CLEVELAND - The Cleveland Cavaliers emerged from the NBA's dark side this season.
LeBron James lit the way.
Hyped as the best player to turn pro straight out of high school, the 19-year-old James not only lived up to almost impossible expectations - he soared above them.
"He put us on his back," forward Carlos Boozer of Juneau said Thursday. "At the beginning, people were almost hoping he'd fail. He didn't. Not only that, he did everything with a smile."
James not only turned the Cavaliers into a legitimate team while packing Gund Arena and buildings around the league, he did it as his game was endlessly dissected and his face - and jersey - was everywhere.
The spotlight was always on him, and James never ducked into the shadows.
"Pretty much, I couldn't let anybody down," James said.
James averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists, joining Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as the only NBA rookies to average at least 20-5-5 per game.
Statistics aside, James transformed the Cavaliers, making them one of the league's top box-office attractions and a team to watch in years to come.
After going 17-65 a year ago, the Cavaliers went 35-47 and might have made the playoffs if not for point guard Jeff McInnis missing nine games down the stretch with a shoulder injury.
The Cavaliers also enjoyed a 59 percent increase (11,497 fans to 18,522) in home attendance, the largest jump in league history for a team that didn't move to a new arena.
James made it possible.
"This young man came in at 19 and exceeded all of our expectations," Cavs general manager Jim Paxson said. "He lifted up the franchise. It was nice to see No. 23 out there every night."
James' only failure, if you can call it one, was that the Cavs missed the playoffs.
Cleveland finished ninth in the Eastern Conference - one game behind No. 8 Boston - but closed 2003-04 with wins against three playoff teams.
"We would have been dangerous in the playoffs," said Paul Silas, who proved to be the perfect coach for James and the young Cavs. "I think a lot of teams would have been afraid to play us."
Silas fulfilled every goal this season. He changed the Cavaliers' attitude and convinced them they could play with any team in the league.
"The 35 wins is a great springboard for next year," Silas said. "They got a taste of winning this season. They know that we have something special going on here and they can't wait to get back."
The development of Boozer was another big surprise for the Cavs. Boozer is one of the core group of players the Cavaliers want to build their future around.
As a rookie second-round draft pick last year, Boozer started the season on the bench but was starting by the All-Star Game. This year, Boozer has been mentioned as a possible nominee for the NBA's Most Improved Player award after averaging 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds a game. Boozer is the first Cavalier to average a double-double since Tyrone Hill in 1994-95.
"He's one of the best forwards in the Eastern Conference - not just one of the best young forwards," Miami coach Stan Van Gundy said of Boozer earlier this season. "He is becoming a force."
"All I know is that I want him as my power forward until I retire," James said earlier this year.
While Boozer's development was a nice story, the main headlines in Cleveland went to James. Entering the season, Silas figured James would average "around 12 points," but he didn't know what else to expect from his talented rookie other than a media circus.
Now Silas has a better handle on James - and how good he can be.
"One of the greats," Silas said. "There's no telling how good he'll be. He's 19. Three years from now, he'll be 22 and the same age as a senior in college.
"All he has to do is work on his shot. He has everything else."
James missed just three games after spraining his ankle in January.
James plans to get some rest. But after a short break, he'll be back in the gym to work on his game. There's also a chance he'll be added to the U.S. Olympic team this summer.
"I'm going to keep getting better," he said. "I want to be one of the best to ever play this game."
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