- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- It's late afternoon in the Cavaliers' cavernous new practice facility in suburban Cleveland. A training camp workout has been over for an hour and just one player is left on the courts, the swishes of his makes and the occasional loud curse when he misses several in a row echoing off the walls.
It's been four hours since the start of practice and five hours since LeBron James pulled one of his luxury cars into the climate-controlled underground garage at the $25 million complex.
By the time James goes through his intense post-practice stretching routine, maybe a short run on the underwater treadmill, a shower and a massage to keep his hamstrings loose and his lower back limber, it's a full day's work on his game and his body.
At age 22 and entering his fifth NBA season, James has never been in better shape or worked harder on his game at this stage of the season. In theory, this is good news for the Cavs: A motivated superstar is perhaps the grandest weapon in the modern NBA. Especially for James, who is still working to fix flaws in his game.
But when it comes to the chances of the Cavs, who have proven themselves an elite NBA team despite guffaws from observers, it isn't really about LeBron. It is always about his supporting cast. Which is why even a merited discussion about what James has done to better himself over the summer is mitigated by what the Cavs have done to themselves since the Finals wrapped. The answer is negative.
Like many teams who have spent aggressively over the past several summers, the Cavs were tapped out and near the luxury tax this time around. It took them out of the free-agent game for the most part. But in a generally tight market, they also played a hard line with their own restricted free agents, Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic. Unable to come to terms, both Pavlovic and Varejao bucked what was considered the last resort of taking a one-year qualifying offers and stayed home in Europe and Brazil, respectively, making the outcome unpredictable. The holdout situation is virtually unprecedented since the modern contract rules came into effect in 1997.
So when training camp opened, the Cavs were missing two key pieces of their unexpected run through the playoffs last season. Pavlovic, the starter at shooting guard, played a key role in limiting Vince Carter in the series victory over the Nets. Varejao and his whirling dervish style is most effective in the playoffs. His needling and ultimate unnerving of Rasheed Wallace in the conference finals helped turn the tide in the Cavs' favor.
But there are other issues. Eric Snow, the team's best perimeter defender, is down for six weeks with a knee injury. With Pavlovic and Snow out, Damon Jones becomes more important. But Jones doesn't want to be in Cleveland anymore, angry he lost playing time last season to Pavlovic and rookie standout Daniel Gibson. He asked to be traded in June and showed up still upset and still wanting out.
"By no stretch of the imagination am I happy," Jones said when making his demands public last week.
Not everyone is unhappy, but it is safe to say no one is thrilled. The downer Finals performance left them defending their run more often than they seemed to enjoy it. General manager Danny Ferry's efforts to get a potential difference-making point guard (Mike Bibby) and a versatile big man (Luis Scola) over the summer fell short. At the moment, the Cavs are not only unimproved, but less than whole.
"I wish we had been able to add some more pieces over the summer," said James, who raised some eyebrows in Cleveland when he extolled the virtues of playing with Jason Kidd on Team USA in August. That may be a pipe dream, but the Cavs have started nine different point guards alongside James, and they are still searching.
At this point, though, James would gladly take just having Varejao and Pavlovic back. He's had good chemistry with Varejao since the moment he arrived here three years ago and went to the coaching staff to push for Pavlovic last season after being impressed by him in practice.
"We are missing two key guys right now and we can't afford to waste much time," James said. "They're very important to our team."
The news isn't all bleak at Cavs camp, though. James arrived in excellent shape after a summer of hard work. After the Spurs had used his inconsistent jumper against him by playing off him and daring him to shoot during the Finals -- he shot just 35 percent in the four games -- James swore he would improve.
After looking at several different shooting coaches, James practically had Cavs assistant coach Chris Jent live with him over the summer. Jent flew around the country on James' private jet to various locales and worked on shooting whenever James got time around sponsor commitments and vacations. The results showed with Team USA, when he averaged 18.1 points and shot a shocking 62 percent from 3-point range.
"LeBron could've just taken the summer off and nobody would've blamed him," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "He's showing a lot of dedication, and that's what you want from your leaders."
James wasn't the only one to have an active summer. Larry Hughes hired former Cavs great Mark Price to help him with his shooting. Gibson took five days off and then started two-a-days with John Lucas in Houston. Shannon Brown played in a summer league and worked out in Las Vegas with development specialist Tim Grgurich.
How any of those offseason efforts -- along with the ultimate fates of Varejao and Pavlovic -- affect the team has yet to be seen. Then there's a new offense, the third in as many years, being installed by Brown. And whether Ferry is able to pull off the major trade he's been working on for months. And just how the Cavs cope with an improved conference in defending their title.
But the Cavs, and James especially, are used to being questioned. He's always given confident answers and often has backed it up in his short career. So even with karma seeming to turn on them, he's not backing down.
"I don't think people respect our team right now, but they didn't respect us last year either," James said. "We're going to take some time to figure it out and we're going to have some losses, but we know what it takes to win when it matters. We've proven that."
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal