After officially signing a two-year, $47 million contract to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, superstar LeBron James can now turn his attention to preparing for the season ahead. As it stands, though, he's still working through the way the last one ended.
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During an appearance on "The NBA Sunday Tip" with Howard Beck and Ethan Skolnick on Bleacher Report Radio, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player said Sunday that he's still feeling the pain after his first season back in Cleveland ended with a six-game loss to Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. James turned in a series for the ages, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in 45.7 minutes per Finals game for a Cavs squad that, without injured stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, had zero means of generating offense without LeBron creating absolutely everything. But it wasn't enough to stop the Warriors from winning their first championship in 40 years on the King's home court, which is a pretty tough thing to excise from your memory banks:
"Well, I mean, I think for me, you can never get out of it, no matter how much you try to just kind of say, 'OK, you tried to do everything that you could, you gave everything that you had,' and being able to move on," said James, who won two championships with the Miami Heat, but has been on the losing end of the NBA season's finale four times in his career. "I just don't feel like you ever move on from losing in the Finals. You feel like you're right there. You have a great opportunity to do something special."
That opportunity was, of course, limited severely by the absences of Love, who suffered a season-ending left shoulder dislocation during Cleveland's Round 1 win over the Boston Celtics, and Irving, who dealt with leg injuries throughout the postseason before suffering what was later revealed to be a fractured left kneecap in Game 1 of the Finals. The Cavaliers as a team generated just 23 points in the 23 minutes James sat during the NBA Finals — yes, he rested for a total of 23 minutes in six games — and made just six of 35 field-goal attempts, with several pivotal wing players coming up completely empty with LeBron off the court:
Without LeBron James on the floor this series. JR Smith 0/9 FG Delly 0/7 FG J. Jones 0/3 FG Shumpert 0/2 FG Total 0/21 FG
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 17, 2015
So, yes, James thinks Cleveland's chances would have improved significantly had Kyrie and Kevin been available. He's not necessarily saying they definitely would have won it all, like his All-Star point guard is, but he sure would've liked their chances:
"It still doesn't guarantee you the championship if all guys are healthy, but obviously, it would have given us a better chance," James said. "That's obvious. If we had our two All-Stars in the lineup, it gives us a better shot. Does it say we're going to win the championship? It does not. You still have to go out on the floor and play the game. But it definitely would have given us a better shot. I can't remember a team in NBA history, and I'm a historian of the game, that was able to get as far as we did missing two All-Stars."
Knowing his team was outgunned doesn't assuage the angst, though. James credited the time he's gotten to spend with his children over the past month for helping him make some progress in moving on: "I've got these three kids running around this house every day who don't allow me to not be happy." But even the joys of fatherhood can't chase all the memories ... including, apparently, when LeBron turns in for the night.
"I have ... I guess there's nightmares, now, about them, about situations throughout the games, and it's always replaying in my head," he said. "You know, it was definitely difficult, and I'm getting better every day, but you know, it takes quite a while for me to get out of the funk."
Luckily, we're only approaching the ides of July, so James has plenty of time to pull himself out of it. He'll also have plenty of help next season, with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and general manager David Griffin spending heavily to hang onto a pair of key contributors for last year's Eastern Conference champions — a five-year, $113 million deal for Love and a four-year, $40 million deal for defensive-minded swingman Iman Shumpert — while also bringing back former Cleveland All-Star Mo Williams to back up Irving at the point.
With Irving, Love and veteran big man Anderson Varejao, who tore his left Achilles tendon back in December, expected to be healthy come the fall, two-way difference-making center Timofey Mozgov back for the final season of his deal before hitting free agency next summer, and Williams offering offensive punch behind Irving, James will have help as he looks to improve on Cleveland's 53 wins, No. 2 seed in the East and second-place finish.
But with several other members of last year's crew still unsigned — chiefly restricted free agent power forward Tristan Thompson, who shares an agent with James, but also gunning shooting guard J.R. Smith and backup point man Matthew Dellavedova — James looks at the Cavaliers' summer as unfinished, according to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin:
"It's been good so far, but we have a lot of work to do," said James [...] "We still got to re-sign Tristan [Thompson]. Hopefully we can bring back J.R. [Smith] as well and see if there's some other free agents out there that'd love to come here and play if we're able to do that.
"We definitely don't want to come back the same team. We want to come back better. But right now, we've been doing so far, so good."
The Cavs had reportedly reached a five-year, $80 million deal with Thompson at the start of free agency, but negotiations soon stalled. Two weeks later, Thompson remains unsigned, though general manager Griffin's accentuating the positive on the situation, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
Griffin all but confirmed an earlier report the Cavs were offering Thompson around $80 million when he said the Cavs will have three max players on the roster and “one near max player.” Thompson would qualify as the near max player, but the two sides have failed to reach an agreement two weeks into free agency. Griffin said he hopes the two sides can strike a deal.
“I don’t know about relatively soon, but I hope so,” Griffin said. “He’s restricted, we really like him. I think we’ll wind up getting something done.”
If Griffin's right, Cleveland would look to have the deepest frontcourt rotation in the East (with apologies to the Chicago Bulls) and perhaps in the league overall (with apologies to the Dubs, the retooled San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder), and would seem set to enter the 2015-16 season as the odds-on favorite to once again represent the East in the Finals.
Titles aren't won on paper, though, and there's a lot that can happen between July and June to tilt things. That's why, even after guaranteeing a $23 million paycheck and looking poised to remain on top of his conference, it's hard to imagine LeBron sleeping too much more soundly over the next few months.
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