- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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CLEVELAND -- The Cavaliers have been an epic coming-of-age film over the last several years, with you-know-who playing the leading man-child.
Back in 2003, it was as if they'd just gotten their driver's license and the keys to a brand-new muscle car named LeBron James. Of course they didn't exactly know what to do with it. The high jinks and growing pains followed.
Three years later the organization feels like an NBA grown-up. And like any newly minted rebuilding graduate, they want to quickly enter the real world of contenders.
The chart of progress has been steady. In James' first season, the Cavs won 20 more games than the sickly, lottery-winning outfit from the year before. In Year 2, they put up 42 wins for their first winning season in seven years, but lost a tiebreaker for the last playoff spot.
That made last season the official breakout as James flourished into one of the league's ultra-elite players while pulling his team along. He was named first team All-NBA, All-Star Game MVP and finished second in the MVP voting at the end of the season. The Cavs won 50 games, grabbed their first playoff spot in eight years and won their first playoff series in 13 years.
Now they're all back and, as any clichéd movie script would read, looking for more.
"I think we can get to the Finals, I think we can win it all," James said. "That's what's on my mind right now, trying to win the whole thing. You shouldn't be in the NBA if you don't want to."
You can make a case for it being a realistic cause and for it being foolhardy hubris. But in a town that hasn't won a major professional sports title since 1964 and has a famous self-loathing attitude when it comes to its plight, being able to seriously believe is a major step.
Just a season ago, the Cavs were hoping just to get into the postseason. Considering more than half of the NBA's 30 teams make it, that didn't seem like such a heady goal after all this time. But the strong taste of success in April and May, especially the oh-so-close upset of the Pistons in the second round -- be it true or not, most Clevelanders now say they were "a rebound away in Game 6" -- has given everyone wings.
"Last year they just wanted us to make the playoffs, this year they want us to win a championship," said guard Eric Snow, who is James' co-captain and the only player on the Cavs' roster to have played a significant role on a Finals team in his career. "It doesn't sound like much, but that's a major difference. That's what you want, that should be the goal."
The Cavs' plan to do it, for the moment, is simple.
Not unlike the reigning champs in Miami or the San Antonio model to which general manager Danny Ferry and coach Mike Brown subscribe, the offseason goal was to achieve stability.
In his first three seasons, James had three head coaches and a constantly changing lineup. Last season there were eight new players in training camp; the season before there were seven. This summer the Cavs locked up James through 2010 and Drew Gooden through 2009, assuring the same starting lineup will be back. The only free-agent signing expected to be in the rotation is veteran backup guard David Wesley.
The aim is for a closer-knit group that has a familiarity with each other and the system. The early season result has been an expansion of James' role as leader.
Feeling as comfortable as ever and building off the experience as the co-captain of Team USA over the summer, James has shifted into a new gear. In the early workouts he led the Cavs in wind sprints. He's the one leading the end-of-practice and pregame huddles. All of which dovetails with his already commanding presence on the sideline during games.
He's not been afraid to make suggestions to Brown on which plays to run and even what personnel to use in various game situations.
"Ultimately when your best player becomes your best example, the better team you will be," said Snow, who played in the same backcourt with Allen Iverson. "It actually makes it easier for the head coach because he's demanding things be done the right way."
Or at least that is the plan. The rub is that the lofty expectations could become a weight to the still-developing Cavs. It is hard to believe James can carry any more burden than he did a year ago, when Larry Hughes missed 46 games with two finger surgeries, and free-agent pickups Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones had off years shooting the ball. Even the steady Zydrunas Ilgauskas let down in the playoffs, leaving James to do all the heavy lifting.
James won two games on last-second shots against the Wizards in the first round, when he averaged 35 points and nearly 48 minutes a game. When the Cavs' painfully basic pick-and-roll offense wheezed in Game 7 against the Pistons, James had 27 points and the rest of the team netted a whimpering 34.
Brown has installed some new wrinkles into the offense, Jones and Marshall reported to camp in better shape, Hughes has proclaimed himself healthy, and precautions are being taken and promises made to not overplay James. All of that needs to fall in line if the Cavs genuinely expect to contend for an Eastern Conference crown.
"We owe it to ourselves to work to help LeBron out and try to get the best out of him, because winning a championship is our goal," said Brown, who won a title as a Spurs assistant. "If we can do that, I like our chances."
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal.
7hMichael C. Wright