There's a fine line between being a workhorse and being overworked. Last winter LeBron James staggered to that line, huffed, puffed and wearily stumbled across it.
The Cavaliers reached their high-water mark for the season on Feb. 23, when they were 31--21. In those 52 games James was the most significant cog in a smooth-running offense, averaging 41.4 minutes and a team-leading 19.4 field goal attempts while shooting 49.1%. In the final 30 games of the season, though, the winded small forward was the only option in a suddenly stagnant attack. James's minutes (43.9) and shots (23.7) went up, and his shooting percentage (44.7) dropped. "They had some pieces around him," says point guard Damon Jones, who signed with the Cavs as a free agent, "but the majority of the burden was put on him to make plays."
James knew he needed help. On the day before teams were allowed to contact free agents, he called new coach Mike Brown and new G.M. Danny Ferry. "He volunteered to hop on a plane to go start recruiting," says Brown. Ferry and Brown decided to use James on the phone. "He's a personable guy," says Brown.
It's amazing what a couple of phone calls from a personable guy can accomplish--especially when he's the fifth NBA player to average at least 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. "It's always good to play with star power," says Jones, who gives the Cavs a sorely needed shooter who can knock down the open jumper. He'll be joined in the backcourt by another James recruit, 26-year-old Larry Hughes, who last season averaged a career-high 22.0 points with the Wizards.
More than ever, then, the Cavaliers will be LeBron's team. They just hope that this year, his load will be lighter. --Mark Bechtel
Enemy Lines An opposing team's scout sizes up the Cavaliers
"I don't see a lot of fragile personalities or big questions. The roles all seem pretty obvious, and that's important to help establish a new coach like Mike Brown.... It will be interesting to see if LeBron James really has the drive of Michael Jordan, who would look at the stats after each season to find out which phase he was going to improve next.... People complain about Larry Hughes's shooting, but he has good range when his feet are set. He also shoots well off the dribble and can run the pick-and-roll.... Will he form a good partnership with LeBron? I saw Hughes deal very well with Gilbert Arenas, who can be difficult at times. They'll complement each other because LeBron is the more powerful guy who can take his man into the post, while Hughes is a true shooting guard.... I'd play every half-court set through Zydrunas Ilgauskas. You've got to use him offensively because he stinks defensively. He can't guard a chair.... They might regret signing Damon Jones if he winds up taking too many shots. People remember the big threes he makes, but look at what he does with the 20 most important possessions in a game, and you might find that the negatives outweigh the positives.... They'll rely on Eric Snow down the stretch because he doesn't get beat defensively and he wants to pass. But he just can't shoot."
LeBron James was the first player to lead the league in both minutes played (3,388) and field goals made (795) since Michael Jordan in 1988--89.
Projected Starting Lineup with 2004--05 statistics
Record: 42--40 (T8 in East)
Points scored: 96.5 (17th in NBA)
Points allowed: 95.7 (11th)
Coach: Mike Brown (first season with the Cavaliers)