How will end affect LeBron's decision?

BOSTON -- When he woke up the day after, LeBron James had to have two pressing matters on his mind.

The world cares about only one of them -- where he is going to play next season -- and it wants to know right now. For so many NBA fans, especially those in some massive markets without much of a team to root for during this season, the potential James transaction was the story of the season while his actual play was just a side distraction.

But James has something else to ponder, and he probably can't make a free-agency decision until he comes to terms with it. That is, what exactly happened to him in the defeat to the Celtics, and how much did it derail his current Cavs teammates?

Only when he comes to terms with that is it likely that James will completely understand his position. Then he can consider how the Cavs' end affects his choice.

It is still a mystery why James played the way he did in several games in the Boston series, especially Game 5, when he uncharacteristically became detached in such a bizarre and unexpected way that it produced 48 hours of national pondering.

James' strained and bruised elbow no doubt had an impact on him, with numbness and discomfort coming and going without warning. It partially explains why James turned the ball over 27 times in the series, 22 of them coming in the four losses, when perhaps the elbow was acting up and affecting his feel.

Dribbling the ball off his foot without pressure and inexplicably looking to lesser-equipped teammates while in transition, as he did Thursday night, instead of blasting to the rim, told the story of his troubles.

When given one more chance to explain how the elbow injury -- which never threatened to cause James to miss a playoff game but did worry him over the last 10 days of the regular season -- bothered him, James admitted he'd need some reflection.

"Well, I got a lot of time to think about it now," he said.

The reason that introspection as well as consideration of his substandard play -- even if he's held to a high standard -- is needed for a decision about free agency is because James is at a critical point. He has to decide just how good his Cavs are and how they compare to his likely suitors.

Less than a month ago, the Cavs looked like a legit title contender. They had enjoyed a fantastic regular season. They were a combined 4-0 against the Lakers and Suns and 2-0 against the Magic when Shaquille O'Neal was in the lineup. Those are regular-season games, indeed, but there was plenty of confidence that they had turned it around compared to last season's 66-win team, whose struggles against contenders foretold postseason trouble.

After O'Neal's return from injury mussed the Cavs' rotation and rhythm in the playoffs, they were only a visage of a contender.

Eliminating the final four games of the regular season from consideration as the Cavs shut the team down with the league's best record in hand, they lost only four games all season by nine points or more. In the playoffs, they lost four games to the Celtics by at least nine and twice were blown out on their home floor, something that hadn't happened in the past five seasons.

Last season when the Cavs were branded failures against the Magic, they lost two games of the games on shots in the final seconds. Two years ago when giving the eventual champ Celtics the stiffest test in the postseason, they never lost by more than seven points. Three years ago, they were in the NBA Finals.

With that data, it is hard to say the Cavs have made progress since getting swept by the Spurs. A case can be made that even with upgrades to the roster thanks to lopsided trades by general manager Danny Ferry and the buck-the-trend spending by owner Dan Gilbert, the Cavs' playoff shortcomings over the last two seasons have earned them a "regression" tag.

"It was a disappointing finish to the season to say the least but at the same time we had a great time together," James said. "We'll see what happens."

The 127 regular-season wins over the last two years have helped get James two Most Valuable Player awards and elevation to top-dog status. But they are just regular-season wins, and the Cavs have earned a reputation now as a regular-season champ, which they don't hand out rings for.

That reality, which James certainly is coming to grips with now, is something that may work against the Cavs as they try to re-sign him.

The Cavs' greatest pitch is that they can continue to put him in position to compete for titles because of their more impressive résumé over the last several seasons. But they haven't been able to deliver for James for various reasons, and as the Celtics showed this season, they don't appear to be very close.

All of which could open the door, which looked mostly shut for James just weeks ago, wider when July comes. As he headed away from another spoiled high playoff seeding into some days of reflection before the summer circus, James already seemed to be considering the fallout.

"You have high expectations going into the postseason," James said. "You never can predict the future, but at the same time, you hope for things much brighter than what's going on right now."

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can read more of his coverage at www.cleveland.com/cavs.