The screeching, a blend of Marvin Gaye and pterodactyl, came from the locker belonging to the NBA's most talented player. LeBron James was crooning again, to himself and anyone else unfortunate enough to be within 150 feet. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, this appeared to be business as usual. They had just routed the Denver Nuggets on the Nuggets' own floor, and if the King wanted to sing, eardrums be damned, well, who was going to argue?
"Pick me up," James shouted, and, suddenly, as if on cue, Delonte West emerged from the shower, ready to give the world its first duet in Jurassic soul.
In spite of their vocal shortcomings, harmony never has been easier to find on the court for James and his Cavaliers. They roll into their Christmas Day meeting with the Washington Wizards having won 23 of their past 25 games, undefeated at home and armed with a league-high scoring margin that's a staggering 13.04 points in the black. Yes, this season, like last, so far has belonged to the Boston Celtics, but don't expect the Cavs to concede much to them anytime soon.
"No matter who we're going against," James said, "we accept the challenge."
James' growing confidence in these Cavs never has been more evident. Most recently, he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst that he'd consider signing an extension with the team this summer, a declaration that no doubt had New York Knicks fans choking on their Sunday brunch.
Never mind that you'll be hard-pressed to find a single person in the NBA who believes James actually will forgo his long-anticipated free agency in 2010 – "Just the next step in his marketing plan," said one rival team executive – it's the thought that counts. For all the speculation about his future, James can promise this much: He likes the direction the Cavaliers are headed, and that's an improvement from a year ago when he spent part of the winter publicly lobbying the franchise to trade for Jason Kidd.
"I want to win," James said then. "I'm not a guy who wants to sit around and wait."
Unable to deliver Kidd, Cavs GM Danny Ferry still shook up the roster, acquiring Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith in a deadline-day deal. Cleveland pushed the Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing, and Ferry went back to work in the offseason, landing guard Mo Williams in a three-team trade with Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. The Cavaliers also tried unsuccessfully to sign James Posey and Nenad Krstic. Even with the addition of Williams, they began the season with a roster that, at first glance, looked like a collection of the elderly, the infirm and the inexact.
Mo Williams: Me-first point guard. Delonte West: Can he play both guard positions? Or neither? Ben Wallace: His best days came and went about three seasons ago. Zydrunas Ilgauskas: How many screws does he have in his left foot? Anderson Varejao: Agent wants him to leave. Wally Szczerbiak: Has he ever had a teammate who liked him? Boobie Gibson: Nice shooter, but fragile. Sasha Pavlovic: Nice shooter, but fragile.
The typical blueprint for a championship team calls for the franchise to identify its superstar, then give him at least one star sidekick. Magic had Kareem and Worthy. Bird had McHale and Parish. MJ had Scottie. Shaq had Kobe. D-Wade had Shaq. Pierce had KG and Ray. LeBron has … Big Z?
What Ferry and Cavs coach Mike Brown learned from their days with the San Antonio Spurs is that the whole indeed can be greater than the sum of its parts. During the Spurs' 2003 championship run, David Robinson was in his last season and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were growing their games. Speedy Claxton, Steve Kerr, Stephen Jackson and Ferry himself all made key contributions during the playoffs. Tim Duncan was surrounded by role players who knew their roles.
These Cavs don't appear too different. Williams' addition allowed West to move to off guard, and James' play-making skills have allowed both the freedom to stretch the floor with their shooting. Szczerbiak, Gibson and Pavlovic give the Cavs three more shooters who can make teams pay for doubling James. Even Ilgauskas has made six 3-pointers this season, more than double what he totaled his first 10 years in the league.
"Everybody is playing to their strengths," Williams said. "There isn't a guy who doesn't get an opportunity to help this team win."
While James has more support, the Cavs are improved because he's improved. He returned from the Beijing Olympics hungrier and stronger; reportedly weighing as much as 270 pounds, still quick as ever. He's averaging 27.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists in barely 36 minutes a game. These days, you also can hear James quarterbacking the defense, shouting to his teammates how to play a pick-and-roll.
"Just look at his eyes," said one West scout. "He's not just trying to win games. He wants to show everyone how much he can dominate."
To better utilize James' skills, the Cavaliers have broadened their offense. When Brown arrived three seasons ago, his first goal was to give the Cavaliers an identity. He estimates that 95 percent of his practice time was spent drilling defense.
"Literally nothing offensively," Brown said. "I just said we'll play mismatches. If we need a basket, we'll spread it out and give the ball to LeBron at the top of the floor."
That's no longer the case. With the addition of Williams and the help of assistant coach John Kuester, Brown's designated offensive coordinator, the Cavaliers have diversified, striking a balance between both ends of the floor. Entering Wednesday, they ranked fourth in the league in scoring and third in shooting.
"This team is ready for that next step," Brown said. "We have the pieces; we have the right mindset."
The synergy among LeBron and his Band of Merry Men also hasn't gone unnoticed. Said Nuggets coach George Karl: "LeBron, no question, trusts the other guys on the team at a higher level than last year. … And the hole when LeBron is off the court isn't as big as last year."
James concedes the Cavs didn't have the time to build such chemistry after last season's trade in February. The team also was slowed by injuries, as well as the holdouts of Varejao and Pavlovic. "It all started in the preseason with the contracts and guys that didn't want to be there," James said, a likely reference to since-departed guard Damon Jones.
As frustrated as the Cavs were after their loss to the Celtics, there was a belief among the front-office and coaching staffs that, with a few tweaks to the roster, better days lay ahead. Brown began to notice the team's camaraderie during training camp when players started gathering together to watch football. On the road, the Cavs went to dinner in large groups. When West left to seek treatment for depression, his teammates frequently checked in to see how he was doing.
The Cavs' closeness also can both be seen and felt on their charter flights. The plane they use during the season is configured like that of most teams: the front has spacious, fully reclining seats in the front for the players; the middle section with normal first-class seats belongs to coaches; the team's support staff sits in the back. James, however, has the players sit in the area normally reserved for the coaches because it has two tables that allows them to play cards, even if they have to surrender considerable legroom.
"We're not a team," West said. "We're a family. Once you get in, you ain't getting out."
The Cavs concede that winning always helps chemistry. The true test comes when the season turns tough. There also is no guarantee the roster the Cavs have now will be the one they carry into the playoffs. Szczerbiak's expiring contract could be especially appealing to some teams.
For now, though, James and his Cavaliers are humming like never before. Off-key or not, the King is singing. No one seems to be in a rush to quiet him.
- Delonte West