James shines as Cavaliers struggle

Posted: Friday, January 02, 2004

CLEVELAND - Everything has come so easy for LeBron James - except for the victories.

After just two months in the NBA, Cleveland's sensational rookie has been better than advertised, posting impressive statistics and assuming leadership of his team.

Now the teenager wants to turn the Cavaliers into winners.

After going 102-6 during his celebrated high school career in Akron, James is off to a 10-22 start as a pro.

Don't think his confidence is diminished at all, though.

"It's disappointing," James said recently. "But it's a long season, and I still think we can make a run at the playoffs."

Cleveland's No. 1 overall draft pick survived scandals in high school, signed a $90 million deal with Nike and brought hope to a championship-starved city. And his play on the court so far has been worthy of the endless attention and adulation.

"He's kind of amazing," Cavs coach Paul Silas said. "I knew he was good. I didn't know he was this good."

Just how good?

James - who turned 19 on Tuesday - is currently the only player in the league averaging more than 20 points, six rebounds and six assists. In 15 games in December, he averaged 23.3 points and scored more than 30 points five times.

No player in NBA history, not Michael, not Wilt, not Kareem, not Kobe or Shaq has been this good, this soon.

Already, James has modified and improved his game, showing the naysayers he can indeed shoot. And as he stuffs the stat sheet each night, James raises the bar for the future high school-to-NBA jumpers while dispelling the myth that he's simply the product of Madison Avenue hyperbole.

"In a two-month period, he's a legitimate blossoming icon in this game," said Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who has faced James three times this season. "I'm amazed. I felt bad for the kid coming in because I wasn't sure any kid could ever live up to it. He's making that thought seem ridiculous now."

James remains unimpressed by his fast start as a pro.

"Statistics don't matter to me," he said. "I'm never satisfied with my game. I'm not disappointed with anything about my game. I just try to go out and play, and what happens, happens."

Too often, what happens is that the Cavaliers lose.

Cleveland has just four more victories than it had at the same point last season on the way to a 17-65 finish. The Cavs dropped their first 13 games away from Gund Arena this season before finally ending a 34-game road losing streak.

But unlike a year ago, when the young Cavs (five players have no college experience) routinely fell behind early and packed it in under coach John Lucas, these Cavaliers fight to the finish for Silas.

Of Cleveland's losses, 16 have been by 10 points or fewer.

Slowly, the Cavs are learning to win. They're beginning to understand that each possession is priceless and not to be wasted.

But a loss is a loss, and right now, James feels the sting of each one.

There's hope, however. Since the Dec. 16 trade that sent Ricky Davis and others to Boston for Eric Williams, Tony Battie and Kedrick Brown, the Cavs are 4-4.

They'll get another boost when DaJuan Wagner and DeSagana Diop, former first-round picks, return from knee operations next week.

Former Juneau-Douglas High School star Carlos Boozer, who turned 22 in November and is in his second year in the NBA, has recorded five straight double-doubles and 11 for the season (more than James' five) and is averaging 13.2 points and 10.8 rebounds a game.

"We're not there yet," Silas said. "But we're getting there. Take a look at us in mid-January."

James has been a different player since the trade. With Davis gone, he has averaged 26.7 points. Also, urged by Silas to be more aggressive, the 6-foot-8 James is taking advantage of smaller guards and driving to the basket more frequently.

A bigger change is that James is having fun again. He wasn't himself with Davis around, perhaps because he didn't want to appear selfish.

Now the smile is back, and James is playing with the boundless joy that led to comparisons with Magic Johnson. He is leading, and the Cavs are following.

"It's earlier than I expected," James said, referring to his leadership role. "But I knew it was going to come sometime. I've been playing this game long enough to know what I need to do."

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