Akron native LeBron James made an unparalleled leap from high school to the NBA, making the All-Star team in his second pro season.
Now in Year Three he s poised to help his Cleveland Cavaliers make a similar leap in the standings.
James leads a Cleveland team reinforced with key offseason additions that include shooting guard Larry Hughes, power forward Donyell Marshall and point guard Damon Jones.
The unquestioned team leader, James, who doesn t turn 21 until next month, makes the Cavaliers go.
Coming off a season in which he averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists, James finally might not have to shoulder the whole burden.
New general manager and former Cavaliers player Danny Ferry acquired sufficient complementary talent so James won t have to drag his team to the finish line.
I m very confident. We have a great group of guys, James said. It s not just on the court. The best part about it is that we all hang out off the court.
Even playing solo, James nearly carried the Cavaliers to a playoff berth last season. He s been every bit as good as advertised.
In order for James to take the next step traveled by NBA greats such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, and current stars such as Tim Duncan and Shaquille O Neal, he must elevate the entire team and win big in the postseason.
Enter first-year coach Mike Brown, who replaces Paul Silas and promises to transform James and the Cavaliers into a defensive-oriented team because defense wins championships.
I just think of wins. [Defense] wins on the road, and it wins in the playoffs, said Brown, a 35-year-old coaching prodigy who worked under Rick Carlisle in Indiana and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. I have stats that if you look at opponents field-goal percentage and opponents points per game, everyone that finished in the top five, they were all in the conference finals.
To me, that s where you separate yourself from the pack is when you lock down at that end of the floor.
The ultimate team player, James has willingly bought into what Brown is selling.
If James, the Cavaliers resident superstar, is on board with Brown, a novice head coach, his teammates are certain to follow.
Cleveland s athleticism at the defensive end, spearheaded by James and Hughes, who averaged a combined 5.1 steals last season, figures to be a team strength.
Cleveland s offense will be predicated on the ability of its defense to create easy scoring opportunities.
Defensively, we re right where we want to be, James said. We would rather have the defense kick in first rather than the offense. We have enough scorers so that if the offense breaks down we can create our own shots.
Brown credits James for leading by example. But he s especially appreciative of the fact that the rest of the Cavaliers are comfortable playing supporting roles behind James.
LeBron is our leader, but we ve had other veterans that have stepped up and helped us in that area, Brown said. They ve made my job a lot easier.
James should play more relaxed and be even more effective, knowing this is the most talented and experienced Cavaliers team he s played for.
I think we came in and got a good feel for the system, James said. We know what we re supposed to do on defense. We know what we re supposed to do on offense.
Jones, who played for playoff mainstays Miami and Detroit prior to signing a free-agent contract with Cleveland, compared this year s Cavaliers with the Pistons when they were rebuilding under then-coach Carlisle.
Jones said the similarities are too real to ignore.
When I went to Detroit, it was similar to this situation, said Jones, a 3-point shooting specialist. There was a new coach, new players. Everyone had to adapt to a new system.
James is so talented, whatever system he plays in is almost irrelevant. But it s comforting for him to know his goal of leading the Cavaliers to the playoffs and beyond got a lot easier this season.