The Cavaliers made no major additions this season. They’re missing key players from a year ago. And that doesn’t even begin to mention their preseason, which was … let’s be kind and say it was ugly. Look on the floor Wednesday night, though, and the reason they cannot be ignored remains: LeBron James.
Go ahead and write off the Cavaliers this season.
They made no major additions. They’re missing key players from a year ago. And that doesn’t even begin to mention their preseason, which was … let’s be kind and say it was ugly.
Look on the floor Wednesday night, though, and the reason they cannot be ignored remains: LeBron James.
“It’s the best I’ve felt as an individual going into a season,” James said Monday.
A popular preseason pick to win his first Most Valuable Player award, James sounds confident and determined. He said he doesn’t feel pressure and just wants to win.
“I believe that our team is going to win games because of who I am,” James said. “I’m not going to allow our team not to play well.”
Based on his play with Team USA and other work in the offseason, James is walking the talk.
“I could easily come out here and not do nothing in the summertime and still be a very good player,” he said. “But I want to be the best at this game, and it takes that dedication in the offseason.”
That’s why the 6-foot-8 All-Star forward enters his fifth season playing perhaps his best basketball.
“He really took his work and everything he’s doing on the court to a whole new level this year,” Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry said at the start of camp.
The Cavs will need him at his highest level as they try for an encore to their best season ever. After a surprising run to the NBA Finals last season, this preseason looked like a step backward. The Cavs went 1-6, finishing with back-to-back blowout losses in Toronto and Boston.
The absence of restricted free agents Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao seemed like a distraction. On the floor, the Cavs never looked in synch. James played well, but his team’s poor play is a concern. He knows it’s not as easy as turning on a switch to play better once the season begins.
“We have to find a way to clean up some of the things we had going on in the preseason,” he said.
James came to camp a month after an impressive performance with Team USA in the FIBA Americas tournament.
The U.S. won the gold medal, going 10-0. He led the star-studded team in assists (4.7) and was second in scoring (18.1) in just 22 minutes a game.
“He’s a smart player,” Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said in an e-mail last week. “He calculates. He is virtually unstoppable offensively. He finishes plays. He takes pride in his defensive effort. He was a great teammate. I love the way he plays and respects the game, and I have loved coaching him for the past two years.”
James has left quite an impression on the Hall of Fame coach from Duke University during their time together with Team USA the last two years.
“Coach K raves about LeBron and how much enjoys coaching him and what a special player he is,” said Ferry, a former star at Duke for Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski saw James star at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and knew he was a special talent. But watching him play and coaching him are two different things.
“It was hard to understand how gifted he was and what a physical player he is until I had the opportunity to work with him,” Krzyzewski said.
“There are no limits on how great he can become. He is also a leader and really has a fantastic feel for the game.”
James showed that feel in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals last June.
He destroyed the Pistons as a scorer in Game 5 in a performance that will be talked about for years. Two nights later, he didn’t force his offense. Instead, he was content to feed teammate Daniel Gibson when he got the hot hand as the Cavs closed out Detroit.
He showed that feel again with Team USA.
He took apart Uruguay as a shooter, going 11-for-11 from the floor in a half to score 26 points in a rout. He then deferred to teammates Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony the next game. In the gold medal game against Argentina, he saw the opportunity to be a shooter again. He went 8-for-11 from 3-point range in scoring 31 points in another romp.
Yes, James was about more than basketball during the summer. He welcomed home a new son, probably even relaxed a bit, and hosted the ESPYs in July and “Saturday Night Live” in September.
But he also spent time honing his game.
“I think I have a better work ethic and a better mentality about getting better as an individual … just knowing I need to continue to challenge myself to get better,” James said.
Teammates have taken note. Gibson, a second-year point guard, said if James works that hard “everybody needs to do it.”
“If your leader is in the gym, your leader is working hard, trying to outwork everybody, it’s only right that we follow. … You see what he’s trying to do, and where he’s trying to take the franchise.”
Former Ohio State sharpshooter Chris Jent, a Cavs assistant, worked with James on his jump shot. Anyone watching Team USA play late in the summer saw the results.
Team USA went 10-0, as James shot 62.2 percent from the shorter international 3-point distance and 76 percent overall from the floor.
“Those figures are off the charts,” Krzyzewski said. Coach K also called James’ defense “a major factor in the team’s success.”
Cavaliers Head Coach Mike Brown took note of how James handled himself on defense.
“He communicated extremely well,” Brown said. “That’s him getting better defensively, and in the same breath, that’s him getting better with his leadership skills.”
His leadership could get tested if the Cavs struggle early, but James sounded ready for the challenge.
“I won’t let those guys not work hard in practice, I won’t let them not work hard in the games because I want to win,” James said. “That’s the only reason I am here. I don’t want to do nothing else but win. It’s all about team success to me.”
Reach Repository sports writer Chris Beaven at (330) 580-8345 or e-mail email@example.com