the young team he's put together is reaching its potential and still in the AFC playoff hunt, Heckert could be down to his final weeks as Cleveland's general manager.

By season's end, Heckert may be replaced by new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner, who are likely to overhaul Cleveland's front office and coaching staff.

``You know, it's going to be disappointing,'' Heckert said Friday when asked about the prospect of not returning. ``But I do get it. It's just one of those things. There's a variety of reasons why that could happen, but I'm OK with that. I don't know how else to react. If it doesn't work out, I can't just sit around and pout about it, I've got to go try to do it somewhere else.

``We'll see what happens.''

These are days of uncertainty for the Browns (5-8), who take a three-game winning streak into Sunday's matchup with the Washington Redskins. Heckert's future is in doubt as is that of second-year coach Pat Shurmur, who can bolster his chances to stay by winning out.

Haslam and Banner won't make any decisions until after the finale at Pittsburgh, and Heckert knows there's a chance they may go in a different direction.

If that's the case, team captains - Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson - said the Browns would be making a big mistake in letting Heckert go.

``It would be really upsetting,'' Thomas said. ``You just look at the track record he had in Philadelphia and he's been such a big part of this upswing that we're on now with all the young talent on this roster. It would be a shame if we let him go anywhere else.''

Said Jackson, ``I'll be the first guy in line to support Tom to stay here with the Browns.''

Heckert doesn't know what's ahead. He expects to have an answer about his future ``right away'' after the season. He doesn't know if Haslam and Banner have already made up their minds.

It's possible that Heckert, who spent four seasons as the Eagles GM, could stay on if he relinquishes some power. He said having control of the 53-man roster is essential, but that it wouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker.

``I'm not going to lie. It's important,'' he said. ``It's why I came here. I'm not saying it's an end-all, but it's very important to me.''

Heckert has ``final say'' authority written into his current contract. It allows him to draft, chase free agents and work with the coach on training camp decisions without intervention. However, Heckert pointed out that most decisions are a collaborative.

``In my 24 years or whatever it's been, I've never had one issue on cutdown,'' Heckert said. ``Now, who has the say on the draft and all the other stuff, it's written in my contract. For me, it's who picks the players and who makes the trades, all of that stuff. That's the stuff that I think is important.''

Banner is restructuring the Browns so that everyone in the front office reports to him. He spent 19 years with Philadelphia, where he worked with Heckert, who said the two still get along.

``It's been great. We talk about whatever,'' he said. ``No matter what happens, Joe and I are fine.''

Heckert said he honestly doesn't have a sense about his future, and he believes waiting is best for everyone involved.

``It's the right thing to do,'' he said ``I can handle two weeks.''

Asked if the Browns should keep him and Shurmur, Heckert nearly came out of his chair with his response.

``YES!!!'' he said, laughing.

Heckert seems at ease despite the unrest around him.

Since joining the Browns in 2010 - he was the first person hired by former team president Mike Holmgren - Heckert has transformed Cleveland's roster through the draft and a few key free-agent signings. This year alone, he selected running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz - who have each started all 13 games - in the first three rounds.

In July's supplemental draft, he gambled and picked wide receiver Josh Gordon, who had been kicked off the team at Baylor for marijuana use and sat out a season in Utah. After a slow start, Gordon has developed into Cleveland's top playmaker with 18 catches in his past three games.

The Browns have turned their season around, and Thomas believes Heckert deserves the credit.

``You can't point to anything he's really done wrong as far as all the moves he's made,'' Thomas said. ``Bringing in talent, building through the draft, everybody he has drafted is a solid contributor and then you find your diamonds in the rough in rounds 4-7, and he's done that. He's really turned this roster over.''

Heckert has been touched by the support he's gotten from Browns fans, some of whom have begun a campaign to keep him. The uncertainty has been hard on his scouting staff and family, including his parents, who fly in from Florida for every home game. Heckert's father, Tom, spent five seasons as a scout for the Browns in the `80s.

Cleveland seems on the cusp of a long, successful run.

Heckert started it, and he wants to finish it.

``Of course,'' he said. ``I really enjoy the city and I really enjoy this team, so that would be the ideal situation.''

NOTES: Speaking for the first time since he was hospitalized, guard Jason Pinkston feels grateful to be alive following a health scare that ended his season. Pinkston was hospitalized in October following a game against Cincinnati with blood clots in his lungs. He said doctors told him if he had taken a hit in the game that ``I could've probably died then so I'm all happy about it that I'm still here.'' He has been working out and plans to play next season. .... For the second week, the Browns did not have any players listed as ``out,'' ``doubtful,'' or ``questionable'' on their injury report.


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Wizards running out of answers, but players don't seem to want trades

Wizards running out of answers, but players don't seem to want trades

As the Wizards have shown this year, and really since the beginning of last season, there is one particular type of NBA team that gives them trouble. It's the team that plays collectively, with toughness and an edge on defense.

The Wizards allow their opponents to set the tone and the aggressive ones that punch them first usually don't get a punch back.

So far this season, blue-collar teams like the Grizzlies, Clippers and Nets have given the Wizards fits. In those losses, Washington was just trying to keep up, hopelessly reacting on too many plays just a half-or-full-step slower than they needed to.

Though the Blazers are a high-scoring team led by big-name stars, they possess the qualities that expose the Wizards when they are in their most listless form. On Sunday, Portland came out with want-to on defense and a commitment to moving the ball to find open shooters on offense. 

That simple combination was too much for the Wizards, who let the game slip away early, trailing by as many as 20 points in the first quarter alone.

It was hard to watch for everyone on the Washington side; for fans, the coaches and also the players who are losing patience as they grasp for answers to what will fix their persistent woes.

The prevailing message from head coach Scott Brooks' postgame press conference and from the locker room was that they are actively searching for a solution, but that they have no clear sense what that solution is.

"It's embarrassing,” Brooks said, citing effort and energy like he often has this season. “Just trying to figure that out. It's on me."

"I'm not sure. We have to figure something out," forward Markieff Morris said.

"Honestly, I really don't have an answer," forward Jeff Green said, genuinely perplexed.

As the Wizards wilt at 5-11 and in last place, the general consensus from those on the court and the bench seems to be that no major changes need to be made. Brooks suggested he needs to find "five guys on the court that are playing for their team." But he says that all the time and has ever since he took the job before the 2016-17 season.

It doesn't mean wholesale changes are coming.

Guard Bradley Beal pleaded the fifth when asked if trades or firings need to be made.

"I have no idea. All I can do is my job and just like everybody else, and just come in and try to get better every day. At the end of the day, that's Ted [Leonsis'] job, Ernie [Grunfeld's] job to make those decisions," he said.

Morris and guard John Wall each expressed confidence in the players already on the roster.

“I don't think so," Wall said of potentially breaking up the core. "We can still figure it out."

"It's not time for a fire sale," Morris told NBC Sports Washington.

The best insight into what is plaguing the Wizards came from backup guard Austin Rivers. Though he can't put a finger on it, either, he sees some bad signs.

"Our team is like loaded with talent and we're losing game after game. You just start to question it," he said. 

"Guys are like tentative now when they're on the floor. You can see it. You guys can watch it and see it. It doesn't even take a basketball expert to watch... When you lose, guys start getting unsure. We're running and our spacing is terrible. It's just a snowball effect."

Rivers, like Green, went out of his way to say Brooks wasn't the root of it, that it's on the players. He also highlighted his backcourt partner Tomas Satoransky as someone who was exempt from their issues.

"Sato is definitely not the problem. Sato doesn't do anything wrong," Rivers said.

Satoransky was one of the few Wizards players who came out of Sunday's defeat with reasons to hold their chin up walking into the locker room afterwards. He had 10 points, seven assists and was +22 in the box score. 

Like Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr. played well. He had 19 points, four rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He was +14. Others like Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr., two youngsters who only played when the game was out of hand, provided a spark of energy off the bench and helped cut the Blazers lead down to single digits late in the game after Portland led by as many as 29.

Brooks has been wary of major lineup adjustments since he arrived in Washington, but it's never been quite this bad. At 5-11, this start is even worse than two years ago, his first season on the job, when they rallied to win 49 games.

If their losing continues, Brooks will have to do something drastic at some point. Maybe that is moving Oubre into the starting lineup and taking Morris out to help guide the second unit. Morris could thrive as a small-ball center, while Oubre could help set a tone defensively with the starters. 

Oubre is their most energetic and active defender. Perhaps that would rub off on Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr.

It's clear the Wizards need to change something and the rotation is the logical first place to start. Rivers, for one, wonders if things will get better if they simply stick to the current plan.

"You're just like 'stay with it and it will turn around.' But when? You're digging yourself a farther and farther hole," he said.



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Blazers claim culture is king while Wizards search for fixes 

Blazers claim culture is king while Wizards search for fixes 

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- NBA franchises go stale. It happens.

Setbacks occur on and off the court. Some obstacles, like falling short of playoff expectations, might shake a franchise to its core. Others fall back on an established ethos that sets expectations and ideals so that when tough times arrive, restoring balance isn’t arduous.

The Portland Trailblazers believe their culture keeps them flying high.

Portland started a run of five consecutive postseason appearances in 2013 after a combined 61 wins the prior two seasons. Twice it won a round, but never more than one.

Last season seemed like a chance for another series triumph, but the No. 3 seed was stunned by New Orleans during a four-game sweep. Such frustration might send some teams into a tizzy, lead outsiders to call for heads. The Blazers kept their cool. The core remained.

Following Sunday’s 119-109 win over the Wizards, Portland (11-5) moved percentage points ahead of Golden State for first in the Western Conference. 

“I think it just shows the character of our team,” All-Star guard Damian Lillard said of Portland’s resiliency shortly after scoring 40 points against Washington. “That’s from our coaches to the training staff to players on the team. We enjoy the process of what we’re building together. We’re committed to each other. That’s the biggest thing. We all want to have success and we all know that doesn’t happen overnight.”

The turn began in 2012 with the arrival of several leaders, including Lillard, general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts. Another foundational move came in 2013 with the selection of a second consecutive first-round guard, C.J. McCollum.

That backcourt pairing, similar to the Wizards’ duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, became the headliners, the tone-setters. They learned how to win, how to lead.

“We have a lot of good guys on the team. Damian and C.J. are good friends. They’re both very talented players,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They complement each other well. I don’t know. Maybe I just take it for granted, but I try not to. We’ve got really good culture and it’s led by those two guys.”

Forward Meyers Leonard, Portland’s second lottery pick after Lillard in 2012, also promoted the power of the franchise’s values in keeping the team from imploding when struggles arise.

“What’s expected of you every single day, both as a person and a player. Guys show up to the facility ready to work. It’s a good environment. Everyone enjoys being there. Everyone works hard. … Getting work in before practice, getting work in after practice. Being willing to compete in practice and never take anything personal because we know we want to get better. That all translates to the game.”

While the Blazers talked cohesion, the Wizards spent another evening looking for answers. Washington, which trailed 32-12 and by 21 at halftime, fell to 5-11.

“It was terrible,” Beal said.

“You don't win games by just playing, you win games by competing,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “And you win games by competing for your teammates, and you don't win games any other way. There is no team in this league that can win games if you don't compete for your teammates. And I got to find five guys that are willing to do that.”

Washington started the season 1-6 with its only victory coming at Portland Oct. 22, 125-124 in overtime. Markieff Morris led the Wizards with 28 points, and Otto Porter blocked Lillard’s potential game-winning shot at the buzzer. Portland’s starting guards shot a dismal 12-for-46 from the field, though Lillard still scored 29.

He wasn’t particularly efficient in the rematch either (12 for 29 field goals) but some positive aspects continued. Lillard’s tenacity showed especially Sunday with Portland coming off back-to-back losses. In both games, Lillard made 13 of 15 free throws. Whether the shots were falling or not, he decided this was a game where laying back wasn’t an option.

“We wanted to come in and be sharp. I knew that being a leader on this team, I had to come out here and kind of enforce that and impose my will and be aggressive and assertive and live with the result,” Lillard said. “That was my mindset coming in and I was going to keep my foot on that gas until there was no time left to make sure we got it done.”

They did and now sit in the reified air, looking down at Golden State in the standings. From the Blazers’ perspective, this result wasn’t about a good night’s work, but long-running connections.

“The more you connect on a personal level with your teammates, your coaches, with everybody the more success you’re going to have. The more you’re gonna want to work,” Leonard said. “The more you’re going to compete as hard as you possibly can. It all comes back to culture. When we get free agents, it’s what’s expected. It’s fun to be around. It’s fun to come to work. That’s what I would say is the biggest thing.”