LeBron's goal for next season: "Win the championship"
CLEVELAND -- Less than a day after losing a Game 7 that he has no plans to ever watch on tape, LeBron James stated without a moment's hesitation his goal for next season:
"Win the championship," James said Monday. "Simple as that."
As James learned, he can't win one by himself.
Posting incredible statistics nearly every time he took the floor, James pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers deeper into the NBA playoffs than they had been since 1992, when he was 7 years old.
But a merry month of May in Cleveland ended in ugliness on Sunday, when a 79-61 loss to the Detroit Pistons exposed the Cavs for what they still are: a one-man team.
With a date with Miami in the Eastern Conference finals dangling in front of him, James was abandoned in the final game of his first postseason as a pro when he made more field goals (11) than his teammates (9).
Still, James came away feeling good about the future.
"We did a great job this year of making the playoffs, but our goal is higher now," James said. "We've got to mentally focus on getting better this offseason and come back and win the championship."
Cleveland's first order of offseason business -- and arguably the biggest transaction in franchise history -- is to sign James to a contract extension.
On July 1, the Cavaliers can offer him a five-year, $75 million deal that would lock him up through the 2011-12 season. James will play next year under his four-year rookie contract before any new deal would kick in.
If he signs the extension, and all signs point to him doing so, James would spend at least his first nine seasons with Cleveland. And, even at the end of that stretch, he would be only 27.
"Of course I want to stay," James said. "This season has really put me in a good frame of mind as far as me being a part of this organization for a long time. The great teammates that I have and a coaching staff that I really enjoy being around."
James, who will play for the United States in the world championships in Japan, doesn't expect any contract talks to drag on.
"Hopefully not," he said. "I think we can come up with an agreement that's suitable for both sides. It shouldn't take longer than it has to."
Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry delivered a classic understatement when he was asked about James' contract.
"Obviously, we want him back for a long time," Ferry said. "LeBron is a big part of our future and he will hopefully be with us for a very long time."
The Cavs are not permitted to discuss the contract with James or his agent, Leon Rose, until July 1. However, Ferry indicated that the club will be prepared when the clock strikes midnight on that date.
"I'm sure he'll be getting a call or someone will be knocking on his door," Ferry said.
As much as anything, the 2005-06 season was dedicated to the Cavaliers showing James they were serious about progressing toward an NBA championship -- or many.
And, by winning 50 games in the regular season, making the playoffs for the first time in eight years, advancing past Washington in round one, and pushing the Pistons to the brink, they did.
"I didn't think we could be this good this fast," James said. "With eight new players, a whole new coaching staff, a whole new organization. I knew with the offseason acquisitions that we were going to be a good team. We've come a long way in the last year."
Once he acquires James' signature, Ferry's focus will turn to getting his 21-year-old superstar more help. The Cavaliers went on a buying binge in free agency last summer and won't have as much to spend. Ferry has a mid-level exception, a biannual exception and three draft picks -- a first-rounder and two seconds -- as tools to acquire more talent.
There are also decisions to make on unrestricted free agent forward Drew Gooden and guard Flip Murray, both of whom played well in spurts but could be elsewhere next season.
"I want to be a Cavalier. This was my favorite year," said Gooden, who averaged 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds during the season but didn't play as many minutes in the playoffs. "I did my job when I was out there."
The Cavs were 18-7 with Murray in the starting lineup after they acquired him in a midseason trade. But he shot just 22 percent (12-for-55) against the Pistons.
Ferry spoke highly of both players.
"We're very interested in keeping Drew in our uniform," Ferry said. "Flip really helped us win games when we needed to. We're exploring bringing him back, too."
James actively recruited free agents to Cleveland last summer. He's not planning to be as hands on this time around, but with a simple swipe of his pen, James could make the Cavs appealing.
"Me signing here, I hope that wouldn't bother anybody else's chances of coming here," he said. "But that's something that I need to sit down with my agent and the Cavaliers and try to get something done."
As for his game, there's little else for James to improve. After an MVP-worthy regular season, he showed he could be just as good in the playoffs by recording two triple-doubles and averaging 30.8 points -- only Michael Jordan's 33.4 average is higher.
James also became the first player to average at least 30 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the playoffs since Oscar Robertson (1963).
He's far from perfect, though. This season, James relied far too much on his outside jumper when he should have been planting his 6-foot-8, 255-pound frame near the basket. He can become a better on-the-ball defender as well.
And, he has to assert himself more by taking over games in the fourth quarter, a trait shared by Jordan and other greats.
"I think I've reached a point where every part of my game needs tuning up now," James said. "I don't think I need to add no more parts. I think I just need to tune everything up and just be more complete, offensively and defensively."
If he can, an NBA title might be more than a goal.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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